For all the fun UCLA basketball brought last season, it was always destined to be short-lived.
Lonzo Ball would play one year. TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu started the season as freshmen with upside and ended it as future NBA draft picks. Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton were grizzled seniors looking to make one last ride before leaving Westwood.
In short, 2016 UCLA was a supernova, a bright and shining light for all to see before it disappeared.
So for 2017, it was imperative that Steve Alford recruited and reloaded quickly to offset at least 5 departures. Luckily, he’s done just that, tapping 6 new recruits for 2017, including 5 stars Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes.
But Alford’s most crucial recruits signed on for next season last week, when it was announced that both Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh would return to Westwood after testing the NBA draft waters. For a team bereft of experience, bringing back two near-surefire starters will add desperately needed veteran leadership to what is an already interesting mix of talent and size in Westwood.
Welsh and Holiday figure to play leading roles for the Bruins in 2017 as they adjust to being without 4 starters and 65 of the 88 points per game they averaged last season.
Welsh especially figures to lead the frontcourt as the starting center. He continued to bloom, becoming the Bruins’ most reliable defender and a lethal spacer on the floor. The chemistry he and Lonzo Ball had on pick and pops was a joy to watch.
Don’t be surprised if Welsh starts to stretch his range to beyond the three point line too.
Surrounding Welsh will be a plethora of young and talented big men. Four of UCLA’s 6 recruits for 2017 - the aforementioned Kris Wilkes, Chris Smith, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill - played forward in high school or are 6’8 or taller, and coupled with GG Goloman, the strength of UCLA basketball may shift from its dynamic back court to a big and bruising front line with Welsh as the fulcrum.
Of the new recruits, which also includes LiAngelo Ball, Wilkes figures to be the most likely starter from day one. He is a dynamic and springy athlete and adds a new dimension at the small forward position that UCLA did not have last season.
His presence signals a likely shift by Steve Alford away from a 3 guard lineup and towards a bigger starting 5, one that is suddenly more athletic on the wing and can better match up against the likes of Arizona and its athletes on the wings like Allonzo Trier.
That is not to say UCLA’s back court will suddenly become a weakness, especially after the announced return of Aaron Holiday. But having Holiday back is a huge boon for the Bruins given the relative uncertainty in the back court as opposed to last year’s dynamic starting trio.
As of now, UCLA only has three true starting caliber guards in Holiday, new point guard Jaylen Hands and Prince Ali. How does Alford juggle the minutes of three players for two spots?
Hands is the next in a line of highly-regarded point guard recruits at UCLA, and though he is slight at 160 pounds, he can jump out of the freaking gym. Observe:
But does he jump over Holiday for point guard duties, who was last season’s sparkplug off the bench in so many games and has collegiate experience running an offense?
Or does Holiday give way yet again to another freshman point guard like he did with Lonzo Ball and play off the ball as a shooting guard? He certainly can after shooting 41% from three last season, but does he want to do that again?
And what about Prince Ali, who missed all of last season due to injury and struggled to crack the rotation in 2015? How will he respond to an inevitable rise in minutes after not playing competitive basketball in over a year?
It will be interesting to see how Alford plays musical chairs with those 80 minutes. Holiday’s versatility may end up keeping him out of playing the position he was recruited to play and did so well in spurts last year.
There are five months before UCLA tips off in Shanghai against Georgia Tech, but that has never stopped me with way-too-early predictions. Here is how I think UCLA will line up starting in China against the Yellow Jackets.
PG: Hands - While he’s no Lonzo Ball, Hands is a dynamic talent in his own right and will be too good to keep off the bench
SG: Holiday - He’s always been a dynamic scorer and adds a new dimension with his ball-handling skills as well
SF: Wilkes - He’s already the most athletic wing UCLA has had in the Steve Alford era, with Kyle Anderson’s height and Kevon Looney’s rebounding prowess
PF: Goloman - While my preference would be for the more athletic and quicker Cody Riley, I think Goloman’s experience and development over last season earns him a nod. His ability to step out to mid-range is helpful for floor spacing and driving lanes for the guards and Wilkes.
C: Welsh - The anchor and now UCLA’s most reliable scoring option. Can he and Hands or Holiday develop a pick-and-pop rapport like he had with Lonzo Ball?