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Point guard 101 a tough class for UCLA’s Malcolm Lee

Malcolm Lee never heard the pitter-patter of big feet from behind.

This was UCLA’s first possession Sunday. Lee pushed up through the Trojans’ pressure. The next moment, USC forward Marcus Johnson was going the other way with the ball.

It was just another step on a tough learning curve for Lee.

After last season, Jrue Holiday bolted early for the NBA. Jerime Anderson has been slowed by injury and inconsistency. That has left Lee, a shooting guard by trade, as the team’s learn-as-I-go point guard.

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“It’s definitely still coming,” said Lee, a 6-foot-4 sophomore. “I haven’t played the point in over two years. You’re basically the brain of the offense. It’s not an instinct you can develop overnight. I think I’m making strides game by game.”

There are many ways to frame what has been a disappointing season for the Bruins. They lack an inside presence. They lack experience. They lack the skill to sink wide-open 15-footers.

But the buck, and the Bruins offense at times, stops here at point guard, Lee insists.

He publicly took the blame for the Bruins’ last two losses, to USC on Sunday and to California on Feb. 6. Lee had six turnovers against USC and five against California, a game in which the Bruins blew a 14-point first-half lead and lost, 72-58.

“I felt when we were winning, I was controlling the game better,” said Lee, who is averaging 12.3 points and 3.5 assists. “I might not have been scoring a lot, but my turnovers were down and I was making better decisions. I felt the past two games, I didn’t hold up my part of the bargain.”

The Bruins are locked into Lee, which has Coach Ben Howland treading lightly. “He’s having to play a lot of minutes. We’re expecting a lot from him and he is improving. He is getting better,” Howland said.

Lee has shown he can provide offense. He scored in double figures in 10 of the Bruins’ first 11 games, which included a 29-point effort against Notre Dame.

He has tried to remain an offensive threat, but has scored in double figures only four times since taking over as the starting point guard against California Jan. 6. “You have to pick your spots,” Lee said. “You’re not shoot-first, pass-second anymore.”

Pass-first works, if passes find teammates. The Bruins this season rank ninth in the conference in turnover margin. Lee has had five or more turnovers in four conference games, all losses.

“You always got to be thinking on court, not only for yourself, but for other people,” Lee said. “Where do they like to shoot best? Where do they like the ball? Where are they most comfortable on the court?”

Quizzed, Lee rattles off the right answers, Nikola Dragovic “likes kick-out passes, as does Michael Roll. Tyler Honeycutt likes to curl. Reeves [Nelson] likes it on the block. You got to know everybody.”

Lee has the confidence of teammates, who realize he is getting on-the-job training. “Going from shooting guard to point guard . . . is a big adjustment. It shows his character that he can deal with it,” Roll said.

Whether Lee deals with it beyond this season is to be seen. He would like to remain a point guard, but Howland’s concerns about the position are such that he took the unusual step of recruiting a community college transfer. Lazeric Jones, a 6-1 point guard from Logan College in Illinois, arrives next season.

So when asked if Lee will be the Bruins’ point guard two seasons from now, Howland replies, “We’ll see.”

Translation: The patter of feet behind Lee may not always be an opposing player.

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes


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