The UCLA basketball program now has 19 games under its belt for the 2012-13 season, and with the season just over halfway over, it’s about the time to evaluate just how good the freshmen of the highly-praised 2012 recruiting class have done so far in Westwood.
And that 2012 recruiting class was one for the ages. Although each class is supposed to have a top-recruiting class in each year (duh), UCLA’s class was one of the best in program history, a lofty ascription considering the Bruins lay claim to easily the most prestigious basketball program in the nation.
That class included the top recruit in the country in Shabazz Muhammad as well as No. 5 recruit Kyle Anderson. Those recruits were joined by top-50 recruit Tony Parker along with top-100 recruit Jordan Adams. UCLA’s recruiting class was thought to have filled every hole UCLA had and it seemed to have created a ten-man-deep rotation at UCLA coach Ben Howland’s disposal.
Of course, these Bruins stumbled out of the gate but, with the exception of a devastating loss to Oregon, they’ve seemed to have found their footing as they now boast a 15-4 record and a 5-1 in-conference mark.
Which of those recruits have been most responsible for UCLA’s resurgence?
It’s hard to point at one player here and each has played a crucial role in bringing UCLA to 15 wins at this point. The Bruins have, for the most part, gelled and each freshman (with the exception of one, which we’ll address soon) has had a hand in changing the outcome of the game.
But the most important freshman thus far is, without a doubt, UCLA point forward Kyle Anderson.
That’s a bold statement (both because it’s unconventional and because it’s literally in bold typeface), but it’s accurate.
The easy answer is Shabazz Muhammad, but it’s one that looks at per-game stats and ascribes him the status of best freshman — hell, best player — on this UCLA squad.
That’s inaccurate, though. While Shabazz has had a major hand in giving UCLA a top-25 offense, he hasn’t been the primary catalyst. In transition, it’s difficult for opposition defenses to slow him down, but in half-court sets, the all-world 2-guard is a maddening baller. He often takes shots way too early in the shot-clock and attempts to play a fragmented version of hero ball. Sure, he’s a major offensive weapon but only when he’s playing within UCLA’s offense, not dominating it. This, combined with his shoddy start in the beginning of the season and his struggles for three of the past four games, has ruled him out as having the biggest impact on this team.
What about the other hot-shot, high-scoring freshman, Jordan Adams? The 2-guard is second in scoring for these Bruins and had a hot start, which kept their head above water in rough goings. He’s the first freshman in program history to score at least 20 points in each of his first four games and he’s scored 20 points or more six times this year.
However, Adams has struggled since Muhammad became UCLA’s primary option on offense and, more specifically, has been nearly non-existent since UCLA beat Fresno State on December 22. He’s shot under 40 percent in six of UCLA’s last seven contests, and has scored more than 12 points just once in that same span.
Meanwhile, Tony Parker is riding the pine in Westwood, averaging five minutes per game and being marginalized beyond belief by UCLA coach Ben Howland. While Parker was considered to be fighting for playing time at the beginning of the season with Josh Smith and the Wear twins earning rotation minutes, it was widely considered that, if Smith couldn’t get his stuff together on the court, Parker would be getting around 10 minutes a contest.
Smith, of course, left the program and for some reason, Howland has kept with the decision to keep Parker off the court and play him scant minutes, not even long enough to have his presence felt before the coach calls a time-out specifically to yank Parker from the floor. Thus, his playing time has limited him from being as impactful as some would hope.
So why Anderson, who is not much of a scorer at all? Why Anderson, a forward that has shot at a shade worse rate than both Muhammad and Anderson? Why is Anderson UCLA’s best freshman, with under 10 points a game to his name?
The answer lies in his versatility. Anderson’s ability to play any position from the point to power forward has been well-documented, but in practice, that notion has even more merit now than it ever did.
Anderson’s not a scorer — though he’s set up to be at times when UCLA goes into half-court sets — and though he’s been fairly inconsistent with his shot, his role is not that of a high-volume scorer.
His role isn’t that of a point guard either, and though that would seem to suit his strengths — given his high basketball IQ and solid court-vision — he’s played mainly as a power forward for this team, bangin’ inside on defense and staying close to the rim when he’s not handling the ball.
The result is that Anderson, who was projected to be UCLA’s point guard and who was knocked for his defensive prowess (or lack thereof), has become UCLA’s best big man on the glass. Aside from the numbers (Anderson leads this team in rebounds per game with 9.1 per game), he clearly doesn’t have a problem grasping the ball and holding on to it the way the Wear twins have (who have been maddening with tips and inability to box out defenders). He lays claim to the highest rebounding rate of anyone else on the team and he’s doing so while playing somewhat out of position. His play on the glass isn’t a new development — since being relegated to playing power forward, Anderson has yet to earn less than five rebounds in a game (Travis Wear averages 5.9 per game) and has grabbed nine or more rebounds in a game ten times this year.
Meanwhile, Anderson does get chances to play as the team’s point forward, and considering he plays the interior more often than you’d like from any “point-forward,” he’s averaging nearly four assists per game and is second to Larry Drew II in assist percentage (a stat that measures the proportion of field goals a player assists while on the court).
And while we knock Anderson’s shooting, he’s not exactly tanking it, while the kid shoots at a 45 percent clip, not a tremendous rate but one that you’d expect from the average hoopster.
Meanwhile, the roles of Muhammad and Adams are limited to scoring and as such, don’t have the numbers or the performances to be considered all-around players.
Kyle Anderson could be UCLA’s star after all, a player many had figured would play a massive role in what was once thought to be UCLA’s national title run.
What say you? Is Kyle Anderson UCLA’s best freshman? Best player?