Looking at next season before the spring signing period is over is not the easiest of endeavors. UCLA is still heavily involved in the recruitments of players like five-star wings Jaylen Brown and Brandon Ingram and five-star center Stephen Zimmerman, and there’s always a good chance that another prospect or two could emerge as late-stage options for UCLA if the Bruins happen to miss on those three. What’s more, as we learned last year with the situations with Jon Octeus and Jonah Bolden, it’s difficult to say with any certainty in April how the roster will be constituted by November.
That all said, we can take a broad-strokes look at what the roster will likely look like next year. To begin with, we’ll just assume that the following players end up on scholarship next season:
FR Aaron Holiday
FR Prince Ali
JR Bryce Alford
JR Isaac Hamilton
JR Noah Allen
SO Thomas Welsh
SR Tony Parker
SO Gyorgy Goloman
SO Jonah Bolden
JR Wanaah Bail
FR Alex Olesinski
Obviously, there’s some reason for concern that Bail may not return next year after already experiencing eligibility issues in his second year in the program, but we’ll just assume for sake of argument that he’ll be back, and the rest of the roster with remaining eligibility will also be on scholarship and available next year.
So, first, let’s take a look at how that roster in its present state would compete (in other words, how would that team do, without the additions of any more spring recruits).
First, the guards will be ever-so-slightly deeper. This year, UCLA had to start its three true guards every game, which limited the rotations and forced Noah Allen to play more minutes than he should really have to. Next year, UCLA can have a rotation of four players (Alford, Hamilton, Ali, and Holiday) for those three spots, which should help to limit Allen’s minutes. Obviously, it’s not an ideal situation defensively since none of those four players is even particularly big for a shooting guard, let alone a small forward, but that was the same deal this year, so no big change there.
With the forwards and posts, it’s a much less nuanced discussion: to equal the production that UCLA got from its front court this year, let alone exceed it, Jonah Bolden will likely have to be just about as good as Kevon Looney. That’s a question mark for us, mostly because we find it hard to believe that Bolden will be able to rebound at anywhere near the rate of Looney .That said, he may be more of a credible offensive threat, which could help to offset whatever defensive and rebounding deficiencies he has relative to Looney. Thomas Welsh, with a year of development under his belt, could be a much improved player next year, which could also help to offset the loss of Looney, particularly from a rebounding perspective.
Beyond those two and Tony Parker, though, the front court rotation is pretty thin. Gyorgy Goloman surprised us a bit with a higher level of competence on the floor than we were expecting, but he’s going to have to get significantly stronger to be any sort of help on the defensive/rebounding front. Bail still has a long way to go in terms of his understanding of the game. Alex Olesinski is an unknown, at this point, but, just for sake of argument, let’s say he’s about the same quality of player as a freshman Goloman. That’s a pretty thin front court, with very little proven depth at the four. Still, we’d say that with the development of Welsh, the addition of Bolden, and whatever contributions Olesinski can provide, the front court should be very roughly as good as this year, even with the loss of Looney.
So, in essence, next year, with no further roster additions, we’d anticipate the team to have about the same quality as last year. There’s a little more backcourt depth and offensively the team should look a little better, but the Bruins will also probably take a slight step back in terms of defense and rebounding (Looney and Powell were probably the two best defenders this year, although beyond Powell, no one was really more than an average defender).
The neat thing for UCLA, though, is that the Pac-12 should be even worse next year than it is this year. Arizona projects to lose its starting five, Joseph Young graduates from Oregon, and Utah loses Delon Wright and potentially Jakob Poeltl. Even with a team about as good as last year’s 4th place team, there’s reason to think UCLA would have a chance to compete for the Pac-12 championship next year. Still, it wouldn’t project as a team capable of making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, and would probably be in a similar boat to this year’s team come Tournament time (i.e. requiring some favorable matchups to advance to the Sweet 16).
And that’s why Jaylen Brown is such a key recruit, at least in terms of next season. Brown would instantly change the backcourt depth, taking 32 minutes or so per game at the three and allowing the four other guards to rotate most of their minutes at their more natural spots. Brown’s addition would mean that Allen would likely not see the court, and would give Coach Alford the ability to use the bench as a discipline tool with his guards, if he’s so inclined. Most importantly, Brown would be the most talented player on the team by a long shot, and unlike Looney, he’s a ball-dominant player who is very skilled offensively and an excellent rebounder for his position. He’s shown at the high school level a willingness to play defense, which should translate to college. He’d have a pretty good chance to be the biggest impact freshman for UCLA since Kevin Love.
The question is how drastically Brown would change UCLA’s fortunes next year. Looking at the Pac-12, a Brown-led UCLA squad with all of those other players mentioned above would likely be the favorite to win the conference – again, it’s probably going to be a down year in the Pac-12. Most years, winning the Pac-12 is good enough for a protected seed in the NCAA Tournament, so even with the conference down next year, you could probably guess that the winner of the league will get a three or four seed at worst. With the amount of talent on roster and that sort of seed, UCLA would have the potential for a deeper run in the NCAA Tournament than the Bruins have achieved the last two years.
So for our part, in projecting next year, it really comes down to this: if UCLA can somehow sign Brown in the 2015 class, let alone anyone else, that’ll put the Bruins in good shape to exceed their performance from the past two years, and build some momentum going into 2016 recruiting and beyond. If UCLA misses on Brown, and the roster heading into next year is the one we discussed above, then it’s more likely that the Bruins end up treading water through the 2015-16 season, much like this past season, and miss another opportunity to build some real recruiting momentum going forward. This next month is a critical time for Steve Alford in his UCLA tenure, and if he somehow manages to sign Brown, it could be the moment when he starts to hit his stride.