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UCLA Basketball's Isaac Hamilton is a Hard Man to Figure Out

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Number 5 in a series reviewing the eight players of last season

Isaac Hamilton was asked to be the #1 Defender last year.
Isaac Hamilton was asked to be the #1 Defender last year.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

UCLA's WTH basketball player for 2014-15 was Isaac Hamilton. Is he the scorer who torched just SC for 36 points? Or is he the guy who went 0-10 at Oregon State? Is he a good passer, such as he was at home with 21 assists during a three game home stand in the PAC 12? Or is he the guy who turned the ball over 7 times against North Carolina and Alabama? Is he the guy who had two good defensive games and help limit Stanford's very good Chasson Randle to 15-38 and 3 assists and 3 turnovers? Or is he the defender who let Devonte Lacy almost single-handedly lead a bad WSU team to a road win over UCLA? Shoot it is even hard to figure out whether he is a rising sophomore or junior?

The answer to the above, of course, is yes. He is all those things.

First physically, he is a gifted shooter. He shot 39% from 3 point land.

He is not a scorer per se. He is not good at creating his own shot. He is great at taking advantage of let downs or bad teams. For example, in the Kentucky game where Isaac took advantage after the game was over to pad his stats deceptively or when he torched a poorly coached just SC.

After the first 15 games, UCLA was 8-7 and Isaac had double digit shot attempts in all but five games or 66% of the time. In the next 21 games, he had double digit shot attempts just 7 times, or 33% of the time. UCLA was 14-7 in those games.

During the season, Chrissorr and I often commented (as did anyone not paid by UCLA) that Isaac is not and will not ever be a point guard. During those first 15 games, Isaac had as many or more turnovers than assists in 10 of the 15 games. A disastrous assist to turnover ratio. In the last 21 games, Isaac had more turnovers than assists only 6 times. He closed the season with 40 assists to 18 turnovers in the last 8 games including the NCAA tournament.

What does all this mean? Isaac can certainly shoot but he is not a person who can create his own shot and is danger of shooting his team out of games. He was third on the team in shot attempts but fifth in makes and fifth in free throw attempts. Actually he had over a 100 less free throw attempts than Bryce Alford who was in fourth. This is a sign of a guy who is a shooter and not a scorer. Scorers draw fouls.

UCLA's offense is better when Isaac thinks pass first, as he did more in the latter half of the season. If an opponent ignores Isaac, he can torch them.

BEST GAME

Isaac best game may have been the best story of the "best games" last season. Isaac transferred from UTEP to be closer to his terminally ill grandmother. He even lost a year of eligibility for the transfer. So even the most cynical college basketball fan has to feel good about Isaac 36 point effort against just SC:

Hamilton, who's grandmother died this week, made 13 of 17 shots and was 7 for 9 from the 3-point arc to blow past his career high of 21 points set earlier this year.

"For him to have a game like this on the heels of her passing, that's a pretty special situation to be in," UCLA coach Steve Alford said.

That game was the most points for a Bruin since 2005. It was in the PAC 12 tournament and marked the third time last season UCLA beat just SC. For an individual player, it was probably the sweetest game of the season.

ALFORD'S USE OF HAMILTON

The most logical reasons for Hamilton's inconsistency is either he is young or he is not being used correctly. While I think it can be very hard for a young big to adjust to the PAC 12 and high major basketball, I don't think that was the reason for Isaac's lack of consistency.  Also remember he had an extra year of practice.

The reason for Isaac lack of consistency was coaching.

Maybe it was desperation to find a backup point guard but Isaac as a point guard should have not been considered. He has a shaky handle with the ball. He is not comfortable going to the basket. Isaac had an extra season on the bench to learn the point guard position. It didn't help.  It was not just inexperience that caused him to fail, it is the fact he does not have a point guard or even combo guard mentality.

In those last 21 games, at times, Isaac became a pass first player and made the team better. That is in part because Isaac is a good post passer. Isaac is dangerous at this because you can't double off him or he will bury the jumper. If Tony Parker learns to pass out off a double team, Isaac will get even more good shots.

Then the issue of shot attempts. While a lot of the focus (and anger) of UCLA fans was on Bryce Alford for shooting out us out of those early games that led to UCLA going to 8-7, Isaac was guilty as well. Unlike Bryce though, Isaac had a bit of a defense that could go like this " Hey if Bryce gets to gun it, why shouldn't I? I am just as good a shot." Also if Bryce is looking to shoot first, Isaac better as well or he is not getting the ball back.

The same holds true on defense. Isaac is not a great athlete made to be a defender. That said he is a much better athlete than Bryce. NP4 was a much better athlete and defender but he was very foul prone. As a result Isaac was forced to be UCLA's defensive stopper against the opponent's best player 1-3. Again, Isaac sometimes took his lead from NP4 and sometimes from Bryce.

Bryce often did not try on defense and Isaac was often guilty of that as well. There is good reason for that. Isaac played less than 30 minutes only 5 times last season, three times were games he was in foul trouble. Seemingly the only way for Isaac to get benched was to play hard defense and pick up fouls. On the other hand he is not NP4, or Malcolm Lee, or a player with the tools to be a great defender. It is asking a lot for Isaac to be a top scoring option, help with point, and cover the other team's best player.

So what should have been the answer? Never try Isaac at point. Bench Isaac for bad defense and not wait for NP4 to give the "this ain't horse speech" after the Oregon debacle to motivate people. Make clear to Isaac he is a good shooter but the team needs him to play hard on defense first, pass second and then shoot.

In a sense, Steve Alford got there. So the grade would be an F for the first 15 games for his use of Isaac. In the second 21 a B, Isaac had some lapses and his defense was not consistent but his general turnaround was a key to the season. The problem is those first 15 games almost cost UCLA a shot at the tournament and were incredibly embarrassing to the four letters with epic soul crushing defeats by Kentucky and Utah. Thus, I will give him a D+ for the season for his use of Isaac.

THE FUTURE

Isaac's most important UCLA season may have been the last one. UCLA literally had no backup guards so it was difficult to bench Isaac. (Although I would argue he should have been benched often against the cream puffs in the nonconference when he was not going all out on D and taking bad shots.)

Now UCLA has a legitimate potential point in Aaron Holiday and a legitimate wing in Prince Ali. This means Isaac will never have to be a backup point again. Most importantly they both have more athletic tools than Isaac and the potential to be better defenders than Isaac. Thus Hamilton will not be the number one defender next year.

Ideally this would set UCLA up as follows Aaron Holiday at point, Isaac at 2 guard, and Prince Ali at 3. Isaac Hamilton would go from the lead defender to playing the weakest of the opponent's players 1-3. UCLA's defense would be able to legitimately play man to man against most teams and would change from a team weakness to a team strength without gimmicks such as having your four at the top of a zone.

However, I think the odds of that happening are about the same as Fox saying ain't or Steve Alford publicly admitting that Bryce needs to work on his D and is not a point guard. While I think Holiday may be the odd man out, it could be Hamilton in the three guard with four players in the rotation.

Regardless, Steve Alford now has the horses to field a more complete backcourt and best defensive team of his three years. It will be up to him to make that work from the start of the season and not after 15 games and multiple disasters like last season.

Go Bruins!