Post-season thoughts on the state of UCLA basketball

UCLA’s basketball offseason is nearly three days old. Before the post-hoops period of 2015 continues, Steve Alford is scheduled to speak to the media again on Tuesday afternoon.

Before then, here’s a couple of pieces from Sunday’s paper for anyone that missed them:
— My season recap on UCLA basketball, whose long-term future is still a bit unclear despite a Sweet 16 run.
— Columnist Tom Hoffarth talks to longtime UCLA announcer Chris Roberts about his retirement, and names a few of the candidates vying to replace him.

A thoughts on how the Bruins finished and where they’re going next …

1. UCLA’s going to back-to-back Sweet 16s doesn’t necessarily mean you should expect a third. The Bruins could certainly be better next season. They will have more depth in the backcourt, though losing freshman Kevon Looney would be a tremendous blow to the frontcourt. Gyorgy Goloman looks like a nice under-the-radar find, but I think he and center Thomas Welsh will pay bigger dividends as juniors rather than sophomores. Introducing former four-star recruit Jonah Bolden will help significantly; he spent his ineligible season transitioning from the four to the three, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts immediately.

But it is unreasonable to expect the type of good fortune that has followed UCLA these past two postseasons. The Bruins deserve credit for taking advantage of their opportunities, but drawing a double-digit seed twice in the round of 32 is as friendly a path as any team could hope to see. At least Stephen F. Austin was a team that was good enough to return to the NCAA Tournament this season; I’m not sure the same can be said for UAB, which was likely one of the 10 weakest teams in the whole field.

Let’s hazard a guess and say that the Bruins draw a No. 5- or 6-seed in next year’s NCAA Tournament. Will they be able to knock off a fourth- or third-seeded team to end the weekend? That said, the projection changes significantly if the team lands one more major recruit in this cycle, such as Jaylen Brown or Stephen Zimmerman. Paired with the depth that UCLA should return, then a blue-chip player could make the lineup very dangerous.

2. Kevon Looney should turn pro. Maybe he decides that he really loves being in college and wants to play one more year at UCLA, but I think everyone would be stunned if he turned down a chance at the NBA draft. He faded a bit down the stretch, with both his facial fracture and fatigue appearing to limit him in the postseason. While his game’s getting picked apart more now than it was a few months ago, Looney should still have a good chance to go in the lottery.

For him to come back, he and his family will likely have to figure that another year at UCLA will develop him more than a professional environment would. There’s no question he can add some size and strength on campus. But this is also a team that didn’t call many plays for him all year; if he doesn’t grow enough as an offensive player by this time next year, that would sink his stock even further.

3. Norman Powell’s three-year development was fun to watch. This doesn’t have much to do with UCLA’s future, but if you’d asked me back in 2012 if Powell had an NBA future, I would have laughed. He’s benefited more from the Howland-to-Alford transition than anyone else on the roster, becoming a freight train in the lane and — eventually — the Bruins’ most consistent scorer. He wasn’t as efficient offensively this season as he was when surrounded by superior talent in 2013-14, but he eventually adjusted to his role as the No. 1 option and averaged 18.1 points through his last 11 games. During that stretch, he shot comfortably above his season averages from the field (49.7 percent) and at the line (78.2).

Watching him come out of the locker room in tears after the end of the season struck a chord. It was probably the most emotional I’ve seen a UCLA basketball player since Larry Drew II broke down after Jordan Adams broke his foot in the 2013 Pac-12 Tournament.

4. The Bruins could still use a point guard. I think Bryce Alford is going to start there for the rest of his career, and any more hand-wringing over that at this point might expend energy better spent elsewhere. Obviously, that doesn’t mean Alford is without his flaws — even if he did go absolutely nuts from beyond the arc in the NCAA Tournament. I still think he’s probably best suited as a college two-guard, and even Steve Alford said at one point this season that he wanted to play his son off the ball a bit more.

However, UCLA didn’t really have another strong ballhandling option besides Bryce. Isaac Hamilton looked uncomfortable doing so for at least the first half of the season, and admitted that he had never played point guard before college. Imagine the flexibility that UCLA’s backcourt could have had if it had another player who could man the one?

I also don’t know if either of the two incoming freshmen are good answers in that spot. Aaron Holiday is crazy athletic, but is more of a score-first point guard from what I’ve seen of him. Prince Ali could play the type of role that Powell did.

But Bryce looked like he was making better decisions passing the ball late this season, and another offseason could help both him develop that facet of his game even more.

  • max

    What about Kobe?

    • Hogsman

      He’s a shooting guard; however, Lonzo Ball is a point guard – maybe he can get some playing time as a freshman in 2017.

  • Ted

    Lonzo Ball is a legit point guard. He was impressive at the State Finals, even though his team lost.

    • Jack Wang

      He’s a 2016 recruit. I wrote this mostly thinking about the 2015-16 season.

      • ryan

        Is there any truth to the jaylen brown- caleb swanigan-ivan rabb combo package deal to Cal?

    • thehumancentipede

      I heard that Lonzo Ball takes all the shots and only passes to his brother during the games. I don’t like that at all in terms of leadership or playmaking ability.

      • Ted

        Have you seen the others on his team? His brother is a legit D1 prospect too, though he had a bad game during the finals. We should recruit them both! Others on Chino Hills team are worthless.

  • 92104bruinfan

    Good assessment Jack. It is getting tougher to find top level true point guards in this day and age. IMO, the shoot first-ask questions later point guards are becoming the norm rather than the exception. You just hope the ball distribution and game management skills evolve as they mature. As to 2016 NCAA tourney projections, the gap between a 6 seed and 3 seed is generally digestible compared to a dreaded 8 vs. 1 or 7 vs. 2 in the round of 32 in a very general context of course. Agree that a home run recruit such as Jaylen Brown could really ramp up expectations next season. Thanks for your coverage and insights during hoops season. Always fun to read. Go Bruins!

  • Jeff Lebow

    Jack,
    I’ve enjoyed reading your posts and insights. Thanks for that. Regarding Looney’s future, it would be a mistake for him to go pro at this point in his skill development. He has little offense with the exception for rebounding putbacks. Unfortunately he does not jump and relied on his length which won’t cut it on the next level. He will not get much playing time and may be assigned to the D league to hone his game. He’d get more court time at UCLA. He should not go. Regarding Bryce, he’s a two guard period. He struggled to get the ball inside all year and when he penetrated he went baseline and threw risky passes. The strength of his game is a quick release and deadeye outside shooting. Coming off screens and burying outside shots could elevate his game to all American status. Two words that should help Lonzo Ball distribute the ball – Magic Johnson. Good points on Hamilton. Confidence seems to be a key to his game, both good and bad.