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What the NBA Summer League Taught Us About UCLA Basketball

Talking Bryce, Bolden, and of course Ball.

NBA: Summer League-Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Lakers Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

We’re only a few weeks away from fall practice beginning for UCLA, so it’s time to talk about UCLA basketball.

Wait, what?

No, seriously. With the NBA’s Summer League having wrapped up, there’s actually an opportunity for us to look at how the newly-gone UCLA players did, and see if we can glean anything about UCLA basketball going forward. If you’re thinking this is really just an excuse to talk about the Lonzo Effect one more time, you’d be right, but there’s other things to mention. For example:

Bryce Might Make it in the NBA

Wait, hold on, let me rephrase that.

Bryce Alford is Good Enough to Become an NBA Player, Sorry Haters.

Yeah, that’s more like it.

Now, I know this is summer league and all that, but Bryce has looked fairly good in his time for the Golden State Warriors. He was inserted into the starting lineup for Jabari Brown in the third game of the Warriors summer schedule, and he responded with 16 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and 3 steals in 27 minutes of play. Not bad in the slightest. In another game, Bryce got 13 points on 3-8 shooting, but he did get to the line 7 times and put up a +5 rating for the game.

Bryce has shown to be one of the better versions of himself this summer. He’s been a solid shooter, done a good job drawing fouls, and makes plays when called upon. More importantly has been Bryce’s increased focus on the defensive end. That was always going to be Bryce’s biggest area of needed improvement, and it’s a good sign for his future that he’s putting in the effort.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that he’s had a couple of highlight-reel plays this summer.

Bryce probably doesn’t play for an NBA team this year, especially on a Golden State squad that doesn’t have roster space for another 3-point shooting guard at the moment, but there are a host of other teams that have a need, and Bryce had shown the tools necessary to find a spot on the bench for a team down the line. I don’t think he has NBA starter-potential at this point, but he absolutely can become a solid bench piece for a team if he continues this growth. It feels good to be so high on Bryce’s future.

Jonah Bolden needed Europe more than UCLA

UCLA had 4 players drafted this year, except one of them didn’t play for the Bruins this past year. That’s because Jonah Bolden left UCLA after the 2015-2016 season to play in Europe. Bolden felt he could better showcase his skills in the European Leagues rather than at UCLA, and he was rewarded with a 2nd round draft selection by the Philadelphia 76ers.

That said, there were more than a few draft experts who believed Bolden was a first-round talent, and they’ve been rewarded with Bolden’s summer league play. Bolden has proven that his improved Euro play was no fluke, shooting above 30% from distance while showing an ability to cover multiple positions of defense. Bolden is ready for the NBA now, but reports are the 76ers will keep him in Europe one more year so he can get increased playing time before bringing him over.

From a UCLA perspective, Bolden’s success has both positives and negatives. On the positive end, it’s always good to see a former UCLA player do well at the next level. On the flip side, Bolden’s success has done a lot to highlight his potential misuse while at UCLA.

Steve Alford straight-up admitted to this misuse near the end of Bolden’s one season at UCLA:

"Guys [are] playing their roles in the position we like. When we're big-big, we were messing around with Jonah at the four spot and the three spot. That was hard on him. He is getting adjusted to it. ... Jonah has hit his stride now . . . and making a difference."

This has been a problem for Alford in his tenure at UCLA; he’ll continually misuse players or make bad strategic decisions. This was especially evident in that 2015-2016 season, where Alford stubbornly stuck to the big-big lineup with disastrous results, but you could point to other events like playing Bryce and Zach Lavine at the wrong positions their freshman year, shortened minutes for bench players in blowouts or non-competitive games, and poor roster management in general (a quick reminder that if Aaron Holiday had chosen to enter the draft this year, UCLA would have only had 2 guards on the roster for next year).

Proper roster management is a problem that Steve Alford has yet to solve while at UCLA, and Bolden’s success has once-again shone a light on that fact. It’s not a great sign for UCLA going forward, though there is one other bit of news from Summer League that might mean more for UCLA.

The Lonzo Effect Remains Very Real

You might have heard a few things about how Lonzo Ball’s Summer League has gone:

Yeah, he’s been pretty good.

We talked a lot about the Lonzo Effect while he was at UCLA. The UCLA offense became an unstoppable monster with Lonzo in the driver’s seat, and we always noted how unselfish the team became once Lonzo arrived on campus. But more than that, Lonzo brings a winning attitude to Our Lakers sister site Silver Screen and Roll has noticed something similar with the Lakers Summer League team:

“[Lonzo is a] super humble, talented player,” Vander Blue said. ”Sky is the limit, passes the ball better than anybody I've ever played with. Makes the game really easy. He's very coachable, he listens, and he's just a winner. He wants to win more than anybody, and that's what I love about him.”

It’s hard to argue with the results. After a few poor games, Lonzo really took over, and averaged 16.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 9.3 assists (leading the LV Summer League), and 2.5 steals. His fingerprints are everywhere on this Lakers team, and for Laker fans like myself, it’s a great sign for the main team going forward.

But what does this mean for UCLA?

Well, for one thing, UCLA fans who have had to listen to people all summer proclaim that they didn’t see what was good about Lonzo had another example to point out and yell “SEE?!?” Seriously, I will never understand what is wrong with people who thought Lonzo was overrated.

But more importantly, it should lead to questions about next year’s UCLA squad. Don’t get me wrong - there are absolutely some great players coming to UCLA next year, along with stalwarts like Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh. But none of these players appear to be the transcendent player that Lonzo Ball was, and you have to wonder if UCLA can continue the momentum they had last year.

Or, even scarier, if Lonzo Ball gave Steve Alford a stay of execution for a year.

Because this coming year is going to be huge for UCLA. Arizona appears to be a preseason top 5 team; USC brought back a ton of talent with experience, and Oregon might not take as big of a step back as many believe. UCLA fans were, in general, able to accept UCLA’s season last year because the highs were so high, but what happens if those same highs aren’t there next year? A UCLA team that finishes 3rd-4th next year with no major victories creates a real conundrum for UCLA regarding Alford’s continued employment.

That’s where we are now: wondering whether UCLA can maintain program momentum, or whether Lonzo Ball was just that good.

Oh well, back to football in a few weeks!

Go Bruins!