Two years ago, I covered the 76 Classic in Anaheim and watched as a promising but unproven Long Beach State team dismantled UCLA on a neutral court. As the 49ers were on their way to a 79-68 win, I found an old friend who actually played for the Bruins, once upon a time, and we chatted in the stands during part of the second half.
Well, I chatted. He fumed.
"This is not UCLA basketball," he said. "If this is the team that we’re putting out there, then I’m sorry, but Howland’s got to go."
At the time, you’ll remember, Howland was riding high and UCLA was coming off a couple of consecutive Final Four appearances and another nationally heralded recruiting class. This was near blasphemy. They’ll right the ship, I said. They’re UCLA, after all.
He disagreed. His eyes lasered over the floor and fell onto one mohawked Bruin. "That kid," he said, now pointing, "That kid should not be on this team. Are you kidding me? That’s the best player you can find to play for UCLA basketball?"
He turned to me and his eyes, wide with anger, locked with mine as his finger stayed glued to a freshman forward named Reeves Nelson.
A lot had changed since that day. The Bruins stayed unimpressive, lost Malcom Lee to a head-scratching NBA draft declaration and guard Jerime Anderson never became the player they thought they had. But last year, things looked promising as Nelson actually developed into a low-post force.
He posted impressive numbers of 13.9 ppg and 9.1 rpg, and with Anderson, guard Lazeric Jones and twin transfer trees Travis and David Wear leaving North Carolina to join the team, UCLA worked their way into a Top 25 preseason ranking.
Now, at 3-5, the Bruins hold the second-worst record in the conference and Nelson has been kicked off the team. Permanently. He messed up. Then he messed up again. Then he messed up beyond repair and his own parents have supported the move. All of a sudden, the forward expected to lead the Bruins back to relevance has been stripped of his blue and yellows. Is this a case of a simple sour apple, or was the relationship doomed from the start?
Reeves was pretty heavily recruited in high school, narrowing his choices down to schools like Duke, North Carolina, Arizona and UCLA. Howland scored major points by landing him. But Reeves had suffered ankle injuries during his senior year that made him a shadow of the explosive leaper that he had previously been. So maybe UCLA scored him, and maybe the other programs backed off and left him.
Whatever the case, Nelson filled a role in his freshman year and blossomed in his sophomore. His minutes jumped from 19.3 to 31.3 per game. Field goal shooting increased from 40% to 56.7%, rebounding from 4.5 to 9.1 per game and scoring from 5.7 to 13.9 per game.
But was this progression, or necessity? Nelson played below the rim and never turned back into the athlete he had been in high school. And as previously mentioned, Lee had just bolted for the NBA and starting power forward Drew Gordon transferred out midseason (shortly after the loss to Long Beach State), leaving a gaping hole for somebody – anybody – to step up and be a leader. So it’s not clear if Reeves became a better player, so simply benefited from more playing time and more scoring opportunities because, shoot, who else was going to score?
Maybe this was just the best layer that Howland could put on the floor. Maybe he really didn’t belong in a UCLA jersey. Maybe, if Lee and Gordon had stuck around and Anderson became the Russell Westbrook clone that Bruins fans thought they had, Nelson would have been a sufficient sixth man on a good team instead of the Number One Option on a bad one.
People expected a lot out of Nelson this season, and it may have been the problem. Anderson came to school improved, the addition of Jones added another backcourt scorer, and the Wear twins – each taller than Reeves – threatened his offensive influence as well as his minutes. Even sophomore center Joshua Smith has scored more points and grabbed more rebounds than Reeves, in fewer minutes. Perhaps Reeves was just never that good. Coming off a breakout season, that reality would hit anybody hard.
So he acted out. Maybe his actions weren’t solely based on frustration or a decreased role on the team, but it’s certainly true that Reeves acted out and had a decreased role on the team. Perhaps he had been the best player that Howland could put on the floor at the time, and now he wasn’t anymore. He damn sure wasn’t a leader, and proved that while blowing defensive assignments and then laughing on the bench during a blowout loss at Texas. He forced Howland’s hand. It sounds more like a cry for help, or attention, and his mother’s comments to the Los Angeles Times suggested as much.
All that said, UCLA hasn’t exactly been a stable atmosphere over the past few seasons. Jrue Holliday left after one season, Gooden and Lee didn’t stay much longer, and police arrested Anderson over the summer on charges of stealing a laptop. Does this sound like a sound basketball program spoiled by a bad apple in Reeves? Or like a spiraling ship with Howland at the helm?
After all, when Anderson posted bail, Reeves took to Twitter:
"I pray no UCLA fans talk bad about Jerime. Only 1 person never made any mistakes. ... So nobody point fingers unless your hands are clean."
Reeves would make plenty of his own mistakes, soon enough. But upon closer inspection, his were not isolated incidents.
Was a 20-year old student-athlete acting inappropriately? Absolutely. That's why you put a principled leader in place, to teach, to develop and to work through transitioning times where playing time may be affected. This takes real recruiting to get the right type of player, time to build that player, and discipline to keep that player on the right track. Though John Wooden built your program and has been the main recruiting tool since the 1970s, he's not patrolling those sidelines anytime soon and the mere mention of his name won't keep your program moving in the right direction.
Maybe those fingers should have been pointing at someone else.