Last week I wrote about the positive side of UCLA Basketball, the incoming freshman class and recruiting generally (More good news, UCLA is officially leading on Zach Lavine.) Let me add, I also feel good about Norman Powell. I think he is poised to make a sophomore leap, the year when many players improve the most. But now let me turn to my concerns, the upperclassman.
Let me emphasize I am not against the players (although I have qualms about two of them), but rather how Howland will handle them. For when I think of Howland’s problems the last few years, only one is of right now looking to be fixed (recruiting). The other three are: looking only to "win the next game", playing favorites, and dealing with problem attitudes. All three can be seen by playing upperclassman instead of more talented youth.
Let me say I have no doubt that Shabazz Muhammad will start and play. Howland is not stupid. But how will he use a 6’8" Point Guard (on offense at least) Kyle Anderson ? How will he handle the talented but raw underclassman is where the concerns abound. As some might say, how stubborn is Howland?
How the Smith Problem May Have Been Avoided
The start of the season last year was arguable the worst in UCLA history. To be a ranked team picked by the media to win the conference to losing to a flurry of teams that did not have one player that should make a good UCLA squad. It was so bad, later when the Bruins were playing better and beating USC it was the battle for second best team in LA (since LMU had already beaten UCLA.)
The team was supposed to be built around Josh Smith but as Marques Johnson infamously quipped at the start of the season: "Whoever listed Josh Smith weight at 305 is dyslexic." Josh was not capable of being the All-Star he was supposed to be. Now let me be clear: I do not think Howland could have controlled Josh going home and eating himself out of basketball shape. Yes, he could have inspired or motivated him some but it still was up to Josh.
No, what I blame Howland for is for what happen when Josh showed up allegedly weighing over 400 pounds. The answer was there for Howland and he did it to Josh his freshman. Josh came to UCLA as freshman over weight and what did Howland do:
Coach Ben Howland didn't want him picking up a ball from the time he arrived on campus in mid-June until the first of September. Not exactly what the 2010 4A state player of the year was expecting.
"It was difficult, considering I came down here on a basketball scholarship and didn't touch a basketball," said the 6-foot-10 Smith, who led Kentwood to the state title last March. "But I saw the bigger picture."
And now he sees a smaller, more svelte version of himself. Smith, who also worked with a nutritionist, has lost close to 50 pounds and dropped his percentage of body fat from around 26 percent to 19.
As soon as Smith showed up for practice or school in 2011-12 school year, Smith should have been working out full time, not playing basketball. Does anyone think that would have hurt UCLA's miserable start of 2011-12? Let's say Josh sits out the first 10 weeks would the start be any worse than 2-5?
But yes, even a fat Josh was able to make a few plays and help at times. But that just it, why did Howland play to gain that small advantage instead of getting Josh ready for the PAC 12? But that has been a problem with Howland, playing to win the next game and not thinking about the future.
Cutting Reeves May Cure the Cancer, But Not All the Sickness
If you're an optimist on UCLA basketball, it is tempting to say that getting rid of Reeves ended the attitude problems of UCLA basketball but I think two potential, if not cancers, malingers remaining on the team.
The first chemistry test will be how Howland handles Larry Drew II and Kyle Anderson. Kyle is a unique talent. He will present Howland many problems, mostly happy problems. But the one that could easily turn to unhappy is the how will "the other PG" Larry Drew II deal with Anderson? This is not an idle question as this Feb 4 2011 article discusses Drew quitting North Carolina in mid-season after being benched:
This season, Drew's parents were not happy with their son's current role and diminished playing time, according to sources close to the situation. But the vocal dissatisfaction and involvement goes back much further.
Sources confirmed to Inside Carolina that Sharon Drew, Larry's mother, called the basketball office irate back in 2009 upon hearing news that Williams had a conversation with then high school senior John Wall right before the Final Four. . . .
Multiple sources indicate that the knock on Drew from those close to the team is not that he was a bad teammate or that he maliciously undermined team chemistry, but rather that he wasn't fully invested. He was more of an absentee teammate than a bad teammate.
Sources also claim that the coaching staff expressed disappointment behind the scenes about Drew's commitment level - the lack of a gym rat's mentality to go the extra mile on his own time.
His teammates were not exactly fans:
Observations that Drew was a reserved, distant teammate don't mean much, though. He and Justin Watts (EDIT: and Tyler Zeller, duh) are the only two players remaining from the championship team, and he's had a lot of contemporaries leave the team in the last year. I might be reserved, too. Still the fact that his teammates found out about his departure on Facebook, and seem to be less than broken-up doesn't speak particularly well about him.
