UCLA enters its third season under Steve Alford this Friday when the Bruins take on Monmouth. This is now very truly Steve Alford’s team at UCLA, with only two holdovers from the Howland era still on the roster (Tony Parker and, technically, Noah Allen, who committed to Howland). The Bruins return three starters from a year ago in Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, and Parker, and are coming off of a second straight Sweet 16 showing.
UCLA was picked to finish 5th in the Pac-12 preseason media poll, which speaks to the concern over how the Bruins will replace the contributions of departed senior guard Norman Powell and departed freshman phenom Kevon Looney. Those were arguably the two best players on the team for UCLA last year, and very likely the two best defenders.
Last year, UCLA regressed a little bit, which was probably to be expected given that the Bruins lost four starters in Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, Travis Wear, and David Wear and a significant bench contributor in Zach LaVine. UCLA still made the Sweet 16, yes, but even being selected to the NCAA Tournament was a bit of a surprise after a 19-12 regular season.
It’s tough to set real expectations for the team this season, as it was last year. Again, UCLA lost some significant contributors from a year ago in Powell and Looney, so that’s obviously a blow. In a vacuum, you’d obviously like to see a significant step forward this year, given that it is year three for Alford and the roster is almost completely his. It was a different time and a different situation, but remember that year three was when Ben Howland took UCLA to the first of three Final Fours in 2005-06.
But that’s in a vacuum. Judging the roster, the schedule, and the strength of the Pac-12 (perhaps no elite teams, but a sizable group of pretty good teams), it’s difficult to project this team making that sort of Howland leap forward. It’s certainly possible, but a lot of things would have to break right, including Aaron Holiday and Prince Ali being ready to contribute significantly, Jonah Bolden quickly emerging as a really high-level Pac-12 power forward, and Tony Parker and Isaac Hamilton making big strides as Pac-12 starters. All of that is possible, but it’s tough to bet on so many unknowns working out in UCLA’s favor — and they’d have to work out pretty quickly, because the non-conference schedule is a beast.
In any case, the roster is in fairly good shape entering the season. UCLA has reasonable depth at each guard spot, and, aside from the question of who will end up the starter at power forward, there’s good talent in the post. If everything breaks right, this team has the talent and potential to contend for the Pac-12 title.
Guards and Wings
UCLA returns two starting guards from last season in Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton, while losing senior shooting guard Norman Powell. Losing Powell is a blow, obviously, but there’s an argument to be made that UCLA is actually in a better situation from a depth perspective at point guard and the two wing spots than the Bruins were heading into last year.
Last season, Alford, Hamilton, and Powell all had to start because UCLA had, essentially, no other guards. This year, the Bruins will have a true four-man rotation through those three spots, which still makes UCLA a little thin, but not cripplingly so. True freshmen Aaron Holiday and Prince Ali should combine to provide a little redundancy at every backcourt position, and their presence gives UCLA the ability to withstand a backcourt injury, which is something they didn’t have last year.
At point guard, UCLA has two options in Holiday and Alford. From what we could tell in the exhibition, Holiday is going to get opportunities to play point guard even when Alford is on the floor, which we think is a pretty smart move from Steve Alford. Bryce Alford’s best asset as a player is his ability to shoot, and playing him off the ball more should give him better catch-and-shoot opportunities. Holiday is certainly intriguing at point guard. He’s drawn rave reviews from the coaching staff and even San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher, who called Holiday the best player on the court when the two teams met in a “secret” scrimmage. As an offensive player, he is an attacking point guard with the ability, and desire, to break defenses down off the dribble. He still needs to develop in terms of his approach to the position, since he is very much a score-first type of point guard at this point. Defensively, he can act as a one-man press and brings tremendous energy to that side of the floor. How he develops could dictate how much UCLA can use him at point guard once the Bruins hit the meat of the schedule.
