If there was a player who would not have fit in on the UCLA Bruins under the Mick Cronin system, it was last season’s leading scorer Kris Wilkes. On paper, Wilkes was a budding superstar. In games, he was a low-effort master of scoring in garbage time. That said, Wilkes was the leading scorer, and along with Jaylen Hands, the go-to guy on offense. The team has a huge void on offense. But like the bigs without Moses Brown, can they be better as a group without Kris Wilkes?
Overview of the Wings
There are a lot of pieces here, but, unlike the bigs where there is some clarity, it can go a lot of different directions. Minutes for wings are complicated by the fact that two of the wings, Jules Bernard and David Singleton, are going to get some minutes at point. Further, UCLA’s best three-point shooter and second-best defender last year, David Singleton, missed all summer recovering from his broken foot and is only now starting to return to full contact basketball. What does all this mean?
The short answer is the starters in the exhibition game at wing (shooting guard or 2 and small forward or 3) will likely not be the same as the starters come the end of the season. Further, point guard Tyger Campbell is a question mark as well and his ability to play defense may have a major impact on the wings as Bernard and Singleton will have time at point as well.
I am going to review David Singleton and Jules Bernard under point guards. As a practical matter, Singleton is likely going to be limited in minutes to start the season and I think it is worth discussing Bernard as a point as that is an...how do I put this?...interesting idea. However, these two are arguably the best returning players and will play significant minutes at the wing. Singleton is crucial in that he is a very good three-point shooter on a team that may be lacking from three and Bernard has to be the odds-on favorite to lead UCLA in scoring. But, again, more on those two later.
The Best NBA Potential: Chris Smith
Before I get flamed in the comments, I said “potential.” However, unlike, say, Kris Wilkes’ potential, Smith’s potential is based in part on his defensive capabilities. Smith could do a good job on any position in a switch, which is hugely important in the NBA. He is a coordinated big body. So far under Cronin in practice, he has shown that capability. According to this interview in practice he is leading UCLA in deflections and in rebounds. Cronin’s staff charts deflections in every practice. That is significant because you would think that a guard would lead in deflections and a big would lead in rebounds. His ability to do both is part of his NBA potential. I would think Smith is pretty likely to start for any Cronin team.
Of course, Smith has only NBA potential right now because of his offense. Smith only shot 40% from the field and 28% from three and, for the second year in a row, had more turnovers than assists. He looked lost on times on offense. His offense has probably been hurt the most by Steve Alford and the chaos of the last two years. He has been talked about as a backup point guard and played every position except center. Personally. I think he could be a really good college four, but, last season, Alford asked him to be a three-point shooter and to drive. Under Alford last season, he shot 35 three-pointers in 13 games, while only 22 in the last 20 games. This is typical for Smith, who has been asked to do too many things. In his first season, he seemed likely to redshirt or play minimal minutes, but, instead, he was forced to play multiple roles after the China incident. Keep in mind that Smith is still a teenager with his twentieth birthday not until December 24 of this year, even though he is a junior.
But, even on offense, Smith has shown flashes. His best offensive game may have come against UC Berkeley. Berkeley had no answer for Smith off the dribble and Smith went 9 of 10 from the free throw line and single-handedly put Berkeley in foul trouble. He tied his career high of 15 points without making a three.
Smith is definitely a Cronin player. The question for Smith is: “How can he contribute on offense consistently?” On the other side, he could be in the running for best defensive player on the team and will give Coach Cronin a good defender to help key his team defense.
The Veteran Enigma—Prince Ali
Let’s start with the good. Prince Ali stuck with UCLA when he could have been a graduate transfer elsewhere. By all accounts, he is working hard and has bought in to Cronin’s system. He had a famous dunk over Kentucky that was one of the most memorable shots of the Alford-era. He hit a number of big shots and was the leading scorer in the “miracle” comeback win over Oregon for the best win of Bartow’s tenure.
On the flip side, during UCLA losses last season, Ali shot 33 of 96 for 34% last season. During one abysmal stretch where UCLA lost three in a row in the Pac-12 which effectively ended their season, he shot 34 times and only made 12, including 7 of 19 for two-point field goals. But, that’s just it. For his career, Ali is a mediocre shooter and not very good from three-point range for a two guard.
There is potential for improvement. Ali can work on shot selection and defense. He has untapped potential in the latter. For that let me close with this highlight which plays well into Cronin’s “no uncontested layup theme.”
The Freshman Shooter: Jake Kyman
With Singleton coming back slowly to start the season, UCLA’s best outside shooter may be freshman Jake Kyman. Jake shot 44% and 45% from three in his last two years in high school. This was on over 200 attempts his senior season. He also shot 85% from the charity stripe so it is safe to say the kid can shoot. From 247 Sports’ profile on Kyman:
Shooting specialist with decent size and average length. Very good shooter who can knock down jumpers off catch and pull from both midrange and three. Specializes as shooter but also sees the court well and is a good passer. Plays hard and respectable competitor on both ends. Somewhat in-between positions on defense; may end up most apt to guarding fours at the high major level. Improving handle and defense will go a long way in hitting potential. Shooting ability should help him carve out role in Pac-12.
I think this may be an overstatement, but let’s be optimistic to start the season:
The surprise at UCLA? Freshman Jake Kyman. Can really shoot the basketball. Zone Breaker.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) October 19, 2019
Kyman gives UCLA a much-needed quality shooter. Can he play defense at Pac-12 level or even a level that works for Mick Cronin? That will probably determine his minutes. Keep in mind that Cronin believes defense is a five-man effort and, thus, everyone has to do their part.
The “Other” Freshman Jaime Jaquez
Jaime may be the hardest guy to review right now. He is not a three-point shooter and is an athlete. At a minimum, he gives depth. He looks to be a high-effort guy, but is he ready to play as a freshman in the Pac-12? This was written in a review of him from ESPN:
Jaime is a scorer first and foremost. He is a good shooter with his feet set to do 20 feet. He is an effective straight line driver going right that does have a little wiggle. Jaquez has a solid middle game that makes him hard to guard
Hybrid forward with decent size at 6-7 and a +3 wingspan. High intangibles prospect who will be able to play the three and four at both sides of the court. Competitive prospect who plays hard every time out and consistently produces. Potent slasher from high post who gets to the line. Decent shooter from midrange; could improve from perimeter. Rebounds very well for position. Has size, athleticism and toughness to guard multiple positions. Improving handle and 3-point shot will be keys. Projects as multi-year starter for winning team at high major level.
He sounds a little like a right-handed Jules Bernard. He could work out well in Cronin’s system, but also could have trouble finding minutes this year.
The player review for wings is a bit discombobulated. While it is a pretty safe bet that the starting bigs will by Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, the wings could be numerous different combinations. The two best wings may be Bernard and Singleton, but they will also get minutes at point. Chris Smith has the potential to be a defensive star, but he needs to improve on the offensive end. There are also worries about three-point shooting. Do you sacrifice defense and play Kyman more?
The point guard position further determines where the chips fall here. As will be detailed in the next preview, Cronin seems to be bringing Tyger Campbell along carefully and Singleton is still recovering from an injury .So, Jules Bernard may start at point which means your likely starting two and three are Ali and Smith for the first game. I doubt we finish the year that way.
One thing is for sure, without Kris Wilkes, whoever starts and plays will be a better defender. Cronin won’t tolerate anything else. The defense at the wing spot will be a strength this season. The offense from here may determine if we are dancing in March.