UCLA Basketball Preview: Bruins Return a Cavalcade of Skilled Guards
Tyger Campbell headlines a group that brings different skills to the table.
Hey everyone! Welcome to our 2020 UCLA Bruins Men’s Basketball preview! In this article, we’ll go over the guards, then follow that up with an article about the forwards, and then one final article featuring a season outlook.
UCLA does seem to be very set up for a great 2020. The core of last year’s squad returns intact, which is an advantage that really cannot be overstated this year. The Bruins also appear to have more depth this year, as they welcome in two new players at both levels and can theoretically go 11-deep if it needs to.
Going over the depth chart, the guards would appear to be the weaker of the two units, but it’s hard to really say they will be all that bad. The Bruins have a preseason All-Pac 12 second-teamer in Tyger Campbell headlining a group that could realistically mix and match without a huge drop-off. So let’s take a look at how things shake out.
UCLA has one clear starter in this group in Tyger Campbell. Campbell rightfully earned preseason All-Pac 12 honors after a season in which he averaged 8.3 points and 5.0 assists. Those assist numbers ranked third in the conference behind Payton Pritchard and Nico Mannion, and now both of those players are off to the NBA. Campbell became more of a scoring threat as the year progressed, scoring in double-figures in seven of UCLA’s final ten games, which made him much more lethal on the attack.
That said, Campbell definitely has some holes in his game that he’ll look to fix this year. For one, Campbell was rather inefficient from the field, as he too often failed to finish on drives or would find himself throwing up off-balance shots in hopes of drawing a foul. Campbell tended to rarely get to the free-throw line as-is (he only had 6+ attempts in seven of UCLA’s games last year) and he wasn’t the greatest FT shooter (averaging 67.4% on the year, though those numbers did improve as the season progressed), so improving on his ability to finish at the rim would be beneficial. In addition, Campbell was a below-average three-point shooter, to the point where teams routinely sagged off him on defense in order to better protect against his driving ability. If he can get to even 35% shooting from distance, that would go a long way to making teams respect him from the outside, and thus open up more of the offense.
Across from him, the other guard spot feels a bit more up for grabs, but my guess is that David Singleton will get the nod here. Singleton took a step back from where he was in 2018-2019, as the Bruin combo guard saw his shooting numbers dip, especially from three. Singleton shot 37% from distance last year, which represented a solid step back from the 46.7% he shot as a freshman, and while you can attribute some of that to returning to the mean, he also did not seem as confident in his shot. The shooting mechanics are clearly there (Singleton shot 85.7% from the FT line, which is usually a good indication of shooting ability), but the question may be how much the injury he suffered at the end of 2019 affected him.
Still, Singleton proved himself to be a dependable rotation piece, especially as the year progressed. He played solid defense, which will always be appreciated in Mick Cronin’s program, and understood his role on offense. Crucially, Singleton acted as UCLA’s primary backup point guard, which is perhaps the only thing I could see leading to him coming off the bench, especially as the starting lineup doesn’t lack for creators in Campbell, Chris Smith, and Jaime Jaquez. But I think Singleton’s steady play will win out, and I would expect him to play closer to his freshman season after putting more time between him and his injury.
UCLA’s two returning bench options are very different in style, but provide unique looks to throw defenses off.
Let’s start with the longer-tenured of the two in Jules Bernard. Bernard had a fine season, though his usage really fluctuated throughout the season. He averaged 16.2 MPG, though he rarely played around those minutes, instead either playing less than 10 or more than 20. A lot of this has to do with his streaky nature on offense, where he was equally likely to blow up the stat sheet or shoot his way off the court in a hurry. As the year progressed, Bernard seemed much more hesitant to shoot the ball, which ended up hurting the offense when he was on the court, and most-likely led to his reduced playing time near the end of the season.
That said, Bernard was much improved on the defensive end last year, to the point where he was challenging Singleton as the best defender from the guard spot. Bernard is the best athlete among the guards, so it wasn’t outlandish to think he could get to this spot, but his defensive performance was night-and-day different from 2018-2019, when he was lackadaisical on that end. Bernard also shot 78.4% from the FT line, which is a good indicator that he can improve from distance if he develops more confidence. The biggest change he needs going into this year is to have more control on offense, especially on drives, and to become more adept at picking his spots to attack within the offense. His freshman year showed he has the ability to pour in the points when given the opportunity, and hopefully with another year in the system he’ll have a better understanding of how to do that under Cronin.
The other returning bench piece was perhaps the biggest surprise of the season. Jake Kyman came to UCLA with a reputation as being a good shooter, but the common sentiment was that he would take a redshirt year to develop his body and defensive skills under Cronin. Instead, his shooting ability proved to be too good to keep off the court, and while he saw sparing action during the non-conference slate, he loudly announced his presence in his first conference game, going 7-12 from distance to help UCLA knock off Washington on the road. From there, Kyman became a presence that opposing defenses were forced to account for, as he was given the biggest of green lights to shoot, and constantly rewarded Coach Cronin for that faith.
Perhaps the biggest surprise with Kyman was that he proved himself capable on the defensive end. No, he’s not the best individual defender, but he’s a smart defender who does the small things well and understands his role in Cronin’s system. That allowed him to stay on the court as the season progressed, and is a great sign as he continues to develop. Where I’d like to see him develop this year is in his ability to create off the dribble. Right now, teams know they have to stick to him as he proved deadly at catch-and-shoot shots, but if Kyman can show off a scoring ability with the ball in his hands (perhaps by showing off a midrange shot that appeared at times last season), that could make him an even-deadiler offensive option.
The Bruins will welcome a newcomer to their guard rotation this year. Yes, the Bruins were poised to welcome a second, but Daishan Nix, instead, chose to head to the G League, which doesn’t appear to be the worst decision at the moment.
Still, the Bruins will be happy with the recruit they do have, as Jaylen Clark will join the program this year. Clark, a 4-star prospect out of Etiwanda High School in Rancho Cucamunga, comes to UCLA with a reputation as an excellent defender, with ideal size and length for the shooting guard position. It’s that defensive ability that will most-likely lead him to see playing time this season, as he could quickly challenge for the best defender in this group. On offense, Clark excels as a slasher, using his excellent strength to finish around the rim. It’s a different look compared to the rest of the guard group, which means opposing defenses will have something knew to worry about. His shooting ability is still under development, but his underlying mechanics are sound, so it may just be a case of needing more reps. I don’t expect him to be shooting much from outside this season, especially as the skills he does possess should be enough to provide a different look for teams.