- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Editor's Note: This month, ESPN Insider's college basketball and recruiting experts are teaming up to examine how 15 of the nation's best recruiting classes will fit in with their teams in the 2013-14 season. Today's featured program: UCLA. Check out the Nation blog each morning for a corresponding post on the key returnee for each of the 15 teams.
Given the turmoil and turnover of the past two seasons, the damning exposés, the stylistic and disciplinary identity crises, the exodus of local talent, the constant recriminations from an angry, hungry fan base, the departure of a lottery pick with a fake birthday, the firing of coach Ben Howland this spring and the hiring of a controversial replacement (Steve Alford), it has been easy to forget one really important thing: UCLA is really talented.
Yes, Shabazz Muhammad will take his 20-year-old talents to the NBA, and point guard Larry Drew II's eligibility has expired. But other than that, the Bruins come back whole. That means a few things. It means twins Travis and David Wear, who have turned into reliable offensive players inside 18 feet, both return for their senior seasons. It means junior role player Norman Powell is back. And more than anything, it means the lion's share of 2012's No. 1-ranked recruiting class -- Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and Tony Parker -- are all in Westwood for their second season. This group may not have been able to save Howland's job in the matter of eight months, but it has a chance to build something longer lasting going forward.
And no one will be more important in this regard than Anderson.
Which is not to say he's the best. That would be Adams, who was easily UCLA's best player throughout 2012-13. That wasn't always a high bar to clear, particularly early in the season (when Muhammad was hurt and the Bruins looked clueless), but even late in the season, Adams remained the best and most efficient scorer on the squad. He was the only Bruin to finish the season with an offensive rating above 108; his 114.9 led the team. He shot 84 percent from the line, 54.3 percent from inside the arc and 30.7 percent from 3. He drew fouls (4.5 per 40 minutes), created steals (4.2 per 100 possessions) and posted the lowest turnover rate (10.3 percent) on the team.
In less numerical terms, Adams was good. Not perfect. Not without fluctuations. But good. And that was with Muhammad playing the same position and using 28.3 percent of UCLA's possessions. Expecting a similar effort from the Georgia native in his sophomore season -- more touches, more time in the gym this summer, and everything else that feeds into sophomore improvement -- is about as easy as expectations come. Dude's going to be good. Let's just bank that right now.
Parker is much more of a question. He had a tough time cracking the lineup in 2012-13, mostly because Howland devoted himself to a smaller, faster lineup, with Anderson as a point forward and the Wears as undersized forwards, which allowed him to keep Drew on the floor to play that adopted, spread up-tempo style. Parker should be in line for more minutes in general, especially if Alford -- who last cracked KenPom's adjusted tempo top-100 at Iowa in 2004 -- presses the brakes. The verdict remains decidedly out. If Parker shows up, great. If not, it's survivable.
Anderson, on the other hand, is pivotal.
It's easy to forget that Anderson was every bit as important to UCLA's class as Muhammad was supposed to be. 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.
It doesn't have to be that way. For one, most freshmen struggle to some degree. For another, Anderson's skills, if utilized properly, are a major asset. He shouldn't always play point guard -- and UCLA will be able to try out 11th-ranked incoming point guard Zach LaVine at that spot -- nor should he never play it. There has to be a balance, and the balance has to recognize what Anderson does well. But even if Anderson did nothing else on the floor, having a player of his size to whip smart extra passes around the court is a coach's dream. He can link everything up. With weapons around him, Adams in particular, Anderson can be the lynchpin in a smooth, smart, easy offense.
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.