Is UCLA Actually Going To Be Good Next Year?

Mar. 22 -- We've already reviewed this past season and the state of the program in depth, so the next step is obvious: previewing next season...

We've already talked at length about this past season, which was very bad, and the current state of the UCLA basketball program, which is near or at its lowest point since John Wooden, so the obvious next step is to talk about the immediate future of the basketball team: next season.

Those who remain optimistic about Steve Alford's tenure are pointing toward next year as the big year that UCLA has been building toward, and, on the surface, it's understandable. UCLA is bringing in a highly touted recruiting class that includes five-star point guard Lonzo Ball, five-star power forward T.J. Leaf, four-star center Ike Anigbogu, and four-star wing Kobe Paras. Ball, in particular, has many in the L.A. area buzzing as he has helped carry Chino Hills, his high school team, to an undefeated record thus far in his senior season. As UCLA fans have learned over the years, though, with the 2008 and 2012 classes in particular, a great recruiting class doesn't necessarily lead to a great team, and there are more factors than simple incoming talent that play into a particular team's overall success. As we've talked about extensively over the last week, the foundation of the program is very weak, and the team has trended downward every year that Alford has been in Westwood. To expect that the trend will not just tick upward, but that the team will suddenly turn into the kind of mentally tough team capable of winning the conference and making a deep NCAA Tournament run, is not necessarily realistic.

For UCLA's purposes, next year is going to be dependent on several factors, most notably the incoming talent, which players return and how they develop, and what sort of coaching they get throughout the year. As we've written, we don't feel good about the final factor, and player development has not been a strong suit. If all UCLA does is add some talent to a weak culture and a bad foundation, and that would be our current appraisal of next year's squad, the end result will likely fall well short of the high hopes of UCLA fans.

adidas/Kelly Kline

Incoming Talent

This class has drawn an unusual degree of hype from evaluators and scouts in the SoCal area, with Ball, in particular, drawing extreme praise, with some comparing him (favorably!) to Jason Kidd at the same stage. Ball has drawn various state and national player of the year awards so far in high senior year, and many are projecting him to be an instant impact player at the college level.

In our opinion, he's certainly a very talented prospect, with elite vision, passing ability, and great size for the position. He's an above-average athlete with a very high basketball IQ, and once he gets into a real, structured system, he has the natural ability to develop into a good defender. The extreme hype, though, seems overblown. At Chino Hills and in his AAU program, he plays an extremely unusual and unique brand of basketball, geared significantly around full-court outlet passes and extreme fast-break basketball. Team defense on both his AAU team and his high school team is built around sacrificing positional defense for blocks and steals to facilitate the outlet passes and fast breaks. 

Don't get me wrong -- it's an extremely effective system at the high school and AAU level, and Ball does a really nice job in it. But it's a style of basketball that doesn't bear a close resemblance to really any successful system you'll see at the college or even pro level. He's going to need to adjust to the structure of the college game, and he's going to need to learn how to actually guard, not just play opportunistic defense built around trail blocks and steals. Again, he has the basketball IQ to make that adjustment, but pretending as if there won't be an adjustment period is probably a bit silly. And as with all such adjustments, it could take him some time to fully make the transition.

Leaf is, like Ball, an exceptionally talented offensive player, with the ability to score inside against size but also step out and hit face-up jumpers. He can play both inside and out, and will give UCLA a versatile offensive option. Defensively, again, he's going to have some work to do. At the high school level, he hasn't shown much interest on that end, and, while he's a decent athlete, he will likely struggle with some high-level fours at the college level. The biggest thing, though, is showing a level of commitment on that end of the court.

So, that's two players who need to improve defensively coming into a program where few, if any, players have significantly improved defensively over the last three years.

Anigbogu is a really talented prospect with a ton of upside. He projects as a major defensive force later on in his career, and he's developing an offensive game as time goes on. He's still pretty raw offensively, which might limit the amount he can play his first year or two in the program, but he has the potential to be an eventual pro. With all big men, it's tough to project what they'll be able to contribute in their first years in a program, but with some development, he could develop into an all-conference player at UCLA down the road. Again, though, that's "with development", which hasn't been a strong suit of this program under Alford.

Paras rounds out the group, and he's probably the one we're lowest on in UCLA's class. He's a good three-point shooter and a very good leaper, and can finish in transition well, so those are the main positives. He's not a very good lateral athlete, though, and struggles to stay with his man on defense and also has trouble getting around defenders off the bounce -- and that's at the high school level, against high school athletes. He also doesn't show a great approach to the game, and seems generally disinterested in playing much defense. If he improves his commitment on defense, he could get better, but his lack of ideal lateral athleticism could keep him from being anything but an average defender at the UCLA level.

