This is the second of a summer series on UCLA Basketball “All Star” teams divided by coaches. The format will be five “best” players, one near miss and one bench player. Also, no preference is given to those who stay longer or those who leave early. Instead, I will rely more on best seasons as Bruins. Pro careers are irrelevant for these posts. Obviously, these are only my opinions and please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments. This series will focus solely on the performance of the players and not on the coaches themselves.
Three Final Fours in three years. So close to winning it all but not quite. Arguably, the best defense of any UCLA basketball team. Countless pros including an NBA MVP, Scoring champ, rebound leader, and assist leader. The Ben Howland era UCLA All-Star team is loaded!
Naturally, the team is heavy on players from those three Final Four years. They personified great defense and efficient offense. It is hard to rank them and that is a good thing. The list of players who just missed is pretty dam good in itself. Lorenzo Mata-Real was the workhorse and key cog on three Final Four teams who never complained. Ryan Hollins was amazing center at the end of his senior season who helped key the first Final Four run. From the non-Final Four year, Michael Roll was all Pac-12 his senior season, Dijon Thompson led his Bruins in scoring and rebounding with the highest scoring average of any Howland era player. Larry Drew set an assist record. Jordan Adams worked his butt off and became the ace defender leading the conference in steals and free throw percentage. On this list, Adams probably comes closest to making the team.
The Bench Player: Malcom Lee
Probably my most controversial pick of the lot and the only non-Final Four player. Lee may have been the best man-to-man defender of any Ben Howland player. I know that is saying a heck of a lot but you look at Russell Westbrook or Arron Afflalo and you see they always had Luc Ricard Mbah a Moute (Luc) behind them. Lee was surrounded by guys like Jerime Anderson, Reeves Nelson, Josh Smith and Tyler Honeycutt. Guys who often didn’t try on the defense end and never helped. Lee was an island, yet he shut down the likes of Jimmer Fredette and Alan Crabbe. The later was a great example of Lee’s prowess. He shut down Crabbe all game. Lee fouled out and Crabbe took over and scored at will to lead a comeback. Lee was so good he took any one guard or small forward out of the game without any help.
The Just Missed: Darren Collision
Collision played on three Final Four teams and was the best player on an NCAA tournament team his senior season. He was one of the fastest Bruins ever and, by the end of his UCLA career, he was a deadly three point shooter and free throw shooter. He shot 53% from three his junior year and 90% from the free throw line his senior year leading the Pac-10. His ball pressure started Howland’s defense. He was All-Pac-10 in 2007 & 2009 and won the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award for short players. He was a key player who is testament to how great this team is that he did not make it.
5. The Pro Superstar
Yes, Russell Westbrook is the best pro of all the Howland players. But it is a close call for Russell to make this UCLA team. Ironically for an NBA scoring champ, the reason he makes this team is because in his sophomore and last year he was Defensive Player of the Year for the Pac-10. He was also clutch in the Final Four game against Memphis when he scored 22 of UCLA’s 63 points. He led that team in assists and showed flashes of his greatness.
4. The First Leader
Jordan Farmar was Freshmen of the Year and then First Team All-Pac-12. He ran Howland’s offense and took UCLA to the finals and started the Final Four run. While not as gifted a defender as others, he worked hard and was the undisputed leader. He made the memorable pass that set up the miracle win over Gonzaga. In a sense, Farmar (along with Love) were two very good offensive players who committed to playing defense the Howland way.
3. Living Up to the Hype
Kevin Love was the top one or two incoming freshman in the country. He did not disappoint. Kevin led UCLA in scoring while shooting 56% from the field and averaged over 10.5 rebounds a game. He was Pac-10 Player of the Year and led UCLA to another Final Four on Howland’s most loaded team. He was a skilled big man willing to battle in out in the trenches who could do a floor length chest pass or hit an open three. At most schools, he would be on the top of the list of great bigs but he was still Howland’s best big.
2. The Glue
I know I said I would not talk about pro numbers here, but there is one pro record that shows how good Luc was. Luc had a +57 to set the NBA plus-minus record in a game last season. At UCLA, he was THE key to all those great Ben Howland defenses by making everyone better. Sure, Westbrook or Collison made the steals and Hollins or Love made the blocks and rebounds but Luc was the guy who helped everyone out. He could literally cover every position on defense. He was Pac-10 Freshman of the Yar and became the first player since members of the Walton gang in 1974 to start for three consecutive Final Fours. His stats were never spectacular, but it is not a coincidence that Howland’s best teams all had one thing in common: Luc starting. I know that all the others on this list had better numbers but there would have been no Final Fours without Luc.
1. The Hardest Working
Arron Afflalo was arguably the best offensive and defensive player on the second Final Four team. He was the leading scorer and, arguably, the best defender on the first. He shut down other guards completely. Yet, he was the guy Howland called on to take the big shots. He was Pac-10 Player of the Year his sophomore year. He was also a complete class act; famous for consoling Adam Morrison after UCLA’s memorable come from behind win over Gonzaga. He was the perfect Ben Howland player.
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