After a solid season in 2017, UCLA seemed doomed for a full rebuild. The Bruins’ summer began with their seven top scorers either graduating or declaring for the NBA Draft. UCLA was able to avoid the fate of conference rival Oregon when two double-digit scorers elected to return. Center Thomas Welsh elected to return for his senior year, bringing back a consistent role player who can grab rebounds and score. The last three years have shown what Welsh brings to the table, but the player who might be poised for a breakout year in a larger role is Aaron Holiday, who is returning for his junior year.
Holiday began his career at UCLA as a starter, and was able to hold his own in a down year for the Bruins. But, that time in the starting lineup was short-lived due to the arrival of star point guard Lonzo Ball, who became the face of UCLA — and maybe even all of NCAA basketball — for a season.
With Ball leaving for the NBA, other top guard Bryce Alford graduating, Holiday returns to the Bruins as both its top returning scorer and its most experienced guard. Despite this, he isn’t necessarily guaranteed a starter spot in 2018. UCLA heads into the season with a top five recruiting class, with one of its crowned jewels being five-star point guard Jaylen Hands. If UCLA intends on putting both Holiday and Hands at the point, then it is unlikely that Holiday would find himself starting. But, head coach Steve Alford has shown a willingness to play small ball in the backcourt before, running both Holiday and his son Bryce in the starting lineup for the 2015-16 season. Time will tell if Alford wants to do something similar with Hands and Holiday, or wants to keep one of his smaller guards on the bench.
It’d be easy to assume that Holiday doesn’t have much more to show, given that his per-game numbers have stayed roughly the same other than a two point increase, but looking at his efficiency last season is an indication of just how much he improved over one season. His three point percentage had a slight dip — going from 41.9 percent to 41.1 — but everything else had a drastic increase. Holiday’s free-throw percentage went up from 72.7 to 79.3, while his two-point percentage had the highest increase, going from an abysmal 38.3 to 53.9. These improved shooting splits led to Holiday scoring more in five fewer minutes per game than the season before. If Holiday can keep the same efficiency in his former starting job, expect him to average career highs all across the board.
Unlike some of the other player who have been mentioned in our watch list, Holiday hasn’t and probably won’t be a star for his team. He has maintained a starting role before, but has been more successful as the sixth man in his first two years. So far, we have only seen Holiday as a young role player, but going into his junior year, he is now one of the most experienced players on the team, and without a doubt the most talented of the veterans. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to a leadership role that will likely be thrust upon him. Whether he guides the young players who will shoulder the load on offense, or does the heavy lifting himself, Holiday will have a make or break year in 2018.