Let’s play old style fantasy basketball, how would you coach this team?
I want to start off by saying this is my favorite “bad” UCLA Bruins team to watch. In the bad Hazzard years, the team was a mess and Hazzard seemed to have lost them. In the bad Lavin years,
the used car salesman shtick “Coach” Lavin’s excuses were grating beyond belief. For example, consider that “we” didn’t lose, the other team just played at a “magical level.” In Howland’s latter bad seasons, it was getting up in the morning to read the latest off-the-court train wreck or a player leaving. For Alford, it was watching players go for stats and not care about the team. I could go on, but I like watching this team.
They never stop fighting. Everyone dives for the loose ball. Sometimes, the problem is they are too UNSELFISH. Cronin has already changed the culture. Even when losing to Kansas or North Carolina, they keep fighting and hustling. Is it pretty? Hell no. Will I be happy if the team is like this next year in December? Definitely not.
Do I have concerns right now? Of course. And I am going to delve into them. First and foremost is I think Cronin is “over-coaching.” I think this is hurting some players and he needs to let them play through some mistakes. A turnover is not a reason to pull someone, going 1 on 4 is a good reason. You can’t call every play from the bench even if the offense is ugly at times.
Another example of over-coaching is trying to win every game instead of working on becoming better at what you do. Let’s look at two quick examples. Against Michigan State, UCLA took the air out of the ball and played slow for a chance to win. I think it gave us a better chance for that game, but I think it may have cost a great opportunity to work on the offense against an elite team. The second time was using the week between games to prepare a matchup zone against Notre Dame. I am not sure this was a great strategy, but is it really worth it to have a matchup zone once this season for a non-conference game? Would the team have been better served working on the “regular defense” and just focusing on three point shooting?
I should add that I am guilty of being a hypocrite here. Ben Howland was singularly focused on his vision his first season more than the opponent. UCLA undoubtedly lost some winnable games. I hated watching that. But, man, did it pay off. Howland knew what he was doing and was establishing his base system. Yet, I am basically saying Cronin should do what I hated then.
So, take all this with a grain of salt. Cronin has his players playing hard and playing to win. He is dealing with players who have never played defense or really team offense before. Here goes with my thoughts.
I would press some but I would do it to change the pace and flummox the other team. I would shorten the bench and not put too much emphasis on experience. Here is what I would do with the lineup and roles:
These two play and only sit for unusual situations (e.g. free throws at the end of the game) or to rest.
1. Jaime Jaquez Jr. — Shooting Guard/Small Forward — 30 minutes a game
Jaquez is right now the best player. I do think Cronin is asking too much of Jaime to play 33-35 minutes. Jaquez is the best player because he does it all. He can create his own shot, rebound, get steals and play defense, and pass. Jaime is also one of the few players who does a good job at post entry passes. You need him on the floor. I am just not sure he is in shape for over 30 minutes a game the way he plays.
2. Jalen Hill — Center — 28 minutes
Hill is fourth on the team in assists which is impressive for a center. He can score one-on-one. He needs to work (and get help) when he gets a double team. The potential is there. He is also crucial to the interior defense and quick enough to handle a guard on a switch. He is even decent for this team at shooting free throws. We need him on the floor.
Let them play through their mistakes
3. Tyger Campbell — Point Guard — 34 minutes
Campbell has rarely been beat this year on a switch to a big. It is wild to watch this basketball midget fight for position with people much taller and stronger than him. He is a fighter. In the first four games, Campbell played 30 more minutes in each one and averaged 13 points a game, five assists and shot 50% from three. Since then, he has played over 30 minutes in a game just once, shot 4-17 from three and had five or more assists just three times.
Of course, the competition is much tougher, but I also think Campbell needs some more room to create and make mistakes. Campbell is not a selfish player and is giving his all. Campbell is not a great Pac-12 point guard, but he is the only true point guard on this team. If I were Coach, Campbell would be my point guard for 32 to 34 minutes a night. At this point, I would let him play through mistakes. Yes, he has limits but he is a good kid and the team’s only true point.
4. Chris Smith — Power Forward/Small Forward — 32 minutes
If you look at the stat sheet right now, Chris Smith is the star. He is shooting career highs of 47% from the field, 33% from three and an incredible 90% from the free throw line. He is leading the team in points, second in assists, third in steals and fourth in rebounding. However, if you watch Smith at any given time, you would not think he is a star. He makes mistakes, looks hesitant, drives and stops without an idea of what to do next, etc. If you watch Smith closely, you can also see a guy with confidence issues. Smith has NBA potential. This is the year to give him the chance to reach it. Will it be ugly at times? Yep. Is the potential payoff high? Yes.
