On The Mark: UCLA's Malcolm Lee
By Ryan Eshoff
• Ben Howland On Malcolm Lee
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The UCLA basketball season wasn't even two minutes old, but there was already a tangible sense of excitement.
When Malcolm Lee caught the ball on the wing on the Bruins' second possession of the game, there was no hesitation. Not in Lee's mind, not in Lee's form, not in the jubilation expressed by the UCLA faithful in attendance at Pauley Pavilion.
Lee calmly sank his first jumpshot of the game and of the season to give his team a 4-0 lead in a game it would go on to win handily over Cal State Northridge. In that simple execution, the junior guard seemed to validate a summer spent honing his jumper and developing a scorer's mentality. The crowd roared with delight - this was a new Lee.
"He's playing like an experienced player," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "Really playing smart, under control, doing a great job defensively."
Many of those attributes are a far cry from those of Lee's sophomore season, when he struggled with inconsistency, and with finding his role on the team. While a number of issues plagued the 2009-2010 Bruins, Lee struggled with his shot and with his confidence.
"The way we approach things this year is a whole lot better," he said.
From a basketball standpoint, one of the changes that the Moreno Valley native was forced to deal with last year was a change in position; with Jerime Anderson struggling, Howland moved Lee to point guard. Suddenly, the enigmatic sophomore was tasked with leading a turbulent squad.
A year later, Anderson is significantly improved. The Bruins also brought in junior college transfer Lazeric Jones, who seized control of the point guard position. All that adds up to a more comfortable Lee, who has reverted back to his natural position of shooting guard.
"My role will be to handle the ball less and score more," he said. "But I don't have a predetermined stat line. I just want to help my team win."
That isn't to say, however, that playing last season at point guard was a completely lost cause.
"All the minutes he got at the point last year are serving him well now," Howland said. "He's doing a good job of leading and of being unselfish."
Leadership has been one of the key areas of focus for Lee, who—along with Jones—was one of the Bruins' captains for the team's opening game against Cal State Northridge. On a team with no seniors, Lee is by far the most experienced player.
"My main thing is to be a leader for the younger guys, as a veteran," he said. "That's one of the new expectations on me."
Blessed with length, athleticism, and a deft ability to finish around the basket, Lee's struggled in the past with consistency, decision-making, and finding a dependable jumper.
After a summer spent honing that shot, and making sure that he set an example for the younger Bruins, there is much more riding on Lee's shoulders. One of Howland's favorite sayings in the season's early phases has been to reference his team's "nucleus" - consisting of Lee and sophomore forwards Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson. As talented as they are, the trio also has a good collective memory.
"Everybody has a chip on their shoulder," Lee said. "We all remember what happened last year and we can't let history repeat itself."
"After the year we had last year, everybody knows that it's all business," Nelson added.
Last year's 14-18 overall record may explain why the energy around the team has been so high in the early-going this season. One reason is the team's newfound emphasis on the uptempo game, a system that better suits its elite athletes like Lee and Honeycutt.
"It's a lot of fun to get out there in transition and get your teammates involved," Lee said. "It's much more free-flowing. I think we have the ability to really pressure the other team."
Speaking of free-flowing, the youthful Bruins will fit right in a Pac-10 that is completely up in the air. The conference is poised to be taken over by a player ready for a breakout season. A player like Lee.
"It's not about who's supposed to win, it's about who wins," Lee said. "With so many teams having so much youth, there's going to be a lot of inexperience and a lot of energy."
Energy like that flowed through Pauley Pavilion when Lee drilled his first jumper of the season. A single shot in the grand scheme of things, but in the moment, a sign: Malcolm Lee is right on the mark.