There isn't a clear Most Valuable Player on this year's UCLA men's basketball team. At least not yet.
The overall team effort has been too inconsistent, too soft when it should have been hard and ruthless against weaker opponents, and too relaxed when it was time to go toe-to-toe with a team their own size. But with a young group brand new to each other, as the Bruins are, that kind of erratic effort can be considered a consistent part of the process.
Through all of it, Larry Drew II has been better than anyone thought he would be, and he's rose to answer the bell every time it's been rung—even if he might not have had what it took to land the knockout himself. He has been the team's MVP to this point, and may be the most important piece of the puzzle the rest of the season.
This team doesn't have a true point guard behind Drew. His rhythm and experience as a redshirt senior has made him the house's best session musician and the man who gets the band to hit its marks together.
Kyle Anderson is the next closest thing UCLA has to a player with the mental qualities and physical abilities of a point guard, but he is not ready to go at that spot full-time. Anderson is going to be an elite player; he is just a pup now but already dangerous. Without Drew, this offense, especially in the half court, would fire with the consistency of a flintlock powder rifle.
Drew's minutes show his importance. "Two" averages 35 a night and has played 85 more than his next closest teammate, giving him two full games and an overtime more logged on the floor.
The clock ticking hungrily against his career make Drew valuable in a way you have to reach your senior season to fully understand. These are the players absolutely desperate to do something with their last opportunity. That urgency would soak into his teammates by osmosis even if Drew never spoke.
Two's huge assist-to-turnover ratio has preserved possessions for the Bruins and gotten points for the mostly freshmen and underclassmen running alongside him. The ball security has been especially crucial for a team that has had serious rebounding struggles.
Drew leads the nation at 4.9 assists for every turnover, which is a full assist better than the second-best player, Trey Burke, at 3.8. Anybody following the college game this season knows Burke has been best in show many of the nights he has taken the floor. Two is not the same kind of player as Burke in the all-courts game, but in one significant category he has a clear advantage.
Drew has dished 175 assists on the season, which is better by 95 than the team's next-closest player, Anderson, who has 80.
The weakness in Drew's game has been his inability to knock down the open jump shot. He has extreme quickness and end-to-end speed, which allows him to clear space for himself almost anytime he wants it. The confidence has not been there with his shot, and he has sent a few low-trajectory projectiles thumping off the backboard and rim.
Drew is 56-of-135 from the floor for 41.5 percent. He is 16-of-28 from the free-throw line, which leaves him at 57.1 percent, a respectable percentage for Shaquille O'Neal, but disconcertingly low for a primary ball handler. Two has made 10-of-33 from the three-point line for 30.3 percent. His true shooting percentage is 46.5.
But as the season has continued down its course, Drew has shown many signs of improvement in his scoring.
He is taking the ball in late shot clock scenarios and has daggered big buckets. His touch is getting softer on mid-range floaters and pull-ups off the dribble attack, and Drew is finishing more at the rim in the last month than he has the entire season.
Drew has shown a self-awareness around the issue of his scoring. He was quoted in the Daily Bruin, the campus newspaper, after the loss to USC.
“That’s what the defense wants me to do, take it away from guys like the twins, Shabazz and Jordan, and just have Larry shoot the ball,” said Drew. "I can get to the rim, I can get around anybody whenever I want, and I can still get guys open looks. It’s something that I’m going to have to adjust to.”
The team's destiny this year is strongly tethered to Drew's performance. With Two as a viable scoring option alongside his heavy distribution to a group of point notching assassins, the Bruins would be a difficult tournament out if their game got hot.
His leadership through the back end of the conference season, pushing them to win the games they must win and playing with a cool nerve when the pressure is on, may set the tone for what transpires the rest of the way.
It is not all on Drew, not by a long shot, but what he does with the last six or eight weeks of his college career will have a large say in what is written and remembered about this team.
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