Shareef O'Neal

Analysis: UCLA Basketball Recruiting Needs

Dec. 6 -- UCLA has done exceptionally well in recruiting the 2016 and 2017 classes. It might not be done for 2017, and 2018 is wide open, so we look at UCLA's projected depth charts and analyze its recruiting needs...

With the basketball team coming off its biggest win of the Steve Alford era, beating #1-ranked Kentucky in Lexington, 97-92, we thought it’d be appropriate to get way ahead of ourselves in analyzing UCLA’s future basketball depth charts.

We’ve taken the liberty of not including Lonzo Ball in the 2017 depth chart, since it’s pretty well-accepted his plans are to go to the NBA after this season. As you can see, too, we’ve colored T.J. Leaf also as an early-jump-to-the-NBA possibility.

Even without Lonzo Ball, the 2017 depth chart looks good.  UCLA is still involved with Bruin legacy recruit, Chuck O'Bannon Jr., from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman, who is a 6-6 small forward.  If you plug him into the graphic, you might slot him at either the shooting guard or small forward spot.  That would add some needed depth to the backcourt, while the frontcourt looks well-stocked.

Even if you add O’Bannon, what the depth chart is lacking is backcourt quickness. Jaylen Hands is a 6-2 point guard and has some good hops and has some sneaky quickness on offense, but he’s not the fast-twitch kind of guy, like Aaron Holiday – the kind that make for great on-ball defenders.  He’s a decent defender, mostly because of his length.   It’s the same weakness of the current team we’re watching right now take the Pauley Pavilion floor – it lacks backcourt quickness and, thus, good on-ball defense.  Steve Alford traditionally likes his guards big, but when you get them bigger they also tend to not be as quick – unless you’re a sure-fire, early-to-the-NBA prospect.  It’s unlikely, though, that the 2017 class, at this late stage, could add a quick, potentially great defensive guard.   It’s possible; the scenario would be that UCLA has a great run in the 2016-2017 season, someone else besides Ball on the roster leaves the program prematurely (because you would need a scholarship to open up to take one more recruit/O’Bannon), and in spring UCLA successfully recruits a quick, as-yet-to-be-known guard. 

2018 Recruiting

Moving on to the 2018 projected depth chart, we took the liberty of not only removing Lonzo Ball but T.J. Leaf, since we think it’s a near-certainly Leaf won’t be at UCLA as a junior.  It also loses Thomas Welsh, Gyorgy Goloman and Ikenna Okwarabizie in its frontcourt.  We’d have to think, too, that Aaron Holiday could be a threat to leave early and might not be on this roster himself.  In fact, from what we know, we think there's a really good chance of that. Ike Anigbogu, we’d have to think, would still be at UCLA as a junior, but it’s a possibility, given what we’ve seen of him, that he could leave after his sophomore year.  It’s difficult to say, too, because this is pure crystal-ball gazing at this point, but we think Kris Wilkes will need some development before he leaves early for the NBA, so we kept him on this depth chart as a sophomore.  So our best guess at the 2018 depth chart has 8 or 9 scholarship players (with the one biggest unknown being Holiday), which means UCLA would have 4-5 to give to the 2018 class, which are currently juniors in high school. 

It’s unusual, and almost feels like a hallucination, that UCLA could have two legitimate, high-level point guards on the same depth chart, since we went through the desert in point guard recruiting in Ben Howland’s later years and Alford’s first couple. But, as we said, we think it's questionable that we'll see that in this instance -- that is, that Holiday stays until his senior year. And the issue, as it always is with basketball recruiting: you have to know in spring of the preceding year if a player on your roster will jump to the NBA the following spring.  For instance, with Holiday, UCLA would need some sense this spring of his intentions to potentially leave early for the NBA in the spring of 2018. We think it'd be very prudent for UCLA, in Holiday's case, to recruit like he won't be here his senior year.

If Holiday isn’t at UCLA as a senior, UCLA needs to get a point guard in the 2018 class, and that could be a tough proposition, trying to get someone to come in the year after elite, well-known Jaylen Hands.  Perhaps the best-case scenario for a 2018 point guard would be for UCLA to go after a three/four-year but very athletic combo guard.  It’d be someone that, perhaps, is a great, raw athlete but without the refined skills to make him a five-star type prospect.

A top priority, regardless of whether Holiday goes early to the NBA, is definitely to upgrade UCLA’s backcourt athleticism.  It will clearly need at least two guard/wings in the 2018 class, and it should be a high priority to bring in elite athletes who can upgrade UCLA’s backcourt quickness and defensive potential.  Then, of course, it needs to bolster its depth with post players and projects to probably sign two frontcourt recruits, too.

But in analyzing UCLA's situation with the 2018 recruiting class, there are some issues.

First, UCLA's successful recruiting formula for the 2016 and 2017 cycles was to mine the west coast to fulfill its recruiting needs. And the west coast obliged -- being very well stocked with talent in those two cycles.  The 2018 west coast class, though, isn't nearly as strong, and not very balanced talent-wise, lacking elite guards/wings.  In fact, at this point, there probably isn't a west coast guard/wing that UCLA would consider good enough to play at UCLA that you would say clearly favors the Bruins.  

