At a basketball camp tucked in the Poconos, the murmurs trailed Kyle Anderson as he left a pack of players converging from all over the Eastern seaboard to accept the most valuable player award for a bracket featuring 9-to-11-year-olds. He’s only 8, they whispered. Overseeing the scene was a coach from New Jersey whose name was on the camp, a man who knew a lot about the game but had no idea what he was seeing.
Some years later, through various twists of fortune, Bob Hurley Sr. at last got to coach Kyle Anderson. They were in a gym at Union (N.J.) High School for a scrimmage, the first for Anderson after enrolling at famed St. Anthony High School. After a free throw, Hurley sensed full-court pressure coming. He called for press offense, which required Anderson to inbound the ball to teammate Myles Mack, who’d cut toward him. Instead, Anderson made eye contact with Mack. Mack juked toward the baseline, then broke long in the opposite direction. Anderson fired an in-stride, three-quarter-court pass for an easy layup.
At that moment, Hurley tapped decades of intuition and made the elegant coaching decision to keep his mouth shut. He saw the kid in basketball camps. He watched the kid play for a rival high school twice. He has won more than 1,000 basketball games. He is in the Hall of Fame. And when this specimen was right there -- a point guard in the shape of everything else, right in his hands after all -- he had no clue what to do with Kyle Anderson.
“Until you actually coach him, and have him, you don’t know exactly how to utilize him,” Hurley told SI.com this week. “I’m coaching for 40 years. I’ve never had anyone like him.”
One of the nation’s most confounding talents is now one of its most productive players, with Anderson’s second (and likely final) season at UCLA all over the place. He is a 6-foot-9 point guard entering a Thursday showdown with No. 1 Arizona averaging 15.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 6.6 assists while shooting 53.6 percent from the floor, evolving from a muddled role as a freshman into the conduit for everything the Bruins do. UCLA ranks No. 20 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency this year, averaging 115.4 points per 100 possessions. It ranked 50th a year ago.
In their first face-to-face meeting, first-year UCLA coach Steve Alford informed Anderson that he would be counted on as a leader. From the first workout, Alford put the ball in Anderson’s hands. By design or by accident, the coach understood sooner than most how best to implement this unique implement, to empower the most creative player on his roster. And everything cleared up for Anderson. Maybe a year late, he got the point.
“It was a role I was happy to accept, it was a role that I was excited for,” Anderson said this week. “That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. Having the ball in my hands brings me back to where I’ve had recent success. For coach Alford to have trust in me, it made me feel much more comfortable about myself and what I’m doing.”
While Anderson distributes, UCLA distributes him. He’ll run the offense but also shift into the high post or low block. It’s a similarly adjustable approach to the one Hurley settled upon to maximize Anderson’s skills. “It’s not every day as a coach you get to coach a 6-foot-9 point guard,” Alford said. “I’ve yet to do that in 23 years of coaching. They don’t come around very often. I think (the point) is his most natural position, that’s where he flourishes. He’s got great instincts, a great feel, he knows when to shoot, when to drive. He’s got to be the best rebounding point guard in the country. We’ve done it for the last nine months and haven’t wavered from it. He’s embraced it from Day 1 as we have.”
Kyle Anderson Sr. was a high school coach for years. By the time the boy they called “Little Kyle” was 3 years old, he followed his father to basketball camps. Guessing his son would grow to be about 6-5 – Kyle Sr. is 6-2 and his wife, Suzanne, is 6-foot – but not wanting to pigeonhole him, the elder Anderson played his son above his age group from the start. The smallest kid, of course, would be the one passing to the big kids.
Kyle Jr. was tall for his age but never outrageously so. Only after a series of what his father deemed annual three-inch growth spurts did he develop a power forward’s frame. But by then a skill set that didn’t match his skeleton was innate, thanks to never acting his age. “That’s where I got my craftiness from,” Kyle Jr, said. “Not being quickest guy, the fastest guy, but I know how to work around people, create space for myself, throw people off and change speeds.”
