Malcolm Lee: The silent defender

Malcolm Lee embraces playing on the defensive side of the ball for the Bruins. Jennifer Stewart/US Presswire

Malcolm Lee has a love-and-hate relationship with "swish."

It's a blissful sound when he produces it. He has done so with more regularity lately, a major reason why UCLA sits in second place in the Pac-10 standings heading into Thursday night's game against Arizona State.

On the defensive end, "swish" is an agonizing ordeal.

"A nagging pain," Lee says, wincing at the mere thought of an opponent scoring on him. "It's an irritation, like a sense of disrespect. Nobody wants to get scored on, especially if it's a great play. It hurts, just hurts."

Deep in his core, actually. That's why, if given a choice between containing the other team's best player or scoring 30 points, Lee would choose the former. Every single time.

The junior guard figures that even if doesn't contribute much scoring, the Bruins have enough firepower to outscore the opposition.

"Some guys, when they make shots, they get confidence," Lee says. "When I feel like I'm shutting my man down, that carries over to the offensive end. It gives me the confidence, the mentality, the aggressiveness to look for my own shot.

"Switching from defense to offense happens in a split second. When you're being aggressive on defense, it stays with you."

Most defenders have two options when manning the perimeter. They can play tight, on-ball defense or they can back off.

Thanks to a combination of quickness and length, Lee can do both. At 6-feet-4, he has the frame to challenge every jump shot and the size to match up against bigger guards. He has quick feet and long arms.

"He's the fastest dude on this team," sophomore Tyler Honeycutt says. "Sometimes he's too fast for his own good. He's a great defender. We're fortunate to have a player like that."

Lee breathes basketball, really. His favorite thing about last summer? Guarding Carmelo Anthony during a friendly game at UCLA's Student Activities Center. When Lee finishes his schoolwork early, he rewards himself by playing in late-night pickup contests against other students.

"He's always trying to play one-on-one against everybody," Jerime Anderson says. "He thinks he's the best one-on-one player to ever walk the Earth. He's a gym rat and even watches the (women's team) practice. That's one of his favorite things to do."

The grooming began as soon as Lee set foot on campus. Darren Collison, now in his second year in the NBA, was constantly in his ear, telling him to make defense a priority. It's how he would get minutes, how he would force coach Ben Howland's hand.

And, eventually, it's how he'll get to the NBA.

"Darren was like, 'Yo, you want to go out on the court? Go lock your man up,'" Lee says. "That stayed with me.

"If you can hold your own on defense, you're going to be a very good pro basketball player. Nobody wants to be a liability on the defensive end. If you think about it, a lot of the great NBA players, they can defend. The Kobes, the Jordans, the LeBrons -- they can all defend well. It's not about being one-sided."

Lee is now the one sharing wisdom, particularly with freshman guard Tyler Lamb, a fellow Inland Empire native who gets the task of going up against Lee in practice every day.

"I look up to Malcolm, not only from a defensive standpoint, but as a person," Lamb says. "He's playing great this year. He's a leader."

Not the can-be-heard-from-across-the-gym leader, though. Lee rarely shows emotion. Fans got a rare glimpse of his animated side last Sunday in Berkeley, where he sank the game-tying three at the buzzer. But even then, he didn't say much. It was mostly gestures. Being vocal wasn't part of Lee's role before, with responsibility falling on players like Collison, Josh Shipp and Michael Roll.

His defense has been making silent noise ever since. That's the point. Lee hates "swish," remember?

"He's doing what he's supposed to do now," Anderson says. "I think Malcolm has always had that. Now he's blossoming and everybody can see it."