So, this article is a crapshoot. It's based on a good knowledge of the current team, and of the incoming players. But even given that, trying to predict what will happen in regard to team make-up, chemistry and competition is tough.
But it's fun.
The definite certainty about next year is that the team will have more depth of talent. This last season UCLA was particularly thin in the talent department. This just doesn't mean that it didn't have elite talent, but it lacked the depth of talent – the number of players that can compete at the high-major level.
You can definitely argue how much of an impact next year's freshmen will make – who will potentially start, who will get many minutes, etc. – but there is no arguing that the four freshmen who are coming to UCLA, along with a possible fifth, are all players that can compete at UCLA's level. That will give UCLA four or five more useable bodies, at the very least. The fact that UCLA lacked depth of talent wasn't cited that much as a reason for the team's struggles this year, but it very well could have been the #1 reason it did. UCLA played with only six players for most of the season (not counting Brian Morrison) that you would say could play at this level of college basketball. That's truly astounding, and really another bit of evidence that makes you realize just how decimated the former coach left this program.
Next season, UCLA will have at least 10 to 12 players who can play at this level. That, more than anything. will impact the team and its success, in a variety of ways. Not only will it provide more talent to actually play in the games, it will generate a great deal more competition in practice, which every coach will tell you is the most important element for players to get better, push themselves, and play at their optimum level. If you have players that perceive there is really no one behind them that can play, even some of the most driven players might not give as much effort. Competition forces you to improve.
Easily the single position that will benefit from competition and needs an upgrade in play is the point guard position. It's not necessarily a knock on Cedric Bozeman; at this point, it's uncertain whether he's actually a point guard (but then again, he really is a player without a position). But the point guard is the most important position on the basketball court. The player's ability to run the team, lead, give his teammates their best opportunity to succeed, and be an effective scorer and defender impacts the success of a team more than anything else.
UCLA has lacked a good, true point guard since the 1998-1999 season, Baron Davis's last. Earl Watson, who was a warrior, lent many of the aspects to the team that you need from a point guard – the toughness and leadership – but wasn't a true point guard. And even Baron Davis, who obviously is an exceptional player, was still at the beginning of his learning curve in 1999 when he went pro after his sophomore season. Davis was brimming with potential, but while at UCLA still had a ways to go in learning how to run a team like a disciplined point guard.
The last true point guard on the team was Cameron Dollar, who left after the 1997 season. And nothing against Dollar, but really then the last really elite point guard who had a developed, disciplined sense of the position was Tyus Edney in the championship season of 1995.
That will be ten years by the end of next season.
And it will end next season.
Jordan Farmar, the 6-2 McDonald's All-American point guard from Woodland Hills Taft, comes to UCLA next season as a freshman and the entire complexion of the team and the program will change as a result. Going out on a limb a bit here, we'll say that Farmar will have the biggest impact on UCLA basketball of anyone since Ed O'Bannon, and possibly even more. Not only will he impact the play on the court, but he and his fellow freshmen will change the atmosphere of the program, and the perception of it.
When it comes to what he'll bring to the court, Farmar will make such an impact because he has the great feel of an elite point guard. He has a great understanding of the game, knows how it works, has a great natural instinct for it, and a great passing ability. His ability to set up his teammates to score will almost come as a complete shock to UCLA fans, who haven't seen it in such a long time.
But not only is Farmar the real, true point guard the program needs, he also is one of the best scoring guards in the west. In fact, it's safe to say he has the best outside shot among guards in the west in the 2004 class. His shooting will, in itself, drastically change UCLA's offense, not allowing opponents to sag off the point guard on the perimeter, opening up opportunities for the wings and bigs.
His natural leadership, too, will provide a centralized leader on the team, one the program has also lacked for a while.