When considering colleges, the Andersons had one requirement: Commit to playing Kyle at the point, no hard feelings if you don’t.
Without naming names, Kyle Sr. claimed he could remember just two coaches that did not recognize his son was most effective with the ball in his hands. It is not difficult to deduce the identity of one. Kyle Jr. spent his freshman year at UCLA averaging only two fewer minutes per game for then-coach Ben Howland but scoring less (9.7 points), creating less (3.5 assists) and shooting far, far worse (41.6 percent).
“Imagine if you’re a parent and for your son’s whole career you groomed him to be a quarterback,” Kyle Sr. told SI.com. “And then he gets to college, and they move him to wide receiver, and you know damn well he can still play quarterback. And the following year they put him at quarterback, and he excels. You sit there and say, ‘You wasted a year of his time.’ It’s the same thing. I sat through it, and throughout it all, little Kyle was as levelheaded as he could be. He said, ‘Dad, don’t worry about it. I’ll get my chance.’”
Transferring to find it elsewhere wasn’t an option – “That was out of the question,” Kyle Jr. said – but a failsafe developed in the offseason precipitated the current surge. Under the guidance of Joe Hohn, his New Jersey-based trainer, Anderson exclusively tuned his shooting from midrange and beyond. Everyone figured the point guard stuff was natural, should Alford ask him to do it.
When Alford did, Anderson also boasted an offensive arsenal to open the floor like never before: Entering the Arizona game, Anderson was shooting 50 percent from three-point range. “Guys can’t play me where they did last year,” he said. “If I was on the perimeter, guys would play me in the paint. I don’t think they can do that this year.”
They don’t know what to do, really, with a 6-foot-9 guard that has more than twice as many defensive rebounds (105) and more blocks (12) than anyone else on UCLA’s roster.
“When you talk about all of the great wing players or guards in the country, you have to put Kyle Anderson in that group,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “He’s not only a unique player, but his productivity is astonishing.”
It also has an expiration date. Kyle Sr. caused a stir in September when he first publicly stated that his son was unlikely to spend a third year at UCLA, before his second year truly began. Nothing has occurred to reroute this thinking.
“I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but I don’t think there’s a need for Kyle to come back to college basketball,” Kyle, Sr. told SI.com. “I don’t. I think it’s time for him to continue his plan and to attempt to go into the workforce and work on that aspect of the next chapter of his life.”
Anderson laughed a little this week when asked about his Dad doing the declaring for him. He basically agreed, saying his father "makes the decisions” and theorizing that Kyle Sr. mostly wanted to apply pressure to his son in order to encourage as much focus and production as possible. Just looking to have the best year possible, Kyle Jr. said, a little sheepishly.
So far, so good. The numbers prove it, but subtle moments do too. Hurley insists his St. Anthony’s players watch every UCLA game they can to examine Anderson’s rapport with teammates, the way he solders connections at every turn. Even in what became a 17-point loss to Duke on Dec. 19, when there was no hope for recovery, Hurley noted Anderson collecting the Bruins at dead balls to share information and establish direction the team could follow at a later date.
“He brings everybody together,” Hurley said.
It took a Hall of Fame coach, Anderson said, to figure out how to use him correctly during high school. It took a coaching turnover in college to reach the same point at UCLA. A voracious connoisseur of the game who often attended even Division III games with his father as a child, no one better knows how difficult it is to figure out Kyle Anderson than Kyle Anderson himself, because he tries to do it all the time.
“I always look at the other teams' perspective on us, who they would put on me,” Anderson said. “Would they put a smaller guy on me? Would they put one of their three- or four-men on me? It’s always interesting to see on that first possession of offense who they throw at me. Who would they put on a 6-foot-9 point guard?” That is a dilemma for the nation’s No. 1 team on Thursday. Anderson is happy and thriving exactly where he is, because no one knows where he might go. After Alford was hired, the pair’s first conversation actually was via the phone and had little to do with basketball. In fact, when Alford first reached out to lay the groundwork for a breakthrough season, the voice on the other end was a little drowsy. When his new coach called, it woke Kyle Anderson up.