Alford, of course, returns for his junior season after helping to lead the team to the Sweet 16 last season. His best asset as a player, as we said above, is probably his ability to shoot threes — last season, he shot 39% from three on high volume (about 6.5 attempts per game) including a pretty remarkable stretch in the NCAA Tournament where he made 14 of 22 attempts. He had a decent assist rate last year (he assisted on 26.4% of field goals made when he was on the court, which is a top 200 number in the country) and didn’t turn the ball over egregiously (18% of his personal possessions last year ended in turnovers, which is pretty typical for point guards). He was really the only option at point guard last year for the Bruins when it became apparent that Isaac Hamilton really didn’t have a feel for the position at all. Offensively, Alford was a positive for UCLA last year, but defensively, he has some work to do. He can be prone to inattention on the perimeter, which can lead to bad rotations followed by open threes or layups. As he’s pretty clearly one of the leaders on the team as an upperclassmen, showing more commitment on that side of the ball, especially now that he has someone else to share a real amount of the point guard load on offense, would be a good step for him.
Alford and Holiday will each get minutes playing one of the other guard spots as well, and they’ll be joined by Hamilton and Ali. Hamilton’s sophomore season was just about the definition of inconsistent. He had games where he was perhaps the best player on the court (the 36-point barrage against USC in the Pac-12 Tournament immediately springs to mind) and then he had games where he didn’t look much like a Pac-12 level player (the loss at Oregon State, where he missed all of his ten shots and provided just three rebounds and three fouls as his only statistical contributions in 34 minutes). It was a strange season for him — we weren’t as high on him as others coming out of high school, but we still expected him to look better than he did for long stretches of last season. It appeared, entering the year, like he had lost a little bit of weight and a little bit of strength from his high school days, which might have played a role. He was fairly slow off the bounce and lacked the explosion to beat average defenders off the dribble. We just have one game to go on this year, but he looked a little stronger and a little more explosive in the exhibition, which is a good sign. The big key for him offensively is confidence — when he went cold last year, you could see the confidence seep out of him, and it’s not a stretch to say that it impacted him on the defensive end as well. Being stronger should help him a bit defensively as well, but he, like Bryce, can be prone to inattention defensively, and is also not a great lateral athlete in the best of times.
Ali is the big question mark in the group. We haven’t seen him in a game yet, so it’s difficult for us to provide a real evaluation. He’s going to play both the two and three, and will almost certainly start out the season as the primary backup in the backcourt. Many have spoken highly of his athleticism, and it was apparent in high school, so we’ll see how that impacts the floor this year. It’s not a stretch to say that with Holiday and Ali, given their obvious athleticism, UCLA could have a very good defensive tandem in the backcourt at some point this season, if both develop well. Bench scoring was basically non-existent for UCLA last year, so if Ali can provide literally anything off the bench, he’ll probably be an upgrade offensively this year.
Noah Allen will probably also get limited minutes at the three. Last year, Allen was forced to play a little too much, as he probably doesn’t have the talent level to be much more of a junk time player at the UCLA level. This year, with an additional player in the backcourt rotation, Allen should not be forced to play much more than five minutes per game, which is much more in line with where he should be. He is a willing defender and can rebound a bit.
UCLA returns its starting center from a year ago in Tony Parker, but will be forced to replace the contributions of Kevon Looney at power forward. Looney was UCLA’s best rebounder last year and arguably the second-best defender on the team, so it’s not a particularly easy task to replace him at the four. In the exhibition, UCLA actually went with a lineup that featured Parker and fellow center Thomas Welsh playing both of the post positions, which should speak to the lack of an obvious option at the four spot.
The Parker/Welsh combination is intriguing offensively, since Welsh has some ability to shoot from mid-range, but it’s a painfully slow defensive combination, and could give UCLA some real trouble against stretch fours and teams that like to go small. It’s a virtual guarantee we’ll see some of that lineup this year, but we have to imagine UCLA will do everything possible to develop a true power forward to start sooner rather than later.
