A week into the season, the UCLA Bruins basketball team are seeing their Pac-12 title hopes not just take a few small hits to the chest. They're getting Bruce Lee roundhouse kicks right to the face.
Reeves Nelson isn't currently too happy in Westwood. This isn't something new, as Reeves Nelson has seemed to be very unhappy at many periods of his tenure as the Bruins enforcer in the paint. But this time he might have gone too far in his insubordination, as he was so distant and aloof from his teammates during the disastrous Loyola Marymount defeat that it eventually became a huge problem for Ben Howland and the rest of the Bruins. His indefinite suspension was the consequence. Talk about a historic SI cover jinx!
It's not too hard to guess that Nelson is probably unhappy with the current role he has in the UCLA offense. The Bruins are packed in the paint to the point that they might be overwhelmed with their depth at the position. Brendan Lane, the twins David Wear and Travis Wear have all proven they can play at the four spot that Nelson is usually occupying, meaning that Nelson often has to play out of position when he's on the court. Meanwhile, it's clear that the backcourt has yet to catch up to the frontcourt as Lazeric Jones and Tyler Lamb are still adjusting to their position.
All that adds to a frustrated Nelson, who has to linger around and do things he's not accustomed to. Nelson shot three threes on Friday night after shooting 21 all of last season (and he continues to prove he's not good at it, falling to 4 of 24 for his career). He shot only one free throw after getting to the line an average of five times a game his first two years in the program. These are probably not situations Nelson was too comfortable with, and Howland probably needs to readjust how he uses his mercurial forward if he returns to action.
Nelson has always been very erratic in his swings on the court--there are times when he can go gangbusters and really help lead the Bruins to victory, and there are games where he just doesn't seem to be all there. Those swings have seemed to typify UCLA hoops during Nelson's tenure as the lunchpail guy who bangs down low to gets things done. When he's on, the Bruins look good, and the Bruins seem to be ready to turn a corner. When he's disinterested and disengage, the Bruins seem to lose focus, and the team play suffers as a result.
This isn't necessarily the worst situation ever for UCLA. Nestor of Bruins Nation points out there is a silver lining here.
From Nelson's perspective, he doesn't have a lot of options. What the heck is he going to do? It's a little late to transfer to another program. The NBA is not a viable option for him. It's in a lockdown mode (oh hey! Helloooooooo! Malcolm and Tyler!). Even if NBA was not in a lockout, Nelson would not be drafted or given a chance in the league. His only pro options are probably going to someplace like Greece and Italy and get batteries and bags of urine (or something) thrown at him by opposing fans.
Instead, Nelson can come back, dedicate himself to the program, make up with his coaches and team-mates, and play up to his potential. If he clears his head, he can emerge as one of the better redemption stories in college basketball. I am rooting for this to happen badly. I am rooting for Nelson even though yours truly has been one of the harshest critics of Nelson right here on BN (for that matter I am also rooting for Joshua Smith to get his stuff together but that's a standalone post for another day).
UCLA shouldn't drop off too significantly with Nelson's suspension. They still have one of the best frontcourts in the Pac-12 regardless of whether Nelson decides to return or not. They will still be favored to win the majority of their games--this team is very talented and has a lot of potential to put up numbers that'll overwhelm many of the rebuilding squads in the conference. And Nelson could always come back to his senses, rejoin the team, and dedicated himself to lead this Bruins back to the top of the pack.
UCLA basketball has made for fantastic theater lately off the court. It's time for the program to show it's capable of delivering dramatics on it.