It's interesting to compare this situation to the one UCLA faced in the Ben Howland era. If you'll remember, Howland had an inability to fill out his full complement of scholarships. Even during the Final Four years, UCLA was rarely more than 11 deep in terms of scholarship players, and the actual rotation, at least by the time the NCAA Tournament came around, would largely involve just 8 or so players.
A major difference between the two situations is that, at least for his first five years at UCLA, Howland largely recruited at a very high level, filling the roster with those who projected as starting level Pac-12 players, and who had the ability to develop into NBA players. Arron Afflalo, Darren Collison, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Russell Westbrook -- none of these were obvious pros coming out of high school, but all projected as starters in the Pac-12, with plenty of upside. With that sort of top-end talent, Howland was able to mitigate his issues with filling a roster, and essentially leave spots 11 through 13 vacant more often than not.
UCLA under Steve Alford does not yet have that luxury, which is partly due to issues of the staff's own creation. The Bruins have taken several players over the last two cycles who best project as backups or lower at the Pac-12 level. What's more, the roster balance is an issue, with too few high-level point guards, small forwards, and power forwards projected on the roster for 2016. The end result is that, in a big switch from the Howland era, even though Alford has actually filled the available scholarships for 2016, the overall talent level of those players is such that there's still a significant upgrade needed to make UCLA a top tier team.
And it's not unprecedented. During the 2013 season, Doug McDermott, one of the top players in the country, walked on his senior season to allow Creighton to carry another player who had been granted a sixth year of eligibility. There have been many other instances of players, either sons of coaches or from wealthy families, who have elected to walk on to accommodate other players. Again, it's theoretically one of the advantages of having the coach's son on the team.
There's also the possibility that Jonah Bolden goes pro after next year. It's hard for us to say that with any certainty, given that we haven't seen Bolden play in a competitive game in over a year now, but he certainly looked like he had pro potential during his high school career, and if he's progressed in his game, that could be a possibility after the 2015 season. Continuing to recruit 2016 as if Bolden will leave would be the prudent thing to do, since players are committing and signing later and later, and by April of 2016, the staff will know exactly what Bolden's plans are.
After that, things are a little muddier. We've now had a chance to see all three of UCLA's 2016 commitments, after checking out Ike Anigbogu and Kobe Paras this past weekend. Lonzo Ball is obviously the big key in that class, a true, elite point guard, and an obvious one-and-done talent. Anigbogu is exactly what you want in a developing big man. He's a very good athlete, with good size and defensive instincts. He's developing as an offensive player, but it looked like he is starting to develop a legitimate drop step and some go-to moves on the low block. In any case, he's an obvious take at the UCLA level.
The question mark is Paras. We watched him this weekend in person for the first time, and the viewing only reinforced what we had already heard about him as a player. For the positives, he has a very nice jump shot, with a quick, clean stroke that he can get off even against taller defenders, in part thanks to his solid vertical. That vertical jump would also in theory allow him to be a decent rebounder for a shooting guard. The negatives, though, were particularly worrying. His approach to the game is a real concern; when he wasn't shooting the ball, he didn't do much on the court. He seemed to have very little interest in playing defense, or making aggressive passes. His lateral mobility was lacking when we saw him on Saturday, both on defense, where he was unable to stay in front of his man, and on offense, where he was unable to take defenders off the dribble.
It's unlikely that UCLA recruits over Paras, but to maximize the talent level on the team, it would be prudent for UCLA to continue to pursue 2016 prospects as if it intends to. At the very worst, if another talented player does want to jump on board, and the staff doesn't feel comfortable pulling Paras' offer, UCLA can always project to take Bryce off scholarship, at least until the staff knows what Bolden intends to do after the 2015 season. In other words, UCLA can recruit as if it has Alford's scholarship to give, but it isn't even necessarily true that Bryce will have to give it up. Bolden could go pro, another player could transfer, or some other unforeseen event could arise. And -- again -- even if none of that happens, UCLA has the option to take Bryce off of scholarship.
We noted above that we think there are players on the roster that aren't UCLA level. But even if the staff doesn't agree, and thinks that every player projected to be on scholarship in 2016 is worthy of one, it still makes sense to continue to recruit 2016 as if it has Bryce's scholarship to give. Whether you believe the team is full of talent or has serious needs of upgrades, adding a 14th talented player is an option few teams have, and UCLA should take advantage.
So, even without guessing about any players currently on the team who could be asked to pursue playing time elsewhere, UCLA can probably recruit as if it has another two scholarships to give in the 2016 class (between Alford coming off scholarship, the chances that Bolden goes pro, and the possibility of recruiting over Paras). At the very least, UCLA can recruit as if it has at least one more scholarship to give, since it should be a relative no-brainer to take Alford off of scholarship to accommodate another talented player.
This is going to sound a bit weird coming from us, but, if there's ever a time for swinging for the fences and taking a few big stabs at national prospects, given the situation, this year would be the one. UCLA already has commitments from two absolute UCLA-level prospects in Ball and Anigbogu. We know the staff felt comfortable enough with Paras to take him in October of his junior year, so no doubt, UCLA feels very solid about the three players it has committed in the 2016 class. Now, with a full year of recruiting ahead of them and the base of the class completely locked up, the UCLA staff could, in theory, spend the summer pursuing elite national prospects and entice them with the idea of playing with a point guard of Ball's caliber.
At the very worst, in this scenario, UCLA ends up with the class it currently projects to have -- Ball, Anigbogu, and Paras. At best, UCLA adds one or two more talented players who can provide an immediate impact in the 2016 season. To look at it very baldly, with the base of the class already committed, UCLA has a risk-free opportunity to upgrade the roster by continuing to recruit the 2016 class, and the theoretical flexibility of Bryce Alford's scholarship allows for that.
Now, it just remains to be seen what UCLA will actually do.