No one would say UCLA Bruins basketball was great during the Steve Alford error...er...era, but there were still some great players. While Lonzo Ball and Bryce Alford drew a lot of the press at the time for different reasons, two other players are playing key roles in the NBA playoffs right now. They are both great examples of the UCLA experience from opposite ends of the spectrum.
Kevon Looney only played one season for the Bruins. Looney was Alford’s best recruit from outside the West. Bryce Alford famously called Looney a “garbage man” as there were zero plays called for him. He led the Pac-12 in offensive rebounds (14th in NCAA), was the team leader in plus/minus, was clutch in that he shot 61% from three in conference play (28 attempts), and even was in the top 10 in the conference in steals. While another player was the star of that team (more on him in a second), Looney was the glue that made it work, even if Steve Alford never called a play for him.
Now, a real basketball coach named Steve Kerr has said this of the pro player Kevon Looney of the Golden State Warriors:
“Looney has become one of our foundational pieces. He does this every single night,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after his team eliminated Portland from the playoffs, a game where Looney had 12 points and 14 rebounds off the bench. “I think one thing that we’ve seen in almost every series, is as the game goes on and players get tired, Loon gets more and more rebounds. He just has a knack for the ball. Really long arms. Great feel for the game. And so his rebounding, I think he had 14 tonight, a bunch of offensive boards [four]. Really a big key for us.”
A foundational piece of the best team in the decade and, maybe, all time. Sure, he is not Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson but this is high praise indeed. Former Bruin and Golden State GM Bob Myers said of Looney:
”We have a lot of summer priorities,” Golden State general manager Bob Myers told The Athletic. “I don’t know if you can have seven or eight priorities.
”But he’s a priority.”
While Looney is getting recognized as a “foundational piece” of a great team, the “star” of Looney’s 2014-15 team, Norman Powell, may be a key reason that the Toronto Raptors won the Eastern Conference finals. After being a largely forgotten man in their series against the Philadelphia 76ers, Powell has come off the bench to key wins in Game Three and Game Four. He was a team leading +29 in the Game Four win and, in the double overtime thriller, Powell filled in for a fouled-out Kyle Lowry with 19 points on 7 of 13 shooting. That performance inspired this Canadian story: “Raptors’ Norman Powell is the ultimate Bucks killer:”
In 2017, the Raptors looked lost after a blowout loss in Milwaukee that had them trailing a first round best-of-seven series as the three-seed 1-2. Powell played just six minutes in Game 1 of that series and didn’t feature at all in Game 2. The manner of the Game 3 defeat meant there was plenty of garbage time to go around, and Powell showed signs of life in a productive 15 minutes. Looking to change the dynamic of the series, then head coach Dwane Casey inserted Powell into the starting lineup in a bid to play faster. Known for his attacking prowess, it was actually Powell’s outside shooting that stole the show. He made all nine of his three-point attempts over the final three games in 99 minutes of action, and the Raptors won all three to take the series. . . .
[in 2019] “I think he fits in this series a little more with his speed and strength and athleticism, his ability to take it off the bounce,” [Raptors Coach Nurse said after Game 2. “We’re going to need that. It was good to get him going, and I would imagine going forward he’ll be a critical part of the series for our rotation.”
Call him Nursetradamus, then, because Powell has delivered in spades since. There was the gutsy 19-point performance in the Raptors’ double-overtime victory in Game 3, and now another 18 points in a Game 4 blowout win. The efficiency looks a bit worse after missing his final four shots with the game in hand, but let’s go back to that second quarter where he was absolutely instrumental as part of a unit including Fred VanVleet, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka that flipped the game on its head.
Trailing 27-24 and the Bucks looking to lay down the gauntlet by bringing Giannis Antetokounmpo back into the game, Toronto went on a 17-4 run to completely flip the script. First, Powell attacked Khris Middleton from the right corner, doing just enough to draw the attention of Antetokounmpo before kicking out to an open Pascal Siakam. With Bledsoe forced to rotate over, Siakam swung the ball over to VanVleet, who Bledsoe was unable to get back to because Powell stayed engaged and set a screen to ensure there was no hope for the Bucks point guard. With under two minutes remaining in the first quarter, he drew a foul on Middleton that sent him to the line. With a minute remaining, he hit a triple to tie the game.
Like Looney, Powell is not the star, but he is a key player off the bench who has helped Toronto to get to the NBA Finals.
Who would have thought that the 2014-15 Steve Alford Bruins two stars would be the key players in the 2019 NBA Finals? For those that forgot, that was the team that scored seven points in the first half against Kentucky. The team that lost five in a row and, when they made the tournament, caused the NCAA to redo their procedures for the next season.
Powell was the senior who learned how to play defense under Ben Howland and to become a star on offense under Alford who told him to attack the basket and take over games. Powell shows what four years of UCLA can do for a player because he went to the NBA ready to contribute.
Looney was the opposite. Looney was beat up at UCLA and I’m not talking about the mask he was forced to wear at the end of the season. No, Looney’s hips were problematic requiring surgery making his first two years at Golden State more of a medical report than a box score. Golden State’s patience is being rewarded.
But, to me, Looney and Powell represent the greatness of UCLA, regardless of the coach. Looney came from Wisconsin to UCLA because of the draw of UCLA and California. Powell was the shy ultra-athletic, but raw kid who grew up to be the team leader and a well-rounded basketball player.
Looney and Powell are great examples of why I will always be a UCLA basketball fan. Oh and no article about Powell would be complete without my favorite Norman Powell UCLA play, the behind-the-back-between-the-legs-dunk: