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UCLA Basketball: A Front Court to Fear

The last couple days we dealt with some bad news (for the latest on Anderson go here), but the season is not a "disaster."  There are some very positives things to look forward to this year.  And keep in mind, Anderson whether he comes back or not was/is slotted to be a back up. 

So today let's take a moment and talk about the potential starting lineup more positively and objectively. 

The Bigs

First, the two that have a chance to make a unique mark on UCLA history, Reeves Nelson and Joshua Smith.  When you think of true UCLA power forwards and centers, these two have a chance to rank up there with the best ever as a pair.  While I think the true best center and power forward may have been KAJ (the best college player ever) and Curtis Rowe ,they only played together one year.  The possibility of these two playing together for three years (maybe unlikely) could give them a chance to make a real positive mark on UCLA history.  I know this is hyperbole but think about it this way, they are both top 50 players and both are true representatives of their positions. 

In any case they may rank as the most dominant power forward and center tandem in college basketball next year.  Instead of citing a subjective review, let me instead start with a unique objective statistical measure:

Above and beyond the sheer volume of shots, there are a couple interesting metrics used to evaluate shooting efficiency.  Effective field goal percentage (eFG%) attempts to level the playing field between outside shooters and big guys by giving made three-pointers 50 percent more credit.  The equation works out as: (Total made field goals + 0.5 * three-pointers made) / Total field goal attempts.

. . .- By restricting the list to players with usage rates of at least 19.0, I whittled it down to 25 players.  As much as eFG% seeks to level the playing field, there are far more big guys among the 25 than there are wings or guards.  That said, it makes the accomplishments of the highly-rated guards that much more impressive.  Ashton Gibbs of Pitt, Marcus Denmon of Missouri, Doron Lamb of Kentucky, and the aforementioned John Jenkins are all in the Top 10.

. . .- Reeves Nelson and Josh Smith both boast high eFG%, further asserting themselves as one of the country's top frontcourt tandems.  Big men are at a premium in the Pac-12, and if the Bruins are to win the newly expanded conference, Nelson and Smith will be two big reasons why.

After the jump a more subjective list ranks Reeves and Josh as the best tandem PF and center in the nation.

Another recent list actually ranks them as top 50 players.  First on Josh:

13. Joshua Smith, UCLA (So., C)
With Miami's Reggie Johnson on the DL for the start of the season, Smith will have to carry the torch for underrated and lumbering big men for a little while at least. Smith trailed only Kenneth Faried in offensive rebounding percentage last year and shot 56 percent from the floor while using 26 percent of UCLA's possessions. Like Johnson, Smith has problems with both foul trouble and stamina but is extraordinarily effective in his time on the floor. If you disagree that he's the preseason Pac-12 Player of the Year, just be prepared to pick someone else who doesn't sound like a home run. (My top five Pac-12 players for this year: Smith, Jared Cunningham, Jorge Gutierrez, Trent Lockett, Reeves Nelson. The leader in preseason hype may be Josiah Turner. I don't think most people realize just how wide open this race is.) Amazingly, the Pac-12 favorite may be UCLA. While Smith and Reeves Nelson can go against just about any frontcourt in the country . . . .

Reeves is not too shabby either:

45. Reeves Nelson, UCLA (Jr., PF)
Nelson and Josh Smith have something of an interesting arrangement: Smith takes care of the offensive boards (20 percent, Nelson: 9) and Nelson covers the defensive side (23 percent, Smith: 14). This is especially strange from Smith's standpoint, since only about one in every 40 players gets more rebounds on the offensive end, and a difference that large is truly rare. But onto Nelson: I shouldn't be reinforcing the lack of Reeves Nelson hype. He's really, really good. Nelson made 60 percent of his twos, rebounded well on both ends, and would be a lock All-Pac-12 first-teamer (though I have him as the fifth member of that team, anyway) if he got better from the free throw line.

Reeves is also a rarity in the Pac-12.  A returning all-conference player:

California guard Jorge Gutierrez and UCLA forward Reeves Nelson would be the Pac-10's top returners. They are the only players slated to return who were chosen to the 10-man all-conference first team.

With Reeves and Josh, UCLA has a potent front line, if not the best in the Pac-12.  With Travis Wear leading his brother David , Anthony Stover, Brendan Lane, the depth is there on the front line as well.

