It’s a tough group to replace. Anderson and Adams were two of the key cogs on the team for the last two years, and neither’s skillset is readily replicable by anyone currently on the team. With just the losses of Anderson, Adams, LaVine, Wear, and Wear, this was expected to be a bit of a rebuilding year. But then, in the offseason, UCLA was hit with some more bad news. Freshman forward Jonah Bolden, whose eligibility had long been a question mark, was ruled a partial qualifier, meaning that he can’t participate in practices or games this season. Transfer guard Jon Octeus, who was expected to compete at point guard, was not granted admission to graduate school at UCLA. The sum total of departures and other issues leaves UCLA with just nine scholarship players heading into the year.
Depth will clearly be an issue, like last year, but in a bit of a switch from last year, this time the guards will be thin and the front court will be, at least compared to the guards, relatively deep. The Bruins will almost certainly have to use Kevon Looney at the three at points, which would be putting him a bit out of position, and there may even be points where Thomas Welsh and Tony Parker (two true centers) have to play at the same time. Developing Noah Allen, Gyorgy Goloman, and Wanaah Bail into serviceable players throughout the year will be absolutely key, if it’s possible.
It has to be said, as well, that UCLA doesn’t have a true point guard. Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton are both more naturally shooting guards, but both will be called upon to play point, with Bryce being the starter. Replacing Anderson, who was the best offensive point guard UCLA has had in quite some time, with two shooting guards will result in a dropoff – to what extent, it’s difficult to say at this point. Defensively, given some of the depth issues and the lack of many great individual defenders on the team, we’d have to imagine UCLA will end up going to more of a true zone at times than they did last year.
It’s difficult to set real expectations for this team. The Bruins made it to the Sweet 16 last year, but, in a vacuum, it’d be a much taller order this year to make it anywhere near that far. Again, in a vacuum, without really breaking down the rest of college basketball, making the NCAA Tournament may even be a struggle. UCLA will have to replace the play-making ability of Anderson, the crafty scoring of Adams, and the offensive contributions of the Wear twins. At the same time, though, taking a larger view of the program, you’d like to see the team make some progress in year two under Alford. So what we’ll say is this: while it’d be difficult to expect significant improvement from year one to year two in the win column given the personnel lost, we’ll judge the progress based on player development, improved defensive buy-in, and timely, intelligent coaching decisions. Seeing progress in those areas would, along with a successful recruiting cycle, give UCLA fans a solid reason for hope over the next few seasons.
There is a chance, too, which we’ll get to in the prediction piece coming tomorrow, that college basketball may be bad enough this year that this team could win more games than the talent would suggest. While this might have the look of a team that would have finished about 8th in the Pac-10 in 2008, it’s a whole new world of college basketball, and one in which a few talented pieces can carry a team a long way.
Guards and Wings
As we said above, there isn’t a true point guard on the roster, and the guard depth is very thin. UCLA has just Norman Powell, Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, and Noah Allen (who is actually more of a small forward). Given the lack of a true, starting-level small forward, all three of Powell, Alford, and Hamilton are likely going to need to start and play considerable minutes all year. It’s clearly not an ideal situation, created by some back luck, mismanagement of personnel and some recruiting issues in the 2014 cycle, and for it to even be a tenable situation, UCLA’s starting guards will have to remain more or less completely healthy all year.
Replacing Kyle Anderson is the big key, and those shoes may be too big for any one player to fill. With his height and natural feel, Anderson had an uncanny ability to find open players in both the halfcourt and transition, and that’s just not something we saw from Bryce Alford last year, or from Isaac Hamilton in high school. There is, of course, the argument that UCLA under Steve Alford doesn’t require a true point guard to run the offense, but even if that’s true, it was readily apparent last year that the offense was significantly better with Anderson on the floor rather than off of it. Bryce has some strengths as a player, and is a better shooter than Anderson was, which should allow him to stretch the defense a little bit. But to operate at the levels that UCLA’s offense reached at times last year, Bryce, or Hamilton, will have had to improve a great deal in terms of his vision, passing ability, and approach to the position.