Here's the other thing, too: UCLA caught lightning in a bottle in west coast recruiting when it built a pipeline with an Adidas-sponsored AAU program (and the fact the Ball family happened to live in the L.A. area). Adidas-sponsored Compton Magic worked as practically a UCLA feeder program the last two years, with T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Jaylen Hands, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley -- all clearly UCLA-level prospects -- all playing for Compton Magic. That greatly enhanced UCLA's chances of getting them.  Now, it looks pretty likely that the Compton Magic run of talent, and working as a recruit pipeline to UCLA because of its AAU affiliation, is pretty much over. First, Compton Magic doesn't have that same level of talent on its younger teams coming up.  Secondly, UCLA will switch to Under Armour this summer and it's likely that Compton Magic will remain at Adidas, since its contract with the apparel company is pretty binding, and lucrative.   We're pretty confident that UCLA will be able to maintain its relationship with Compton Magic, the question is whether Compton Magic will continue to produce the elite-level players it has in recent years. 

So, that begs the question: Can UCLA find a Compton-Magic-like AAU team sponsored by Under Armour that might have some high-end talent? There is the potential for another AAU team that is affiliated with Under Armour to now play essentially the same pipeline role Compton Magic has provided. The Earl Watson Elite is an Under Armour-sponsored AAU team that comes to mind -- yes, a travel team seeded by ex-UCLA guard and current head coach of the Phoenix Suns. But there are some snags, mainly that Earl Watson currently doesn't have absolute UCLA-level talent in its ranks like Compton Magic did. Now, they could perhaps lure some west coast talent to play for them, but remember, as we said, the west coast talent in the 2018 class isn't fantastic or balanced across positions.

Also, the elite talent in the west coast class of 2018 all basically play the same position. Marvin Bagley, the #1 player in the nation and a clear one-and-doner, is the #1 target for UCLA in 2018.  We've heard, too, that Bagley might very well have UCLA currently at the top of his list. But there are a few things to consider with Bagley.  He might have academic issues, having transferred to his current high school of Chatsworth (Calif.) Sierra Canyon from Arizona, where the word is that his transcript is sketchy.  Bagley might be more of a Kentucky-like situation, and there are plenty of well-informed people around basketball recruiting who believe that's where he'll end up. Bagley, too, might keep other elite west coast UCLA targets who play essentially the same position from coming to UCLA, so the question would be: Is Bagley worth one year if it keeps away elite players who would spend multiple years in Westwood? You absolutely have to take him, because of the impact he could make in one season (much like Ball's impact this year) and we believe UCLA would accept Bagley if he merely qualified by NCAA's standards, using a so-called "silver bullet" on him.  So, all in all, UCLA is in a good place with the Bagley recruitment at this point.  

Jordan Brown, the 6-11, 205-pounder from NorCal, is also a power forward type, and the recent word is that UCLA is doing really well with him, perhaps moving ahead of early favorite Cal.  It's highly unlikely, however, that Brown and Bagley go to the same place.  Brown also very well could be a one-and-doner and present the same one-and-done position problems.  But if UCLA could get either Brown or Bagley that would, obviously, be a huge coup, and greatly bolster UCLA's 2018 roster.

There would be some concern exactly where Bagley or Brown would fit, because you'd have to think that junior Ike Anigbogu would be pretty entrenched at one frontcourt spot and sophomore Cody Riley in the other. UCLA would probably opt to play a three-big lineup and that would be a pretty talented front line.

The other two five-star prospects that UCLA would have a real chance to get are also power forwards, Miles Norris of La Mesa (Calif.) Helix, and Shareef O'Neal, of Santa Monica Crossroads.  Now, perhaps two of the guys of these top four would go to the same college together, but we're hearing it could be unlikely.  UCLA could have a really good chance with Norris, since he actually does play for Earl Watson Elite, and we've heard UCLA is right there with Arizona for him.

And then there's O'Neal, who is Shaquille O'Neal's son. We've heard his family would like him to stay close to home and that Shareef really likes UCLA, having spent some time on campus and at games, and all of that could overcome that he plays for a Nike-sponsored program, California Supreme.  The question on Shareef: Even though he's seemingly a nice kid, does he have the drive to be a successful college player? This is a kid who was given a Lamborghini for his 16th birthday and is already a celebrity.  Will he be self-motivating as college player or more like celebrity-son Cordell Broadus and isn't driven to succeed in college athletics? UCLA, of course, would absolutely take him, and would probably benefit from the notoriety of him being Shaq's son. O'Neal, too, could be the one most likely on this list of power forwards to come to UCLA with someone else on this list.  

But it's highly unlucky that the three elite players UCLA leads for in the west for 2018 are all power forwards and probably wouldn't go to UCLA together. You wouldn't believe it, but two more of the top eight prospects on the west coast are similar, power-forward types, Taeshon Cherry, from San Diego (Calif.) St. Augustine, and Kamaka Hepa, from Portland Jefferson.  Cherry is ranked on Scout as a small forward, but he's really a 6-8, face-up four. We've heard Arizona is probably leading for him, with him having visited for Midnight Madness. We haven't heard that Hepa necessarily favors UCLA, and even though he's the #36-ranked player nationally in the 2018 class, he would be sixth on UCLA's list of power forward targets, and we wouldn't expect necessarily that UCLA would be able to prioritize him.  

