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UCLA Basketball Season Preview, Part 3: Point Guard

The key to overachieving low expectations this season will be the point guard position

NCAA Basketball: Pac-12 Conference Tournament-Stanford vs UCLA
Jules Bernard leading scorer, yes. Jules Bernard point guard, please no.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

At this time of year with a new coach, hope springs eternal that the season is going to be a good one. This year, there is justified excitement over a new coach that wants to be at UCLA and demands defense and effort. However, the Pac-12 media writers picked UCLA to finish eighth.

The obvious reason is that the UCLA Bruins lost their top three players from last year in Kris Wilkes, Jaylen Hands, and Moses Brown. The reality is that UCLA will be a better team on defense without those three. However, the writers may be correct because of UCLA’s offense, generally, and the point guard position, in particular. The point guard keys the offense as its quarterback. Does UCLA have a quarterback ready?

The answer to that question may be answered later in the season. The point guard situation in preseason practice and scrimmages may be very different than to start the Pac-12 Tournament. Further, two of UCLA’s three best players may see some minutes at the point, but how the season goes may depend on the third.

Katie, Bar the Door: Jules Bernard?!?

First, a shout out to Andrew DK. Andrew has been a fan of Jules Bernard from day one. And day one Bernard was a “put his head down and go to the basket” guy. Bernard seemed selfish and out of control to start the last season. Now, in fairness, his effort level was always high, his basketball IQ, not so much, but Bernard improved as the season went on. In the last nine regular season games, he scored in double figures eight times, while only scoring in double figures twice in the first 22 games. In that nine game stretch, he shot 65% and he also started hitting from three where he went 9 of 22. If you have to bet right now, Bernard is likely to lead UCLA in scoring this season. On a team that may be hurting for offense, Bernard seems a key piece.

That said, could Bernard end up playing as a point guard?!? During that same streak he still had more turnovers than assists, 13 to 11. That was much better than his season totals. Despite being seventh in minutes, he was third in turnovers with 50 to only 28 assists. Put in further perspective his assists and turnovers were the worst of any non-big last year. That does not sound like a point guard.

In a sense, Cronin gets that and has a response from this October 10 interview:

[Because of Singleton been hurt and Campbell just came back] Jules for four months played a lot of point guard. . . . Phil Jackson played Ron Harper at the point. . . .

Ron Harper was the “point guard” on Michael Jordan’s Bulls second run of three championships. Wikipedia describes him during this time: “Harper found his niche with the Bulls upon Jordan’s return, eventually becoming a fan favorite by reinventing himself as a big perimeter defender, ball handler, and mid-range scorer.” While Harper had averaged as many as seven assists per game in his career during the Bulls’ run of championships, he averaged less than three a season. Harper again repeated that role with Lakers next to Kobe. In other words, Harper was not exactly a point guard in the traditional sense but more of a lead guard.

I am not sure that analogy works. Ironically if you had to call someone on this Bruin team a Jordan or Kobe (sacrilegious I know), it would be Bernard. On the other side, it does make the argument that some of the best teams in NBA history did not have what anyone would classify as a traditional point guard.

All this is a long way of saying, while it can work, call me dubious as to the idea of Bernard as a point guard. I readily admit I have underestimated him before. A more credible scenario to me is that Bernard may be even better this year on offense as his overall game, including shooting threes, may be improved. Playing point in the summer may help him be a better wing.

Fingers Crossed: David Singleton

If you don’t think Bernard is the best returning player, then you probably pick Singleton. Ironically, Singleton may fit Cronin’s definition of Ron Harper-style point guard more than Bernard. Singleton as a backup last year rarely turned the ball over—only 12 times for the season! He also shot the ball incredibly well from three, leading the team at 46%. Lastly, he was the team’s best perimeter defender. Quite frankly, he does sound like a Ron Harper-style point guard.

But he is not a traditional point. He is most comfortable on the perimeter. Singleton only took 36% of his shots inside the three-point line. Despite being the backup point, only Bernard of the wings or guards had less assists. Jalen Hill, the likely starting center this year, even had more assists.

Singleton was not able to practice all summer and has only been in full contact practice for a short time. However, we have some real good news from an interview yesterday. He is back now at full speed. Still, he has only been practices for days or weeks, so his conditioning will be a question to start the year. Here is an interview that has the best news of October:

The X Factor: Tyger Campbell

So much is riding on Tyger Campbell. He does not have to be the best player, but if he is good on both sides of the ball, you have to feel good about UCLA’s chances this season. But, keep in mind, he is a freshman coming back from a knee injury. Asking someone like that to start at point as your team’s only true point guard is a lot to ask. Mick Cronin said:

It is a huge jump. Playing against guys who are older, trained and you’re not. . . . [Tyger] practices hard. . . lot of toughness. At his size, you don’t get to this level unless you have a lot of toughness. . . . good job taking care of the ball, great speed and quickness. I think the last thing that will come for Tyger will be his shooting because he’s pressuring the ball on defense and he’s taking care of the ball, so that’s where a lot of his energy goes.

Unlike Singleton and Bernard, Tyger is a true point guard, according to ESPN recruiting:

Campbell is an outstanding point guard and playmaker who shows tremendous poise in big moments. He’s as battle-tested a lead guard as there is in the country having had the ball in his hands at La Lumiere for all of the last three years. He’s tight with his handle.

Campbell’s size could be an issue as well. Smaller point guards sometimes struggle in the Pac-12. Although he is listed at 5’11”, I have to believe that’s a bit of a stren. On the other hand, Cronin certainly has a point on toughness and Tyger is used to playing against bigger guys unlike many high school players who were always among the biggest.

It will be interesting to watch Tyger develop.

Conclusion: The Point May Determine How UCLA goes this Season

Jules Bernard may be UCLA’s MVP for the 2019-20 as well as an All-Pac-12 selection. I could see that happening. I can’t see Bernard as a point guard in any successful scenario. You’re asking too much of a guy who did not even know how to pass at the start of last season.

That said, what could Cronin do? Singleton’s been hurt and Campbell, too. Campbell came back and has been cleared. Singleton is getting there. If Bernard ends the season as the emergency or third string point guard, things are looking up. Practicing at the point could really help Bernard’s development and that could be a win-win long term.

Cronin’s description of Harper is more applicable to Singleton. Singleton could fit the role of lead guard hitting jumpers, playing defense, and not making mistakes. Riley and Hill are both good passers for bigs so it could be a team effort on assists. I don’t think this is ideal, but it could lead to a very strong defensive five. UCLA could be a good Cronin “defense first” team that would make opponents earn their wins and never beats themselves.

If Tyger clicks and becomes an elite point, then almost certainly the Pac-12 writers will be wrong. Singleton plays some backup minutes and becomes the designated three-point shooter while Bernard is free to be the offense’s number one option.

We’ll see how and where these three play. That will give us a good idea what UCLA’s true prospects are for 2019-20 season.

Go Bruins!