UCLA opened its season in resounding fashion on Friday night, beating Pacific 119-80 behind a barrage of three-pointers and generally excellent offensive basketball.
We have no real idea how good Pacific is going to be this year, but if UCLA's offense looks like even a close approximation of that for the entirety of the season, UCLA basketball could be very fun to watch this season -- and you have to credit the impact of the freshmen for giving the offense what might be a very high ceiling.
The immediate impact of point guard Lonzo Ball was obvious. While he didn't do anything incredibly flashy passing the ball, especially in the first half, he showed a real knack for getting the ball into places at the exact right time. He'd put the ball where it had to be before the recipient got there, and when passing to the three-point line, he showed an uncanny ability to fit the ball right where the player's shooting pocket was going to be. He had 11 assists, and getting double-digit assists at the college level in your first game is a pretty good sign for the future.
His shots went in too! His three-point jumper is more than a little funny looking, and we have doubts about his ability to get it off with consistency against the better defenders in the Pac-12, but in this one at least, he was excellent from behind the arc. He also finished well around the hoop, and he had the good-heartedness to share some helpful tips with a Pacific defender after dunking on him.
Freshman power forward T.J. Leaf looked like he, too, might make a relatively seamless transition to the college game. He had 22 points and 15 rebounds, and looked the part of a versatile four. He can obviously face up, and he knocked down two of five three-pointers, but he also showed some ability to work around the glass and snare rebounds. Pacific didn't have a ton of talented size, so we'd pump the brakes on expecting him to average a double-double this year, but it's very good that he was able to make that kind of impact in his first game. With freshman posts, you never really know if they're going to make an immediate impact or need a year of development, and in Leaf's case, we're leaning toward the immediate-impact side of things.
Playing off the ball certainly seemed to help Bryce Alford, who had his most efficient offensive night as a Bruin. He made six of nine three-pointers, and he was clearly the beneficiary of some of Ball's best work of the night. He's still bringing the ball up on occasion, but for the most part he's playing on the wing, and that gave him some spot-up opportunities that he knocked down. We'll again pump the brakes a little -- we don't see Alford averaging 25+ points per game, since, again, high-major defenders might give him more trouble than what Pacific was able to do. He also still forces drives one-on-one when he doesn't have to, but we suspect UCLA likes it and encourages him to do it, so we don't expect that to stop anytime soon. All that said, this was an encouraging offensive night for Alford.
Isaac Hamilton has continued to craft his old man's game into an unbeatable combination of weird pull-ups and runners, and he broke that out again. He also drained a variety of shots from three. He did have a few untimely turnovers during a stretch where he reverted to a little bit of sloppy play, but overall, he had a nice start to the season.
The only starter who didn't finish in double figures was Thomas Welsh, and that was both a product of usage and some quality-of-play issues. First, UCLA really didn't try to work it inside to Welsh much, since the Bruins were so hot on the perimeter (as a team, they were 18 of 30 from three, setting a Pauley Pavilion record). Welsh also missed some shots, and looked just a little bit out of sorts, not getting down on the baseline as much and trying to shoot a little bit from outside his range. He'll also need to show more physicality going forward, since in this game he got a little pushed around at times. UCLA didn't need him much, but against the more competitive teams on the schedule, the Bruins will need a real inside presence from Welsh.
The game was going to be a blowout no matter what, but what really sparked the Bruins was when sophomore guard Aaron Holiday entered the game five minutes into the first half and had a sequence where he scored 10 straight points on two three-pointers, a steal and a fast break layup, and then a mid-range jumper in the lane. So much of that was due to the energy he brought to the defensive end, as the Bruins generated stops on four out of six possessions immediately after he came in. If Holiday really embraces that off-the-bench, instant-energy role, he provides a powerful force when he comes in with the second unit.
There isn't much else to speak of with the bench players -- Gyorgy Goloman and Ikenna Okwarabizie played about as well as we expected them to, which is to say not very. The Bruins will have to hope to get Ike Anigbogu back as soon as possible, because any situation where Goloman (who fouled out after six minutes), Okwarabizie, or Alex Olesinski (who wasn't available) have to play significant minutes is not going to be ideal for the Bruins.
Defensively, UCLA played mostly man with some zone mixed in, and it's clearly going to be the side of the floor where they'll need to work the hardest. Ball seemed to show a willingness to defend, even if he didn't necessarily defend well. Alford had possessions where he showed good effort, but then had many other possessions where he kind of reverted back to last year's general defensive strategy of taking the ball out of the basket. Hamilton started off slow, but seemed to pick up things when he came back in after the early fouls. Welsh, as stated above, needs to play more physically. Again, it's hard to take much from a game against a team like Pacific, where we don't really know if they're going to be any good this year, but it is a bit disconcerting that a team that didn't look very talented was able score as easily as the Tigers were able to in the first half when the game was still semi-competitive. The defense will hopefully improve as the season goes on, but, as we've said, it's something to watch.
In any case, whatever quality Pacific is, if this is how UCLA's offense looks all season, the Bruins could be in for a very fun season. We still hold to our idea that to truly reach the team's overall potential, the defense is going to have to be some approximation of "good", but even if the defense is just average, we'll go out on a limb and say that Ball is going to turn in a very impressive offensive season that could be enough to propel the Bruins to a good amount of wins. At the very least, the games in Pauley this year might be decidedly more watchable for fans who come out.