The State of Hoops Recruiting

Apr. 10 -- We take you through the remaining spring 2015 recruiting possibilities, analyze how 2016 looks heading into the spring Evaluation Period, and then beyond...

UCLA basketball recruiting under Steve Alford is pretty clearly at a critical time for his program.

Not only is he waiting on the decisions of some 2015 prospects that would make a big impact, there are also some aspects of the program and its personnel that are changing due to the fundamental recruiting approach and strategy by Alford and his staff.

This piece is less a recruiting reset and more an overall review of the state of UCLA's recruiting at this time.

First, there are the three prospects currently signed to UCLA for 2015:

Then let’s look at the 2015 prospects still on UCLA’s board:

After speaking with various sources across the country, it’s almost completely uncertain what school Brown will pick. As we’ve reported, UCLA is confident it’s getting Brown, but independent sources aren’t getting that read on it. But then again, as we said, no one is really getting a read on his intentions.

Brown, as we’ve written before, is a vital element to Alford’s program. Being the #1 prospect in the nation, Brown would immediately make UCLA a potentially top-15 level team for 2015-2016, while without him there’s a reasonable chance they’re not a top-25 level squad. It being Alford’s third season, it’s pretty important that the 2015-2016 season post results that are an improvement on the last two years, in both the regular season and in the post-season, if Alford wants to retain some job security.

Getting Brown, too, would breathe a little life and credibility into Alford’s recruiting strategy, the “Swinging for the Fences” approach in which he emphasizes pursuing elite national prospects through Adidas and AAU connections. Just getting Brown wouldn’t completely affirm that it’s an overwhelmingly successful strategy, since it would have to be proven over a longer period than a couple of recruiting cycles, but it at least would stave off the conclusion that it’s a failure.

Brown recently named his eight finalists – Cal, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina and UCLA.

Zimmerman would be a fantastic addition to the UCLA roster, not only because he’s very talented, but because he projects to be more than a one-and-doner. If you look at the projection for UCLA’s future frontcourt below, you can see that it’s very reasonable that UCLA could be lacking some high-end frontcourt talent, and Zimmerman could be a big answer. It’s generally thought, though, that UCLA isn’t among the frontrunners for him, that it’s UNLV and Kansas, and Kentucky, depending on how many Wildcats put their name in the draft.

Recruiting: released a story on Ingram this morning in which he says his top four choices are Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky. This is the first public indication to date that put UCLA on the outside looking in, and UCLA's chances now are very unlikely.

Other Spring Options/Transfers

We have heard that UCLA is trying with San Francisco State graduate transfer Mark Tollefsen, the 6-9, athletic face-up four. The word, though, is that Tollefsen would probably favor local Cal, or even Arizona.

There is also a rumor that UCLA would potentially be involved with Darien Williams, the JC prospect from Iowa Western Community College. The 6-8 Williams had signed an NLI to Iowa State, but recently requested and was granted a release from the NLI, making him eligible to go anywhere this fall without penalty. It’s unsure if UCLA would be able to take Williams, who is talented, but was troubled in high school, because usually JC players find it difficult to get through UCLA admissions. He sat out the last season at Iowa Western due to surgery on both shoulders.

There is also the lingering possibility of Kobie Eubanks, the 6-5 wing from Delray Beach (Fla.) Elev-8 Prep. Eubanks was supposed to be at Baylor this last season, but wasn’t ultimately admitted due to some issues with his transcript, so he did a post-graduate season at Elev-8 Prep, which is very much a sports-factory-type prep school. It’s uncertain if Eubanks would be able to get academically admitted to UCLA.

Most recently, the word is that UCLA will potentially pursue Jordan Murphy, a 6-6, three-star small forward from San Antonio (Tex.) Brennan. Murphy signed an NLI with VCU in November, but has asked out of it since Head Coach Shaka Smart left for Texas. Murphy had offers from the likes of Oklahoma, Baylor and Vanderbilt before committing to VCU, and we're hearing that other schools could now show interest, like Gonzaga, potentially. It's believed Murphy is a back-up option if UCLA doesn't get Brown or Ingram, but it could still opt for him if it gets one of the two. UCLA has an Adidas connection to Murphy.

The transfer market every spring is getting bigger and bigger, especially with the graduate transfer option. So we expect UCLA to be involved with many more names over the next month.

The suspense over what happens with the remaining 2015 prospects might not be over when the NLI Signing Period begins April 15th. It goes through May 20th, which could inspire many of the spring signees to wait. On the other hand, the date to decide whether to enter your name into the NBA Draft is the first day of the spring Signing Period, so we would expect many college players to make a decision in the next week, which could possibly have a domino-effect on what school some of the spring signees pick. There is also the possibility that any elite prospect that hasn’t yet decided doesn’t actually sign an NLI. They could sign a Scholarship Agreement, which doesn’t bind them and, feasibly, drag it out through literally the day they go to their first college class. At one point, Zimmerman had said he would possibly do this, and we wouldn’t be surprised if Brown goes this route, even though we haven’t heard anything to imply he is considering it.