After such glowing praise, there are also some limitations to Farmar's game that will have to be considered (if he didn't have them, he'd be going to the League, so be grateful). Farmar is about 6-1 ½, and weighs probably 175 pounds. He has put on weight in the last year, mostly filling out in his arms and shoulders. His lower body, particularly his legs, are still pretty spindly. He lacks overall strength, particularly lower body strength. This makes him vulnerable to bigger, stronger guards being able to knock him off his dribble and physically overwhelm him. He has good, but not incredible ball-handling skills, which can be disrupted by very quick or strong guards. His quickness is good, but also not incredible. Offensively, he will probably struggle to break down defenders, at least as a freshman, lacking the quickness and strength to do it. Defensively, all of these things contribute to Farmar being just an average defender at this time in his development. He didn't play a great amount of defense in high school, probably saving his energy since he had to carry the majority of the offensive load for his team while playing every minute of the game. In the past, when he has applied himself, he has shown flashes of being an active, smart defender. Lacking strength, though, he will probably be limited defensively, and there will be defensive matchups for him as a freshmen in which he could struggle.
It will be interesting to see how much weight and strength Farmar adds by next fall during his off-season training.
Also, Farmar, can be pretty critical of his fellow teammates. Coming into the situation at UCLA, with some obvious potential tension between the veterans and the rookies, he'll definitely have to learn to lead more diplomatically.
Cedric Bozeman lacks the great feel for the position. But what would give him a better chance of staying on the floor next year, predominantly, is improvement on his jumpshot. Without your point guard being able to hit an open jumper, at the very least, allows defenses to cheat too much on your wings and bigs. It really limited UCLA's offense all season. You can expect that Bozeman will work in the off-season to improve his jumpshot, but there's a question whether it will be significant enough improvement to warrant him remaining the starting point guard. Bozeman also lacks the natural leadership ability that is sorely needed at the position.
If next year Bozeman and Farmar could actually mesh, and not conflict, they actually present a good complementary combination at point guard. Farmar brings to the table what Bozeman doesn't – a jumpshot, leadership and a better feel for the game and passing ability. Bozeman brings to the table what Farmar lacks – defense and the strength to stay with bigger guards.
In an ideal world, an improved Bozeman and Farmar would be a fairly good way to piece together what it needs at point guard.
The operative phrase here, though, is: "in an ideal world." Bozeman isn't entirely happy, and could very well see the writing on the wall as Howland brings in his own recruit. There were rumors that Bozeman was considering transferring, but there is nothing concrete as of yet.
If Bozeman does return, it's still likely that Farmar will get the bulk of the minutes at point guard next year. What he has to offer the team is just too good, and makes up for the liability he might present in defense and inexperience. You could probably expect Farmar to play about 25 minutes, with Bozeman picking up the other 15, on average, being used for defensive reasons, but also possibly being used at the off-guard or three for defensive purposes. UCLA struggled in defending wings and staying with the ball, and Bozeman would offer Howland a better defensive option at the wing position.
Ryan Walcott, who will be a fifth-year senior next year, will be at somewhat of a crossroads. If Bozeman remains on the team, it is very unlikely Walcott would see floor time other than in blow-outs. If he stayed at UCLA, he could be asked to move into walk-on status, since UCLA does need another scholarship if they were to give it to a fifth recruit for 2004. There has been some relatively solid rumors that Walcott is seriously considering transferring, probably to a D-2 school where he could play immediately next year.
The options to play the shooting guard and small forward position next year will be seniors Dijon Thompson, Brian Morrison, and Janou Rubin, and freshmen Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp, as well as possibly Malik Hairston.
At the two-guard position, the first priority will be defense. UCLA struggled to defend quicker two-guards this season, allowing penetration, which opened up the inside-outside game for some many opponents. One of Howland's biggest priorities will be to stop that penetration, and he needs the players at the two-guard position who offer the best chance of doing that.
Brian Morrison, if he can put together a healthy season next year (which there is no reason to believe otherwise), provides Howland that best defensive option. He has the quickness, toughness and perserverance Howland is looking for defensively. It also doesn't hurt Morrison that he'll be possibly UCLA's best outside shooting threat next year, along with Farmar. And he lends the toughness that was in short supply this year. The fact that he's a returning veteran, who has been in Howland's system for a year, and Howland likes him, helps his chances for the starting spot.
