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UCLA basketball: What might have been

10/13/2011

On the scale of high-level talent UCLA coach Ben Howland has lost early to the NBA, Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt barely register. Not for a program that has seen future first round picks like Kevin Love, Jrue Holiday, Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar leave for the NBA well before their eligibility in Westwood was up.

But things have changed at UCLA the past few years. Howland hasn't been pinning his hopes on one-and-done players like Love or Holiday as much. He's been building a program with more staying power, adding depth and experience with players who need a few years of seasoning before leaving for the professional ranks.

That was the plan anyway. But Lee and Honeycutt had other ideas, leaving after their junior and sophomore seasons last spring despite the threat of an NBA lockout, and without much real potential of being selected in the first round of the draft.

Both were picked in the second round, where contracts are not guaranteed until a player makes the team out of training camp.

Now, because of the lockout both players find themselves in the awkward position of waiting to start their professional careers at the same time UCLA is beginning its new season. The Bruins held their first practice Thursday afternoon.

"It is what is," Howland said. "They have both decided to move on and we wish them nothing but the best. I hope that the lockout ends. I'm an NBA fan and we've got a lot of players that are going to miss paychecks soon that used to play for us."

Still, Howland admits it's hard not to think of what might have been if one or both players had stayed in school another year.

Lee was the team's top defender last season, "he's a high-level NBA defender right now, in my opinion," Howland said. "And Tyler was our leading shot-blocker and top-two rebounder. A lot of stats will need to be filled up."

UCLA lost a close second-round NCAA tournament game to eventual Elite 8 team Florida last spring. It is adding Dave Wear and Travis Wear, the 6-foot-10 twins from Mater Dei High in Santa Ana who transferred after their freshman season at North Carolina.

If either Lee or Honeycutt had stayed, it's not hard to imagine UCLA as a preseason top 10 team.

"Of course it's crossed my mind a number of times," Howland said. "At the end, we are where we are. This is reality, and I'm still feeling very good about this team."