As thousands of college basketball previews hit the shelves in the coming weeks, you can expect the Pac-12 spotlight to shine on incoming UCLA Bruins - elite freshmen T.J. Leaf and Lonzo Ball.
Analysts would be remiss, however, to go without mentioning UCLA’s senior guard Bryce Alford, who hopes to reach the Sweet 16 for the third time in four seasons under the direction of his father, coach Steve Alford. With other key contributors Isaac Hamilton, Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday still in the mix, the Bruins have the ingredients for a memorable season.
Let’s take a deeper look into what Alford brings to the table for the upcoming season. All stats used in this article are courtesy of KenPom.com and Sports Reference.
Arguably one of the best pure scorers in the Pac-12, Alford logged an impressive ORtg of 115.7 this past season. This number has continued to climb, as Alford slightly improved from a 113.2 ORtg as a sophomore and 112.5 in his freshman campaign.
If Alford can attack the basket more frequently in his senior season, he can expect a rise in his points per game total. Alford is a tremendous free throw shooter (82.7% career), and a quarter of his points per game last season came from the charity stripe.
It’s also not very often that you see a player of Alford’s caliber and play style to post such a low turnover percentage. After finishing his first two seasons above 15%, Alford managed to decrease his turnover percentage down to 11.6%, last season - a remarkable stat given the amount of time that Alford possesses the ball on a nightly basis.
I’ll be frank - Alford isn’t a great defender. The 6’3” guard recorded a strong 105.8 defensive rating his freshman year, but that number has ballooned to 111 in the two seasons since. Alford’s steal+block percentage (STL+BLK%) has been microscopic in his time at UCLA, a dismal 1.1% in ‘15-16. Yes, a lack of statistical output doesn’t always indicate a weak defender (i.e. Bruce Bowen), but everyone around UCLA basketball knows that the team defense needs to be significantly better in order for the Bruins to live up to the pre-season hype. Allowing nearly 76 points a night won’t cut it.
Alford’s rebounding numbers, however, have been far from dismal. There has been a noticeable improvement in Alford’s ability to scrape out a handful of rebounds on a nightly basis, and he is easily the best rebounder in the UCLA backcourt. A 10.1 DR% is nothing to be ashamed of for a score-first shooting guard. With every additional rebound there is another opportunity for this high octane offense to put points on the scoreboard.
Don’t sleep on Alford’s passing ability. Despite his score-first label, Alford is actually one of the better passers in the conference. Last season Alford racked up a 25.2% assist rate while only two other Bruins recorded an assist rate higher than 8%. I expect this number to improve this season as well, with the continued development of the uber-efficient Thomas Welsh and talented freshman T.J. Leaf in the froncourt. When Alford gets into a rhythm, he has a plethora of options around him to dump off the basketball when he is feeling pressured.
I’m most interested to see how Alford’s usage rate is impacted by the incoming freshman, most notably guard Lonzo Ball. Will Alford take a backseat in favor of the freshman? Of course not, especially given that this is the final season that Bryce plays under his father’s direction. However, Alford’s career statistical progression may not look similar for your typical Power 5 go-to-guy. Alford logged a massive 89.8% of his team’s minutes and a 22.4% usage rate in ‘15-16, the second highest of returning Bruins to only Isaac Hamilton.
This is a make-or-break year for UCLA basketball. With an abundance of returning talent and Steve Alford’s top recruiting class to date, this team has the makings of a potential Final Four candidate if the defense takes shape.