April 13, 2011
Even though UCLA fell a basket or two shy of upsetting Florida in the second round of the NCAA tournament last month, what tempered disappointment for fans was the promise that the Bruins would return to Final Four contention next season.
Three weeks later, that no longer seems likely.
First sophomore Tyler Honeycutt announced March 28 he was forgoing his final two years of college and entering the NBA draft. Then junior Malcolm Lee revealed Tuesday he will hire an agent and join Honeycutt in the draft. And now UCLA appears to have too many perimeter questions to make much of a national impact next season despite a frontcourt that promises to be among the best in the nation.
"I really believe if we had both of them back, we'd have a chance to challenge no question in that category," UCLA coach Ben Howland said on a conference call Tuesday. "I think Malcolm has made great progress every year. I think he made really good progress between sophomore year and junior year, and he was poised to have a breakout year."
Whereas the loss of Honeycutt didn't drastically change UCLA's outlook for next season since he never maximized his potential in college anyway, removing Lee from the Bruins' lineup makes a dramatic difference. Lee may not have ever developed a consistent jump shot, but he was UCLA's most capable transition scorer and one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation.
What's especially frustrating to Howland is that Lee is leaving even though it's likely he'll be selected in the second round of the draft and won't receive a guaranteed contract.
That's especially problematic with the potential lockout looming since there may not be an NBA summer league or an extended training camp, which would diminish Lee's chances of impressing a team enough to make a roster. Furthermore, it may be difficult for Lee to improve his stock dramatically in pre-draft workouts since he's still recovering from undergoing knee surgery immediately after the season ended last month.
The 6-foot-5 Lee has NBA size and athleticism and his ability to defend both guard spots will certainly be an asset, but another year in college certainly might have helped him hone questionable aspects of his offensive game. His outside shooting is a work in progress, his mid-range game is nearly non-existent and the experiment of playing him at point guard in the 2009-10 season failed amid a hail of turnovers and over-dribbling.
Howland expressed hope that Lee will carve out a niche in the NBA eventually, yet the UCLA coach acknowledged that he advised the junior guard to return for his senior season.
"In my opinion, I thought that would've been in his best interest," Howland said. "I shared that with both Malcolm and his family, and they appreciated me saying that. I'm saying what's best for him. Obviously it's what's best for UCLA basketball. But I honestly in my heart really believed, with all the factors, I thought that was in his best interest."
With Honeycutt and Lee now gone, UCLA must replace its two top perimeter scorers. Either point guards Jeremy Anderson and Lazeric Jones may have to play more off ball next season, or the trio of sophomore Tyler Lamb, freshman Norman Powell and junior college transfer De'End Parker will likely have to fill both wing positions.
Regardless of who absorbs Lee and Honeycutt's minutes, UCLA will enter next season without a proven guard on its roster. As good as the Bruins' frontcourt will be, it's difficult to see the program taking a big step forward.