And it’s not as if UCLA doesn’t have options. The one many were pegging to fill in this year was sophomore Jonah Bolden, who sat out last season. Bolden was a five-star prospect coming out of high school, and was thought to be a potential one-and-done type before he lost the year due to an academic issue coming out of high school. We’ve only seen him play one game since high school, and it was pretty apparent that he was rusty during the exhibition. Offensively, he looked a little out-of-sync, and it took him about a half to get comfortable doing much of anything on the court. Once he did, he began to rebound fairly well, but it’s hard to take too much from a game against that sort of lackluster competition. In high school, he was a very good offensive player, with a good shooting stroke and excellent vision and passing ability for a big, especially out of the high post. He didn’t look perfectly comfortable in the exhibition, but as he gets acclimated to playing real games again, we’d expect that sort of ability to re-emerge. Defensively, he’s a pretty good athlete, but not the super-elite one that would have an easy time guarding threes at the college level at 6’10. He’ll probably play some three this season, since Alford likes to go with different combinations and mismatches at small forward, but the ideal scenario has him starting at the four at some point this season.
Gyorgy Goloman, from what we understand, had a great offseason and was in line to open the season as the starter at power forward, but injured his leg and will be out until the end of November at the earliest. Goloman, according to Alford, grew an inch and gained twenty pounds in the offseason, and he certainly needed to add some strength to his frame. Goloman was a pleasant surprise last year, showing a nice feel for the game in limited time. If he can come back healthy, he should, at the very least, be able to provide solid backup minutes at the four, and if he has made real strides in his game, could very well compete with Bolden for the starting spot. He was a solid shooter last year (again, in limited time), connecting on six of 12 three-point attempts, but he needed to become a better rebounder in the offseason. With the added strength, perhaps he has.
Alex Olesinski, the true freshman power forward, looked somewhat promising from what we saw of him in the exhibition. He showed a good feel on the offensive end, and seemed comfortable on both ends of the court. Reports are that he’s a pretty good shooter as well. UCLA showed some willingness to play him at the three in the exhibition, like Bolden, and it’ll be interesting to see if they continue with that look this year. Olesinski doesn’t appear to be a good enough athlete to guard a three in man, but perhaps he could play some three when UCLA goes zone.
Center is probably the strongest position on the team, with Parker and Welsh both able to provide high-level minutes. Parker, a senior now, has developed incrementally each year, and was a very solid contributor last season, providing 11.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. He still is prone to fouling far too much (he fouled out of five games last season, but his minutes were impacted by fouls in at least five other games as well). His body control on offense still needs improvement, and he still sometimes has trouble getting into proper position to avoid fouls defensively. That said, he developed into a pretty good offensive option down the stretch last season, and actually shot 63% from the field over the last five games of the season (prior to the NCAA Tournament). He averaged nearly 25 minutes per game last year, and if he can do about the same this season, that should be more than enough for UCLA’s purposes.
Welsh gives UCLA a little flexibility if Parker runs into foul trouble. Now entering his sophomore season, Welsh should be an improved, more confident version of the player we saw from a season ago. The big issue for him last year was mainly just strength — at times, he looked like a freshman playing against seniors, which he often was. He could get pushed around a little bit in the post, and got knocked off balance a bit too much. Interestingly, he doesn’t look noticeably bigger physically this season, but perhaps a bit more defined. Being able to hold his ground in the post is key, so we’ll see if he’s gotten considerably stronger. Last year, he didn’t shoot the ball nearly as well as he’s capable of shooting, and we’d imagine he’ll be significantly better this year. He was an excellent shooter in high school from mid-range.
It’s tough to gauge transfer Ikenna Okwarabizie from just one game, but if we had to guess, we’d say he doesn’t make much of an impact this year. He looked very raw, and with the center rotation that UCLA should have with Parker and Welsh, there aren’t that many minutes to come by anyway.
Two years ago, with players like Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, UCLA had one of the top offenses in the country, with the 13th best offensive efficiency in the country and an excellent effective shooting percentage of 54.1%. Last year, UCLA was still good offensively (40th in the country in offensive efficiency) but the drop off was in large part due to a significant drop in effective shooting percentage (down to 49.6%). Losing Adams and his shooting ability hurt there, but you could also make the case that losing Anderson, and his ability to find the open player for easy shots, was even more significant for the dropoff. UCLA also ran quite a bit less last year, which kept the Bruins from getting quite as many easy buckets in transition as they had in 2013-14.
