- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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Ben Howland has pocket aces and might possibly get another on the flop, now he's got to decide how to play the hand.
Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, two of the top five national recruits, have signed with UCLA along with No. 41 Jordan Adams and No. 26 Tony Parker could very well join them in Westwood next season as UCLA reopens Pauly Pavilion in front of what is sure to be a full house.
With that kind of recruiting class comes pressure to win and it's up to Howland to decide the best course of action.
He could slow play this talented lineup, letting them grow into their own as the season progresses, or he could go all in on his fabulous freshmen, letting them loose from the beginning and trying to ride them to prominence knowing that they could very well be one-and-done players at UCLA.
"We have to have a good plan as to what we're going to put in right away offensively and defensively," Howland said. "We've got to move quickly because the games come so fast."
Howland's coaching philosophy has long centered on the team-first mentality. He prefers to have three or four players score in double figures every night instead of having two players with 25 each and that balanced philosophy coupled with his slow-down motion, offense and tough-nosed defensive style tends to hide the explosive offensive talents of star players.
The college statistics of players such as Kevin Love (17.5 points per game) and Russell Westbrook (8.3) don't exactly foreshadow NBA all-star selections. Former national high school player of the year Jrue Holiday is now a starting point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers, but didn't make so much as second-team all-conference during his year at UCLA.
His style has proven successful over the long haul, with three consecutive Final Four appearance as evidence, but that doesn't mean Howland is oblivious to the need to use talented players.
"We definitely have to try to take advantage of their abilities," Howland said. "They're going to be great in the open court and hopefully we're going to have the depth where we can play faster and get up and down."
Still, don't expect Muhammad to lead the nation in scoring. No UCLA player in the Howland era has averaged more than Dijon Thompson's 18.4 points in 2004-05 and the team scoring leader has been under 15 points per game since Love averaged 17.5 in 07-08.
Muhammad, a 6-foot-6 small forward, is a dynamic, athletic talent whose scoring prowess is well-documented and an offensive game thought to already be NBA ready. He can slash and drive to the rim, pull up for a jump shot and has three-point range. Scoring is the name of his game and he can dominate the offensive end.
With that kind of a talent coming, it would be a mistake for Howland not to make him the focal point of the offense and Howland is well aware of that.
"He's going to definitely score," Howland said. "What numbers? I don't know, but he's definitely going to have the ability to put the ball in the basket."
Anderson is the perfect compliment to Muhammad who has the ability to make Muhammad a 25-points-per-game scorer. A 6-7 "point forward," he has excellent court vision, a knack for finding the open scorers, is among the top passers in the game and has the unselfish attitude you want in a skilled ball handler. They could put on quite a two-man show if Howland lets them, but it's doubtful any one or two players would become that much of a focus on a Howland-coached team.
"Twenty-five points? Those are lofty numbers," Howland said. "You still want to have balance and we'll have balance. We're going to have a lot of guys who are going to be able to score."
Sharp shooter Adams is one of them. He will add the type of consistent outside scoring threat the Bruins have lacked since Michael Roll graduated. And then there are the returning players such as Joshua Smith, David Wear, Travis Wear, Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell.
Smith, a 6-10, 305-pound center, has indicated he would put in the work to shed some excess weight and get in shape this offseason. If he does, he has the potential to become one of the nation's premier post players.
"A key for us still is going to be Josh," Howland said. "All these new kids are going to be outstanding players, but Josh is still going to be a key. If he gets himself into really good physical condition, I don't think there are too many people that can match up with him."
The improving Wear twins, both returning starters, have already added about 13 pounds of muscle since the end of the season and while Lamb and Powell have enough athleticism to hold their own against anyone. Depth was a major concern for UCLA last season, but the Bruins, who will also have point guard Larry Drew eligible next season, will be overcrowded meaning the fantasy of a dominant two-man game with Muhammad and Anderson will likely never materialize.
"We're going to have the depth I've enjoyed in the past," Howland said. "The competition every day in practice is going to be great and that helps everybody improve every day. Having that level of competition in practice on a daily basis is really going to help our team and that kind of competition is important."
With so many weapons, UCLA becomes that much more difficult to defend. Depending on one or two players to carry the team every night makes little sense from a strategic standpoint, so depending on Muhammad and Anderson to carry the load every game is a risk not worth taking when the deck is stacked at UCLA's could potentially be next season.
"There is nothing that is going to substitute hard work, discipline, sacrifice for one another and most importantly, playing as a team," Howland said.
Later, he added that the incoming recruits all share a team-first, unselfish mentality. He noted that Muhammad has won three state titles at Bishop Gorman high in Las Vegas, Anderson's St. Anthony's team in New Jersey has gone 65-0 over the last two seasons and Adams was part of an Oak Hill Academy team in Virginia that went 44-0 this season.
"All these kids are about winning," Howland said.
And if Howland plays his cards right, that means UCLA will be, too.
Ben Howland has pocket aces and might possibly get another on the flop, now he's got to decide how to play the hand.Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, two of the top five national recruits, have signed with UCLA along with No.