The Point

Even before Anderson's situation, I was not worried about the PG spot.  Regardless of Anderson's situation, it was going to be LJ for 30+ minutes per game.  I now would bet on LJ leading us in minutes played next year, which again, I don't think this is a bad thing.  But recently we had confirmation from a very good source on Jones:

Lazeric Jones will now have to play more than the 28 minutes per game he played at point guard last season for as long as Anderson's suspension lasts. That's bad news on the surface. But if you're looking for a bright spot, I can tell you that Howland went out of his way last weekend to talk about Jones with me while sitting courtside at the Fab 48 tournament in Las Vegas, and the man with three Final Fours to his credit seemed genuinely optimistic about his junior college point guard with one year of eligibility remaining.

"Lazeric Jones has had a really great offseason," Howland said. "I think he's going to have a great senior year."

For Howland's sake, I hope he's right.

Because the Bruins' success will rely on that now more than Howland could've possibly imagined four days ago.

Jones is a great FT shooter, hit some clutch shots and is a senior leader.  In other words a good person to have the ball in his hands late in the game. That is pretty much the way you draw up a PG. 

The Shooting Guard

Here is where Anderson's loss will hurt, if nothing else as insurance against injury.  Anderson was going to play a few minutes a game at point but was likely going to get more minutes at the shooting guard spot. He was a senior who knew the CBH system and could provide some solid minutes.  But keep in mind Anderson was never in the running to start, that was Lamb or Powell as Jon Gold discusses below:   

3) Jon, what are your thoughts on Lamb's development as he makes the all-important jump from freshman to sophomore? Can he be the lockdown 2-guard we have seen in the past with Afflalo, Westbrook, and Lee, and will there be any offensive production out of him...or is he fated to lose the 2 spot to Norman Powell, hyped as the "second coming of Russell Westbrook"?? - UCLA Bruin11

I'm hearing a lot of positive hype on Norman Powell from people close to the program, so I think going into the season, it's going to be a pretty even battle. Defensively, I think Lamb will be fine, if not good, if not really good. The difference between good defense and great defense is just in the focus and the hustle, and if Lamb can deliver that, he'll be good to go on that end. Offensively, he needs to be more consistent and authoritative. He seems to locate on the floor well, and he works really well off screens, but he needs to shoot the ball, and shoot it better, and maybe those go hand in hand.

Tyler Lamb's team is in the playoffs in the Say No League.  He had two good games over the last weekend and his team (as of now) is featured on the home page video.  Of note Lamb was hitting thee pointers in the video and went 2-5 last weekend from downtown and 11-21 from the field. Obviously, the Say No League does not mean much but that is a good sign both that Lamb is not just shooting, but also making them (of course he also had 9 turnovers, but again not sure how reliable the scorekeeper is).

While I am encouraged by Lamb's play, I still like Powell to start at off-guard by the time Pac-12 conference play starts.  He is a winner and an athlete.  Here is an old profile piece on Powell I found that unlike the usual highlight tape gives some insight into Powell the person.    

Lamb was arguably the second best defender last year.  Powell is a great athlete who it is reasonable to believe CBH will make into a good defender.  Anderson was an okay defender last year but was not quick or long enough to play defense at the level Lamb and Powell do or potential can play.  Anderson was a better three shooter but keep in mind the guy that Powell/Lamb are replacing, Malcolm Lee, was the team MVP while only shooting 29% from downtown. 

The Small Forward

This is the great mystery.  Howland has said it is fight between Lamb and Powell for the off-guard.  Why not move Lamb to small forward, where he backed up Tyler Honeycutt last year?  It would hurt rebounding but Smith and Nelson are very strong in that category.  If not Lamb, would it be David Wear as others like Oswego think?  But why would it be the "lesser" twin when Travis seems like the better twin and we are talking identical twins here not brothers of different heights.  Or could it be the mystery man, De'End Parker?  Parker on paper looks like a good candidate but a JC championship game does not equal playing Arizona on the road. 

I will add that Matthews was the guy who worked hard on the Parker recruitment.  Let me just again quote Gold (emphasis mine) on recruiting:

5) It would appear that Bruin basketball is a hot team on the recruiting trail this season (after a few years of being not hot). How much of this can be attributed to a long overdue recognition of Howland's player development skills (aka the UCLA factor) and how much goes to changes in the coaching staff? - BruinADub

Both are important, and also that UCLA proved that the 2009-10 season was a blip on the radar. The Korey McCray hire appears to be a good one, at least based on recruiting, and I think Phil Mathews has been really good in that department. But don't forget the Bruins still need to close it out with their top targets.

If Parker ends up a good player then Matthews is truly earning his pay, especially if he delivers that one recruit he has spent a lot of time with, Shabazz Muhammad. 

Go Bruins