Thanks to Ben Howland's "Hey, Please Don't Fire Me!" 2012 recruiting class, his replacement, Steve Alford, has a handful of interesting players at his disposal in his first season in Westwood. Shooting guard Jordan Adams displayed prodigious, efficient scoring ability last season; he might average 25 points a game this year. Tony Parker is a big, physical, promising forward. Even David and Travis Wear have developed into solid face-up bigs.
But none of those pieces is as intriguing, or as pivotal, as Kyle Anderson.
Anderson is different. He's -- and I mean this in the strictest basketball sense -- weird. During his senior year, he was the No. 5-ranked player in the 2012 class. Had Shabazz Muhammad not decided to take his talents and fuzzy biography to Los Angeles, Anderson would have been the gem of Howland's last-ditch talent infusion, the star of his desperate show.
He would up a secondary figure instead. Anderson is a lanky 6-foot-9 guard who doesn't check his man particularly well but gobbles up defensive rebounds; who can hook-shot mismatches to death but seems to hate playing with his back to the basket; who is probably best-used as a point-forward distributor type at the top of the key, even though he can't shoot 3s. See what I mean? It's all very weird.
In 2012-13, UCLA never really found a place for that strange blend of skills. Howland had Larry Drew II handle the ball. Muhammad and Adams did most of the work on the perimeter; the Wear twins played on the block. Often, Anderson just sort of floated. He was lost.
But even then you could see it: The things that made it so difficult for Anderson to star in his first collegiate season are also the things that put a glint in NBA scouts' eyes. His blend of size and ball skills is unusual, and his desire to stand back and distribute -- his clear belief that his best skill is his passing -- is immediately attractive. Who wouldn't take a chance on a 6-9 pass-first point guard? Who wouldn't want to develop a guy with that combination of skills?
Which is why Monday's news wasn't really all that surprising, at least not in and of itself. From ESPN's Jeff Goodman:
"Kyle has made great strides in his mental approach to the game and his work ethic since being at UCLA," his father, Kyle Anderson Sr., told ESPN.com. "The major deficiencies in his overall game are his lack of strength, quickness and explosion, and inconsistent shooting. We feel that both of which can be addressed more efficiently with more time and repetition. It's more than likely that it will be time for Kyle to move on at the end of this college season."
As Jeff notes, the 2014 draft is brutal, particularly at the top, and particularly for small forwards and power forwards. Depth at those positions is going to be crazy; Anderson doesn't really look like a lottery pick. Given all that, you might be wondering why Anderson's family would be so willing to project the end of his college career. What if this season doesn't go as planned? What if he has to come back? This isn't exactly Marcus Smart we're dealing with, after all.
Then again, so what? Anderson can always change his mind; it's not like UCLA won't have him back if he does. And, as with Smart, I tend to see this sort of open-book move as a positive for everybody involved. Why cloak your ambitions anyway? Why pay exhaustive lip service to your school, fans, program, coach, etc. when everyone already knows the score? Remember when Howland was chided for saying (before Muhammad could) that his star was definitely leaving for the 2013 draft? Every year, it's like everyone in the sport agrees to pretend that everyone else wants to be exactly where they are, and this illusion must be maintained until the season is over, at which point you are free to admit that you one day want to achieve your dream of making millions of dollars for playing a game you love. Huh? Why? It's completely silly.
No, the pertinent question is not whether Anderson should set a deadline for his college career. Whatever. The real question is whether he can close the deal in time. Can he showcase some improved shooting? Can he be more than a matchup-based change of pace at point guard, and be a viable, collected team leader at the position instead? Can he leverage his size for more than surface impressions? Can he guard? Can he be a two-way threat? Can he combine his skills into an effective package -- can he be more than the sum of his own individual parts?
These are the questions that will define Anderson's second, and apparently last, season in Westwood. The clock is officially ticking.