LOS ANGELES — Kyle Anderson is a throwback, and not just because he’s most often drawn comparisons to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
But because in the me-first, me-second and me-third-and-fourth modern college basketball landscape, Anderson strives for flow.
Anderson is at his best when he’s at the top of the key, towering over the opposition at 6 feet 9 inches — as he did on Thursday night against the No. 1 Arizona Wildcats, as point guard T.J. McConnell drew the short straw — scanning the defense for the slightest crease.
“I get motivated by my teammates,” Anderson said. “My game is getting my teammates involved, and when I do, I feel like I did my job.”
So far this year, job extremely well done.
Anderson entered Thursday’s matchup, a 79-75 loss to the Wildcats despite a late-game 13-point deficit, leading the Pac-12 in assists with 6.6 per game. That, to go long with 15.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.71 steals. Maturing as a sophomore but also increasing his production in just two more minutes per game, Anderson ranks in the top four in the conference in steals, defensive rebounds and rebounds.
He had 16 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks against Arizona in the loss.
Still, it felt like an average game.
“He’s more sure of himself, physically stronger, overall better,” Wildcats coach Sean Miller said. “When you put all the wing players together, the best in the country in a category of who are going to go on and have great NBA careers, you have to put Kyle Anderson in that group.”
But is Anderson a wing player?
First-year UCLA coach Steve Alford met with Anderson immediately after Alford was hired and made it clear that he wanted the ball in Anderson’s hands. After the loss of Larry Drew II, the Bruins only retained Anderson and brought in Alford’s son, Bryce, as primary ball-handlers.
“We wanted him to run the show,” Alford said. “It’s his most natural position, and it’s where he flourishes. He’s got great feel. He’s got to be the best rebounding point guard in the country. We’ve done it the last nine months, and we haven’t wavered from that.
“He’s embraced it from day one, as have we.”
Anderson’s proper role is going to be the big question heading into the NBA draft.
Nicknamed “Slow-mo,” Anderson might not have the lateral speed to defend opposing point guards, and that hasn’t been lost on mock drafters, who have him slotted to go late in the first round of a loaded draft. Anderson’s father, Kyle Sr., claimed before the year that his son would be declaring for the NBA draft, but lil’ Kyle doesn’t sound so sure at this point.
“My father knows me best, he knows I play well under pressure, and him saying that, it put a lot of pressure on people to say go out and have a good season,” Anderson said. “It’s something I’ve always looked forward to. He put that pressure on me. Hopefully I’ll make the best of it.
“He said it. I don’t know.”
Anderson still has things to accomplish at UCLA.
This is a kid who went 65-0 during his final two years in high school, at vaunted St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, N.J. He claimed two state championships along the way, and several tournament titles.
Last year, he and a core that included first-round pick Shabazz Muhammad and guard Jordan Adams led the Bruins to the Pac-12 championship, but Adams was injured in a 66-64 win over Arizona in the 2013 Pac-12 tournament and missed the team’s 83-63 loss to Minnesota in the NCAA tournament second round. Anderson called it a tough loss and admitted he “was thrown off.”
“I’m used to winning,” he said. “Last year, we won games, but didn’t win well enough. I’m just used to winning. Anything less than winning, no.”