Howland will have to keep Drew II engaged and his parents under control.
The other bad attitude is Anthony Stover who while arguably the team joker, also is a person who has "never went the extra mile." I realize that many at Bruins Nation are fans of Stover. Stover really gives his all on the Defensive end. But that is just one part of the picture. In three years Stover has made zero progress on his offensive game. And the fault lies with Stover.
Stover was part of the partying crew of Jerime Anderson and others. While, by contrast Tyler Lamb was working hard on his offense in "The Say No League" and at the gym, Stover was organizing an athlete's party with Jerime. Stover is the last person left of the party crew exposed in the infamous Sports Illustrated Article. Stover was a buddy of Reeves Nelson and that article told the story of Stover (a career 31% free throw shooter) goofing off with Reeves during practice shooting free throws one-handed underhand. Stover undoubtedly stirred the pot with a tweet from a scouting service praising his play in a game and asking why he did not play more, in a seeming slap at the coaches. Stover also lost his cool in the WSU game.
If I could take a player aside and give him the "old man" speech to wake up and get to work before it is too late, it would be to Stover. Stover has so much talent and now must overcome an injury but seems content to cruise. I know next year Stover will block a couple shots and have a big effect on defense during a brief stretch of some games and many will say why doesn't he play more? But what I really want to hear is an announcer say something like "Stover makes Arizona pay again for doubling off him" or to read Peter Yoon write: "Stover was in the gym late practicing his free throws again yesterday."
Stover and Drew are not the cancers of Reeves Nelson or Drew Gordon but their attitudes can lead to other problems for the health of the team. Howland must be prepared to deal with team.
The Coach's Pets
Jokes abound about Nikola Dragovic and Ben Howland on Bruins Nation. Why did Howland play Dragovic so much? Even ridiculous theories involving sheep are worth joking about. The truth it seems is Howland likes upperclassman and is trying to win the next game, so much so that he has hurt himself. This was not an issue at the start of the final four run because in 2005-6, the upperclassman were not really his. It was easy to go to the young guys of JF, AA, and LRMAM.
But these days when a guy you recruit stays four years, you want to reward him. Or to put it less kindly, it seems, Howland would rather have a player who understands his system and practices well than a younger player who, while more talented, is going to make more mental errors short term.
This is a potential problem with the Wears. The Wears are very coachable kids who do everything that is asked of them. But there are some issues. First, the Wears are not just identical twins, they play a nearly identical style of game. It is tough to have two players with the same skill set on the floor at the same time. They are also not strong rebounders or defenders.
Second, the Wears, while very "coachable", are just not the most athletically gifted players. A good example of both the Wears effort and talent is their role in UCLA defense as shown by the following stat:
UCLA can hide behind the fact opponents averaged only 62.5 points and shot 41.7 percent last season, which isn't bad. But the truth about the Bruins' defense is more apparent in their numbers against their six NCAA Tournament opponents, who averaged 73 points and shot 55.1 percent.
The Wears and the talent challenged 2011-12 Bruins played well on D against lesser teams by the end of the year. But they could not handle moderately talented NCAA tourney teams (e.g. Cal) because the talent was not there. The Wears are great practice players and solid NCAA players. They are not stars and probably should not be starters on a team making a tourney run. This is not their fault as they just don't have the athletic ability to play big minutes with the best college players. Does Howland realize that?
Last of course is Tyler Lamb. Lamb like the Wears practices hard and pays his dues. He really improved on offense from his freshman to sophomore years but was still inconsistent. Lamb also seemed to have trouble defending more athletic people. He was supposed to be the defensive stopper on the team but was not up to the task much of the time.
The problem is not only that Lamb is not Shabazz Muhammad, it is also with Muhammad and Kyle Anderson likely playing big minutes, one of the wings or point guard must be able to cover a quick player. That is not Lamb. Can Howland bench Lamb for the good of the team? Or will he continue to play this hard working kid who is paying his dues but is another reason NCAA tourney teams shot so well against us? As the same article on defense writes:
The question of how the Bruins can defend with a point guard who is not a jet is a real one, but they'd be looking at defensive issues regardless of who they lined up at point guard. Although Shabazz Muhammad adds a necessary dose of athleticism on one wing, the presence of the Wear twins and Josh Smith and even recruit Tony Parker means the Bruins still will lack quickness in many alignments.
Howland has done step one to taking UCLA back where it belongs. No one doubts he can prepare talented and willing kids for the NBA. But how he manages the lesser talents and/or issues of the upperclassman next year will decide if he is successful. Not just for next year but the future.