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UCLA Basketball Previews: The Young Ones

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Finished 15-17, missed the tournament, and ended up 10th in the conference, but now ranked No. 16 in the pre-season? That’s all because of these three guys, Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf, and Ike Anigbogu, the stellar 2016-17 freshman class that hopes to restore UCLA to the national elite.

High School Basketball: McDonald's All-American Games
TJ Leaf takes a shot in the McDonald’s All-American game, with future teammate Lonzo Ball watching from the backcourt.
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Lonzo Ball is the star of the class, one of the most talked about true freshman in college basketball, largely because of the outrageous offensive statistics he put up alongside his brothers, LaMelo and LiAngelo, while playing for their father at Chino Hills.

If this season is a referendum on a historically great program and its coach, optimism abounds due to the presence of Ball, a lithe, hiccup-quick 6' 6" guard whose shooting range is surpassed only by his exceptional court vision. He averaged a triple double (23.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, 11.5 assists) for a 35–0 high school team that scored nearly 100 points a game.

If Ball is more of a celebrity heading into the season, watch out for fellow five-star freshman T.J. Leaf to steal some of the spotlight, as he has in exhibition competition.

Fans discovered another potential UCLA freshman phenom in power forward T.J. Leaf, who scored 19 points, including four one-handed dunks, to go with 12 rebounds while also pushing the ball on fastbreaks.

For Bruin fans who didn’t watch internet live streams from the Australia tour, you’ll have to wait even longer to see the third true freshman, Corona Centennial center Ike Anigbogu, who will start the season in street clothes after suffering a torn cartilage during practice.

Steve Alford said Anigbogu was expected to miss at least three games, including UCLA’s season opener Nov. 11 against Pacific. A best-case scenario would entail a return Nov. 20 against Long Beach State or Nov. 24 against Portland in the opener of the Wooden Legacy at Cal State Fullerton.

BEST GAMES

In his four exhibition games as a Bruin, Lonzo Ball has shone in some areas, and struggled in others, largely along the lines DC sketched out earlier in the year. He’s played the most minutes on the team, and reached a double-double against The Master’s. His athleticism, rebounding effort, and vision for passing, especially in transition, were highlights, but he shot 1-6 from 3 at Pauley last week, coming out of a high school system where he was encouraged to jack 30-foot threes, and plays a bit casual in straight-up man-to-man defense.

Leaf notched a double-double as well against The Master’s in exhibition, despite only playing 20 minutes in the game. He led the Bruins with 12 rebounds, and looked unstoppable with the ball, though against significantly undersized competition. In his recap from the Australia trip, DC had this to say:

TJ scored in every fashion possible. The only reason for the B is TJ shot in every fashion possible. He needs to learn that not every shot is a good one.

DC graded Ike an A- on offense, and an F on defense from the Australia tour, but an A for his intangibles.

The A on intangibles is what has me salivating. Ike has great hands and is coordinated. His best play was as he was jumping, Lonzo Ball threw him a low pass which he not only caught but converted from four feet. It has been years since UCLA has had a big that can do this. He also shot 83%!!! from the free throw line. He will draw fouls. If he can keep this up, UCLA has its best true post in years.

ALFORD’S USE OF THEM

Ball as a true PG is worth two positives for the squad: 1) it gives Alford his first elite true PG; 2) it allows Bryce to play off the ball, a more natural position for the shooter. Ball's comfort in transition was a key element in the UCLA’s exhibition win over The Master’s.

(I’m withholding grades for the trio of frosh.)

We have only a small sample size with some experimental lineups used Down Under, and one exhibition game. Leaf only played 20 minutes against TMU, despite starting, though he will certainly be a top rebounder and scorer for the Bruins this season. Leaf should be on the court more, but one exhibition game isn’t much of an indicator that this will be his normal allotment of minutes.

Anigbogu is the best opportunity for the Bruins to have a legit shot blocker and rim protector on defense, a weapon that would be particularly useful for a group that occasionally lacks effort in man-to-man, allowing sometimes easy access to the rim. When he’s healthy, he’ll be the first big off the bench, backing up Welsh.

THE FUTURE

Funny enough, Ball’s weaknesses align almost exactly with what Alford has been unable to coach—okay, maybe it’s not that funny. Ball can be casual on both sides of the court, preferring to try to reach in for a steal than play good straight-up defense, and is prone to turnovers if he’s trying too hard to create highlight reel footage. One wonders if Alford is the man who can get Ball to improve these aspects of his game—okay, maybe one doesn’t wonder. He can also shoot a little bit too much from behind the arc, which won’t be his game at UCLA.

But there is little doubt that Ball is special, and will be a star for the Bruins before heading to the NBA.

If Ball’s flaws get exposed at the college level, don’t be surprised if T.J. Leaf ends up as the star freshman on this UCLA team. He stole the show in the first Australian exhibition game in Sidney, leading all scorers with 21 points, and against TMU, with 19 points and 12 rebounds.

Ball and Leaf, who played against each other in high school, have already connected on several highlight-worthy plays, noticed by DC during the Australia trip.

On the intangibles, Lonzo Ball and TJ have a very special connection. It was fun to watch. This could be something great.

Anigbogu is a raw but athletic and talented prospect. The injury unfortunately slows his ability to develop at the college level, missing out on practices and the easier slate of non-conference play.

Will the infusion of fresh talent from his freshman class be enough for Alford to reach the expectations for an elite season in 2016-17? If the offense will surely get a boost with freshman like Ball and Leaf, it will come to how well Alford can teach his new players to play fundamental defense and take care of the ball.

GO BRUINS.