New-look Nelson leading new-look UCLA

By Don MacLean
FOX Sports West and PRIME TICKET
MACLEAN ARCHIVE

Early last season, UCLA forward Reeves Nelson got a couple of tattoos and went on to have a pretty good freshman season, averaging 11.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. This year he came back with a bunch more tattoos and a bunch more game.

In 2009-10, Nelson primarily did his damage in the paint with putbacks on offensive rebounds and finishing off plays from teammates’ passes. This year he is running the floor and getting easy transition buckets, stepping out and hitting jumpers and really moving without the ball to find space to score. He is averaging 19.3 points and 9.7 rebounds through three games and is shooting an eye-popping 75% from the field on 24-of-32 shooting. Before UCLA’s 57-44 win over Pacific, Nelson said that the biggest reason he thinks he is playing so well is the changes he made to his body in the offseason. His weight is basically the same as a year ago but his body fat went from 9% down to 5%, which has allowed him to be in better condition to be more active in the paint and be able to run the floor.

Nelson’s improved fitness has coincided with his terrific start this season, helping the Bruins come out of the gates with a 3-0 record. It’s typically not a big deal in Westwood if UCLA wins its first three games, but after last season’s opening-game loss to Cal State Fullerton, a 27-point loss to the University of Portland and a loss to Long Beach State, starting 3-0 is significant.

Head coach Ben Howland said they were going to make changes this season and were going to run more on offense. Though just three games into the season, it is very apparent that they are really looking to push it in transition. On rebounds or made baskets, new starting point guard Lazeric Jones is pushing the ball up the floor quickly and the wings and bigs are running with him, trying to attack early before the other team can set their defense. If Tyler Honeycutt or Nelson get a rebound, they are looking to push the ball up the court, which is something we didn’t see a year ago. Through the first three games, UCLA is averaging seven more points per game than they did last year, and that includes Tuesday night’s clunker vs. Pacific in which UCLA scored just 17 points in the second half.

Jones, who provides the Bruins with some real stability at the point guard position, might be the second biggest reason for UCLA’s strong start. UCLA really struggled at that position last year, but Jones has come in and been a real difference-maker here in the early going. He’ continues to make good decisions, and more importantly, is not turning the ball over. He is getting his teammates the ball on time and where they want it, and when he finds himself open, he is knocking down jumpers. He’s hitting 52% of his shots and is third on the team in scoring at just over 12 a game.

When changing the way a team plays, it is important to have a guy that has full command of the offense, and Jones has been that guy.

With the improved play of Nelson, tattoos and all, and the stability of Jones leading UCLA’s new-look attack, the Bruins offense should be much more athletic and push the ball.

Three games do not make a season, but compared to last year, 3-0 looks pretty good.