Arron Afflalo, the incoming 6-5 McDonald's All-American from Compton (Calif.) Centennial, looks to have the best chance of unseating Morrison. Afflalo also provides Howland good on-the-ball defense. He's not lightning quick, but is incredibly active and fundamentally sound in keeping players in front of him. His effort on defense alone will get him time on Howland's roster. Afflalo's offense, at this point, is probably a step behind Morrison's. He's a good – but not a great – shooter, and streaky, capable of getting hot, but also capable of getting into a shooting funk. Affalo, though, has a very good court sense and is an excellent passer, so that play-making ability will help get him on the floor. At least initially, the fact that he'll be a freshman, young and green, and inexperienced in Howland's offense, and doesn't shoot the ball as well as Morrison, will probably give Morrison the initial edge. But Afflalo is every bit as tough as Morrison, if not moreso, and he'll fight for playing time. If he comes in this fall with his outside shot more consistent, he'll have a better chance of overcoming Morrison.
The 6-5 incoming freshman from Los Angeles (Calif.) Fairfax, Josh Shipp, projects probably better at the two-guard position than at the three. He plays on the perimeter, not getting inside much, with his offense based mostly on his outside jumper. His defense, at this point, will probably keep him behind Afflalo, with Shipp not near the defensive player that Afflalo is. He isn't as physical or as active, and sometimes shows a lack of interest. Offensively, his shot is probably as consistent as Afflalo's at this point, which means it he can go through streaks of either being hot or cold. His stroke is a bit long, needing some space and time to get it off. He also only has average quickness and lacks the ability to take defenders off the dribble. He has a pretty good mid-range game; if he finds a little room within 10-17 feet, he won't hesitate to pull up. He, along with Afflalo, lack really great explosiveness, and could struggle in taking the ball to the hoop, at least as freshmen.
This is not to say that Shipp couldn't very well end up playing ahead of Afflalo next year. It's very possible. There isn't that drastic of a difference in their games, and if Shipp improved some over the off-season he could easily over-take Afflalo. But as of now, Afflalo would have the better chance at playing time next season.
As it stands now, you can look for Afflalo and Morrison to get the bulk of the minutes at the two-guard. If Shipp doesn't make a mark early on and earn some playing time, he very well could be a candidate to redshirt. On the other hand, even if he doesn't earn the starting spot, his good shooting could still make him the 7th or 8th man in the rotation, since UCLA needs as many shooters as it can get.
Janou Rubin, who will be a senior, will go back to walk-on status and will probably not get the opportunity for as much playing time as he did this season.
Returning senior Dijon Thompson will be the incumbent at the small forward position, that is, if he returns to UCLA. There have been reports that he could transfer, despite him publicly denying it. We've heard that there is some substance to the rumors, and it's still uncertain.
If he does return, the position will be his to lose. Thompson will have an advantage since he is one of the best outside scoring threats on the team, which translated into him being the team's leading scorer this season. He'll know the system, know what Howland demands. The disadvantage would be Thompson's defense, his lack of effort at times and inability to stay in front of a defender, as well as his lack of ability to create offensively.
Even with Thompson's offensive limitations, what would probably be the biggest determining factor about Thompson's playing time would be his dedication to defense. If, inspired by the new competition, Thompson discovered a new dedication to defense, it would greatly enhance his chances of retaining the starting small forward position. With some true two-guards on the roster next year, he won't have to defend smaller, quicker guards, like he did this year, which will also help him defensively. But most of it will come down to Thompson's defensive effort.
Thompson, if he returns, will probably have a good chance of holding on to the starting position, if UCLA only brings in the four recruits currently committed. Howland very well could opt to move Afflalo to the three spot to push Thompson, in order to get Morrison and Afflalo on the court at the same time.
But if UCLA does indeed get Malik Hairston, the McDonald's All-American from Detroit (Mich.) Renaissance, it could very well be a different ball game. Hairston is about 6-5ish, and still a bit thin, but he's an explosive athlete with a great, lithe body. He loves to go inside, grab rebounds, and fight much bigger players. He plays hard, is tough, and loves contact. He's also very quick laterally, plays hard defensively, and has a better chance of staying with quicker, athletic threes. His outside shot is, well, probably not as good as Afflalo's or Shipp's, still with a bit of an unpolished stroke that also lends itself to being streaky.
If Hairston did come, Thompson would be hearing footsteps from the first day Hairston steps foot on UCLA's campus this summer. More than likely, it would probably either inspire Thompson to step up and compete – or possibly transfer. If Thompson did stay, and played hard defensively, he would probably have an edge to start, at least early on. But, again in the ideal world, one disregarding any kind of bad chemistry or ill will, it would potentially be a great situation: the rookie Hairston pushing Thompson to play harder and improve.
