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UCLA Basketball: Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh Are On The Clock

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A quick primer ahead of the NBA Draft cutoff.

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Oregon Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Tomorrow, May 24th, is the next big date for UCLA basketball, as that is the last day players can choose to return to school and remove themselves from the NBA draft. So, with that day coming up, I’m going to try and break things down for everyone.

A quick note: this information is all current as of writing. I fully expect this to change at some point in the next 36 hours.

The Big Question

5 underclassmen on the 2016-2017 UCLA Men’s Basketball squad declared for the draft (with 2 more players graduating). Of those 5, 3 have hired an agent, meaning Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf, and Ike Anigbogu are now ineligible to return next year. Two other players, however, can still choose to come back, and the decisions of Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday are the ones that UCLA fans are eagerly awaiting for.

Let’s start with Thomas Welsh. NBADraft.net has Welsh ranked 83rd on their Big Board, while DraftExpress.com has Welsh as the 39th best junior in the country (and unranked in their top 100 prospects. Either way you look at it, that’s probably not a spot that’s getting drafted this year. Welsh’s problem is that he has a game that has become increasingly-uncommon in the NBA as a less-mobile center with a midrange jumper. Unfortunately for Welsh, the NBA’s move towards small-ball and players that can play multiple positions has lessened the want for a player like him.

That said, Welsh can help himself a ton by returning to school. Welsh will become a top offensive option for the Bruins next year, especially with the loss of Leaf, but the question will become what kind of offense UCLA will run next year. You can’t count on UCLA having the same level of shooters as last year’s team, so there may be more of an emphasis on pick-and-roll play, and if Welsh can prove himself to be adept at that offensively, that could help him rise up the rankings next year.

Now let’s move to Aaron Holiday. This is more of an enigma to me, for a few reasons. NBADraft.net has Holiday ranked 67th on their Big Board, while DraftExpress.com has him at 85th on their top 100 prospects. Where it gets interesting is next year; DraftExpress has him going at #40 in their 2018 Mock Draft, a sign that they believe his talents will translate at the next level.

The big question, then, is whether leaving now is a good idea. On one hand, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Holiday isn’t a major contributor for the Bruins next year, especially as the starting 2 guard and off-ball handler. A shift in offense might emphasize Holiday’s ability to drive and slash. That said, you always want to leave when your stock is at its highest, and the Holiday camp might believe that another year at UCLA wouldn’t help his draft stock enough to truly matter.

For UCLA, the decisions of these two young men are interesting. Welsh would be expected to anchor a young frontcourt next year - GG Goloman is the only other Bruin frontcourt player who played significant minutes for the team last year. Behind Welsh, the Bruins would have incoming freshman Jalen Hill (4* center), Cody Riley (4* PF), and Chris Smith (3* PF), but the lack of size would be a potential issue. As for Holiday, his loss would create a huge problem for the backcourt - he was expected to be a steadying veteran presence for a team losing 3 backcourt players already. Losing Holiday would leave the Bruins with only two scholarship backcourt players in Jaylen Hands (5* PG) and the recovering Prince Ali. As good as this incoming recruiting class is, the loss of Holiday would once-again highlight the poor prior recruiting classes in building depth for the team, because there is literally no backcourt depth for the team at this point.

What do I think will happen? I think Welsh comes back. There’s too much he can gain by doing so. On Holiday, I am less sure, and am leaning towards him leaving at this moment in time.

Lonzo Gets Best-Case Scenario

The NBA Draft lottery last Tuesday helped clarify a few things. For one, Lakers fans can breathe a sigh of relief as the Purple and Gold retained their draft pick and avoided the doomsday scenario. And now the draft order is (mostly) set, with the position of the last few picks being the only remaining question.

For Lonzo Ball, the results of the draft lottery couldn’t have been better. The Celtics, Lakers, and 76ers all represent great situations for Lonzo (The Ringer NBA crew made a great case for the 76ers being Lonzo’s true best-case scenario last week), but on top of that, the top-3 picks all went to name-brand franchises. For the Big Baller Brand, the almost-guarantee that Lonzo ends up in one of these markets, playing for one of these teams, is almost a dream come true. It gives the Ball brand plenty of new-found leverage in securing an apparel partnership, as it’s going to be hard for a major label to pass up tying themselves to the new face of the Lakers, 76ers, or even possibly the Celtics.

The “Other” Phenom Freshman

Sometimes Lonzo’s star shines so bright that it’s easy to forget that UCLA is expected to have 3 freshmen picked in the first round this year. T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu are sitting on the periphery of the lottery, but both should be gone by the time the first round ends. Duke and Kentucky are the only other programs that share that expectation this year.

The interesting thing with both of these prospects is where experts think they’ll end up.

Let’s start with T.J. Leaf. DraftExpress has him going 23rd overall to the Raptors, NBADraft.net has him going to Portland at 15 (and Portland has a history of getting solid play from a UCLA frontcourt player), while Ricky O’Donnell at the SBNation mothership has him going 22nd overall to the Brooklyn Nets. The good news for Leaf is that his skillset as a power forward with shooting range is in demand right now, and all the teams that he’s projected to go should allow him the time to develop and get stronger, eventually turning into a productive 2-way player that can stay on the floor against small-ball lineups.

As for Ike Anigbogu, there’s a bit less of a consensus. DraftExpress is the most-bullish on Anigbogu’s draft stock, having him going 15th overall to Portland. Ricky O’Donnell has him at 25th overall, heading to the Orlando Magic, and NBADraft.net has him going to Orlando as well, except in the 2nd round at the 35th spot. Anigbogu’s sheer athleticism has most NBA personnel drooling, as his size and length set him up to be very good on the pick-and-roll and a defensive stopper that can handle small-ball lineups. The biggest question is his experience level, but teams picking that late in the first round are usually more willing to overlook that in favor of developing players themselves.

Odds and Ends

  • Hey, remember when I said that UCLA should have 3 players drafted in the first round? Expect another round of questioning on whether Steve Alford underachieved with this squad, similar to the 2013-2014 team that lost 3 players in the first round of the draft. There are obvious differences - Lonzo Ball is easily a better pro prospect than anyone from that 2013-2014 team, while I don’t think this year’s team had a player that brought what Norman Powell did to that team. Still, Alford supporters will be able to point out that the team that knocked the Bruins out, Kentucky, will potentially have more players drafted this year, including 2 of the top 10 (and if I’m being honest, probably 2 of the top 6). I’m not coming out on either side of this debate, more just pointing out that this is definitely something I’m making DC write about during the summer because I don’t want to touch it.
  • With Rawle Atkins’s decision to return to Tuscon, along with Trier’s earlier decision to return, Arizona should be the favorite to win the Pac 12, and possibly start the year #1 in the AP poll. This isn’t even a slight towards Steve Alford or other programs like Oregon - Arizona has just had super-strong recruiting classes for a few years now that UCLA is only now starting to counteract. Still, can’t wait to see how Sean Miller fails to make the Final Four this year.
  • The big question UCLA will have after May 24th is whether UCLA gets any other recruits. There are still a few big-name recruits for 2017 on the board, the most important of which might be M.J. Walker from Georgia. The loss of Holiday would make Walker a priority for the Bruins, but I’d also hazard a guess that losing Holiday would put the Bruins in the drivers seat here.

The problem for UCLA, looking forward, is that guard recruiting is probably going to remain a problem. The West has a rather weak guard class in 2018, with the big strength being the forwards, including the nation’s #1 recruit in Marvin Bagley (who UCLA is reportedly doing well for). The fact is UCLA absolutely has to do a better job of recruiting the backcourt, especially with the system they ran this year.