PG Aaron Holiday (USA Today)

Returning Players

Up front, we have to say this: it's uncertain, at this time, who UCLA will return next year. We've heard that there is legitimate and varying degrees of uncertainty surrounding several players, including Prince AliAaron HolidayIsaac HamiltonJonah BoldenNoah Allen, and Alex Olesinski. At this point, we've heard enough to think that at least two of those players (Ali and Allen) will most likely transfer, and UCLA could see more depart that would massively change the dynamics of the team next year.

If just Ali and Allen leave, UCLA's returning backcourt will include Holiday, Hamilton, and Bryce Alford, while the returning front court will include Thomas Welsh, Bolden, Olesinski, Ikenna Okwarabizie and Gyorgy Goloman. We'd probably call that the best, realistic-case scenario, and that's a talented enough nucleus that, if you add in the incoming freshmen, you could reasonably see that team being talented enough to win the Pac-12 — if everyone is used in their ideal role and we throw out everything we know about this coaching staff.

The big keys, though, are Holiday and Bolden. They were the two best defensive players on this year’s team, and, from what we’ve heard, both are still somewhat uncertain about whether they’ll stay at UCLA. Without Holiday, and assuming Ali leaves, the backcourt is going to lack athleticism, and it’s hard to see the starting three (Alford, Hamilton, and Ball) being anything other than a poor defensive backcourt. Without Bolden, the front court defense will also likely be an issue, with Leaf and Welsh starting and neither being a very good defender.

Even if both stay, from what we’ve heard, it’s uncertain whether they’d start. As it stands, assuming everyone but Ali stays from the main rotational players, UCLA will have a conundrum, with Alford, Holiday, Ball, and Hamilton all demanding significant minutes for three spots. Holiday started and played 32 minutes per game this year, but Hamilton and Alford both played more, so it’s hard to imagine Holiday starting in front of them next season (again, given what we know about this coaching staff and their preferences). And then, with Ball, it has to be assumed that he’s coming in to start his freshman year and that promises have been made to that effect. So, again, it’s hard to see Holiday starting over him, which will force him into the primary backup role at point guard and shooting guard.

For Bolden’s purposes, this staff showed more confidence in him as the season wore on, but he was also one of the players who was singled out for poor defense at various points of the season, which could lead one to believe that he’s not necessarily one of the staff’s favorites, since, again, he was arguably the team’s best post defender this year. With Leaf as with Ball, it’s hard to imagine he’s coming into school to back up at the four, and, from what we’ve gathered, we imagine he’s going to be given every opportunity to start over Bolden.

So, if we assume that Bolden and Holiday, even if they stay, will likely start out the season coming off the bench, that’ll likely mean that UCLA starts a lineup of (all positions defensive) Alford at the 1, Hamilton at the 2, Ball at the 3, Leaf at the 4, and Welsh at the 5. That’s going to be a pretty slow defensive lineup that will almost certainly have to zone for a considerable portion of the year (i.e. whenever Holiday and Bolden are not on the floor).

Offensively, though, the team should be much improved. UCLA hasn’t had a player with the vision of Ball since at least Kyle Anderson, and UCLA’s offense hummed in 2013-14 with Anderson running the show most of the time. Ball might have  even better vision and passing ability, and if he can acclimate quickly to playing in a college-style offense against high-major athletes, he could have an exceptional offensive year.

We say “could”, of course, because it’s still uncertain how much time he’s going to have with the ball in his hands. Alford played more minutes at point guard than Anderson did in 2013-14, and he’s been the team’s primary point guard each of the last two years (this past year, Holiday started out at the point, but Alford took over the majority of the responsibilities heading into conference play). To expect even an elite player to just automatically be the point guard over Alford flies in the face of much of what we’ve seen from this staff — again, Anderson, who was the closest thing UCLA has had to an elite point guard in 10 years, played fewer minutes at point guard in 2013-14 than Alford, who was a freshman.

If Ball does play mostly point guard, that would theoretically free up Alford to take more spot-up shots, which should help to make him more of an effective offensive player. Hamilton, who already shot the ball very well this year on a variety of pull-ups, floaters, and jump shots could see his percentages at all levels improve with a point guard of Ball’s caliber running the show.