By the end of the season, it's not hard to project that Hairston's pressure on the position could be relentless. As he settles in, gets comfortable, and perhaps his jumpshot improves, he has some things that give him an advantage over Thompson – namely explosive athleticism and quickness, as well as aggressiveness. So, in the ideal situation, you'd have to think Thompson would have the starting position initially, but very well eventually could lose it to a hard-charging Hairston.
Returning as a sophomore next season, 6-7 Trevor Ariza will plug into the vacant four spot, with the departure of T.J. Cummings. Ariza, if you remember, played it early this last season when Cummings was ineligible, and then continued to get minutes there throughout the season.
While you might think that Ariza would be playing out of position at the four spot, it could very well be the better spot for him in college. Of course, so much is dependent on Ariza doing the work in the weight room over the off-season and getting bigger and stronger. But that's really the only thing holding him back from being an intriguing option at the four.
Offensively, Ariza is a tough match up at the four, and gives you a dimension to the offense that opens it up a bit. Slower opposing fours would have a harder time staying with the quicker Ariza. Dragging defenders out from the basket would open up the middle, allowing UCLA's center more opportunity to catch the ball and more open lanes for guards and wings to penetrate. Ariza's quick first step would make slower fours have to sag off him a bit, but his ability to hit a three would demand they follow him out far from the basket. If Ariza can improve his mid-range jumper he'd be a very tough matchup all the way around.
Defensively is the question. Ariza would need that extra strength to defend stronger opposing fours. He has the quickness and athleticism to match up against any, but needs the strength to be able to hold his ground and fight for position defensively.
If he does get stronger and can defend the four, the position might be a more productive place for Ariza. He'll be the team's leading returning rebounder, and it will get him closer to the boards. He'll probably score more, having slower opponents guarding him. Offensively he'll probably face the basket from 10-15 feet, which only demands he take a couple of dribbles before getting to the basket, limiting the amount of ballhandling he has to do and subsequent turnovers. Ariza also struggled this year to defend quick wings, having problems staying in front of the ball. If he's stronger, he very well could be better, with his athleticism, at defending fours than he is threes.
Ariza will probably opt to investigate his NBA draft status. Almost certainly he'll get feedback that should convince him to return to college next year. While he does have some NBA potential, he is still very raw in his abilities. In the Washington game at the Pac-10 tournament, he couldn't finish a break coming to the basket from the left side since he doesn't have a strong left hand. Ariza would have to project as a wing in the NBA, and there are some basketball gurus that think there is a question whether Ariza has the lateral quickness to be able to guard NBA wings. So, it'd be surprising if Ariza opted for the draft. In many cases, as we've all learned, it doesn't sometimes, though, matter what is the logical and prudent thing to do in regards to the NBA draft, and there is some element of that in the Ariza situation. But more than likely he'll return. There has even been some talk that Ariza could transfer, thinking he'd go somewhere he could be more of the focal point of the offense and get more shots. But that seems unlikely also since, very simply, if you're a player who wants to get to the NBA as soon as possible, you're not going to delay it by having to sit out a year in transferring.
6-8 Matt McKinney will return as a redshirt sophomore, and it's a pretty much a mystery how much he'll be able to contribute. He sat out the entire season with a fractured foot, but did practice with the team in the last month of the season. Reports are that McKinney intends to quit volleyball to dedicate himself completely to basketball, which is good – and bad – to hear. It's good that a player would want to dedicate himself to a sport fully, but it's uncertain if McKinney is picking the best sport to do it. McKinney was 208 pounds and will have to get up to around at least 220 if he'll hope to be able to defend the four position. He does have some decent skills, and can step away from the basket and hit a jumper. Coming out of high school as a prospect, we projected him as a mid-major, which makes him potentially better than Josiah Johnson, but probably only still a limited role player at the UCLA level. If he could develop to the point that UCLA could get 5-10 minutes out of him a game, it would be a win at this point.
