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UCLA Basketball Season Preview, Part 1: Bigs

UCLA looks “starless,” but deep at the four and five positions.

NCAA Basketball: Oregon at UCLA
Jalen Hill seems likely to become a key player for Coach Cronin.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

One of the big stories here in Washington, DC after the Nationals beat the Dodgers and the Cardinals to get their first ever World Series is: “Are the Nationals are a better team without their best player from last season Bryce Harper?” While it’s an interesting question for the Nats, this is a more relevant question for UCLA basketball. The UCLA Bruins arguably lost their best big in Moses Brown, their best wing in Kris Wilkes and their best point guard in Jaylen Hands. Yet, will they be a better team this year without each of those guys? I will break down all three position groups in a series of posts.

First up today will be a look at this year’s bigs.

Strength & Depth

UCLA has a lot of depth at the power forward (4) and center (5) spot. This can be particularly helpful for two reasons. First, depth can be very helpful in the Pac-12 where the SPTR favor the home team and often call phantom fouls on bigs. Second, in a defense with the mantra “no uncontested layups,” some bigs are going to get in foul trouble.

The Best Returning Defender and Best Fit: Jalen Hill

Hill started the season as the temporary starter, waiting for Cody Riley to return from an injury. He showed how hard he’ll fight in a game when he knew he was about to get benched for a returning Riley. He finished with a jaw-popping 20 rebounds against Presbyterian in 27 minutes. The competition was not much, but his effort was outstanding which is why Hill is a great fit under new Bruins head coach Mick Cronin. He was the team’s best defender last year because he was coachable and almost always made the effort. He was probably the most improved player as he worked hard and improved throughout the season.

Hill was the second-best rebounder and shot an acceptable 56 FG% and 68% free throw percentage. He is one of the smartest returning players as well because he knows his limitations. He is the second most likely player to finish the season as a starter.

The Alford Stretch Fours-Part 1: Cody Riley

Hill was always going to be an afterthought to Alford. He played so much because Interim Coach Bartow liked him and he earned his minutes. On the other hand, Cody Riley was an Alford-type four. While he can play five, Riley has some of the makings of Alford’s best teams which had quality stretch fours. Everyone remembers Lonzo Ball’s season, but the leading scorer that year was power forward TJ Leaf. Leaf’s numbers were 16 points per game with eight rebounds on an amazing 68% field goal percentage and 47% from three. In 2014-15, Norman Powell was the star but Kevon Looney was the leading rebounder and shot blocker who also shot 42% from three. By contrast, when big inside bruiser Tony Parker was forced to play the four in 2015-16, UCLA had a losing record and was Alford’s worst full season.

On paper, Cody Riley was the next Alford stretch four. At times, he has shown the ability to shoot outside, pass, rebound, handle the ball and more. He also showed flashes of being able to play in the post. Ironically, Riley had his best game statistically against Cronin’s Cincinnati team last year when he had his only double-double in his season-high 31 minutes

But Riley had a rough start at the Bruins. In his first year, it was the China incident. In his second, it was an injury to start the year. After Alford was fired, Riley never played more than 16 minutes in a win. With the exception of one game Riley never looked in sync. He seemed to be in Bartow’s dog house and more likely to make a big turnover than a big play.

And, unlike Hill, how he fits in to Cronin’s system is an open question.

Of course, there was one game where Hill and Riley together were a thing of beauty to watch on offense. Against Utah at home, Moses Brown was suspended. Riley and Hill were awesome on the offensive end, shooting a combined 10 for 13 with six assists. In the first half, they had some beautiful interior passing and Utah is a good defensive team.

Riley is not a Cronin player on paper but he has shown flashes of being a very talented player. If he can improve on the defensive end and become consistent on the offensive end, he could be the star. He certainnly has the big physical body to be successful. He will be an interesting player to watch.

Alford Stretch 4 Part 2: The Athlete and the Hype Shareef O’Neal

Shareef O’Neal is coming back from heart surgery and physically is looking up. He is another player that seems to fit the Alford stretch four model. 247 Sports’ Scouting Report describes O’Neal this way:

He’s mobile, active and a good athlete. O’Neal has good hands and touch and is a confident shooter from mid-range. The next steps in his development are displaying a consistent motor, strength and developing his post moves. O’Neal’s shooting ability, frame and athleticism give him plenty of upside.

My personal opinion is that Shareef is going to struggle on defense and in Pac-12 play at first. Playing inside with stronger guys who are just as big takes some time to adjust. Because he is Shaq’s son, some expect big things out of him. 247 may be right, but I think it is going to take a while. He is probably the quickest of the bigs and runs the floor the best, but is that what Cronin wants from his four? The question for him is: “Can he bang down low, play defense, and rebound?” He will need to do those to start for Cronin. The answer will likely be yes, but not right away.

The Smart Player: Alex OIesinski

Alex Olesinski is the fifth year senior who fits the stereotype. He is solid at everything and not special at anything. He actually had more rebounds than points last year. He knows his role. Interestingly, he was the second best, and best returning, free throw shooter, although he made just 12 attempts. On a poor free shooting team, that could be relevant. He can hit an open three and, most importantly, knows he is always the fifth option. He won’t make many mistakes and it is nice to have someone like Alex as your tenth or eleventh guy. On the other hand if Alex is in the top 7 or so players in the rotation, the Bruins are in some trouble.

You can’t teach height: Kenneth Nwuba

Kenneth Nwuba has some height and is a good athlete. He has not shown he is a basketball player. One stat sums him up: he averages 12.24 fouls per 40 minute game. He is the kind of guy you hope puts it together a little more each year and is ready to play a role by his Senior season.

Don’t Forget: Chris Smith

Chris Smith is going to be previewed in the wings. That said, Chris can play four. Personally, I like Smith as four as he can legitimately defend a good Pac-12 four, but he is a very tough matchup for any Pac-12 four when UCLA is on offense.

Summing Up the Bigs

The Bruins have a lot of potential options but, at the end of the day, it’s likely to be Hill and Riley starting. Depth here is outstanding and there is the potential for Riley or Shareef to become stars. However, that seems unlikely this season. The more likely case seems to be Hill becoming a defensive force in the Pac-12.

For Cronin, the bigs are a plus. UCLA will have the bodies to reward those who play with effort with minutes. The Bruins will be able to hold their own on defense and on the boards with their bigs and they’ll have a bench if a player gets tired. But they won’t win games on offense here.

Overall, the reality seems that the Bruins will be better at the center and power forward as a whole with Moses Brown gone. Brown was a seven-foot-plus wunderkind, but a poor man-to-man defender with no offensive game outside two feet of the basket who could not pass. Hill and Riley can pass. Shareef, Alex and Riley can shoot outside. Riley and Hill are big physical bodies that won’t get pushed around in man-to-man. This group as a whole will bring versatility and defensive effort.