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Bruins could be back among elite next season, if top players are back on roster

UCLA could be a top-10 team, depending on whether starters Tyler Honeycutt, Reeves Nelson and Malcolm Lee decide to return or enter NBA draft. Coach Ben Howland also has high hopes for several newcomers, including transfers David and Travis Wear.

March 20, 2011|By Ben Bolch
  • UCLA teammates Lazeric Jones, Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt, none of whom are seniors, walk off the St. Pete Times Forum court after their 73-65 loss to second-seeded Florida on Saturday afternoon in Tampa, Fla.
UCLA teammates Lazeric Jones, Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt, none… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Ben Howland likes to tout UCLA's history of producing 106 NBA draft picks, more than any other school.

The Bruins coach probably would not mind if that figure didn't grow this summer.

If junior guard Malcolm Lee and sophomore forwards Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson decide to return for one more year of college basketball, UCLA would likely be considered a top-10 team nationally going into next season.

The trio of first-team All-Pacific 10 Conference selections would comprise the kind of deep and dynamic core the Bruins have lacked since their run of three consecutive Final Fours ended in 2008.

"Everyone knows we have a chance to be a great team next year," Nelson said Saturday after Florida ended UCLA's season with a 73-65 victory in the third round of the NCAA tournament.

Nelson appears to be the most likely of the three players to return. The Bruins' leading scorer intimated he was leaning toward coming back, in part because his younger brother Raymond will be a freshman tight end for the UCLA football team this fall.

Lee's decision could be complicated by torn cartilage in his left knee that will require surgery. He said the procedure would sideline him for a month, potentially limiting his ability to showcase his skills for NBA teams this summer.

Several mock draft boards list Lee as a potential second-round pick and others do not include his name.

Howland has said Honeycutt would have his blessing to declare for the draft if he is projected as a top-15 pick, which appears unlikely. One NBA executive, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss college players, said Honeycutt would be taken in the latter portion of a first round that includes 30 picks.

Honeycutt's decision will hinge not only on where he might go in the draft but also how far UCLA might go with him back in the fold.

"It's going to be a key factor, coming back to a top-five team in the country, especially with the Wear [twins] coming . . . ," Honeycutt said. "It's going to be a good nucleus."

The Bruins' playing rotation could conceivably go 13 deep, with newcomers Norman Powell, De'End Parker and David and Travis Wear solidifying a reserve corps that was spotty for much of this season. UCLA's bench players scored only two points against the Gators.

Howland said Powell, a 6-foot-3 shooting guard from San Diego Lincoln High, was "as athletic as anybody we have." Parker, a 6-5 point guard from City College of San Francisco who has committed to the Bruins, can play either guard position and small forward.

Those spots figure to be well stocked. The 6-10 Wear twins, who sat out this season after transferring from North Carolina, will complete a frontcourt potentially unrivaled in the Pac-10.

"The twins are very good players," Howland said. "They bring a lot of skill, a lot of size."

Howland hopes Joshua Smith packs a little less brawn. The freshman center who recently disclosed his weight for the first time (drum roll . . . 324 pounds) probably needs to replicate the conditioning routine that helped him shed 50 pounds last summer to reach his ideal weight.

"He can be one of the best big kids in the country, period," Howland said.

Junior point guard Lazeric Jones should benefit from rest and rehabilitation of his injured right middle finger and left wrist, which hampered his shooting. Jones made eight of 39 shots (20.5%) in the Bruins' last six games.

Misses by Honeycutt, Lee and Nelson in the final minute against Florida were probably tough for Howland to watch as he scanned game footage on a laptop Saturday night during UCLA's charter flight home from Tampa, Fla.

But the Bruins could have it made next season, particularly if their top three players return.

"I'm very optimistic about the future," Howland said. "We have a chance to be pretty darn good next year."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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