This is the first of a summer series on UCLA Basketball “All Star” teams divided by coaches. The format will be five “best” players, one near miss and one bench player. Also, no preference is given to those who stay longer or those who leave early. Instead, I will rely more on best seasons as Bruins. Pro careers are irrelevant for these posts. Obviously these are only my opinions and please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments. This series will focus soley on the performance of the players and not on the coaches themselves.
The first up in this series will be the players of the Steve Alford era.
After 5 seasons of Steve Alford-coached UCLA basketball, it is time to make a best of the “Alford era” All-Star team. In picking this team, a surprising thing happen, the best players were the best players on offense AND defense on their respective UCLA teams.
Before getting to the players, I have a brief note on the players I did not pick. Isaac Hamilton had a very nice career in his three years with Steve Alford, all as a starter. But he was just not at the level of the other players on this list to make the team. Bryce was another near miss and has to be mentioned, if for no other reason than he holds the UCLA record for three pointers in a career. However, Bryce was just not a good enough defender to merit serious consideration. Jordan Adams led technically the best Alford UCLA team (only one to win the Pac-12 title) in scoring and probably has the best argument for being on the team. However, he was arguably better the year before for Ben Howland and is the last player not selected.
The Bench Player - Kevon Looney
Although Bryce Alford famously said they don’t have a single play call for him; Looney was an extremely effective player for the Alford era Bruins. In his only season, he led UCLA in rebounding and three point percentage. Steve Alford loves stretch fours and Looney was one of the best. He was able to rebound inside with the big guys, he was a good ball handler for his size and he was able to hit an open three. An overlooked point was when UCLA got blown out early in the season against North Carolina. Looney actually had a positive +/- for the game. This is a good indication of how much his presence on the floor meant for UCLA. He may not have had a play called for him, but he was an overlooked key to the Sweet 16 run team.
The Near Miss - Thomas Welsh
I know. How can I not put Thomas Welsh the lunch-bucket-hardest-working player of the Alford era on the team?! Welsh was good, sometimes great, and keyed several wins in his time including an upset win over than number one Kentucky at Pauley. He hit a big three and key free throws in his last home game against Southern Cal. Welsh did everything that was asked of him and never complained, even asking not to start so then-senior Tony Parker could have the honor. I guess the reason for not putting Welsh on the starting five is four of the starting five were the best offense and defense player on their teams. Welsh was never the best player on his team. But it is real close between Welsh and the fifth player.
The All-Alford All-Star Team
5. The Best Second Best Ever
With the possible exception of Earl Watson, has there ever been a “second-best” freshman on a UCLA team as good as TJ Leaf? Leaf’s numbers were absolutely gaudy. He shot 62% from the field (best of the Alford era) and 47% from three while leading the best offensive team of the Bruins in many years in scoring. He added 8.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists a game. He could score as easily on the break or in the set offense. He could play center in the small lineup on defense but had the skills of an off guard. In, arguably, the best win of the Alford-era, at Rupp Arena against then-#1 Kentucky, he was the star with 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists. Although overshadowed by Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf was special and a great Bruin in his only season.
4. The Fighter with a chip on his shoulder
Aaron Holiday was always told he was too small. He wasn’t a point guard. He wasn’t a shooter. He wasn’t as good as his brothers, etc. Yet, Aaron was the undisputed MVP of last year’s UCLA team. Aaron led UCLA in minutes (38 a game!), assists, points, and three point percentage. He is the only player during the Alford era to average over 20 points a game. He did this while playing point guard and also being the best man to man defender, always covering the other team’s best guard. While he had moments where he just wore out or turned the ball over too much, he was also so indispensable that Steve Alford rarely took him out of games. Alford felt a tired Holiday was still UCLA’s best player. Arguably no player gave more of himself in the Alford era than Aaron Holiday did last season.
3. Alford’s Best Coaching Job
Norman Powell, like Aaron Holiday, was UCLA’s leading scoring and best defender. After years of being forced into being a three-point shooting role player by Ben Howland, Norman Powell became the undisputed leader of a Sweet 16 team. Not only did Norman lead on the court, he led in the locker room where his speech on playing defense after a debacle at Oregon helped save a season where it looked like UCLA was going to miss the tournament. As an individual player, Norman was Alford’s best coaching job. He also had my favorite play of the Alford era, a between the legs, behind the back, split of the defenders dunk:
2. The Smartest Player
In UCLA’s great history there have been few players like Kyle Anderson. Yes, there have been many better but, arguably, none like Kyle. Kyle led the only Steve Alford team to win the Pac-12 tournament in rebounds, assists, minutes, blocks, and three-point percentage. Surprisingly, his three-point percentage is actually the best of the Alford era at 48%. Think about that list for a second. He was UCLA’s point guard on offense and best inside player on defense. To put the latter in perspective, he had just three less defensive rebounds in three less games than Kevin Love. In other words, he averaged more defensive rebounds than Kevin Love, a future NBA rebounding champ, per game at UCLA. But it was on offense where he shined. Anderson was six-foot, nine-inch point power forward who could make magic happen with the ball in his hands. He was the unicorn of modern basketball players, a slow player who was at his best with the ball in his hands. In some ways, he was the best decision of Steve Alford because many coaches, including Ben Howland who recruited him, could just not accept the idea of a slow 6’9” point power forward.
1. The MVP
Forgot his struggles in the pros or his bloviating dad, Lonzo Ball was the best UCLA player this century. Lonzo made UCLA into the best offensive team in the country and an absolute joy to watch on that side of the court. The stats don’t tell the whole story. Yes, he had the most assists of any player during the Alford era and led UCLA in steals. Yes, he shot 55%, an outrageous number for a point guard. And like Holiday, Powell, and Anderson, he was the best player on offense and defense. (On the latter, I will never forget the win at Rupp where he held his own as a four in the small lineup.) But, he was special because he changed the mentality of the team and made everyone better. UCLA’s offense was a thing of passing beauty until someone had the perfect open three or layup. He was the true point guard who passed first and did whatever the team needed. Rebound? Sure. Shoot the big three? He’s got it. Lonzo was the best and I feel lucky to have seen him play.
What are your thoughts? Please add them in the comments below.