Meet Your Maikis: Performance of point guard critical to men’s basketball’s success this season
In his first action returning from a torn ACL, redshirt freshman Tyger Campbell (left) commanded the point guard position for 27 minutes in UCLA men’s basketball’s 87-57 exhibition win over Stanislaus State, but junior guard Chris Smith (right) didn’t get any time running the point on Oct. 30. (Photo Illustration by Liz Ketcham/Photo editor)
By Jason Maikis
Nov. 6, 2019 12:42 a.m.
The Bruins’ success is going to revolve a lot around one position this season.
When Jaylen Hands was drafted at the end of the 2018-2019 season, UCLA men’s basketball lost 31.2 minutes a game at the point guard position to the Brooklyn Nets. Redshirt freshman guard Tyger Campbell will make his return this year after missing his first season with a torn ACL, and the four-star La Lumiere School product is slotted to be the Bruins’ starter to open the season.
But it’s who’s behind him that should concern the Bruins.
Last season, now-fired coach Steve Alford split time at the point between Hands, then-freshman David Singleton, then-sophomore Chris Smith and then-redshirt junior Prince Ali.
This year, coach Mick Cronin said Oct. 22 his first three choices to run the point were Ali, Singleton and Campbell.
Now, Campbell has smashed his way to the front of the race with the best individual performance in the Bruins’ exhibition against Stanislaus State, pouring in 14 first-half points and finishing with an 11-assist double-double. What’s more encouraging is that the sub-6-footer finished the exhibition with a plus-30 point differential in his 27 minutes controlling the action from the point.
But that still left 13 minutes when someone else had to take the ball up the court and run the offense. And in that time, UCLA was level with Stanislaus State, scoring 22 points each.
The Bruins couldn’t afford a mere 13 minutes without Campbell to neutralize all momentum, even when it was in an exhibition game against a Division II basketball team.
An exhibition game is just that – an exhibition – but Cronin should still pay very close attention to the numbers.
Instead of playing backup to Campbell, Singleton should be a prominent part of UCLA’s wing rotation.
The former top-70 recruit brought a much-needed spark to Alford’s otherwise tired offense, shooting 3-pointers at a 46.7% clip. The 6-foot-4 guard is also the team’s leading returner with .109 win shares per 40 minutes, and Cronin shouldn’t let it go to waste by having him play the point.
Slotting Singleton in as the off-guard will maximize his potential to help the team much more than he will at point guard. In the only sample the Bruins have this season with Singleton as the primary ballhandler, Stanislaus State outscored UCLA by seven points in just over three and a half minutes to take a one-point lead in the first half.
Just two minutes afterward, Singleton reentered the game playing off the ball next to Campbell, and UCLA went on a 20-to-7 run over the next six minutes and nine seconds.
The third option Cronin offered up was Ali. Though the fifth-year may boast the experience Singleton lacks, he only appeared on the floor for 32 seconds without Campbell next to him in the Stanislaus State game, hinting that Cronin may not want to hand over the keys to a player with just one season left in Westwood.
Cronin said he doesn’t want to use sophomore guard Jules Bernard at the point due to his rebounding ability, leaving the first-year head coach with only one viable option as Campbell’s backup – junior guard Chris Smith.
Alford’s strategic decisions during his time at UCLA left much to be desired, but having Smith run the point was one of his better choices.
UCLA ranked 17th in the nation in 2019 in KenPom’s adjusted tempo statistic, which counts possessions per 40 minutes. That pace didn’t have much to do with Alford’s simplistic offensive style, but rather the abilities of his main ballhandlers.
Hands and Smith both pushed the ball up the floor last year, which brought out Smith’s best qualities – his athleticism and ability to see the floor. His 6-foot-9 frame isn’t a deterrence, it’s an asset.
Cronin has even mentioned he believes there’s always space for a big guy up top, referencing Phil Jackson’s Los Angeles Lakers teams that ran the 6-foot-6 Ron Harper at the point.
With Campbell comfortably in the starting spot, and junior Smith taking over minutes when the former needs to rest, UCLA’s offense would be set up to succeed for a full 40 minutes.
It’s clear how important solid and smart point guard play is to an elite team. Widely predicted John R. Wooden Player of the Year Award winner Cassius Winston leads No. 1 Michigan State as a senior, and No. 2 Kentucky, No. 3 Kansas and No. 4 Duke all return talented sophomores ready to improve on solid freshman campaigns of their own.
UCLA won’t come anywhere close to breaking into the top five this year, but if Cronin wants to lay the groundwork to bring the program back into the spotlight, he must buy into the Campbell-Smith combination at the point this season.