Kyle Anderson. Norman Powell. Bryce Alford. Lonzo Ball. Aaron Holiday. GG Goloman.
Throughout Steve Alford’s tenure as UCLA Bruins basketball head coach, the Bruins have had a clear leader who’s individual play and talent acted as a barometer for the success the Bruins could have that year. Kyle Anderson was an offensive pivot who was excellent passer and rebounder and made his teammates better. Norman Powell was a 4-year player who grew into a defensive pitbull and heart of his team. Bryce Alford was not the most talented player, but he had the shooting range and the confidence of Steph Curry. Lonzo Ball was a basketball savant who existed to turn everyone he played with into the best version of themselves. Aaron Holiday was motor personified, playing entire games and putting on one of the most Herculean efforts UCLA has ever seen. GG Goloman was perfect and deserves a statue outside of Pauley.
Now, it’s time to see if Kris Wilkes is ready to step up and fill the leader role.
Because, let’s make no mistake about it: this is Kris Wilkes’s team. Yes, there are some players ahead of him in seniority and Jaylen Hands will have an even-larger role than was anticipated, but Wilkes has that mix of talent and experience that point to him being the engine that drives this Bruin machine. Most of the leaders in that above list were already pivotal cogs in prior teams and were stepping into the void left behind. Only Lonzo really was the team leader from the first moment he stepped onto campus. Wilkes has a year under his belt playing as running mate to Holiday, which sets him up to take over more this year.
It should be noted that I was close to not having to write this profile. I don’t mean that someone else he would be writing it, but rather that Wilkes was very close to declaring for the NBA draft after last season. He did enter his name in for a draft evaluation and worked out for a few teams, but he did not hire an agent, which allowed him to come back.
Now, it’s his time to shine.
Kris Wilkes is a scorer, plain and simple. Wilkes was second on the team last year in PPG, averaging 13.7 PPG on the season. He was also something of a volume shooter, averaging the same amount of shots per 40 as Aaron Holiday took last year. Equally as important as that shooting touch was Wilkes’s rebounding ability, as he was second on the team in total rebounds behind Thomas Welsh. Finally, he was a surprisingly good passer, with his 1.7 assists per game being the best last year among the non-point guards.
In most categories, Kris Wilkes was a positive. He had the third-highest PER on the team amongst rotation players (fun fact: Goloman was 4th in this category. I WILL NEVER LET HIM GO) and returns the most win shares from last year’s squad. Interestingly enough, Wilkes was one of only 4 players, and the only one returning this year, to post at least a 1.0 in defensive win shares, though he wasn’t usually put on the opponent’s best players.
Areas to Improve
Kris Wilkes never revealed what NBA scouts said he should improve on this year at UCLA, but, if I had to guess, it revolved around two things: his shooting and his defense.
On the first point, Wilkes didn’t have the most efficient shot with the Bruins last year. Too often, Wilkes would try to do too much and either force up a shot or attempt to draw a foul, which left him only shooting 44.1% from the field. Combine that with a poor 3-point percentage of 35.2% (especially bad considering Wilkes was second on the team with 4.8 attempts per game) and a FT% of .655, Wilkes ended up with a poor true shooting percentage of .541, which put him behind Prince Ali and Alex Olesinski and barely ahead of Hands.
As for the defense, Wilkes wasn’t the worst defender on the team, but he was never given the tough assignments like Aaron Holiday. As team leader this season, he’ll be expected to take on tougher assignments. Defensive stats had Wilkes all over the place, with Defensive Win Shares rating him rather positively while Defensive Box Plus/Minus went in the opposite direction.
Finally, and this is just in general, but Wilkes is going to have to grow into the leadership role. Last year, he had clear alpha dog Aaron Holiday and steady senior Thomas Welsh to lean on, but this year he is both the alpha dog and the experienced player.
Wilkes didn’t have many games where he led the team in scoring, but the road game against Oregon, where Wilkes led the team with 21 points in a loss, was probably his most complete game of the year. Wilkes was efficient from the field, including shooting 3 of 7 from deep and threw in 2 blocks and 2 steals on a night when Aaron Holiday really struggled. More impressively, Wilkes was tied for the team lead in minutes played in this game, only sitting for 4 minutes all game. It was a consistent performance against a good team on the road and something Wilkes can build on this year.
Kris Wilkes is already starting to pop up on some way-too-early 2019 NBA mock drafts as a potential lottery pick and you can see why. He has a ton of natural talent and scoring ability that should translate at the next level and the way has been cleared for him to showcase it all season long on a team that will belong to him.
UCLA can and maybe should win the Pac-12, but it will only go as far as Wilkes can take them.