UCLA enters its fourth season under Steve Alford on Friday against Pacific, and the Bruins are in an interesting position. Results on the court certainly trended downward over the last two years, and especially last season, when the Bruins, fresh off two straight Sweet-16s and top four finishes in the Pac-12, finished 15-17, missing the NCAA Tournament and putting together one of the worst three or four seasons for UCLA in the modern era.
So, that’s not great — UCLA, when run correctly, should really never miss the tournament, barring some really catastrophic injury circumstances. That really wasn’t the case last year, when a fairly talented UCLA team just played through long stretches of games with poor effort and defensive intensity. Outside of a brief high point against Kentucky in December, it was a season filled with lackadaisical defense, poor effort, and really ugly basketball.
All that said, if you’re inclined to hope, there’s reason to be optimistic about UCLA this season, and that has to do primarily with the other side of the equation for UCLA: recruiting. Despite the results on the court last year, UCLA secured an excellent recruiting class filled with talented players that should significantly raise the talent level in the program. If you’re of the opinion that the major issue for UCLA last year was a lack of high-level talent, that really isn’t the case this year, as the Bruins brought in three five-star freshmen to join a roster filled with two other former five-stars in Isaac Hamilton and Thomas Welsh, two former four-stars in Prince Ali and Aaron Holiday, and a former three-star who has started for each of the last two years in Bryce Alford. It might be a little light on talented depth, which we’ll talk about, but the top-shelf talent is plenty good enough for UCLA to field a Pac-12 championship caliber team.
Will it get there? That’ll depend on the coaching it receives. As we went over exhaustively after last season, the Bruins were a poorly motivated team that played bad defense with little effort most of last year. The infusion of competitive and talented freshmen might help change the team dynamics some, but the biggest changes need to come from the leadership both among the personnel (seniors Hamilton and Alford) and among the coaching staff. If the Bruins play with the same sort of poor effort on defense this year that they played with last year, it’s a virtual certainty that they’ll fall far short of expectations and end up another disappointing squad in Westwood. If they can figure things out defensively, though, and they can bring some sort of consistent effort every game, they could help solidify Steve Alford’s position at UCLA, and give the Bruins some real momentum on the court.
Guards and Wings
UCLA is in the seemingly enviable position of returning three starters from last year in the backcourt, and not necessarily having to start them all. In fact, to begin the year at least, a starter from last year, Aaron Holiday, will almost certainly be the first guard off the bench.
The reason for his turn to the bench has everything to do with the incoming talent UCLA is bringing in at point guard — Lonzo Ball. The heralded five-star freshman would have been one of the most heavily recruited prospects in the country if he hadn’t committed so early to UCLA and more or less shut down his recruitment. Ball is a force on the offensive end, with the kind of vision and passing ability to immediately make a huge impact at the college level. He has a great basketball IQ, and, since he’ll immediately earn 30+ minutes per night, he should have the minutes necessary to improve a great deal over the course of the season.
There are some areas where he’ll need to improve, of course, since he is a freshman playing college basketball for the first time. Defensively, while he has long arms and the aforementioned basketball IQ that allows him to anticipate passes and make steals, he is very much a work in progress when it comes to positional man defense. At the high school level, he was rarely asked to lock down guards on the perimeter, and that’s likely going to be a major adjustment for him at this level. Offensively, while he’s an exceptional passer and very good ball handler, his shot and shot selection are going to need refinement at this level. In high school and AAU ball, he and his brothers were famous for being willing to shoot the ball from pretty much anywhere on the opponent’s side of the court, but with defenses being markedly better at the college level, he’s going to have to pick his spots quite a bit better.
That said, if he’s allowed to dominate the ball on offense and make things happen with his vision and passing ability, he should significantly improve UCLA’s offensive efficiency. He certainly handled the point guard duties quite a bit in the exhibition, and we imagine he’ll start there this year, but it’ll be interesting to see how much that adjusts when he hits the inevitable freshman struggles — we imagine the security blanket of Bryce Alford could prove enticing for Steve Alford as the season wears on.
The other two starters, at least to begin the year, will be Hamilton and Alford, with both of them starting on the wing. Hamilton had a nice junior year after struggling mightily during his sophomore season. After beginning the year looking like he didn’t even belong on the court at the Pac-12 level, he came on strong toward the end of non-conference play and into the conference season. He was arguably UCLA’s most effective offensive option for long portions of last season. With Hamilton, so much is about confidence, and he clearly builds on his offensive play. Hopefully, for his sake and the team’s, he starts off the season on a roll and gives Ball an effective offensive option on the wing.
It’s really interesting to evaluate Bryce Alford heading into this season. For the first time, we are legitimately buying that he won’t be asked to play point guard for most of the season, and that makes him, frankly, quite a bit more intriguing for us offensively. While he’s had a reputation as a shooter since arriving in Westwood, his production has never quite matched his reputation, as he’s been an above average but not great three-point shooter for his career. Some of that might have been due to playing on the ball, and taking a considerable number of his shots off the dribble versus catch-and-shoot opportunities. With Ball likely taking the ball-handling duties, Alford should be afforded more opportunities to shoot in rhythm, and potentially that could increase his percentages across the board. Of course, Alford’s issue has been as much about shot selection as anything else, and even catch-and-shoot opportunities can be bad shots if he’s taking contested jumpers. If Alford can play within himself, we have no doubt he can be a critical piece of the puzzle for UCLA as a shooter and experienced ball handler, but we have real doubts whether he’s ready to play that kind of role.