6-7 Josiah Johnson will return as a redshirt senior after sitting out the last several games this season with an injury, and will fight with McKinney for the back-up minutes at the four position. More than likely, McKinney will get most of any minutes that are available. Johnson did always bring great effort to the practice floor and the games this season, just being limited in his ability. If UCLA gets a fifth commitment from the class of 2004, they would need a scholarship, and it was thought that Johnson, who is line to graduate this year, could move to walk-on status and just foot the bill for two quarters to play next season. But the recent word is that might not be an option.
The other potential power forward could be the 7-footer from Sacramento (Calif.) Natomas, Robert Rothbart. If UCLA misses with Hairston, and/or the 5/8 rule is not rescinded (and more and more college coaches believe it won't be), it's thought that UCLA wants to bring in Rothbart, and that they'd have a very good chance at doing so. Rothbart is skilled, with the ability to shoot out to three, but just lacks strength and aggressiveness. We, admittedly, haven't seen him play since last fall, and reportedly he's gotten bigger and more aggressive. Even so, it's a bit doubtful that he'd come in and be able to provide any significant minutes backing up the four behind Ariza. It would probably come down to who could defend the opposing four better – McKinney or Rothbart – and you'd have to give a bit of an advantage to McKinney, being older, stronger and more used to college-level ball (at least from practice). But it wouldn't be completely a surprise if Rothbart, if did come to UCLA, could continue to get bigger and stronger, be better able to defend the four, and then capable of providing the back-up minutes behind Ariza.
Ryan Hollins, the 6-11 junior-to-be, was perhaps UCLA's most improved player this year. He came a pretty long way from the beginning of the season, showing some good developing foot work and post moves. His defense also was good, and improved throughout the season, as well as his ability to block shots.
With Hollins it's really the same issue – strength. Weighing about 207 pounds, Hollins needs to get stronger, and be up around 230ish. He has a hard time carving out position, particularly on the defensive side, which allowed him to average only four rebounds a game this season.
The word is that Hollins won't participate in track and will dedicate himself to basketball. He's a hard worker and a good kid, and it's not too hard to anticipate some considerable improvement in Hollins by next season, merely based on how much he improved this season. If you add some more weight and strength, some more post work, and just more experience, since he is pretty new to basketball and still doesn't have a great feel, it's not hard to see Hollins possibly averaging 10 and 7 next year. Seeing how Hollins will develop is probably one of the most exciting aspects of this current team since, with his great athleticism, there is some considerable potential there.
The biggest question is just how big of an impact incoming 6-9 freshman Lorenzo Mata from South Gate High will have. Perhaps more than any other incoming recruit, fans might possibly expect too much out of Mata since he's the rawest among the recruits. He weighs about 220, has a good frame that will looks to be able to hold quite a bit more weight. Think of him as a more skilled version of Stanford's Justin Davis, with that kind of physical presence and body potential. But like with Davis, who it took a few years to bulk up and be that physical, Mata is still a ways away. It's not only the physical aspect, but Mata is still learning how to play the game, having only played basketball for a few years, so he's still raw. He is by no means polished, offensively or defensively, and will probably be prone to many freshman mistakes next year, particularly early on. For how raw he is, though, he has really shown the potential to not only be a good defensive player in the post, but an effective offensive player, with a good, natural shooting touch around the basket. But it's pretty easy to predict that it's going to take Mata a while to be a consistently effective player. The one thing that could get him on the floor, though, even while he's particularly raw, is his toughness and rebounding ability. He's probably a better rebounder than both Hollins and Michael Fey right now. He has a good natural instinct for it, and is quicker with the second jump off the floor.
Fey will be in a fight for minutes next year. As Hollins improves he'll probably get more time, and Mata will get some. Fey, even though many believe he'll never be a productive player, has some potential to turn into one. He had a curious season, looking great in the first game against Vermont, and then also playing curiously well against Washington. It does seem like there is a bit of a pscyhological aspect going on here with Fey. Basketball-wise, he needs to improve his ability to catch the ball predominantly. He has some decent skills and post moves, but he can't get to them if he can't catch the ball. An off-season of work should get him better and stronger and, more importantly, hopefully more comfortable. While you wouldn't want to make any comparisons to Dan Gadzuric, Gadzuric, though, in his first couple of seasons, had hand problems similar to Fey's, but eventually got over them. It is evidence that it can be done. Big men are a strange lot, and you never know when the light might turn on, or if it ever will.