With Leaf and Welsh, UCLA will have two post players who can face up and shoot, with Leaf actually being the better of the two at scoring inside at this point. Welsh needs to get stronger this offseason, and becoming a good interior scorer has to be a priority, or else spacing could be funky with him and Leaf on the court at the same time.

So, the starting five should, if everyone has their proper role, be a very good offensive group. Defensively, there are more issues. Alford is, full stop, one of the worst defenders we’ve seen at UCLA, because he’s not a great athlete and he compounds his lack of athleticism by giving terrible effort and showing poor awareness (helping off shooters when he should stay on them, going way under screens when he should be fighting through them, and so on). Hamilton was better this year than he was last year, but he’s still prone to inattention, and he’s not a great lateral athlete — there’s a hard limitation to how good of a defender he can be. So, just with those two alone, this team is going to be crying out for a zone — there’s no way they’re going to effectively defend quick opposing point guards in man.

Ball is intriguing, because he has such a high basketball IQ and such good length that you could see him developing into a good defender, but he’s not there yet. He’s rarely had to guard on the perimeter at the high school level, and when he does, his high school and AAU systems basically involve funneling drivers into the middle to get their shots blocked. Playing positional defense is going to be a significant adjustment for him, and it could take some time. In any case, the Holidays of the world are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to freshmen on defense — most freshmen are pretty poor defenders, even if they turn out to be very good later on.

And then in the post Leaf and Welsh are both, at best, average athletes for their position. Leaf will be able to guard some fours, but he’ll struggle with some of the more athletic ones, and he hasn’t shown much of an inclination toward defense in high school. Welsh, again, needs to get physically stronger and develop more of an aggressive mentality on the interior where he can provide some rim protection, which is something UCLA has lacked for years now. As it stands, neither is a particularly good defender.

So, the gist is this: if basically everyone but Ali stays, and UCLA makes the proper choices in terms of allocating point guard responsibilities, and Lonzo Ball adjusts quickly to the college game, the team could be much improved offensively but will still have some significant issues defensively, and could possibly be worse defensively without Bolden and Holiday in the starting lineup.

HC Steve Alford (USA Today)

How They’ll Be Coached

Again, though, we have to talk about the coaching this team is going to receive, and how poor the foundation of the program really is.

As we talked about at length over the last month, if we had seen the team play hard consistently this season, and not quit down the stretch as they did this year, we’d have very few qualms about next year’s team. Sure, they’d have some athletic limitations, but effort is the biggest key to defense, and we’d feel better about next team’s effort level if we’d actually seen some consistent effort this year.

We didn’t, though, and the trend was bad, with the team playing with less effort as the season went on, culminating with the final six-game stretch when the team and staff basically quit. So, we could assume the team will just magically play hard next season, but we’d have literally no compelling reason for thinking that way.

And then there’s this: Alford is still on the team. He and Tony Parker were the leaders of this year’s team, and that was fitting given how poor the effort was on defense all year from the entire team. Alford, as a senior, will almost certainly be anointed the leader of next year’s team as well, and unless he has a massive awakening as a player and decides to try hard on defense every game, his brand of poor effort on defense could very well infect the team again.

So, if you imagine that UCLA will go with a starting lineup that does not have a ton of athleticism, and then you imagine that the effort, which actually got worse during the season this year, is not significantly better next year, and you remember that Alford, one of the worst defenders we can recall at UCLA, is still on the team and likely to play 35+ minutes per game, then there’s a chance that next year’s team is an even worse defensive team than this year.

The Pac-12 should be down a bit from this year, but there are still some very good returning teams, including USC, which should return basically everyone from a group that tattooed UCLA for three double-digit losses this season. But, reasonably, if UCLA returns everyone but Ali and Allen, the Bruins should be in the top two or three in the conference in terms of talent.

But talent isn’t everything. The coaching, effort, and minute allocation were all significant issues in the program this year, and the overall development of players over the last three years has been significantly lacking. To expect that all to change overnight simply because UCLA is bringing in a nice recruiting class is the height of silliness.

We’ve seen this movie before. You need talent to win big, but you also need, equally, good coaching and a solid culture built on some basic foundational precepts, like, for example, playing hard most of the time. UCLA was poorly coached this year, and the culture was very poor, with the team, again, quitting down the stretch. Even if UCLA avoids mass departures this offseason (which is still no certain thing), the coaching and culture are still significant areas of weakness, and it’s simply unrealistic to expect both of those things to change significantly in the seven months before the start of next season.

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