Hamilton and Alford both need to improve quite a bit defensively this year, not just from a they’re-really-bad-at-defense standpoint, but from a leadership standpoint. If this team is going to reach its potential, it’ll need to be a good defensive unit, but the only way that happens is if the entire team buys in to playing defense. If Hamilton and Alford play consistently hard on defense and give a great effort, that could be infectious, especially for the freshmen. On the flip side, if they dog it for long stretches like they did last season, that could also be infectious, and not in a good way.
There isn’t much depth, especially to start the season. Aaron Holiday will probably back up at point and on the wing to start the season, and he’ll be expected to bring instant energy and athleticism on the bench. The five on the floor will no doubt improve defensively when Holiday is on the floor, as he’s probably the best defender on the team regardless of position. Offensively, he’ll need to play within himself and not press — turnovers were a bit of an issue for him at times last year, and he also seemed to go in the tank a bit toward the back half of the conference season. How will he deal with the idea of playing off the bench after starting all of last year? That’s the big question here — there’s a case to be made that he was a more effective player than Alford last year, when you factor in defense, but Holiday was always expected to be the odd man out when Ball came in. If Holiday can maintain focus and use his 20 minutes or so per game to really play hard and with great energy, that could serve him really well both in the future and for his NBA prospects.
The other major backcourt rotation member will be Prince Ali as soon as he returns from injury, which should happen by late November or early December (effectively, he should almost certainly be back to full health and readiness by the start of conference play). Ali struggled to find a role and make an impact last year as a true freshman, looking out of sorts at times, but he gives UCLA great athleticism. If he can figure things out mentally, he has the athleticism to be a plus defender, which could give UCLA a real change of pace when Holiday and Ali come into the game together. Ali should back up at both the 2 and the 3, working as the primary backup for Alford and Hamilton as the season goes on.
UCLA returns one of its starting center types from last year in Thomas Welsh, but will have to replace the contributions of both Tony Parker and Jonah Bolden. While Parker made an impact at times, the bigger loss is almost certainly Bolden, who was turning into a very good defender by the end of last season and was starting to develop quite a bit more offensively as well. If Bolden were on this team, we’d feel very good about the depth, but as it is, while the starting group is talented and there is a decent potential option on the bench, UCLA will really have to hope to avoid injuries to keep the holes in the depth chart from showing.
Welsh, for the first time at UCLA, will get relatively uninterrupted minutes at center, and it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of strides he’s made in the offseason. Last year, while he made some progress both offensively and defensively, he didn’t seem to develop as much physically, which was probably the most obvious thing he needed to improve. Again, this offseason, getting bigger and stronger had to be a priority so he could avoid getting pushed around on the block, and it remains to be seen whether that happened. Physically, he doesn’t look significantly different, but if he significantly improved core and leg strength, that should be noticeable once UCLA gets into the meat of the non-conference schedule and starts to play some physical posts. He’ll have to play physically this year especially with the loss of Parker who, for all his faults, could virtually always be counted on to play with some physicality and edge.
The big addition is power forward T.J. Leaf, who already looks the part of a big impact power forward at the Pac-12 level. He’s a really talented offensive player, with great passing ability for a big man, and he already seems to have developed a high-low connection with Welsh. He has a very nice stroke, runs the floor really well, and he does a nice job of finishing around the basket. It was funny — heading into his junior year of high school, he started to look a little thicker and maybe like he was going to thicken out into a center, but he’s maintained his body very well and looks to have even improved his athleticism a little bit. Defensively, he’s going to be the typical freshman, and will likely have more than a few lapses. He has good rebounding instincts, but needs to get stronger and a bit more physical around the basket. The big thing for him is just getting stronger, but there is a ton to like about his upside and, like with Ball, he’ll be afforded the minutes at the beginning of the season to show big strides as the season wears on.
Behind the two of them, at least to start the season, is a giant shrugging emoji. Very talented freshman center Ike Anigbogu tore his very talented meniscus a week ago and will likely be out for about the same time period as Ali. With Ali, you can figure that he’ll be more or less up to speed when he gets back to full health, but for a true freshman, that challenge is exponentially greater. While he did get the live reps against the Australian teams and practiced this offseason, it might take him a while to get up to speed once he returns — the hope, as with Ali, has to be that he’s fully ready to make an impact come conference play.
Anigbogu is a very talented prospect, with off-the-charts upside that he’s just starting to realize. He’s a considerable defensive presence, and it’s no stretch to imagine that he’ll be the best defensive post on the team this year once he’s healthy. His offensive game is coming along nicely, but he’s not as much of a threat on that end yet. He can be counted on to finish around the hoop, and he’s starting to develop a reliable hook. In a pinch, and we know this will be required at some point given the depth chart, he can play some four, but ideally he’d be the 10 to 15-minute backup center all year.
