Monday, August 15, 2011
Summer Buzz: UCLA Bruins
By Eamonn Brennan
Our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: UCLA.
When Jerime Anderson got himself indefinitely suspended for allegedly stealing a fellow student's MacBook Pro, he didn't just put his entire season in jeopardy. He also underscored the issues facing his coach, Ben Howland, as he looks to build on last season's surprisingly solid success.
Those issues come down to this: frontcourt excellence, backcourt transience. Or, put another way, UCLA has a lot of exciting forwards to choose from. Almost too many. But could the backcourt hold the Bruins back? Can Howland bridge the gap? How?
If only the Wear twins were guards.
Ben Howland has some holes to fill in his backcourt entering this season.
One glance at UCLA's prospective personnel reveals the dichotomy at work here. The program lost guards Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt to the NBA draft. Anderson is indefinitely suspended. The rest of the Bruins' likely backcourt contributors are either unspectacular role players (Lazeric Jones), little-used reserves (Tyler Lamb) or promising but unproven recruits (shooting guard Norman Powell, the No. 15-ranked prospect at his position in the class of 2011).
Meanwhile, the Bruins' frontcourt can only be described as "loaded." Sophomore center Joshua Smith, who used his soft hands and gigantic body to overpower defenders in his first collegiate season, is back. So is forward Reeves Nelson, who was an efficient scorer and one of his conference's best rebounders, particularly on the defensive end. In and of itself, this is a really big frontcourt, and I mean that both literally and figuratively.
Then there are the Wear twins.
The former UNC commits left Chapel Hill and returned to the West Coast to sit out a year before becoming eligible to take the court this fall. Here's the thing about these guys right now: It's possible many of us have overrated the impact the Wears will have, or focused a bit too much on the results of their dual transfer in a news-bereft offseason. The UCLA partisans at Bruins Nation (somewhat cattily) make this argument here, and they're right: Right now, the Wears are backup forwards. That's it.
Sure, David and Travis Wear were ranked among the top 10 forwards in the class of 2009, and the fact that there's two of them adds intrigue in and of itself. But right now, the brothers provide depth. That's their role. It might be the best frontcourt depth in the country, if you believe both can contribute at the collegiate level right away, but it's still merely depth all the same. Nelson and Smith are the biggest factors in this frontcourt. That doesn't seem likely to change anytime soon.
Which is why it would be so nice if David and Travis Wear were not 6-foot-9, 220-pound power forwards but rather 6-4, 180-pound combo guards. Because what UCLA needs is guards. The Bruins have to find a way to replace Malcolm Lee's capable point guard play. They have to deal with the loss of Honeycutt, an emerging scoring threat with the length to guard multiple positions on the defensive end. They have to find someone in the backcourt that can occasionally hit an open 3. (In 2011, the Bruins shot 32.6 percent from beyond the arc, which ranked No. 253 in the country.)
Perhaps most importantly, they have to find backcourt players that can initiate the offense in ways that maximize Smith and Nelson's respective abilities.
Howland's style has always been rugged. His teams thrive on slow tempo, defensive brilliance and physicality. Things aren't pretty on the offensive end, but they don't have to be. They just have to be effective. In this case, "effective" means "good enough to score more points than your opponent, who probably won't score that many, because you're UCLA and your defense is usually pretty awesome." (Effective is probably a more efficient way of saying that, but oh well.)
Howland has the pieces he needs in the post. His team will be big, physical and strong. Smith's 300-plus pounds are more than a handful in the low block, and he's still miles from maxing out on his potential. Nelson is a rebound-and-putback machine. Both players will use their size and strength to patrol the defensive end, and with the Wears available to back them up, UCLA won't have to worry about either player tiring too quickly.
Still, UCLA's backcourt could undermine that. Jones is a key; as a senior, this is his team to control. But he can't do it alone. Barring Anderson's return, perhaps Powell can make an immediate impression. Lamb is a promising candidate, too.
Until we get to, say, December, we won't really know how this backcourt development is coming along. (We also won't know whether Anderson will be allowed to play or not.) If last year's season is any indication, there will be early struggles. Slowly but surely, the Bruins just kept getting better in 2011. Eventually, they just got it.
It's fair to predict that much for the Bruins of 2012. At the very least -- Wear twins or no -- the post will be this team's favorite place on the floor. Whether the perimeter can complement it effectively is the crucial question. I hate to say it, but here it comes: We'll see. At this point, anything else is just a guess.