Isaac Hamilton should also be able to shoulder some of the scoring load. He looked a little tentative in the exhibition game, almost as if he was trying too hard to facilitate, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In high school, he had a reputation as a gunner, and it may be that he’s consciously trying to break that rep. He does have the ability to score, and in bunches, when he gets in a rhythm. He was a good shooter in high school, and there’s every reason to expect he’ll be a good shooter in college once he find his rhythm. The year off likely will have caused some rust, though, so it may take him some time to find his feet again. He’s made several comments about still needing to get in the shape needed to play through a season, so that’ll be something to monitor. He’ll also have a lot on his plate, having to play a good amount of point guard when Bryce is on the bench or flipped to the off-guard spot, and it’s difficult to say at this point what UCLA will get out of him at the one. He didn’t show many of the traits of a point guard in high school, and it was difficult to get much of a true impression from the exhibition. Whether he can turn himself into a close approximation of a point guard by the end of the year could be critical.
Allen, as we said, looks more like a small forward, and based on what we saw last year, it’s hard to project him playing significantly enough this year to alleviate the depth issues, since he’s a limited athlete and didn’t show a very good feel for the game. He does look like he’s improved his shooting stroke, which should give him some offensive value, and he showed good effort on the defensive end in the exhibition. If he can play somewhere near 15 minutes a game at a relatively decent level, that would be a huge boon to UCLA, and make the guard rotation somewhat manageable.
Our best estimation is that UCLA’s starting three guards will each have to average somewhere between 32 and 36 minutes per game this year, which is a tall order. Powell, who has played the most minutes, averaged 25 minutes last year, which was a career high; Hamilton didn’t even play last year. Finding ways to steal rest for them, either by playing more zone on the defensive end or sticking Looney at the three on occasion, will be huge.
The depth has certainly switched. Last year, we bemoaned the lack of talented bigs, with just the Wear twins and Tony Parker as legitimate options, but this year, UCLA clearly has some good talent at the 4 and 5. We’d be wrong to say it’s especially deep, though, particularly if Looney does have to play some significant time at the three. Generally, though, the front court should be an improved rebounding unit, with better overall size, and with more of an inside presence than it has had in previous years.
The freshman phenom this year is Kevon Looney, the power forward. Looney is probably the best rebounding big man UCLA has had since Kevin Love, with a great natural feel for where the ball will carom, long arms, and good athleticism. He also has a very good skillset for a big, with good ball skills for a power forward and what looks like a good shooting stroke. There has been some talk that he could lead the break on occasion, and that’ll be interesting to see -- he does look like he has the handling ability, but court vision is still an unknown. He does look like he should be able to provide the occasional emergency option at the three, which is good, since UCLA will likely need it. His rebounding should more than make up for Anderson’s departure. The big question for Looney will be developing as a scorer at the college level as the season wears on. He certainly has the talent, but it can be a tougher adjustment for bigs to score at a high level early in their careers than it is for guards and wings. UCLA will need some scoring punch out of him, though, so his continued development as a scorer will be key. As a defender, given his athleticism and length, he should be able to effectively guard power forwards even as a true freshman.
Parker will start to feel some pressure if he hasn’t made improvements, though, thanks to the arrival of freshman center Thomas Welsh. Welsh, as we’ve documented extensively on the board, has made incredible strides since his junior year of high school. He’s very fundamentally sound, with a very good skillset. He is a very good mid-range shooter, holds the ball high whenever he catches it, has good footwork, and has improved as an athlete over the last two years. Defensively, it may take him some time to get used to going against college big men, but he has a good natural feel for defending. He’s a nice passer out of the post, and should improve the more he plays. There will be an adjustment period, but we wouldn’t be shocked if he starts at some point in the season, or at the very least has a near-even split of minutes with Parker.
The two wildcards are sophomore forward Wanaah Bail and freshman forward Gyorgy Goloman. Bail is an impressive athlete, but didn’t show a great feel for the game in limited time on the court last year. He plays with good energy though, and with his athleticism, the hope is that he could come in and provide some good, athletic hustle minutes. Goloman is even more of an unknown. He has good size, and looked like he can shoot it a little bit from what we saw in practice, but there was little to be gleaned from his performance in the exhibition. Physically, he looks like he needs to get stronger, and he didn’t look like a great athlete from what we’ve seen of him. As Greg opined in his review of the Azusa Pacific game, he looks like, in an ideal situation, a redshirt candidate, but we’d imagine he’ll have to play some this year. There is a pretty significant dropoff between the top three and the bottom two in the rotation, and it’d be very good if Bail, at least, can develop into a usable piece to allow Looney time away from the power forward position.
