Malcolm Lee leaves UCLA question marks

UCLA coach Ben Howland gets his players to the NBA, and that's one of the selling points when it comes to recruiting future Bruins. So when UCLA players enter early into the NBA draft, Howland has to feel happy for them even if it does leave him wondering at the same time what might have been.

UCLA will lose both guard Malcolm Lee and forward Tyler Honeycutt, the second- and third-leading scorers from this season's team that came within a few possessions of getting to the Sweet 16. Howland had heard the super-early preseason projections that a team with the two of them might have been among the nation's elite, and he now knows those expectations won't be there anymore.

"I really believe that if we had both of them back we would have had a chance to challenge, no question, in that category," Howland said.

With Lee and Honeycutt leaving, UCLA will need other players to step up. The Bruins should have a strong frontcourt with leading scorer Reeves Nelson expected to return along with center Joshua Smith. With Smith and North Carolina transfers David and Travis Wear, UCLA will have three 6-foot-10 players to give them a size advantage over most teams.

What Howland will need to emerge is consistent production from the backcourt. Point guard Lazeric Jones should be better after an injury-plagued year that saw him get his first Division I season under his belt. Tyler Lamb is a wing who will get a chance to earn more minutes, and Norman Powell is a freshman who is expected to get early playing time. UCLA is also expected to sign a guard in junior college transfer De'End Parker.

UCLA will miss Lee's defensive presence. While his offensive skills could have used another year of seasoning, Howland thinks that he's as good of a defender as anyone in the draft, and that will be his greatest NBA skill. Lee's decision to forgo his senior season shouldn't have come as that big of a surprise, not after he let it be known two weeks ago that his AAU coach was in the process of interviewing agents.

Honeycutt's departure was an expected one even though he might have needed another year to boost his stock. Howland thinks he'll be a first-round pick, but as former UCLA and NBA player Tracy Murray described Honeycutt to the Daily Bruin, "He’s a carpenter with a bunch of tools, but he hasn't built nothing."

The Bruins should still challenge for a Pac-12 title. Washington and USC lose top players to the NBA, and Arizona's Derrick Williams and Washington State's Klay Thompson could depart as well.

The hope for Howland is that he still has the pieces to make UCLA an elite team.