Junior guard Norman Powell has steadily improved every part of his game since he arrived at UCLA, but his most dramatic jump this season has come on offense. Still the team’s best man-to-man defender, the San Diego native has bumped his 2-point shooting to 66.4 percent, up from 57.8 last season and 40.5 the year before that.
In conference games, the Bruins rank seventh inside the arc at 48.3 percent, a middling performance that stems at least in part from the roster’s dearth of dominant big men.
Arizona, first in the category, has three starters making more than 56 percent of their 2-point shots. The only UCLA player that clears that mark besides Powell is Tony Parker at 59.8 percent. David Wear and Travis Wear average 52.8 and 46.9 percent, respectively.
Powell scored 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting in Sunday’s 76-64 win against Cal, an unspectacular but crucial contribution across 30 minutes — the most he has played against a conference opponent.
Head coach Steve Alford talked about Powell’s “breakout year” after the win, pointing out his propensity for driving down the lane and drawing fouls.
That becomes more important in the context of the team as a whole. UCLA’s 37.7 percent free-throw rate ranks just 10th in the conference, and 245th in the country. Powell’s 36.8 percent isn’t exactly hauling that number up, but besides Kyle Anderson (50.0) and Jordan Adams (49.4), he is the best option for generating trips to the line.
(Note: Bryce Alford and Tony Parker rate higher at 47.3 and 41.1 percent, but don’t play more than 60 percent of the team’s minutes.)
Curiously, Powell’s 3-point shooting has dipped from 34.7 percent as a freshman down to 19.4 percent this season. That could still trend upward, but climbing back up to around 30.0 will be tough.
— Bryce Alford was a major part of UCLA’s final push to clinch the game, scoring 11 of his 13 points in the final 5:12.
“I thought he made some really crucial plays,” Steve Alford said. “For a freshman backup point guard, in that type of pressure game … that’s huge.”
Though Bryce still has trouble defending most opposing guards, he can certainly hit shots and is capable enough in his reserve role. His shot selection and ability to finish inside still need work: His 42.1 percent shooting on 2-pointers is the team’s worst mark by a wide margine. He badly missed an uncontested layup on Sunday, but Zach LaVine saved the play with a rebound and feed back to Alford.
LaVine was apparently feeling a bit ill, and scored just three points on 1-of-5 shooting.
— Tony Parker followed his career-high 22 points against Stanford with one of the worst stat lines of his career: one rebound, one assist, one missed shot, two turnovers and four fouls in seven minutes. It was the first time Parker played fewer than 10 minutes since Steve Alford arrived, but the sophomore forward did himself in with early fouls.
Alford said he may have been partially responsible by not preparing Parker adequately.
Parker looks like he could eventually become a 12-and-7 guy, but will need another season or two before he gets there.
— Circle Feb. 19 on the calendar. UCLA’s rematch with Cal could be crucial to the Pac-12 standings. The two teams are tied at 5-2 for second place, and could conceivably add just one more loss before they meet again. (Cal has lost two in a row, but can get back on track with a road split in Arizona; UCLA could win its next five if it gets past Oregon.)
The main difference will be Jabari Bird, who will almost certainly be in better shape by late February. The five-star recruits missed four games due to an ankle injury, and hasn’t played more than 18 minutes since early December. He scored 12 of Cal’s 17 points during a torrid stretch that put the Bears within three, but wore down after that.
“It was a boost to my confidence but I didn’t have the energy,” he said. “If I hadn’t missed the three weeks due to injury and we had gone on that same run, I think we could have pushed through and caught them.”