UCLA Basketball: 5 Bruins Who Need to Improve
While their most recent win over Pepperdine is a step in the right direction, questions are still being asked about key members of this UCLA Bruins squad once predicted to win the Pac-12.
At 2-4 on the year, UCLA is still a long way away from being the team it was expected to be. The defense still needs to improve. The offense needs to be more fluid. Players need to make shots, whether they are from two or 22 feet away.
But at the root of those problems is passion, or rather, a lack of it. Over and over again, viewers were subjected to discouraged, apathetic Bruins in the nationally televised Maui Invitational. Players hung their heads, jacked up mindless threes and routinely played matador defense on incoming drives.
Only senior Jerime Anderson seemed to care that his team had been shamed so publicly, shedding tears of frustration after the Michigan loss.
It’s getting back to that hard-nosed, blue-collar mentality that certain UCLA players need to discover going forward. Here are five Bruins that, for one reason or another, need to improve if UCLA has any chance at a Pac-12 title.
Much was expected of UCLA’s mammoth center, yet so far, Joshua Smith has failed to deliver in almost every conceivable way.
His once vaunted hands can no longer handle the simplest of entry passes. His impression of offense is to set up on one block and never move with the ball. His idea of defense is to either watch a speedy guard run right past him on the high post or pressure the ball so hard he earns a cheap foul.
Smith’s play has been poor, and most of that is a function of his poor conditioning. While he was able to get below 300 pounds last year, Smith has seemingly regressed in training, checking in at well over 300 pounds before the LMU game.
He cannot run the floor to get back on defense, he cannot stay with smaller players, and he cannot position himself well on the defensive boards. While in Maui, Howland had to call numerous timeouts just to get Smith a blow.
So far, he has yet to statistically impress. Smith is averaging 8.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, but can only stay on the floor for about 17 minutes of those games. Before the Pepperdine game, Howland even refused to start him in an effort to keep him from fouling, and still he usually picks up two in the first half.
His free throw shooting has also taken a turn for the worst. Smith is 47 percent from the line on 9-of-19 shooting, compared to 61 percent from the stripe a year ago.
Smith’s issues go beyond physical at this point. His lack of commitment to get in shape speaks to a larger problem of negative mentality. After picking up fouls or missing close put-backs, Smith gets easily discouraged and visible shows it with a hanging head or childish pout. He has yet to show any inclination that he wants to improve his offensive game or play defense.
Howland knows this, and started him against Pepperdine to see if he could play long minutes without getting fatigued or into foul trouble. We’ve yet to see an answer to the first part, as Smith picked up two silly fouls and sat for most of the first half.
Overall, UCLA looked at its most sluggish defensively when he was in the game. In the end, he only recorded 12 minutes during the Bruins’ 62-39 rout of the Waves.
We’ve seen better from Smith, but this year the discipline and passion isn’t there. If he can get his act together, he can be one of the best big men in the country. Otherwise, Smith better make himself comfortable on the bench.
Reeves Nelson is perhaps the poster child of college basketball head cases. The Bruin forward has absolutely every physical tool to succeed, but undermines his natural ability with a poor attitude.
The history of Nelson’s problems off the court is well documented, so I’ll only briefly touch on it here. After a disastrous opening night loss to LMU, Nelson lashed out at teammates and coaches, left team film sessions and missed practices.
He was subsequently suspended indefinitely from the team, but only missed UCLA’s loss against Middle Tennessee State before being reinstated.
After pledging to be rededicated to his team and coaches, he promptly missed the plane to Maui, eventually getting there on a different flight. It’s still unclear why he missed the team plane. Nelson sat out the first half of UCLA’s win against Chaminade, but hasn’t had an impact on a game since. Ben Howland reportedly refuses to start Nelson, preferring the Wear twins instead.
