- Matt Cox
Key Returners: Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welsh, Gyorgy Goloman
Key Losses: Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford, TJ Leaf, Isaac Hamilton, Ike Anigbogu
Key Newcomers: Jaylen Hands, Kris Wilkes, Cody Riley, Jalen Hill
Postseason Projection: 4 - 7 seed
Outlook: With “the Ball Family” sitcom set to air on NBA broadcasts this fall, the ratings for UCLA basketball programming are projected to take a significant dip this season - at least, compared to the circus we saw last year (apologies to the forgotten middle brother LiAngelo Ball). While Lonzo's jaw-dropping highlights and ear-deafening father consumed college basketball news feeds on an almost nightly basis, his "supporting cast of characters" - Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and TJ Leaf - also played major roles in orchestrating UCLA's symphonic offensive attack that demoralized opposing defenses with elite individual playmaking woven together with an infectious level of unselfishness. So while the aforementioned names are absent in the projected lineup picture above, Steve Alford and his staff are ready to replenish the exodus of talent this summer with a fresh haul of blue-chip prospects.
The headliners of the Bruins' 4th ranked recruiting class, per 247sports.com, is a pair of McDonalds All-Americans in Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes, each of whom should be household names on the national scale by Christmas time. Finding a replacement for a generational talent like Lonzo Ball - one with an uncanny ability to lift the game of everyone around him - is almost impossible for most programs to do in one offseason. But the freshman Hands is blessed with the same gift of hawk-like vision combined with yo-yo-esque handles that his predecessor Ball possessed, which has already earned him comparisons to a young Baron Davis in initial recruiting evaluations:
And while Hands lacks the elite size of Lonzo, his rangy 6’3 frame will still help him find passing angles that 99% point guards at the college level simply can’t see. His in-control approach to the game should mesh perfectly next to Aaron Holiday, whose pace of play typically features only two gears: high speed and ultra-high speed...
Reminiscent of a young Russell Westbrook, the little brother of Jrue is constantly in attack mode and salivates at any opportunity to attack the rim. His explosiveness can best be illustrated in the following candid:
Holiday's maturity as a sophomore last year was evident in his decision-making improvement with the ball in his hands. While he had a tendency of telegraphing his plays as a freshman, he was much more efficient at both the point and off-guard spots in his 2nd full season last year. His outside shooting in particular was a major bright spot, as he converted 41% from downtown on 129 attempts last year. Alford will have a dangerous backcourt with two interchangeable lead guards, especially with how comfortable Holiday became playing next to a true point in Ball last season. And with another former top-50 recruit, Prince Ali, back in the rotation after redshirting last season, the Bruins should have one of the most athletic perimeter units in the country.
So while the guards will make this UCLA team tick, the depth at the forward position projects to be a bottomless pit of top-notch talent. Kris Wilkes has the highest anticipation surrounding his arrival and should thrive in Alford’s run-and-gun transition attack. His overall half-court game is still developing, but he’s already a potent slasher and effective finisher around the rim. With Wilkes as the odds on favorite to start on the wing and with mid-range assassin Thomas Welsh likely penciled in at the 5, that aforementioned forward depth will give Alford plenty of options to tinker with lineup combinations. A two-big lineup could feature another senior in Gyorgy Goloman, who was quite effective in limited minutes last year as a true garbage man in the paint. Incoming top-50 recruit Cody Riley is a physical specimen with a downy-soft touch out to 20-feet, which could give the guards increased room to slash in the half-court if he assumes a stretch-4 type of role offensively. Last, but certainly not least, is Jalen Hill, who brings a more athletic punch to the table - look for him to be an immediate asset in rim protection. He should also feast on the other end against slower, more traditional bigs with a quick first step on drives from 8-10 feet in.
Bottom Line: Steve Alford is officially branding UCLA hoops with the same Showtime aura of the nearby professional basketball team known as the Los Angeles Lakers. While the "Lonzo Show" captivated TV audiences across the country last year, Alford has now assembled yet another roster capable of thriving in a track meet style of game. The Bruins played at the 6th fastest tempo in the nation last season, which routinely generated easy run outs for layups, dunks and uncontested transition 3s.
The lingering question staring Steve Alford and his young, inexperienced squad squarely in the face is how frequently will there be lapses on defense. With so many new faces now in the mix, how quickly and how consistently the freshmen commit to being assets on both ends of the floor will determine whether or not the Bruins are a serious contender in the Pac-12… or just a fun late night entertainment show concerned only with lighting up the scoreboard.