One of my two biggest misses predicting UCLA Basketball was that the Wears were going to be key players during the 2011-12 season as all the East Coast experts predicted. Going into that season, we had the next Moses Malone (if he could keep his weight in check) and all-Pac-10 Freshman Josh Smith at center. At power forward, we had all-Pac-10 and returning team leading rebounder AND scorer Reeves Nelson. We were seemingly set at center and power forward.
The Wears did play key roles as the journalists predicted because Smith ate himself out of basketball (more on that below) and Reeves Nelson, as Bill Walton might say, "lost his mind." While Smith made it through a season that even he was embarrassed with, Reeves was kicked off the team after six games. So, yes, the Wears were the second and third leading scorers and the top two rebounders but UCLA did not make even the NIT tournament in a season famous for negative headlines regarding Reeves antics.
Now Dick Vitale is writing about his teams to watch out for next season:
Here are six schools that missed the tournament last season. I believe these six will be in the hunt for NCAA bids this time around. (Records are from last season).
UCLA Bruins (15-17)
Steve Alford's squad should bounce back after finishing below .500 last season due to a rugged schedule. Bryce Alford will be back to shoot the trifecta, and there are great expectations for diaper dandies Lonzo Ball at the point and power forward T. J. Leaf.
Really, in the hunt for the Tourney next year? Rugged schedule?!?! We did okay in the non-conference part of the schedule, it was during the conference schedule we proved to be one of the worst in the Pac-12. Is this how far UCLA has fallen under Steve Alford?
But, that is not my main point. Guys like Vitale have their sources close to the program who are going to tell him what they want him to hear. In 2011, Ben Howland had a man-crush on the Wears. He was always talking about them and people on the inside passed that on to guys like Vitale. And, unlike Reeves and Josh, the Wears were players that did what was expected of them without complaint. They were right and I was wrong. (Of course, the Wears were not nearly as good as a sane Reeves or a moderately in shape Smith.)
So what might this mean for this season? Let's break it down.
1. "Bryce Alford will be back to shoot the trifecta." Deal with it Bruin fans: Bryce is not going to play in the NBA but he is going down in the UCLA record books for most three pointers.
2. "there are great expectations for diaper dandies Lonzo Ball at the point." Lonzo will be the point guard from day one. Bryce will be the shooting guard. No surprise here but I know some are worried about even more #daddyball.
3. "there are great expectations for diaper dandies . . . power forward T. J. Leaf." This is the one that troubles me a bit.
If you look at our current projected starting lineup from a defense-only perspective, you have freshman point guard Lonzo Ball (likely a bad defender as high school players have a lot to learn on D), Bryce Alford (a horrid defender), Isaac Hamilton (an okay defender at times), Thomas Welsh (An okay defender in the paint but too slow to be outside the paint) and whoever plays the four.
Jonah Bolden was the unique player on the team last year because he was the one guy who won games with his defense. UCLA loses to Gonzaga if not for Bolden's defense on Gonzaga star Kyle Wiltjer. UCLA was losing to UNLV (and in danger of getting blow out) until Bolden came in the game and single-handedly shut down UNLV. When you factor in height, Bolden may be the best overall athlete. It is also worth noting that on a rebound and blocks per minute rate, Bolden was better than Welsh at both and is the top returning player. On a team with a lot of shooters, it is also worth noting that Bolden had almost twice as many assists as Welsh.
I really believe that UCLA needs an improved Bolden on the floor next year. That brings me to my final point: Most bigs need time before they are ready to contribute. Thomas Welsh is a great example. In his freshman season, he often struggled against lesser and even shorter competition, especially early. On the other hand, last season, there were times he was the best player on the floor, most notably the Kentucky game.
I think Bolden if he plays as a four (instead of Steve Alford using him as a three as he did last year) could be in for a very good season that would key our tournament run. For, if Bryce Alford has an off game shooting, Isaac Hamilton can step in. Who can step in to play the defense that Bolden can provide? It is a lot to ask of TJ Leaf to come in and be the top defender and an elite rebounder from day one.
All this is to say the experts may be right. TJ Leaf may be the starting four this season. I am just saying that I'm scared. If he's the starting four, we may once again be worried at the end of the season if UCLA is going to the tournament.
Let me close with a note on Josh Smith:
The first time he worked out with his new trainer two months ago, Joshua Smith didn't even make it through the warmup before he felt gassed. . . .
Hailed as a potential NBA prospect after high school because of his soft hands, deft passing ability and imposing size, Smith instead regressed in college and went undrafted in 2015 amid concerns about his ballooning weight and sporadic work ethic. He fell further off scouts' radars during an unproductive debut season in the NBA Development League, leaving himself just a few short months this summer to drastically improve his fitness and earn another training camp audition with an NBA team. . . .
The 6-foot-10 Smith produced a promising freshman season at UCLA and averaged 15 points per game in the 2011 NCAA tournament despite weighing anywhere from 30 to 45 pounds above his listed playing weight of 305. All he had to do to become a millionaire after the following season was to slim down to a more manageable weight, yet he showed no urgency to improve his diet or training habits and began his sophomore year noticeably bulkier. . . .
"I know I should have done more to lose weight in college, but my thing now is I don't want to go back," Smith said. "I've had times when I've lost a little weight and gained it back, but this time I've lost so much weight and I feel so good that I'm motivated to go back to the gym and keep going at it. When NBA teams see me again in training camp, I want them to see I've lost another 30 pounds. Then they'll realize I must be serious."
Hopefully, Bolden, who has NBA potential, is not the next Josh Smith or Reeves Nelson. Regardless, though, UCLA has to not only make the NCAA tournament but also be in running for the Pac-12 title.