2016 Recruiting

Of course, you would think how UCLA goes forward in 2016 recruiting is completely dependent on how it concludes the 2015 class this spring.

But in actuality, it might not affect it that much. If UCLA does, in fact, get Brown, it would be prudent to figure in that he’s a one-and-doner and to approach 2016 recruiting with the mindset that they would be getting his scholarship back for that class.

Let’s just look at our 2016 analysis with the idea that UCLA doesn’t get Brown, or it gets him and then recognizes it’s giving away his scholarship to the 2016 class. It would be the same, too, if UCLA didn’t get Brown but got a graduate transfer for one season.

With how the roster is right now, and with the breaking development of Wanaah Bail transferring, UCLA has two scholarships open for 2016. That's counting the two already earmarked for recruits who are verbally committed.

Ball is one of the top 10 prospects in the nation for 2016, a very talented player with some flashiness, who is best on the ball at the point guard spot.

Paras has some talent, but at this point it’s still very uncertain if he’s considered a UCLA-level prospect. He has good skills and good hops, but his lateral athleticism is a question. Perhaps the biggest question is his desire and intensity, and that has kept him from even cracking the Scout 100.

So, let’s break down the make-up of a projected roster for the 2016-2017 season, given these two commitments.

Point Guard: Bryce Alford, SR; Aaron Holiday, SO; Lonzo Ball, FR
Shooting Guard: Isaac Hamilton, SR; Prince Ali, SO
Small Forward: Noah Allen, SR; Kobe Paras, FR
Power Forward: Jonah Bolden, R-SO; Gyorgy Goloman, JR; Alex Olesinski, SO
Center: Thomas Welsh, JR

Now, of course, players listed aren’t completely limited by these labeled positions. For instance, Bolden is bound to play some small forward and Goloman projects to playing some center. But for the sake of seeing how the roster breaks down, this suffices.

Here are some thoughts and analyses based on how this projection looks, some random and some inter-related.

• UCLA, with one of the scholarships available to them in 2016, really needs to prioritize a center-type. Welsh is the only true center on this roster, and he’s a junior, only two years away from graduating (with a potential for it being earlier if Welsh develops at a good rate by the end of his junior season).

At this point, UCLA doesn’t look to be emphasizing true centers in its 2016 recruiting. De’Ron Davis, the four-star prospect from Aurora (Col.) Overland, would be the obvious target, and UCLA is recruiting him. We haven’t heard that UCLA has a particularly good chance with Davis, but we expect they could, since Davis is an Adidas kid, and UCLA will emphasize its Adidas connections. UCLA has also offered M.J. Cage, the prospect from Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei.

• UCLA has been highly prioritizing small forwards and, and despite a need at center, early on it’s doing so in the 2016 class. The dream recruit is Josh Jackson, the #1 prospect overall in the class of 2016, but sources are saying, at this point, UCLA isn’t among the handful of leaders. UCLA recently offered Vance Jackson, the 6-8 prospect from Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco. Interesting, though, is that many scouts consider Jackson more of a face-up four on the next level, which UCLA, in the roster above, looks pretty well-stocked in. It also has been trying with Mario Kegler, the prospect from Jacksonville (Fla.) Arlington Country Day, and a few other national names.

• UCLA needs to ensure it gets a high-quality player with its two open 2016 spots, players at least in the 3/4-year category, the level of a Norman Powell. The 2016-2017 projected roster is populated with players who aren’t of that 3/4-year caliber, but more of the lower end of the high-major or mid-major level, like Goloman, Allen, Olesinski and Paras. A well-constructed high-major roster in today’s college basketball can’t afford to have this many non-starter level players.

• As has been the M.O. of UCLA recruiting under Alford, UCLA predominantly targets national prospects, and it initiates their recruitment, for the most part, by seeing them during evaluation periods (when they have a better chance to see national prospects). The staff then uses its Adidas and AAU connections to facilitate the recruitments. So, while this 2016 list is fairly short at this time, We fully expect UCLA's list of 2016 prospects to expand considerably by the end of the two April Evaluations weekends (April 10-12 and April 24-26).

• The dynamic in the backcourt for the 2016-2017 season is going to be an interesting one. Ball is the #10 overall prospect in the national class of 2016 and, while, 6-4ish, is a point guard. People around him want him to play point guard, with the feeling that that it’s his projected pro position, and that’s probably true. He is a player that is best utilized with the ball primarily in his hands. The obvious question is how it works out between Ball and a senior Bryce Alford. Perhaps Coach Alford will be more obliged to relinquish control of the offense to someone other than Bryce by that time, and more readily because it’s Ball. To date, it is uncertain, however, if you go by the way Alford has used Bryce with various personnel combinations on the floor in his first two seasons. Then, there is also the added dynamic of Holiday. It would be his sophomore year and, even if he did his time as a back-up at point guard as a freshman, you would think he’d be wanting more point guard time as a sophomore, and probably deservedly so. Plus, it can’t be emphasized enough that it's highly likely there will be pressure from forces around Ball and Holiday – pressure put squarely on Alford to play both of them at the point guard spot.