So the question becomes whether UCLA can hit the level of offensive synchronicity it hit in 2013-14 again this season. Having an additional guard will certainly help, since that should, in theory, give UCLA a little bit more ability to get out and run again this year. UCLA does lose one of its best transition players in Powell, though, so one of Holiday or Ali will have to be able to replace some of that attacking, finishing ability.
The more critical thing is whether UCLA’s point guard play can rise up to nearly the level of Anderson 2013-14. That’s a tall order, and one we don’t think is likely to be filled, at least from a passing/vision perspective. That said, Holiday and Alford do have the ability to score as lead guards, and while there might be a little less facilitating with those two at the helm, they can make up for that to a certain extent with, in turn, Holiday’s ability to create for himself and Alford’s ability to shoot.
In some form or facet, UCLA has to replace the scoring and offensive contributions of Powell and Looney. Combined, the two averaged nearly 28 points per game, and it’s hard to envision the new replacements in the starting lineup (Holiday in the back court, one of Welsh/Bolden/Goloman in the front court) hitting that total. That’s going to make it even more critical for UCLA to have some legitimate bench scoring this year, and we think that’s a real possibility, with Ali and Bolden especially to start the year.
We’d have to imagine that Alford will be the team’s leading scorer this year. If Holiday ends up playing a considerable amount of point guard, that’ll help to get Alford more open looks, and as a junior who has grown into his body, we’d expect Alford to have his best shooting year, and climb up above 40% from three. That should help to ease some of the burden on Holiday and Ali from a scoring perspective as true freshmen.
Last year’s defense took a step back from 2013-14, much like the offense. The Bruins fell to 67th in the country in defensive efficiency, and, in this area, you can attribute a huge amount of the drop off to the absence of Jordan Adams. Say what you will about Adams as a defender, but he did a great job of getting steals and forcing turnovers, and, without him in the lineup, UCLA fell from 48th in defensive turnover rate in 2013-14 to 247th in 2014-15. UCLA actually improved in defensive field goal percentage last year, but the lack of steals really hurt both the defense and the offense.
UCLA used a lot of zone defense a year ago, probably a bit more than the Bruins used the previous season. This year, if we had to guess, we’d say that UCLA will probably have to be primarily a zone team to start the season, especially if Welsh and Parker are asked to play alongside each other a fair amount. Neither can really guard a four, let along some of the threes masquerading as fours in college basketball, so we’d have to imagine UCLA will go to a zone when they’re in a game together.
If UCLA wants to be a man team, that’s just one more reason why Bolden or Goloman is going to have to seize the starting power forward job at some point in the early going. UCLA has Holiday and Ali who, at least from reports on Ali, can be very good man defenders at the guard spots. Welsh also has the ability to be a good defender at center, with his length, timing, and ability to adjust shots. If Bolden can emerge as the starting four, and Alford/Hamilton can be at least a little more attentive on the defensive end, UCLA could be an improved defensive team this year.
A big key, also, is rebounding. UCLA loses Looney and his 9.2 rebounds per game, and will have to replace that with some combination of improved production from Parker, Welsh, Bolden, and Goloman. Bolden was a good rebounder in high school and had double-digit rebounds in the exhibition, so he can probably provide a good chunk. If Goloman and Welsh have truly gotten stronger in the offseason, they can probably improve on their rebounding rate from a year ago. Parker probably is what he is at this point, but that most likely means that he’ll lead the team in rebounding this year at about seven per game.
The early feedback Holiday is getting is probably the biggest positive sign for UCLA defensively. We thought, going into the summer, that Holiday would be immediately one of the best defenders on the team, and it certainly looks as if that will turn out to be the case. He is a really pesty, really energetic defender, and gives UCLA the ability to extend the floor with a one-man press. As we talked about above, UCLA dropped off defensively last year when the Bruins stopped being able to generate turnovers at a really high level, but if Holiday is able to harass opposing point guards up and down the court, that could go a long way toward picking up the turnover rate and generating more easy offense in transition.