It is time for some reflection on the #25 UCLA basketball program as the conference season begins Friday at Washington. I thought I would give UCLA Basketball some midterm grades for each player and coach. The grade that really counts is the year end when we have a "final grade." For this midterm, I will grade on the following scale: exceed expectations, met expectations or failed expectations.
Bryce Alford is sixth in the PAC 12 in scoring and second in assists. It is arguable that his move back to primary point guard helped UCLA beat Kentucky and Gonzaga. It is not arguable that Bryce is more comfortable off the ball and is sacrificing part of his game. On defense, he remains by far the worst starter BUT he has done a good job helping out on the boards. Thus at this point he has exceeded expectations.
Isaac Hamilton overcame a bad start to the season (going 11-31 from the field with 14 assists and 16 turnovers) to become the first player since Tracy Murray to have 5 or more games in a row with 8 or more field goals. He has stopped turning the ball over and even had an 11 rebound game. He was key in the win over Gonzaga and kept UCLA in the game during the first half against North Carolina. His defensive intensity has been better and he is now tenth in the PAC 12 in steals. After a rocky start Isaac Hamilton has exceeded expectations.
Tony Parker is averaging a double double. Let me say that again, he is averaging a double double. That is impressive. That is a big step up in the rebounding department where he is filling the rebounding void left by the departure of Kevon Looney and Kyle Anderson of the last two seasons. Both of those guys played the four on defense, a position Tony has been forced to play a lot this season. Tony is not a natural four (especially as a wing in a zone) and in some games he has had to cover big guards.
Of course Tony still has a few of his old problems. He remains a horrendous free throw shooter. He turns the ball over too much. He has four or five fouls in 6 of UCLA's 13 games. However, with the exception of the UNLV and North Carolina games, he has generally managed to stay on the floor in the crucial parts of the game. (His fouling out in overtime against Monmouth though, cost us the game.) "Tony the joker" has become "Tony the leader" and his calling for "toughness" made a difference against Gonzaga and Kentucky. Overall Tony has exceeded expectations.
Who the heck is Thomas Welsh? He was the best big on the floor in the Kentucky game. Other times he has been pushed around by some "little bigs." One thing for sure is he is the deadliest midrange jumper shooter UCLA has had since Travis Wear or more likely Don MacLean. Kentucky had no idea what to do with him and with his high release playing pick and pop with Bryce Alford, Thomas is as close to a lock as you can get from 14-17 feet. He has made the big big lineup work well on offense with his playing more of a four and Tony as a low post. He has struggled some on Defense at times, especially as a wing on the zone but he has truly become a deadly weapon on offense. Overall Thomas Welsh has exceeded expectations.
Aaron Holiday was the surprise starting point guard in the first game of the season. Shoot he was the surprise starter as most thought Prince Ali would start. Many cynics were concerned that he would not get a chance at point. In those first six games, Aaron had 18 assists and 19 turnovers. Aaron is not quite ready to be a point yet. Aaron still leads UCLA in turnovers and has a habit of occasionally getting out of control. It is tough to be a freshman point guard and Aaron wasn't ready. On the flip-side, Aaron has been a very good three shooter. It is Aaron not Bryce who leads UCLA in three point percentage at an impressive 40%. It is Aaron who has drawn the toughest guard to cover and leads UCLA in steals. The diminutive Holiday has even been rebounding at a decent clip. Aaron is tougher to grade than the others above. In most ways he has exceed expectations but he failed (for now) as a point guard. Overall, Aaron has met expectations.
Jonah Bolden is the team's x-factor. He has been UCLA's defensive ace in the hole. He single-handedly changed the UNLV game when he came in at the top of the 1-2-2 (or 3-2) zone. He limited Kyle Wiltjer against Gonzaga as Kyle was tearing up UCLA's big big lineup. UCLA may very well have beaten Monmouth in the first game if Bolden had not been suspended. Bolden has been a revelation on defense and may be one of the most impactful sixth man for UCLA in years.
On offense, Bolden is ah interesting. There is a reason why Bolden is averaging more rebounds than points. Arguably his two best games (UNLV and Gonzaga) he shot a combined 2-10 from the field. He is shooting a horrible for a big 37% overall and 31% from three. While he can make a three, he can also brick one. However, Bolden is not all bad on offense. He has shown to be a good passer, good ball handler for a four, and, importantly, a decent free throw shooter. The latter is key because he can play for Tony Parker late in games when the other team is fouling.
Maybe a good symbol of Bolden is his "big guard" skills. When he is using those to pass out of the post, make moves against a big down low, or breaking a press, he is good on offense. When he floats around the three point line or tries to drive to the basket, sometimes it is ugly.
That said, Jonah Bolden has definitely exceeded expectations.
Next up is Prince Ali. Ali had the play of the season for UCLA with his emphatic dunk against Kentucky. Like two seasons ago with Zach Lavine, he gives us someone off the bench that is a better athlete than at least two of the guys starting in front of him. It is for reasons like this that many thought before the season that Ali not Holiday would be the third starting guard.
However, while Ali has shown flashes of potential, he is yet to put it together on either end of the court. On offense, Ali seems to have two moves: drive to the rim or shoot a three. While Ali was never going to be a point he has more turnovers than assists. On defense, Ali has also not rebounded very well for a three and actually has failed to record even one rebound in half his games this year.
Ali definitely has potential but so far he has not met expectations.
The rest of the bench. UCLA lost the North Carolina game in part because of foul trouble and the injury to Ali. UCLA was winning that game until the bench other than Bolden came into the game. And here is the thing, the rest of the bench has struggled in ALL games regardless of competition. UCLA eighth, ninth and tenth players in minutes have shot 8-30 (27%) and have an almost 1 to 2 assist to turnover ratio. UCLA other three scholarship players are just not PAC 12 or maybe even D-1 players at this point. It is like UCLA is playing 5 on 4 when they are in or worse 5 on 3 at times during the North Carolina game. As Bruinette88 has pointed out, this is clearly on Steve Alford and recruiting. This is scary as well because UCLA is one injury away from being in trouble on the bench.
So players 8-10 have failed to meet expectations.
Which brings us to Steve Alford. This first merits a brief discussion of expectations versus predictions. We all predicted UCLA to be blown out by Kentucky, Gonzaga, North Carolina, etc. We were only blown out by Kansas. (We were down by 26 at half and the final score is deceptively close.) Of course, Gonzaga and Kentucky are down a bit this year. North Carolina was missing a key player. But this was still much better than anyone predicted. In addition, Steve Alford should get credit for making the gamble of Thomas Welsh and Tony Parker on the court at the same time mostly work and for trying unsuccessful to make Aaron Holiday the point guard.
But any UCLA team should be competitive with the best teams. UCLA ranked in the top 25 is a reasonable expectation every season at the end of the non-conference. Actually it is something that is almost (not quite as we saw last year) necessary to make the NCAA tournament. That we did not predict this does not matter. Overall, Steve Alford has met expectations.
So the "mid term" grades are good. What does it mean? Actually not a lot if UCLA fails to finish at least third in the PAC 12 and make some noise in the NCAA tournament. That said it feels nicer this New Year than last when UCLA had been embarrassed often with most of the shots being taken by the third best player and little to no defense being played.