The draft expectations of UCLA players appear to have come full circle.
There was a period -- in many ways, it's still ongoing -- when UCLA coach Ben Howland was criticized by those in the recruiting world for not running an "NBA system." This was supposedly hurting the draft prospects of UCLA players.
According to the criticisms, players like Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison, Arron Afflalo and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute -- all of whom have experienced surprising success in the NBA ranks -- should have been drafted higher than the late first or early second rounds of the draft. Even Russell Westbrook, who was taken No. 4 overall in 2008 (just ahead of Kevin Love, the No. 5 pick in that year's draft) supposedly had his talents "hidden" by Howland's slow-paced, grind-it-out basketball scheme.
This is not a charge any coach wants levied at his program. UCLA wants to recruit elite players. Elite players want to get to the NBA. If they start hearing that Howland isn't the best coach to get them there, well, you get the idea. It's not good.
In the past 12 months, though, something strange has happened. This theory, like Christopher Wallace, has gone from a negative to a positive.
That's right: NBA scouts have begun to factor in the success of former Howland players in recent years. They've realized that, sure, while Howland's system might not highlight those talents in college, those players are still more than capable of succeeding in the pros. In fact, if there are scouts who haven't yet realized the high hit rate among UCLA prospects -- or who simply get scared away by so-so collegiate production -- those who have can own the slimmest of exploitable market inefficiencies.
This post from Bruins Nation -- in which BN visited an NBA draft camp and overheard media types discussing former UCLA guard Malcolm Lee -- goes ahead and calls it the "UCLA Factor." Whether that name is widespread among NBA front offices is beside the point. The concept itself is.
A few months ago, I was talking to an NBA front office executive and he brought up the very same notion without much prompting from me. UCLA players may not have flashy stats in college, he said, and they may not always look like high-flying freaks, but they enter the league as ready to play as any alumni in hoops. They know how to defend. They rebound. They, to put it vaguely, "get it."
It's hard to overstate how important this is. Getting drafted early is easy compared to how hard it is to last in the NBA. And yes, while the rookie salary scale is nothing to sniff at, and landing a first-round guaranteed contract is a big deal, the true barometer for NBA success -- and for turning your pro career into a mind-bogglingly lucrative enterprise -- is landing that first major contract in your third or fourth season. For all the outdated stereotypes that characterize the NBA as a league of defense-averse stars, the best NBA teams know that players like those described above are absolutely crucial to long-term postseason success. They "get it," too.
Howland may have had to defend his NBA draft record in recent seasons. He may have found himself sitting on the couch answering questions from concerned players and their parents and guardians: "If my son goes to UCLA, will he be ready for the NBA draft? What's all this stuff I've been hearing?"
Howland's response should never have to be awkward. UCLA players now have a sterling reputation in the NBA. Lee and fellow NBA hopeful Tyler Honeycutt are already reaping the benefits of that perception. If Howland deserved blame for "hiding" talent, he deserves just as much credit on the other side of the transaction.
"With all due respect, ma'am, what you've been hearing is nonsense. Take a look at my former players in the NBA right now. Ask around about UCLA's development track record. Our work speaks for itself."
That isn't a flashy recruiting pitch. But it's a damn persuasive one.