Wednesday, April 20, 2011

WATS ON MY MIND: Young Bruins Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee are not ready for the NBA

WATS ON MY MIND: Young Bruins Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee are not ready for the NBA

The Daily Bruin
Published April 12, 2011, 12:55 am in Men's Basketball, Sports

Every Bruin Den member, former Bruin hoopster or general follower of college hoops has an opinion about UCLA basketball.

The history of the program is too deep, Pauley Pavilion is too legendary and Reeves Nelson is too scary-looking not to.

A few weeks ago, I was left in awe when hearing the announcements that junior guard Malcolm Lee and sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt would be testing the NBA draft waters – Honeycutt for certain and Lee just probably, not because they lack talent, but more because of their lack of preparation for the next level.

But I was not the only one, not nearly.

The opinions began flooding in from every which way, from UCLA students, sports writers and yes, former Bruin hoopsters.

Tracy Murray is a 12-year NBA veteran who was drafted out of UCLA in 1992 and is currently an analyst for the UCLA Sports Network, covering both men’s and women’s games.

And, to put it bluntly, Murray is a realist.

With the program suddenly in flux because of the departure of Honeycutt and assumably Lee, and the renovations to Pauley Pavilion, among other things, the questions about next season have begun to flow in my mind with this season barely having come to an end.

I spoke with Murray about the issues that I felt were currently most relevant to UCLA, issues concerning players leaving early, if UCLA is recruiting the right players, current players such as Joshua Smith and why we just cannot beat Florida.

It was a mistake for Honeycutt and Lee to enter the draft. Yes, the draft is weak this year, and yes, both are talented players, but there is something to be said about being proven, something that both have failed at accomplishing.

I expressed my thoughts to Murray about Honeycutt being unproven – considering he is hiring an agent – and this is what he hit me with:

“This is the perfect analogy for him: he’s a carpenter with a bunch of tools, but he hasn’t built nothing.”

There’s nothing better than a good analogy.

And Murray is exactly correct, as he continued on to say: “Tyler looks great. He’s tall, long, an NBA coach’s dream when you look at him.”

When you see Honeycutt, there is no ounce of doubt that he is a basketball player. He has the prototypical basketball body. And when you see him play, you cannot deny his ability to pass, rebound and create havoc offensively and defensively.

But I saw him put together the entire package only once this past season, and that was at Kansas on Dec. 2, where he racked up 33 points, nine rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block, and nearly won the game for UCLA single-handedly.

However, that was his only game over 20 points the entire season, prompting me, and coincidentally, Murray, to ask the same question …

“He had a great game against Kansas, and when I saw that game, I was like, ‘Is this a fluke?’” Murray said. “Or is this the Tyler Honeycutt that everybody is talking about?”

“I didn’t know. I still don’t know,” he added.

Me neither.

One thing I do know is that Murray is no fluke. The former Bruin, who averaged 18.3 points per game at UCLA, explained that after his first three years in the league, all of which he spent sitting on the bench, he nearly found himself out of the NBA.

“I played 12 years in the league and I came out after my junior year – not my sophomore year, my junior year – and I still wasn’t ready mentally,” Murray said. “I sat for three years before I played any considerable minutes. I was almost out of the league. If it weren’t for the Toronto Raptors, I was out.

“That league is for grown men. If you’re a kid coming into that league, you’re going to get eaten up.”

Strong words from a man who was almost swallowed.

On another note, over the course of the season, I’ve also been pondering if UCLA is recruiting the correct players for the program, and up until the most recent Florida game, I was leaning toward yes. It seems like Ben Howland is not the type of coach who wants superstars as opposed to a team of solid individuals.

Who am I to argue with the schemes of a guy who has been to the Final Four three times in eight years?

But then UCLA played Florida again this year, and it clicked – the Bruins needed a star player.

No one was able to take the game over for UCLA down the stretch the way that Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker did for the Gators.

Tracy, your opinion?

“There was no one, when the game got tough, you could go to and say they’re going to get me a bucket,” Murray said. “And if there was, there was no one that stepped up and said, ‘Give me the ball.’ When it comes down to it, that’s when you want Tyler Honeycutt to step up and say, ‘Jump on my shoulders, I’m going to carry you home.’”

At the beginning of the season, I thought that player would be Joshua Smith. Just seeing him walk on campus, it’s like a moving mountain, causing me to think, “This dude is going to be unstoppable.”

And in certain games, when he avoided foul trouble, Smith was unstoppable.

He is incredible with using his body to create space and is surprisingly nimble for a guy his size.

But with the departure of Honeycutt and Lee’s status in the air, Smith will not be able to get away with next season what he got away with this season. He will need to not only look like a beast, but play like one.

“He can be an unbelievable player if he drops about 50 pounds,” Murray said. “Because if he drops 50 pounds, he’ll be quicker and still be able to keep his strength. He has to prove to everybody that he can get his weight down and he can continue to get better.”

In the end, next season will come down to one thing: big-time performances.

As we’ve recently learned, UCLA will be playing most of its home games at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, making them not really home games. There will be no comfort when it comes to venue. Can this team handle that type of adversity?

Honeycutt, who was thought to be our rising star, is gone. Who will take his place as “the man”? It will be up to Smith or Nelson to step up to the challenge.

UCLA did not get a nationally recognized recruiting class similar to the one that included Lee a few years back. Will this veteran team finally be able to step up and live up to its potential?

Each of these questions will linger until next fall, and hopefully, what has all the makings of being a testy season for the Bruins will transform into one that UCLA students, followers and alumni can be proud of.

By UCLA’s standards, it’s long overdue.

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