So, there's a plethora of power forwards for 2018 in the west, but not much else. 

As we said above, it'd be great if UCLA could bring in another point guard in the 2018 class, but the class is very thin on high-end point guard talent. The clear elite talent is Brandon Williams, the quick, talented prospect from Encino (Calif.) Crespi.  He also plays for Nike-backed California Supreme, and the word is he wouldn't come to UCLA the year after Jaylen Hands. Plus also, Arizona is squeezing him tight, and he took an unofficial visit to Tucson for Midnight Madness, too. After Williams, there isn't currently another UCLA-level point guard prospect in the west coast class of 2018. 

In regard to off-guards, the best in the west is Kevin Porter Jr., from Seattle (Wash.) Rainier Beach, who is thought to be a heavy Washington lean, having said that Washington is his dream school.

The next tier are a number of guys in the lower-half of the Scout 100: Tevian Jones, from Chandler (Ariz.);  Jules Bernard and Payton Moore, both from Los Angeles Windward; and David Singleton, from Torrance Bishop Montgomery. And there's also Bryce Hamilton, the cousin of current UCLA player Isaac Hamilton, from Pasadena. UCLA hasn't offered any of these prospects at this point, but it's certainly early.  Jones is close with O'Neal, playing on the same AAU team, and they've said they want to play in college together.  We know that Bernard, who plays for Compton Magic, would covet a UCLA offer and probably jump on it.  Moore is a guy we'd really like to see UCLA offer and recruit seriously; he's a very good athlete who plays with a relentlessness, especially on defense. One or a few could emerge this spring and summer and be worthy of a UCLA offer. Alford, though, has a bit of a track record on west coast guards to only offer and pursue seriously those that are truly elite, with the thinking that guards/wings are so much more plentiful and obtainable nationally.  It's generally true, but it certainly would make things quite a bit easier if at least a couple of these prospects really emerged and developed as a top-30-type prospect, the type that Alford and staff seem to only want to take.  

If not, UCLA guard/wing recruiting will probably venture out nationally, and that could be challenging. UCLA recruiting under Steve Alford hasn't been vastly successful when it's tried that in its first couple of seasons. Getting Kris Wilkes out of Indiana with the 2017 class was a special circumstance, with the UCLA's coaching staff's ties to Indiana and with Wilkes playing for an Under Armour AAU program. Now, if UCLA goes to a Final Four this season that will greatly enhance its chances.  But it'd still be a bit of a stretch for UCLA to immediately be on the same footing as the blue-bloods that can effectively recruit nationally, like Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina. UCLA just doesn't have the national cache to be able to do that consistently. Even Ben Howland, when he went to three consecutive Final Fours, tried it but was mostly unsuccessful.  With a good run this year, there could be more recruits nationally that would look seriously at UCLA, but not probably on the scale of those schools, and nothing that should make UCLA supplant its west-coast-first recruiting strategy. And in the case of 2018, keep in mind, too, that our experts tell us the 2018 class is down nationally in terms of talent. 

Romeo Langford, the nation's #3-ranked prospect, has said he has interest in UCLA and he's from Indiana, which probably helps since Alford's staff still has connections to Indiana AAU ball.  Those close to the recruitment believe he's destined for Kansas or Louisville, and he plays for an Adidas AAU program, and you can't think Adidas will want to do UCLA any favors with national prospects in the next recruiting cycle. There are a few other national guard/wing prospects that are mentioning UCLA early, like five-star point guards JaVonte Smart, from Baton Rouge (LA) Scotlandville, and Darius Garland, from Brentwood (Tenn.) Brentwood Academy, or five-star wings like Khavon Moore of Macon (Ga.) Westside or Gerald Liddell of Cibola (Tex.) Steele. Again, among the point guards, we don't think a five-star point guard would choose to come across the country and go to UCLA the year after Jaylen Hands.  Moore and Liddell, though, have played on Under Armour AAU teams extensively, so that might make them more of a viable recruit for UCLA in the next cycle.

So, UCLA basketball recruiting for 2018 could turn out to be pretty challenging. But it's early and there's so much that will happen between now and the recruiting periods next spring and summer. 

Here are the things to look for and hope for:

-- UCLA has a very successful season, that makes recruits, particularly national ones, put UCLA more seriously on their radar. 

-- Under Armour-sponsored Earl Watson Elite becomes a more dominant west coast AAU program, and attracts more elite talent, or Compton Magic gets some elite talent in its ranks for 2018 and Compton Magic continues to be a pipeline to UCLA.  

-- Under Armour is a factor in a national prospect or prospects considering UCLA, much like in Kris Wilkes' case.  

-- Some guards and wings on the west coast like Jones, Bernard or Moore emerge this spring and summer to the level that UCLA would take them, 

-- Two of those top four power forwards in the west decide they want to come to UCLA together.  


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