If Bail hasn’t developed to the point where he can play substantial minutes, then there’s some chance that Parker and Welsh could see the floor at the same time. It’s not ideal; neither really has the ability to guard the average college power forward, and neither has the skillset of an offensive four. Parker, in those situations, would likely draw the assignment of playing power forward, since he’s a better athlete, but avoiding that situation as much as possible will be key for UCLA. Once again, avoiding injury will be critical, since there isn’t a whole lot of depth in front court (even if it is deeper than the back court).
Last year, UCLA was one of the best offensive teams in the country, with great passing, spacing, shooting, and transition scoring. The Bruins were one of the most up-tempo teams in the country as well, which is something Steve Alford promised when he was hired. Much of that offensive tempo, though, was thanks to the play of Kyle Anderson, who was one of the best players in college basketball last year, and Jordan Adams, who was one of the most efficient scorers and a very crafty defender.
It’s going to be very interesting to see whether UCLA can replicate the style, let alone the production, of last year. Anderson was a very good passer in transition, and had the unique ability to take the ball off the backboard and initiate the break himself. UCLA’s staff has mentioned that Looney will have that same freedom, and he does have a good handle for a big, but it would be a shock if he were able to do so many of the things Anderson was able to do in the open court. Bryce Alford also pushed the ball last year, but he also didn’t have Anderson’s vision, so there were fewer easy buckets when he led the break.
Even if Bryce is improved in transition, though, UCLA’s lack of guard depth and, really, depth overall could prevent the team from running as much as it might like. There’s a worst-case scenario where UCLA only has a six-man rotation (if none of Allen, Bail, or Goloman develop adequately), with virtually no guard depth, and we’d have to imagine it’ll be imperative, in that scenario, to conserve as much energy as possible. It’s going to be very interesting to see in the early part of the season how Alford will balance his desire to go up-tempo with the realities of the roster construction as it presently is.
The team’s shooting, as a whole, will likely take a bit of a hit without Adams and the Wear twins. Even Anderson, in terms of effective field goal percentage, was a good shooter by the end of his run at UCLA. LaVine was also an above average shooter, hitting 37% from three. Looney is a fair shooter, but isn’t at the level of the Wear twins. Three-point shooting, in particular, probably won’t be a strength of the team. Bryce is a good three-point shooter, and Hamilton was a good shooter in high school, but that’s about it.
We would have to imagine the offense, especially at the beginning of the year, will go through some serious growing pains as it looks to replace the production and savvy of Anderson, Adams, and the Wear twins. Getting quality point guard play is a must, and then having Hamilton turn into a legitimate Pac-12 scorer sooner rather than later will be key.
Last year, UCLA seemed disinterested at times in playing positional defense, with several players looking lackadaisical in their approach, often failing to even get in a stance. UCLA’s defense did seem more geared toward getting steals and generating turnovers than playing positional defense, though, and in that respect, UCLA was successful. That emphasis on turnovers and steals seemed to help the team get out in transition quite a bit, with Jordan Adams getting plenty of easy buckets off of steals. The defense, even when it was man-based, used a lot of sagging, zone principles, allowing teams generally to shoot a great deal of threes.
We don’t imagine much has changed with that philosophy, but it’s been a point of emphasis in interviews throughout the preseason that the effort level needs to be increased on the defensive end. An issue, though, is that UCLA doesn’t have great defenders at the guard spots. Powell is clearly the best, and has the potential to be an elite defender, but Hamilton and Bryce don’t have the kind of athletic ability to be great man defenders, even if they develop the proper mindset. The combination of Parker/Welsh/Looney should be adequate defensively in the post, but the lack of great athleticism among the guards might force UCLA into more zone than it even played last year.
A huge part of UCLA’s transition offense last year was the ability to convert steals into fast break opportunities, and Adams was really the engine that drove that, with one of the top steal percentages in the country. It’ll be interesting to see this year whether that kind of turnover-centric defense is more Alford’s philosophy or a product of having Adams’ uncanny knack for steals in the backcourt. Bryce and Powell both had good steal percentages last year, with both showing good anticipatory skills, so they should still be able to create some turnovers if that’s the focus.
Like last year, we’d expect the team to mix man and zone, and for the man defense to even use plenty of zone principles. From a conditioning standpoint, UCLA will probably play a bit more zone than it did last year to conserve energy and fouls, particularly in the backcourt. In terms of rebounding, even in a zone, UCLA may do an even better job of limiting second chances than they did last year. With Parker, Welsh, and Looney rebounding instead of just Kyle Anderson, the Bruins should be able to clean up the defensive glass with regularity.
Next up: our prediction for the 2014-15 season…