Honeycutt blossoming for the Bruins
All of a sudden, UCLA finds itself in a four-way tie for first place in the messy Pacific 10 Conference.
No matter the early-season embarrassments, folks in Westwood will surely take it. These days, any combination of UCLA and first place is as sweet as honey. On Thursday night, it was as sweet as Honeycutt.
Freshman forward Tyler Honeycutt had his best game of the season to lead UCLA to a 77-73 victory over Stanford at Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins' win, combined with losses by Arizona and California, slid them into the top spot in the conference.
It wouldn't have happened without Honeycutt's impressive, all-around effort. The Sylmar native had 12 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, three blocks and two steals in a team-high-tying 38 minutes in almost generating what would have been UCLA's first triple-double in 15 years.
Afterward, Honeycutt admitted he was keeping tabs of the potential triple-double a little bit. As he had done during the game, Honeycutt dished it out. This time it wasn't the ball but some blame.
"Both of these guys missed a pass from me," Honeycutt said playfully with Reeves Nelson and Michael Roll sitting next to him. "[Nelson] got fouled on one and [Roll] tried to do a Harlem shake on the other."
Much of UCLA's offense ran through the 6-foot-7 forward. He had the ball in his hands early and often. Coach Ben Howland even compared him to triple-double machine Magic Johnson.
"Honeycutt does a great job of seeing the floor," Howland said. "He's learning not to over-dribble. Because of his height, he has an advantage the way Magic Johnson did."
Honeycutt didn't really know what to say about his coach's compliment.
"Magic could do it all and that's what I'm trying to do," he said. "I'm not really a point, but I can still push the ball."
For Honeycutt, Thursday's game was a breakout of sorts. Back in the summer, a back injury prevented him from playing pickup games. That was a downer for him because he couldn't go up against NBA players who migrate to UCLA's campus during their offseason. Matching up with the pros allows UCLA players to improve. Exhibit A: current Oklahoma Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, who spent day after day battling the likes of Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce.
"Getting out of high school, I wanted to get into weight room and work on everything," Honeycutt said. "I missed out on that."
Then, when school started, Honeycutt fractured his right tibia. It dealt another blow to a kid who had big expectations and massive goals.
"It was super frustrating," he said. "It was like, 'Here we go again.' "
Honeycutt says he still deals with pain from time to time but has been going to acupuncture sessions to help relieve it.
He showed no side effects Thursday.
"He made some great passes," Howland said.
Honeycutt doubled his previous career high of four assists and was productive in other areas too. He grabbed a career-high 11 rebounds -- six on the offensive end. None were bigger than the one he got after a missed free throw by Nelson with less than a minute left and UCLA leading by one point.
"It's a great feeling, especially as a freshman," Honeycutt said. "I'm just trying to do whatever it takes for us to win. I'm not out here trying to score 20 and lose.
"I'll take those two points, seven assists, and the win."
Honeycutt might have added a few fans in the process.
"Hopefully a lot more," he said with a smile.
Nelson, who has played with Honeycutt on travel teams since they were sophomores in high school, is confident he'll start seeing a lot more No. 23 jerseys in the stands, at least once the UCLA student store starts selling them.
"If he has another couple games like these, he might have [the jersey] up there," Nelson said.
That depends on whether Honeycutt continues to play a major role in UCLA's offense. Point guard Malcolm Lee is the primary ball-handler, but it's hard to ignore Honeycutt's playmaking abilities.
"I kind of like to have the ball in my hands, not just looking for shots for myself," Honeycutt said.
At one point with the clock winding down and UCLA holding a one-point lead late, Honeycutt drove to his right, didn't panic and found a streaking Nelson for an easy dunk.
"That was really sweet," Howland said.
As sweet as Honeycutt, one could say.
Blair Angulo, a UCLA student, writes the UCLA blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com.