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UCLA Point Guard: Alford’s First Test

The cupboard is not bare but it does require a chef to make it work.

Kyle is #3 in returning players in the PAC 12 in assists.  If he can learn to shoot, look out.
Kyle is #3 in returning players in the PAC 12 in assists. If he can learn to shoot, look out.

Contrary to the opinion of rival fans, UCLA's cupboard is not bare at the point guard spot. However, there are unique challenges facing all options for UCLA next year at the point guard spot. Howland left Alford a good team (including his recruits) but he did not leave Alford with an easy blue print for success. In other words, this is not a situation where you simply give the ball to Tyus Edney or even Larry Drew II and stand back. Each move and possible move has consequences.

1. Mr. N/A

If you just look at statistics, Kyle Anderson is a lock to not just be the point guard, but one of the best in the PAC 12. He has the third highest assist per game average of returning PAC 12 players. And with teammate Larry Drew II and his 7.3 assists per game gone, he would seem to be a lock to pick up at least a few of those to be an early favorite to lead the conference.

Of course as Eamonn Brennan points out, it is not that simple.

He was the fifth-ranked player in the class of 2012 and one of the most unique and intriguing talents in years. At 6-foot-9, he is a walking matchup nightmare with the size to put smaller defenders under the rim and the guard skills to run the show from the top of the key. He's a great passer, a capable rebounder and shot-blocker on the defensive end, and those long arms constantly, almost unintentionally invade passing lanes.

But in 2012-13, as interesting as all of this was, those discrete skills failed to congeal into a greater whole. In high school, Anderson earned the nickname "Slow-Mo," and when he was going 65-0 in two years at St. Anthony's it was (obviously) a compliment -- an ode to Anderson's slow-but-steady, old-school style. It's a fun style to watch in the modern college game, but there were plenty of times when Anderson's lack of speed seemed to hold him back. That, in turn, fed into the overall downsides of being a "tweener." Anderson's role in a fluid lineup was never really clear. His weaknesses often overrode his strengths; it's a lot harder to carve up a defense when everyone knows you shoot 21.1 percent from 3. His lack of sheer quickness and foot speed reduced his advantages as a guard and allowed regular forwards to guard him straight up. He was a man without a country.

He also has to develop those skills. If you're going to play on the perimeter, you have to be a credible shooter. If you're going to play point guard, you have to be the best ball handler on the floor. If you're going to play down low, you have to be strong enough to battle with guys who do that full time. And if you don't commit to any or all of those things -- if you don't transcend the limitations, and treat your weaknesses like David Byrne -- you end up stuck on Tweener Island. Nobody wants to get stuck there.

For all of the mess at UCLA in the past two years, Howland's parting gift was a recruiting class that lasted longer than one quick-fix season. So, yes, there is a ton of talent here. Adams should be the star of the team. Parker is incredibly intriguing. There are solid role pieces to pull from, the Wears chief among them. But no one Bruin's trajectory will be more interesting to watch, and no returning player will be more important to UCLA next season, than Slow-Mo.

It is not completely fair, but the Minnesota debacle in the tournament was in part on Anderson. Anderson needed to step up and exploit his match-up advantage. He did not and went 2-11, some of those misses relatively easy. On the other hand, some say Kyle Anderson failed miserably in the Magic Johnson comparison. Comparing a college freshman to an NBA MVP and legend is never fair but I actually think Anderson did okay with a major caveat. Anderson is like Magic Johnson in that he not only passes great for a big guy he also gets steals and rebounds well. Ironically he falls far short of Magic in one category: shooting. If Kyle becomes a good shooter, look out.

2. The Athlete

When he briefly played center against USC, Kyle had during the course of a season played all five positions in Howland's relatively difficult offense. To ask a freshman to do that is asking a great deal. Shoot, asking a freshman to play point guard can be tough enough in of itself. Which brings us to Zach LaVine.

Depending on where you look LaVine is listed as a Point Guard or Shooting Guard by various recruiting services. The fact is simple, LaVine was the best player on his team and in the state. You want the ball in his hands as much as possible so he "played point." And LaVine is something special. I have written here often about his "in the building" shooting range, well guess what? At a recent all-star event, he won the dunk contest!

This past weekend, it was UCLA commit Zach LaVine, who shined brightest in a field which also boasted the likes of Tim Myles (New Mexico), Derrick Griffin (Miami), Jordan Bell (Oregon) and Deonte Burton (Marquette) in the BallisLife All-American dunk contest.

LaVine's set included a between the legs throw-down off the bounce, commonly referred to as the "East Bay Funk" dunk popularized by former NBA dunk champion Isiah Rider. LaVine, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard who chose the Bruins over offers from national champion Louisville, Washington and Arizona among others, tore the house down when he threw the ball off the floor, leaped and went around his back in midair before slamming it home to take home the trophy.

For those figuring out the lineups for next year, it will be hard to believe come the end of the season LaVine is not starting somewhere. LaVine should challenge Jordan Adams for best shooter and Norman Powell for best athlete. Can he play point guard? Yes. Should he? Not sure. LaVine has talent but is that what is best for LaVine and the Bruins? LaVine as our best athlete could be a great defender as well, but that is something else he definitely has not learned to do yet. I think Howland failed Kyle last year by asking him to do too much. Alford can't afford the same mistake.

If Alford wants LaVine to play point or backup point, fine. But he better be ready to let LaVine play through his mistakes and learn as LaVine has the talent but he also has a lot to learn.

3. Pressure Point

A lot is being said about Bryce Alford by people without a clue on him. Some assume he is a Jerry Neuheisel, not good enough for UCLA and at UCLA only because his dad is coach. Well, check out these videos, especially the second one and some of his passes.

Now there are rumors that Bryce may be a point guard. Like LaVine, Alford was the best player on his team and the best player in his state. Like LaVine, he looks to be a great outside shooter. Thus he was supposed to and did always look to shoot first and his team reasonably wanted the ball in his hands as much as possible. Unlike LaVine, Alford looks like the breeze from an open gym door would knock him down. Unlike LaVine, there are going to be questions on his athleticism. But most of all unlike LaVine it will be difficult for fans, scouts, and "experts" to have patience with Bryce.

For Bryce was never really seriously scouted as everyone knew he was playing for Dad. New Mexico fans loved Coach Alford so that was not a problem or question there. But at a new school and being the coach's son, the pressure on Bryce will be enormous.

The flipside, of course, is no other college freshman in the country knows Steve Alford better. Bryce's growing up with his Dad as a coach presumably means that he better than anyone else knows what his dad wants and how his dad's offense should work. This puts him miles ahead of LaVine who would both be learning point guard generally and for Alford specifically.

Bottom line is this is not a situation where the cupboard is bare. Statistically we have one of the top returning points in the PAC 12, athletically we have one of the best potentially in the conference, and we have one who knows the new coach better than any other college freshman in the country. Alford has options, even good ones, but he does not have easy choices.

Go Bruins!