Hollins could get just about as many minutes as he did this year – about 25 per game – early on, with the back-up minutes being shared between Mata and Fey. But come conference play, it wouldn't be too hard to anticipate Mata getting more comfortable, and more effective. What would be particularly welcome is if Fey did also, and UCLA had the three of them (that would be 15 fouls to give) all bigger, stronger, and improved by mid-season next year.
Mata could also provide some time at the power forward position, when UCLA wanted more size and bulk defensively. While Mata is more of a five in Howland's system, he has the potential skills-wise to play the four also, which could get him on the floor next year and down the line more often.
It's a bit humorous that some critics have cited that Howland has instituted a strict, regimented offensive system that doesn't allow for players to fast break or be creative in the half-court set.
It's the same offense that plenty of teams run throughout the country, very close in fact to Stanford's. What most good basketball people know – and recognize about Howland's system – it's not a matter of the system but more the players in the system. His offense provides players options, but they need to be able to have the talent to execute many of those options. To be able to fast break, first you need some defense and some rebounds, and then you need a point guard who knows how to lead a fast break well, all of which weren't in great abundance this last season.
Howland is probably privately chuckling at the criticism that his system won't lend itself to breaking and transition points. He knows pretty well that as soon as he gets the bodies who can do it, they will. The same goes for the offense; as soon as more talent gets plugged into the system, talent that can actually break down a defender with a dribble, or open up defenses with good outside shooting, you might see what appears to be a more effective offense.
What Howland did this year is try to establish the cornerstones to all good basketball programs – defense and rebounding. It's a pretty clear fact in college basketball that you can't win without them. If, say, you have a high-scoring offense but play little defense and rebound, you can only go so far. In fact, you might never see that high-scoring offense without defense and rebounding. It's pretty well accepted that if you have talent, and you take care of the fundamentals of defense and rebounding, the high-flying, high-scoring offense will take care of itself. Good players create offense; good coaches create defense and rebounding.
So, Howland laid the ground work for the program this year, and now will have four or five more capable players to plug into it. With 10-12 he can play, it gives him the depth to be able to run up and down the court and push the ball, and to even possibly press a bit defensively. As we said at the start of this piece, perhaps the biggest impact of the incoming recruits next season is just the depth they now provide.
THE EXPECTATION FACTOR
Overall, it's good to have expectations for teams, but expectations are a tricky thing. We saw how expectations sometimes don't necessarily correspond with the capabilities of a team. They can sometimes get overblown due to some misleading early wins, or even merely the desperation of fans who so dearly want a team to succeed.
The team next year undoubtedly will be improved. It'd be near impossible for it not to be, given the depth of talent. How much improved will be the question, and whether you deem that improvement a success will be based primarily on the expectations of many, from fans to newspaper columnists. Many, given the disappointment of the season, now tend to place too high of expectations on the incoming freshmen, out of desperation. While the freshmen are good, and the class could end up being among the top five in the country, it still isn't on par with the class of 1998 that included Dan Gadzuric, Jerome Moiso, JaRon Rush, Matt Barnes and Ray Young. There aren't any clear NBA-potential types in next year's group as there was in that year's. While Malik Hairston is generally considered a top ten national recruit, at 6-4 to 6-5 and probably 185 pounds he is still not the near-NBA-ready type you would normally expect from a top ten national recruit. Jordan Farmar could be the best NBA prospect in the lot, and he's very far away from ever seeing an NBA roster, with, at the very least, some considerable physical development that would need to happen before it would be a possibility (he'll be just 17-years-old when he enrolls at UCLA in fall). While Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp are very good prospects, they're not near as athletic as you might normally expect from top 40ish types, or a McDonald's All-American. And Lorenzo Mata is not near the prospect that, say, Moiso or Gadzuric were – closer, as we said, to the level of a Justin Davis. Fans have to understand that the class, while it's exceptional, isn't stocked full of guys who have the really elite kind of talent where you could project them to the NBA easily. And while they will make a considerable impact next year, they'll do it mostly because there simply weren't many bodies at UCLA that could play before they arrived.
Their arrival, though, will make a bigger impact than just a mere talent upgrade and addition. It will affect a change in attitude and approach to the game. The biggest impact warriors like Farmar and Affalo will make is establishing a new environment of basketball, and a new era of toughness at UCLA.