The rest of the depth chart is varying degrees of limited. We have to figure junior power forward/center Gyorgy Goloman will be the first guy off the bench to back up both center and power forward to start the season, and he’s a decent mid-major level player who’s probably a bit out of his depth at this level. He’s a decent passer for a big, and he has a willingness to shoot from mid-range and deep, but he’s at a deficit athletically on the defensive end and has little ability to score inside. Because of the state of the depth chart, though, he’s probably going to be playing 15 to 20 minutes per game to start the season — at least.
Less talented still, sophomore Alex Olesinski will be the second big off the bench to start the year. He’s more or less a poor man’s version of Goloman — not quite as good of shooter, not quite as good of a passer, and not quite as athletic. As with Goloman, though, he’ll be relied on for real minutes to start the year — hopefully as few as five per game, but foul trouble could force him to play more.
Behind those two is junior center Ikenna Okwarabizie, who should be encased in glass with a sign that says “break only in an emergency.” Okwarabizie looked a looooooong way away from competing effectively at the Pac-12 level last year, and we wouldn’t count on him for anything besides a powerful body in practice this year.
This offense, when run well, should be extremely potent. Ball is the perfect point guard for Alford’s ideal free-flowing motion offense, and he thrives in the open court. He has otherworldly open court vision, and he can make skip ahead and length of the court passes with weird ease. UCLA should score plenty of easy buckets with Ball’s full court passing ability, and we imagine they’ve strategized to have Hamilton and Alford leak out early on the break.
If everyone plays unselfishly, the offensive play with the starting five on the court could be the best it’s been under Alford — even better than that season with Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, since Ball will be playing quite a bit more point, in theory, than Anderson played that year. The big key words are “if everyone plays unselfishly”. Last year, both Hamilton and Alford fell into full chucking mode at times, and the rest of the team kind of fed off that, with Holiday and Ali especially going through periods of chucking as well. A very scary potential scenario would be if Ball, who has been raised in a very free-flowing, street-ball type of play, combines with the chucking mode of Alford and Hamilton at times, to make for a very AAU-like offense. If Ball mans the point and distributes the ball the way he’s capable of doing, hopefully that will control some of those tendencies, but still, UCLA will have to remain vigilant about playing unselfishly and disciplined.
Welsh and Leaf give UCLA a couple of capable offensive posts, with Leaf having the ability to finish on the break very well while also facing up. Welsh is still a bit of a face-up five, and as we said up top, getting stronger had to be a priority for him this offseason so he can handle himself on the block a bit better. If Welsh has gotten stronger, that should give UCLA an interior scoring presence, but if he is still getting pushed around inside, UCLA might be a touch too perimeter-oriented.
When the bench players come in, there’s going to be a drop off offensively. The backup point guard position should be interesting to watch — when Ball comes off the floor, will UCLA ride primarily with Alford at the point or Holiday? We have to imagine it’ll be Alford, but it should be interesting to watch if Holiday can make major strides and keep Alford off the ball.
Steve Alford said in the preseason that he’d like this to be a primary man team, and we admire the goal there. We’re with Ben Howland in the sense that man defense, when done well, is vastly superior to zone defense. The issue for UCLA is that it really hasn’t been done well under Alford, both due to deficiencies in personnel and effort.
We don’t anticipate that changing a great deal this year. The personnel has changed, with Leaf and Ball entering the starting lineup in place of Holiday and Parker/Bolden, and that’s a change for the negative defensively. Ball has the ability to play passing lanes, but he’s not a great positional defender at this point, and Leaf is a freshman four who’s not the athlete Bolden was. When you combine those two with Hamilton and Alford, not to mention Welsh (who’s just above average as a defender at center), it has the potential to be one of the worst defensive lineups UCLA has fielded under Alford — at least from a man perspective.
If UCLA goes zone, we like the defense somewhat more. Ball gives them nice length on the perimeter and Leaf is no slouch as well. Alford and Hamilton are at a deficit in any defensive scheme, but Ball and Leaf have the potential of being good zone defenders. It still wouldn’t be a great defense, but it might have a better chance of consistently flummoxing opposing teams.
The big key, though, is playing hard. That was a huge, inexplicable issue for UCLA last year, as the effort was just plain bad for most of the season on defense. If UCLA plays hard, we think they can play average man defense and maybe even good zone defense. But if they don’t play with effort, they’re going to be bad at anything they try defensively. Defense is much more about playing hard than pretty much anything else, and it’s something UCLA has struggled with under Alford.
As one final note about the defense, whatever scheme UCLA chooses, it should be somewhat gambling/steals oriented. We always like good, strong positional defense, but this offense has the potential to be an elite fast break team, and that basically demands steals. UCLA might be an OK rebounding team this year — we’ll have to see a lot more out of Welsh to say that they’ll be good — but with Ball’s length and Hamilton’s fast hands, UCLA could be pretty darn good at forcing turnovers, and that might be the ideal way for UCLA to get out on the break more frequently.