Give him a quick hook, but let him play
5. Jules Bernard — Shooting Guard — 26 minutes
Bernard is the opposite of Smith on the confidence front. Bernard needs to realize that even LeBron James does not go one on three. Bernard talks about letting the game slow down for him. This is key. He also is a decent three-point shooter (35%), which is good for this team. Bernard is not a good post entry passer and not a natural passer. That is the flaw in his game. But he is one of two players who can create a shot, even though he is shooting a horrendous 36% overall.
I would still roll the dice with Bernard but, every time he goes one on three, I would yank him. Every time he forces a bad shot early in the clock, I would yank him. Conversely, I would tell him to find his spots for the three because, if you covering Bernard, you have to respect the drive.
Bottom line: I love the Cronin quick hook for Bernard. I do think Bernard is definitely the best option for the long term. Bernard started the first game and I think he should be the fifth starter now.
The Must Play Every Night
6. Cody Riley — Center/Forward — 16-24 minutes
Cody Riley is the one guy on this team I am not sure about. One could make an argument that Cody is like Campbell and Smith and has some confidence issues. I just think Cody is soft. Cody is also floor-bound. His vertical is non-existent for such a big guy. He leads the team in turnovers on a per-minute basis, in fouls by a wide margin, has missed crucial layups, shoots 50% from the free throw line, and seemingly does not rebound as well as he should. On the other hand, he can hit an open elbow jumper, drive to the hoop, pass and handle the ball pretty well for a big.
Unlike everyone above on this list, I am not sure how much better Riley can play. I hope I’m wrong but I think he is best as a backup big and I am not sure about playing Riley and Hill together. Maybe that can be done some depending on matchups, but not every game
7. David Singleton — Guard — 6-14 minutes
David Singleton does not look a hundred percent. He is slower than last year. He is still not the same player. However, keep in mind Singleton was never a guy that could create his own shot. Last year, Singleton was not a guy getting plays called for him. Kris Wilkes was the first option, then Jaylen Hands, and even Moses Brown who never passed. Singleton was, at best, the fourth option when he was on the floor. This year, if you are an opposing coach, Singleton is the one guy you don’t let beat you from the three-point line. And this is part one of where the injury comes in. Singleton. who was never good at creating his own shot, is now slower.
Cronin considers Singleton and Campbell liabilities on defense because they are so slow for their positions. But here is the rub. Singleton is something this team desperately needs, a three-point threat. Singleton is also a good post feeder. I think there is a role for Singleton depending on the matchups. He is weak as backup point but the best we have. As a wing, he should help the bigs since you have to pay attention to him outside. Defensively, his effort and technique are fine. His speed is a question.
The bottom line is that I get why Cronin is more reluctant than most fans to give him a role. That said, his three-point shooting, ability to feed the post and hi smarts argue for some minutes.
8. Shareef O’Neal — Power Forward — 0-12 minutes
You need two bigs on the bench for Pac-12 road games because the Pac-12 referees can be so terrible and biased for the home team. O’Neal is turning the ball over at an alarming rate. He is shooting awful inside the arc and he looks lost at times. He also shows potential. O’Neal would be the guy I would play in the first half and as little as possible in the second. He is not ready, but he could be something special going forward and he has so much talent that he is going to make some plays among the mistakes. The minutes he gets this year could make a big difference for next year.
9. Prince Ali — Guard — 0-12 minutes
I would play for the future and bench Ali. Ali is at his best as a complimentary player as he was in 2017-18 when he was the third or fourth option. He has been forced this season to become a “go-to” guy. That is making his game suffer. To me, it boils down to: Bernard or Ali? I honestly think Jules Bernard is better to be the guy who shoots the forced shot at the end of the clock. Bernard also has a higher upside at this point, is a better athlete and is a lefty. That said, Ali is leading the team in steals and is hustling more than the rest of his career. He just is still awkward and seems to make mistakes that don’t show up in the box score. Bernard makes more correctable mistakes when he goes one on three and he shouldn’t.
The Deep Bench
10. Alex Olesinski
Alex is just not right for this team. He does not want to shoot, except late clock and a wide open three. It is not his fault as that has been his role for his entire UCLA career. But this offense is set up so the bigs have to take shots. That is not Alex and it was obvious one game when they left him open on the free throw line and he did not know what to do.
On the other hand, he is a better defender right now then most players. On this team, one can make an argument that we should press and go deep into the bench for players like Alex. I don’t agree, but I definitely see the argument.
11/12. Jake Kyman and Kenneth Nwuba
These guys aren’t ready for different reasons. Kenneth is an athlete more than a basketball player and Jake is a basketball player who may not be athletic enough. I realize that some will disagree with my opinion on Kyman. He is supposed to be a good three-point shooter which this team needs. I see a kid lost on defense and, unlike Shareef, he is without the physical tools to recover from being lost.
Those are my thoughts. What are yours?