• At this point, to our knowledge, UCLA has committed to taking LiAngelo Ball, the 2017 shooting guard who is the younger brother of Lonzo Ball. It's a package deal, that LiAngelo goes where Lonzo goes, and it's questionable whether LiAngelo is a UCLA-level prospect. That would be another less than high-major talent on the roster in the 2017-2018 season.

• A way to give itself a chance at more UCLA-level talent would be for some of the non-UCLA talent currently on the roster to leave the program. Before today we were asking ourselves whether Alford would run off, say, Bail or Allen, to make room to sign more in 2016. As we reported this morning, Bail has left the program, and from what we've heard, he flunked out, which solved the issue on its own without Alford having to confront the issue of running him off. It's a good thing for Alford and his roster-building, giving him another valuable ride. It will be interesting, then, to see if Allen remains on the roster. Recruiting for the 2016 class happens primarily this spring and summer, and Alford would need to have that scholarship back now to optimize filling it. We suspect that, with the departure of Bail, more than likely Alford feels he can afford to keep Allen, a player who works hard and is a good teammate.

• UCLA, with its predominant strategy of using Adidas and AAU connections to go after very ultra-elite national prospects, has more misses than hits, so it ends up being in the spring market for graduate transfers. UCLA is a bit this spring, and could be more in the next month, depending on Brown and the rest of the 2015 recruits deciding this spring. The graduate transfer waiver gives UCLA a bit of a safety net to attempt its “Swing for the Fences” strategy, but not really a reliable one, or one that provides you the highest-quality prospect. Also, as we learned with Jon Octeus, it's not an easy proposition to get a graduate transfer admitted into UCLA.

• There isn’t as much adherence to finding recruits that "fit" with Alford. The staff doesn’t shy away as much from prospects with red flags. Now, the reason past UCLA coaching staffs would pay attention to red flags is because, many times, it’s an indication it could be risky that a prospect can sustain a career at UCLA – and adhere academically, socially, legally, and team chemistry-wise.

Alford had a history at New Mexico at taking some at-risk prospects, some who were known to have issues in high school or transferred to New Mexico because of issues at their first program. It definitely has to be recognized that Alford certainly had some success with those types of players.

It’s a question if Alford can have success with these types of prospects at UCLA.

With the way UCLA is now recruiting a different type of recruit, we’d have to say that the profile for a UCLA type of player, what is the “fit” at UCLA, has changed.

Now, of course, this isn’t absolute. This doesn’t mean that every prospect UCLA is now recruiting has red flags that would make past UCLA staffs not recruit them. But we’re seeing a pretty significant shift toward more of this type of recruit.

Interesting enough, most of the recruits UCLA has ended up getting have been high-character, strong-academic types, like Welsh, Holiday and Ali, as opposed to Bail. So, it could be a natural weeding-out process, that even though Alford's UCLA program recruits more of them, eventually the questionable "fit" prospects somehow eliminate themselves. Even so, there are a couple of downsides to this approach: either UCLA is, in fact, going to end up with some players with "fit" issues that have a high-risk of ultimately being productive, like Bail, and/or they're wasting a great deal of time recruiting players that they should know ultimately wouldn't fit at UCLA. Given his academic history prior to UCLA, it wasn't tough to predict Bail might have academic problems at UCLA, so the question is whether it's prudent to pursue more Bail types, like the JC player Williams, Eubanks or Murphy.

• As we said at the top of this piece, this is a critical time for UCLA basketball recruiting and Alford's program. There is definitely a different recruiting mindset and approach under Steve Alford, it's one that emphasizes the "Swing for the Fences" approach, which makes you more reliant on transfers and one-year graduate transfers in spring; uses Adidas and AAU connections more than early evaluations and relationship-building (since this is how you have to do it with ultra-elite national prospects); and recruits a different type of "fit" for UCLA. It's still entirely undetermined if this type of approach can be sustained long-term at UCLA under Alford, since he is still in just his third cycle of recruiting. There are some potentially big factors in determining the direction of his program that could develop over the next month or so in recruiting, however. Not only will the very drawn-out 2015 recruiting cycle potentially come to an end, but the spring evaluation periods will happen over two of the next three weekends. All of this will give us a better sense of the direction of the program, and whether Alford's recruiting approach is sustainable to build consistently successful teams -- next season, in 2016 and beyond.

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