UCLA’s changing of the two-guard was a rough one. With sophomore Tyler Lamb too hurt and freshman Norman Powell too green, the Bruins couldn’t replicate the production lost when Malcolm Lee declared for the NBA draft.
To solve their early-season struggles, UCLA’s pair of shooting guards looked to each other. Eleven games into the season, Lamb and Powell look like they’ve found their comfort level. Each set career-highs in scoring in UCLA’s 89-60 win over UC Irvine at the Sports Arena on Tuesday night, which moved the Bruins (6-5) to above .500 for the first time all season.
After the game, Powell and Lamb took turns crediting each other.
“I feel like every day I’m improving,” said Powell, who had a well-rounded stat line of 19 points (a game-high), seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks. “In practice going against Tyler Lamb, he’s going to make me work. He gives me his information and input on how his freshman year went.”
“Norman has so much potential,” said Lamb, who had 17 points. “He’s learning more and more every day. He works very hard, he listens. That’s going to help him a lot. I think he’s going to be a very, very good player.”
They’ve remained connected during games, with spectacular results. For the second straight game, Powell caught an alley-oop from Lamb and finished with a two-handed dunk, the highlight of Powell’s best performance this year.
“We’ve been working on that all week in practice,” Powell said with a grin. “The pass from Lamb, you know, perfect pass. That’s two games in a row now he’s hit me with the lob, so I was pretty excited.”
The Anteaters (2-9) kept up early, but sagged off UCLA’s guards and put extra pressure on the tall front line. That left plenty of wide open shots for the Bruins, who shot 55 percent for the game and had five players in double-digit scoring for the second time this season.
With the offense flowing, Lamb and Powell both had the green light to shoot. Lamb finished 7-of-13 shooting with two 3-pointers, while Powell was 6-of-11 and made four 3-pointers.
Powell was far from error-free, a few miscues on both ends of the floor scattered throughout an impressive night, but didn’t get the quick hook from his coach.
“We’ve had a lot of players here that have improved a lot each and every year they’re here because they work hard and they’re coachable ““ he’s like that,” coach Ben Howland said of Powell.
“He made a mistake the first time he came in today. He was supposed to be helping … (and) he knew it. Sense of urgency, that’s what I want his mantra to be. Playing with a sense of urgency. When he does that, he can be really good, as you can see (today).”
Lamb has improved health to thank for his turnaround. Two weeks ago, he chose to seek medical attention after playing through an injured hip at “60 percent” capacity. After undergoing a procedure to reduce the inflammation, he said he’s back at full strength.
The rapport between Powell and Lamb is a small sample of what the Bruins are saying is improved team chemistry overall. After a horrific start to the year culminating in Reeves Nelson’s dismissal, the Bruins have rolled off four straight wins and are building momentum with one game left before Pac-12 play begins.
Asked if Nelson’s absence was the catalyst for change, Howland was blunt.
“That’s the reason why I removed Reeves. It has improved our chemistry. Just being positive. That’s the bottom line. I’m being honest and telling you the truth, yes.”