Kyle Anderson learned to walk three days shy of his first birthday. That same day, his father reports, he began playing basketball. This sweet story is most likely an old crock of beans simmering on the family stove, but it does get at what makes the UCLA sophomore so special: He plays like a natural. He makes it look like the most normal thing in the world for a 6-foot-9 guy to be running point.
Anderson isn't the sort of versatile tall guy you're used to seeing. He isn't a little man in a forward's body. And he's not a moonlighting big man on whom contingency and circumstance have thrust point-guard responsibilities. He plays the point like a point (22nd nationally in assist rate), and he crashes the boards like a big (28th nationally in rebound rate). He isn't a hybrid so much as two useful players stacked on top of one another.
Where'd he come from?
UCLA plays Florida tonight in the Sweet 16. How the Bruins got here is really the story how they realized what they had in Anderson. The guard chose UCLA because of then-coach Ben Howland's history of developing NBA-ready point guards, but Howland, operating on his theory that two point guards on the floor are better than one, moved Anderson off the ball, yielding the responsibility of running the team to UNC transfer Larry Drew II. While the team didn't stumble—UCLA made the NCAA tournament—the offense wasn't terribly efficient, scoring just one point per possession in Pac-12 play. When the school hired Steve Alford away from New Mexico to replace Howland last March, the move changed both the program's fortunes and Anderson's trajectory.
Anderson was immediately moved back to the point, and UCLA's offense became one of the most potent in the country, ranking 12th in offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com. The squad ranked among the top 50 for attempts assisted at the rim and within the arc, a sign of a team getting lots of open shots. Anderson, for his part, became the first Bruin since Charles O'Bannon (in 1994-95) to grab more than 200 rebounds and hand out over 100 assists in a season.
When Alford was hired, he promised to play an up-tempo brand of basketball, one that would take advantage of the Bruins' talented perimeter, which includes Anderson, Jordan Adams, and Norman Powell, maybe the nation's most improved player. People were skeptical—Alford's Lobo squads tended to use only around 65 possessions in a game, one of the slowest paces in college basketball (it would have ranked 326th this year). But he's kept his promise. Roughly 20 percent of the team's possessions have been fast-break opportunities, and juicing the pace up 72 possessions a game, which is near the top 50 in the country.
UCLA is built for the open court: Adams and Powell are explosive wings, excelling at either flaring out beyond the three-point line or attacking the basket; the Wear twins—Travis and David—have a range that extends beyond the arc. The lynchpin, though, is Anderson, who not only has the height to spot openings for his fellow Bruins but also the touch needed to deliver the ball in the perfect position to score.
Against Oregon, Anderson grabs a loose ball and then makes an extremely difficult pass to a streaking Powell look effortless. It's a perfect look, anticipating Powell's speed and dropping the ball over two defenders so that Powell needs only one step before the layup.
For a majority of the Bruins' transition attempts, Anderson simply needs to outlet the ball and let his teammates break down the transition defense. The trio of Powell, Adams, and Zach LaVine are proficient finishing in the open court—scoring 1.17 points per fast break—and since Anderson leads the team in defensive boards, he often gets the first, and best, look down the floor. Here's one that'll remind you of Kevin Love's time in Westwood.
What separates Anderson from other tall point guards is his body control. He's comfortable ripping off moves that would send most 6-foot-9 guy's joints flying off in every direction. Just look at this:
During this early March game versus Washington, Anderson anticipates the attempted steal by Andrew Andrews, and spins away from the UW guard. Now positioned in the middle of the court, Anderson has several options, including a trailing Travis Wear and a wide-open Powell in the corner, but Anderson instead attacks the rim, spinning once more before dumping the ball to Tony Parker for an easy dunk. The spin moves are nice, but what makes this play noteworthy is Anderson's ability to keep his bearings. He waits to make the play until an angle has presented itself.
Somewhere along the line, Anderson got tagged with the passive-aggressive-but-sorta-cool nickname of Slo-Mo. On first glance, you can see why. He has an old man's game, all angles and position. He doesn't make space for himself by blowing by his smaller defenders; he finds space over and around them. And he looks so smooth in doing so that you process his game as slow. But look a little more closely and you start to see slight shifts, flicks, and stutters. Call him Stop-Mo instead.
Take the above play, which isn't exactly explosive. Facing a 2-3 zone that eventually morphs into a man defense, David Wear sets a screen on the perimeter for Anderson. Renan Lenz, the Utah big, flat hedges, and when Anderson drives the paint and looks to attempt a floater, Lenz is positioned for what he assumes will be a poster-making block. Anderson, however, is now assured Lenz cannot recover, and hits Wear with an over-the-shoulder pass for a corner jumper. Slow, is one word for it. Patient is another.
Anderson is also capable of creating for himself. He can connect from deep, but his shots come predominantly within the arc. He would rather drive the paint and get a high-percentage shot. His offensive game is similar to his passing—nothing is ever forced. Anderson's dribbling skills and body control are so advanced that if his initial driving lane is cut off, he'll reposition himself and find a different angle. He is comfortable dribbling into his tight spaces—the result of a father who didn't want his tall son pigeonholed as a big—and he has learned how to hold the ball to prevent swipes when he does crack the paint.
To get Anderson into ideal one-on-one matchups, Alford upped his sophomore's isolation possessions, and he has multiple options that include scoring off the bounce, the dribble, and if needed, setting up a Bruin. His isos always start at the top of the key—to create halfcourt spacing and prevent traps—and once he picks up a little steam, he's difficult to stop.
That body control also serves him from a standstill. Against Oregon, Anderson drifts into the low post, and the Ducks immediately double on the touch. Sensing the pressure, Anderson ignores the probing hands of Johnathan Loyd and Richard Amardi and finds Travis Wear open at the top of the key for a two-pointer.
The toughest opponent Anderson faced all season was probably Aaron Gordon of Arizona, a big who, like Anderson, is multi-faceted and versatile. Gordon is also one of the nation's top defenders, and in this clip, Anderson backs the ball out to give the other Bruins time to clear the interior before he drives on Gordon.
Though the Zona big stays with Anderson during the entire drive, Anderson contorts himself to prevent a block, and he makes the up-and-under scoop.
The narrative surrounding UCLA's Sweet 16 showdown with Florida is that the Bruins will be overwhelmed by the Gators' defensive pressure. Maybe so, but Anderson will present a matchup nightmare. In their final game against Arizona—the only team UCLA has faced this season with a stingier defense than UF's—the Bruins scored more than 1.40 points per possession in the first half, an electric offensive display. With Anderson directing the show, they're well-positioned to shock the tournament's top seed, in glorious slow-motion.
Matt Giles is a reporter for New York Magazine and has contributed to College Basketball Prospectus, ESPN the Magazine, ESPN Insider, BuzzFeed, and Salon.