Key Returners: Jaylen Hands, Kris Wilkes, Prince Ali, Alex Olesinski
Key Losses: Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welsh, GG Goloman
Key Newcomers: Moses Brown, Tyger Campbell, Jules Bernard, David Singleton, Cody Riley (suspension), Jalen Hill (suspension), Shareef O'Neal
Editor's Note: On 8/6/18, UCLA announced that Shareef O'Neal is officially on the roster for this season. We have updated our preview to reflect this (he was previously not listed on the official team website).
Outlook: UCLA fans should probably protest outside of 3MW offices, because unfortunately for them, I’m writing the Pac-12 this year – and of the Weavers, I just so happen to be the most bearish on the Bruins. In spite of this, I will engage my journalistic integrity and examine them with impartiality, and although I’m not high on their chances this year, I can certainly acknowledge that the roster has an abundance of talent.
Steve Alford has assembled two consecutive elite recruiting classes, and despite the crippling loss of LiAngelo Ball to a YMCA league (/sarcasm), the key components of the 2017 class (ranked 5th nationally, per 247) are still intact after Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes withdrew from the NBA Draft. Alford followed up that with the 6th-ranked class this year, bringing in size and depth to complement the returning pieces. Jalen Hill and Cody Riley will also make their debuts after stints in a Chinese prison, giving Alford even more lineup flexibility.
Some of my concern, however, stems from Alford himself and how he deals with the burning coals upon which he’ll be sitting. He’ll be under a microscope (from both the media and UCLA fans), and having such an inexperienced roster makes his preparation and decision-making all the more important. The losses of Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh robs the roster of its two leaders and most efficient scorers, placing an even larger burden on Hands to run the team and Wilkes to bump up his shooting percentages.
Alford’s offenses have always moved the ball well and given a large degree of freedom to the point guard, and Hands has the talent to fill the shoes left by Lonzo Ball and Aaron Holiday. He’s an athletic, competitive guard with impressive size (6’3”) for a lead ball-handler, and his penchant for highlight reel plays is undeniable:
Some questions remain about Hands’s ability to consistently make his teammates better and take care of the ball, but he’s a high upside option at PG. He’ll also be able to play off the ball some thanks to the addition of Tyger Campbell, a consummate PG who’s been the floor general for high school powerhouse La Lumiere. He’s a smaller option (and thus may have issues defensively), but he’s a savvy guard and an excellent passer.
Wilkes and Prince Ali give the Bruins wing scoring options, with Wilkes in particular being a matchup issue given his combination of size, shooting, and athleticism. I’d prefer to see him slide down to the four more often in college and wreak havoc on opposing defenses, but given the glut of bigs on this roster (more to come on that), he’ll likely be stuck playing the three again (think Miles Bridges at Michigan State last year). Welsh's graduation removes one of the country’s elite floor-spacing big men, but Alex Olesinski has flashed shooting potential, and if he’s added strength in the offseason, he has potential as a stretch five. Further offensive depth will come from freshman guards Jules Bernard and David Singleton, both of whom excel in transition – expect the Bruin offensive attack to continue at breakneck pace.
Alford’s biggest issue in Westwood has been building a competent defense. The Bruins have finished 118th, 85th, and 103rd over the last three years, respectively, in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, and with so much youth on the roster, it may be hard to pull that ranking much higher. Alford has increasingly played a more conservative defense, foregoing turnovers in an effort to keep opponents out of the lane. He’s used zone around 20-25% of the time in recent history (per Synergy), attempting to negate a lack of physicality/athleticism in the lane while featuring Welsh and Gyorgy Goloman, but that may change this year.
I still expect to see some zone, but the additions of Riley, Hill, and Moses Brown give a new element to the Bruin frontline. All three guys range from 6’10 to 7’1, and each guy attacks the rim with ferocity. Riley played alongside Marvin Bagley III (ever heard of him?) at Sierra Canyon High School, forming perhaps the best high school frontcourt duo in the country in 2016-17 (curious if there are any challengers out there?), but he also has some perimeter skills. Hill is slightly thinner, but more of a natural big guy. Brown, on the other hand, is a true center, and while his motor and skill level have question marks, he’s a behemoth in the paint. Brown excels at many of the areas that UCLA bigs have struggled in the past – he’s physical, he blocks shots, and he can finish vertically and with authority in the paint. If Alford is able to keep him engaged consistently, he single-handedly raises the Bruins’ defensive ceiling. Shareef O’Neal is another top-shelf athletic big option after enrolling late and tearing up the high school circuit last year (29 and 17 in a state championship victory), and Papa Shaq adds an excellent celebrity fan roaming the sidelines.
Bottom Line: The Bruins have a stacked roster after two consecutive highly-ranked recruiting classes, and your level of belief in the Bruins this year hinges on whether you believe Steve Alford can harness all of that young talent and mold it into an effective unit. I think the Bruins will have an up-and-down season – some big wins paired with some extremely questionable losses, ultimately settling near the bubble again (likely on the right side of it), although I will of course concede that the ceiling is significantly higher than that.