The day before Selection Sunday, UCLA and Arizona played one of the best games of the college basketball season late into a Saturday night in Las Vegas. It was ostensibly for the Pac-12 Tournament championship, but by this point both teams' seeding in the NCAA Tournament was largely secure. More than anything, it was a battle for West Coast supremacy between two prestigious programs loaded with talent.
UCLA had three first round picks in the rotation. Arizona had a sure-fire top 10 selection in Aaron Gordon, the conference Player of the Year in Nick Johnson and at least two other players (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski) with a shot at being first rounders a year from now. With so many future pros in action, the most impressive takeaway from UCLA's thrilling 75-71 victory was that there was never any debate as to who was the best player on the floor.
Gordon might be regarded as the best defender in the 2014 draft, but he had no answer for Bruin sophomore Kyle Anderson. The point guard/forward/whatever finished at the rim on his signature slow-motion drives. He hit three-pointers over hard closeouts. He snatched rebounds over more explosive athletes and picked out open shooters across the court with pinpoint passes. When it was over, Anderson had 21 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and a fistful of nylon from cutting down the nets.
Even Anderson's first coach at UCLA, Ben Howland, didn't believe it when Anderson walked into campus as a lead-footed 18-year-old. Point guards are not 6'9. They don't have wingspans that surpass 7'3. They aren't nicknamed "Slow Mo" either. Anderson looks nothing like a traditional lead guard, but there's no denying how his teams have prospered by putting the ball in his hands.
Anderson enters Thursday's 2014 NBA Draft as the most unique player on the board. Is he the next Boris Diaw? A taller version of Andre Miller? A less athletic Lamar Odom? One prominent draft site even had the audacity to compare him to Magic Johnson for the majority of this past season. It's part of what makes Anderson so intriguing as a player.
If used correctly, Anderson is not some round peg trying to fit inside a square hole. What he lacks in explosiveness and position purity he more than makes up for with versatility and basketball IQ. No one knows what to make of Anderson two days before the draft, but it's not exactly an unfamiliar situation. He's been fighting against misconceptions his entire career.
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(Credit: Jeff Gross / Getty Images)
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"I think the game of basketball is played within three dribbles," Anderson said at the draft combine in May. "If by that third dribble I don't have anything, I like to give up the ball."
If that sounds like the type of the statement coaches dream about, look no further than the man who helped jump start Anderson's career in high school. That would be Bob Hurley, the legendary coach at St. Anthony in New Jersey. Anderson transferred to St. Anthony's after his sophomore season, and all he did in his two years with Hurley was go 65-0 and win two state championships.
As the No. 5 rated player in the class of 2012, Anderson elected to attend UCLA. He joined No. 2 recruit Shabazz Muhammad to give the Bruins the best incoming freshman class in the country. There was substantial pressure to win after UCLA missed the tournament for the second time in three years the season before. The talent was there, but the Bruins were also young with three freshman starters.
Hours before the season kicked off, Muhammad was suspended by the NCAA for improper benefits. It was an ominous sign. Though UCLA would go 25-10 and win the conference, the writing was on the wall for Howland when the Bruins were dropped by 11th-seeded Minnesota in their first game of the NCAA Tournament. Howland was canned and Anderson gave heavy consideration to leaving school for the NBA even with most scouts projecting him as a second round pick.
Yet, Anderson came back and UCLA's decision to hire Steve Alford proved to be one of the best things that could have happened to him. After playing off the ball as a freshman, Alford made Anderson his starting point guard. There was no arguing with the results.
Anderson was named Third Team All-American as the Bruins reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in six seasons. He became the first player in Pac-12 history to record 200 assists and 200 rebounds in a season. He logged UCLA's first triple-double since 1995. And with his huge effort against Arizona in Las Vegas, Anderson was named Most Outstanding Player of the conference tournament.
"I think the game comes to me so naturally," Anderson said. "I never look to make one play in particular. I've been around the game since I was 1 year old. It's always what I wanted to do. I've realized this is the highest level and this is where I wanted to get. For as long as I can remember I've wanted to be a pro. After 20 years, here we are."
The added responsibility didn't just boost Anderson's draft stock, it helped his teammates, as well.
"He made my life so much easier," said Jordan Adams at the draft combine. "You just come off a curl and he'd hit you right where it needs to be. Seeing you on backdoor cuts. All I had to do was keep continuing to move, and he'll find you."
Even with his success at the position, Anderson isn't insisting he's a point guard. He said he's spent much of the time since UCLA's season ending watching how Diaw and Marc Gasol affect the game with their passing from the wing or high post. He thinks his ability to play multiple positions is what will allow him to make an impact early in his career.
One criticism Anderson will face on draft night is how he'll hold up defensively in a league with so many explosive athletes. For his part, Anderson isn't worried.
"I think I have a great feel for the game not only offensively but defensively," he said. "I think I'll be able to use my size and long arms to my advantage in helping keep guys in front of me."
Whatever team drafts Anderson will have to be smart enough not to pigeonhole him. Anderson doesn't want to be known as a forward or a pure point guard. He just wants to be a basketball player. It sounds simple enough. Put Kyle Anderson on the floor, and he's proven he can consistently make the right play. We'll find out just how much NBA teams value that on Thursday.