With the addition of Shareef O’Neal, the UCLA Bruins basketball roster is set but, in another way, it has never been more in flux. In the Alford era, there has never been a team where so many starting positions have been up for grabs. Part of this is good news. This is without a doubt Alford’s deepest team. Steve Alford deserves credit for not only recruiting a top class, but also retaining very good players.
This freshman class would make a good and balanced team on its own. The ESPN recruiting page (which all quotes from this page come from) shows a team could finish in the top four in the Pac-12 by itself. And, quite frankly, depending on intangibles such as chemistry might beat the returning team. Interestingly, when I am talking chemistry, I am not just talking about the chemistry of the “freshmen” team but the returning team.
In this post, I am not trying to predict who should start but rather predict who will start in the first Pac-12 game, barring injury, suspension or something similar. I have been reading some interesting posts on this across the web but in this post I try to tamper possibly unreasonable expectations and the reality of the Alford style.
Here goes with a prediction on the percentage likely to start and the position.
Kris Wilkes, Three or Small Forward, 99.9%
Kris Wilkes is the one lock on this team. All the Alford teams that made the NCAA Tournament had one player who was clearly the star. Kyle Anderson, Norman Powell, Lonzo Ball, and Aaron Holiday. I feel fairly confident this is Kris Wilkes’ team. I predict he will lead UCLA in scoring and be All-Pac-12. At a minimum, he is the most likely starter.
Moses Brown, Center, 95%
Moses Brown gives Alford something he has never had: a true athletic center. In the past, Alford has had guys like Travis Wear or Thomas Welsh over more traditional centers such as Tony Parker and Ike Anigbogu. That said, I think Brown breaks that trend given this roster. ESPN leads their description of Moses as a “true center.” Yes, Jalen Hill has the practice experience and some think Cody Riley may play center but Brown is a shoe-in to start at center because he is so good, much like TJ Leaf and Kevon Looney, who were starters as big freshmen.
Point Guard/Off Guard, Jaylen Hands, 80% (60% point)
Jaylen Hands may be the best raw player on the team. He also may be the most out of control. A lot of people think he is a lock to start at point. He certainly will get a look as the starting point. That said, Alford’s best need recruit may be Tyger Campbell. While Tyger is the lowest recruited of the big five, he is also the one who has been a point for three years and ESPN uses the word “poise” in their review. Tyger is the opposite of Hands. The question on Campbell is whether he is athletic enough to play in the Pac-12. If he is and Hands is not up to running the point, it would not surprise me to see Tyger starting in the backcourt.
Keep in mind that Alford’s worst season as UCLA coach was the year that freshman Aaron Holiday was not ready to play point and Bryce Alford was forced to play it. That led to a losing record. Hands was so bad at point last year that it was one of the reasons Aaron Holiday never rested. Hands, like Holiday was by his junior year, could be improved as a point. We’ll see. Either way, I give Alford credit for having the insurance policy in Tyger Campbell available.
Last add, Hands is a great talent. Hands could end up starting with Campbell in the backcourt. Thus, Hands has a really good chance to start, but the questions on him as point remain.
Cody Riley, Four or Power Forward, 70%
I know people are already penciling in Shareef O’Neal as a star. I think this is premature and based in part on his dad. Shareef has the tools, but, next to Cody Riley, he looks like a boy. Shareef may not be strong enough to play inside or deal with some Pac-12 level fours yet. That’s not a knock on Shareef, but just a bit of reality. Cody also has range. Cody has the advantage of practicing for much of the year with the team last season. The latter is important because while Shareef is used to being the dominant big kid in high school, Cody has been practicing against and learning from less athletic but wily college veterans like GG and Thomas Welsh. Really, I feel more confident than my 70% but everyone else seems so sure that O’Neal will start, I knocked down the percentages a bit.
The two or shooting guard, no prediction
Prince Ali may start the season at shooting guard, but, by the time of the first Pac-12 game, I have doubts. Alford does like experience, but I’m not sure Ali fits what this team may need. Some of this may depend on things outside his control. Is Hands a point? I think Hands has to start, but whether he can be point is an open question.
While lower-rated, I do think David Singleton may have a good shot. The best outside shooter of the group, he could be the Jordan Adams type player and make the team more effective on offense. He also has the best handles outside of Campbell of the freshman. He could be a good two to help Hands out.
Jules Bernard is third highest-rated but sounds more like a more raw clone of Wilkes. Bernard is a basketball player and athlete who may need time to develop his shot. I’m not sure his handles are as a good as Singleton, which may be a key for the fifth starter.
And this is why the fifth starter is so hard to predict, it may depend on the other four, especially Hands.
John Wooden famously said:
“I’d rather have a lot of talent and a little experience than a lot of experience and a little talent.”
Alford has his deepest roster, but not a lot of experience. Will he finally win the Pac-12? The only sure thing is, for the first time, his “young” team excuse will be true. But when Pac-12 play begins, the talent should win out.