Nelson’s numbers have fallen dramatically from leading the team in scoring last year. His points and rebounds are half of what they once were, and his minutes are down by 10 from a year ago. Once the emotional spark for the entire UCLA side, Nelson no longer seems to inspire himself, and it shows on the court.
UCLA desperately needs a consistent scorer they can rely on game after game, and Nelson has the talent and experience to be that guy. All that needs to change is the negativity that has pervaded his play since high school. It’s not going to be easy, but the Bruins are going to need him if they have tournament dreams.
If UCLA was ever going to have success this year, they were going to need a backcourt skilled enough to keep the pressure off their talent big men. So far, the backcourt has struggled at both sides of the floor, and Lazeric Jones is one of the main culprits.
Through the majority of the Bruins’ opening five games, Jones was a non-factor, often exhibiting poor shooting, ineffective distribution and lackluster defense. Opposing guards routinely drove on him to great success, and pressured him into turnovers at the other end.
Ben Howland has been preaching the clean entry pass from day one, but the senior junior college transfer still has trouble making it. Jones’ outside shot is still inconsistent at best, and he still earns the lion’s share of his points from the line. After all the talk about how he practiced with NBA stars during the offseason, he has yet to show he can compete with the stars of the Sun Belt.
Jones had a nice game against Pepperdine, leading all scorers with 14 points and sinking 2-of-3 from deep. It’s encouraging for fans to see, but that’s the kind of effort UCLA needs every game Jones, not just on nights at home against overmatched teams.
Jones will continue to improve a feel for the game as the season goes on, but he’ll have to do it fast. This next stretch of six games, five against beatable mid-majors, should provide a perfect training ground to do so.
Shoved into a starting role with the departure of Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt to the NBA, Tyler Lamb has shown flashes of what he could be, but that’s all they are.
Averaging just under 30 minutes a game, Lamb has shown he can affect games in a positive way, like his strong second half against Kansas. Unfortunately, Lamb has turned invisible in other games this year, such as his disappearing acts against Middle Tennessee State and Michigan.
What Ben Howland expects from Lamb is solid defense and a reliable threat from deep. When he isn’t picking up cheap early fouls, Lamb has satisfied the later, but is streaky at best when it comes to hitting the three. He’s 6-of-24 behind the arc, with three of those makes coming against the Jayhawks.
Lamb had a subdued performance against Pepperdine with only eight points (four of which came at the line), but his contributions on the defense end were immense. No Waves player scored in double figures, thanks in large part to Lamb’s excellent defense along the perimeter.
Still a sophomore, Lamb has the ability to become a threat on both sides of the court in the mold of Russell Westbrook or Aaron Afflalo. He has a lot of time to get better, but get better he must.
David and Travis Wear
OK, so this is really “Six UCLA players that need to improve,” but in my mind the Wear twins are just two bodies for the same player (from a basketball perspective), so really it’s not too much of a stretch.
While Travis bangs down low a little more effectively than brother David, they both have similar skill sets, and similar weaknesses.
It’s been an up and down season for the Wears. They both excelled in the LMU opener, but then largely disappeared against Middle Tennessee. David had to sit out the Chaminade game in Maui, but for all the good he and his brother did, they might have just stayed on the bench.
Against Kansas and Michigan, the Wears simply could not play defense. They blew assignments, let players frequently beat them off the dribble, and couldn’t get into position for rebounds. Their offense suffered too, with both Wears frequently missing shots from under the basket or from mid-range.
It seemed as if the hype was too high for this pair, but we got a glimpse of their upside against Pepperdine. The brothers combined 18 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks, influencing almost every shot and running the floor every minute they played.
The twins looked ready to buy in to Howland’s defense-first philosophy, finally playing like the athletic 6’10’’ forwards they both are.
UCLA played its most complete game of the year with the Wears leading the charge on defense. They’ll need to prove they can do it against quality opposition as well. David and Travis have already shown the type of improvement they need to succeed, but more importantly have shown the passion for Bruin basketball other players have lacked.