Top 25 Countdown: #16 UCLA

Rotation

G Lonzo Ball (Fr.)

G Bryce Alford (Sr.)

F Isaac Hamilton (Sr.)

F T.J. Leaf (Fr.)

C Thomas Welsh (Jr.)

Bench

G Aaron Holiday (So.)

G Prince Ali (So.)

F Ike Anigbogu (Fr.)

F Gyorgy Goloman (Jr.)

UCLA’s penultimate losing season was achieved by a team that was led by Dijon Thompson and T.J. Cummings. It was Ben Howland’s first season on campus. It was also thirteen years ago. For the first time since the 2003-04 season, the 2015-2016 UCLA Bruins ended the year with more losses than wins, a year that was also just-extended Steve Alford’s third in Los Angeles. However, maybe more so than any other program in the country, UCLA is synonymous with tradition. It’s a program with a record 11 championships to its name. Yet, 10 of those championships belong to the Wizard of Westwood and were won over the course of 12 years. Post-Wooden, UCLA has won only once, and they have the immortalized 4.8 second Tyus Edney length of the floor lay in at the buzzer to thank for that.

But, the Bruins are supposed to win. And in Alford’s first two seasons on campus, that was an expectation that was reasonably fulfilled through consecutive appearances in the Sweet 16, albeit with one run that was facilitated by what must have been Woodenian intervention from above in a first round escape of SMU. Yet, last season the Bruins were unable to make it past the first round… of the Pac-12 tournament, finishing 15-17 and impelling Alford to explicitly reassert his own accountability to fans of the program. Fortunately, it appears that this year’s team is poised to at the very least return to the tournament and is also well positioned to make a run once they get there. And while UCLA is forced to absorb the departures of big men Tony Parker and Jonah Bolden, much of the optimism surrounding this season owes itself to the arrival of freshman Lonzo Ball.

An incredibly unique talent, and one of the highest regarded recruits in what promises to be one of the deepest freshmen classes in recent memory, Ball’s immediate insertion into the starting lineup will be nothing short of transformational. With him he carries an expectation that he will challenge the evolutionary constraints of the point guard position. He has positively elite vision and his overall athleticism paired with his size at 6’6″ should allow him to develop into force on the defensive end. However, his shot, while developable, is certainly inconsistent, as well his ability to create and make plays in the half court. Nevertheless, Ball will be given the keys to the offense and should ostensibly allow the Bruins to better fulfill Alford’s already demonstrated predilection to play up tempo. Even more fundamentally though, throughout Alford’s tenure thus far, UCLA has been without an actual floor general, and while I certainly harbor extreme affection for former Bruin Kyle Anderson, Ball fills a void that has been left unfilled for the last three years. Consequently, his presence on the floor also allows coach’s son Bryce Alford to slide off the ball, a position that much better suits his game and alleviates a significant portion of his ballhandling and playmaking responsibilities. Last year especially, the construction of the roster necessitated that the team be overly reliant on Alford to be both the primary scorer and distributor, a reality that proved to be far from advantageous. And even though Alford was statistically impressive as a playmaker a season ago, the Bruin backcourt will inevitably be better off if some of his burden is removed. Ball and Alford will be joined on the wing by senior Isaac Hamilton, a skilled and efficient scorer who led UCLA in points per game a season ago and finished third in the Pac 12. And even though he shot 38% from three last year, the transformation of the backcourt should allow both he and sophomore guard Aaron Holiday to improve on their field goal percentages, while also cutting down on their number of turnovers.

The most prominent returner in the frontcourt is seven foot junior, Thomas Welsh, who, with continued improvement of his jumper and his post game, should further develop into a consistent offensive threat inside the arc. However, with the departures of Parker and Bolden, the Bruin frontcourt will not only invariably rely on the maturation of Welsh, but will also be forced to rely heavily on five star freshman forward T.J. Leaf, a McDonald’s All-American, whose athleticism and skill at 6’9″ will need to be immediately present if the Bruins hope to fill a glaring void in a frontcourt that is not especially deep, even before the 4-6 week absence of fellow freshman Ike Anigbogu to begin the season.

This year has the appearance of do or die time for Steve Alford. However, with an infusion of young talent, most notably of Ball and Leaf, the Bruins seems well positioned to return to their spot at the footsteps of prominence. Nevertheless, this was a team that barely finished inside the top 125 defensively last season, and their improvement this season must begin there. And although Ball already looks the part of transcendent, it remains to be seen whether or not superior talent in the starting five will be enough to alleviate a marked lack of depth down the bench. But suffice it to say, we think it will.

Namedrop Corner

Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook

So this addition to the namedrop corner would appear to eschew our affection for the obscure and the otherwise anonymous. And yet, as UCLA’s most prominent and assuredly most idiosyncratic basketball alumnus, Russell Westbrook is just too compelling not to write about… and because, frankly,  well

There is no doubt that he became even more compelling because of everything that happened this summer, yet compelling in a way that only seemed to impel me even more fervently towards an effort to conceptualize him. To comprehend a figure that perpetually seems so deeply entrenched in his own individualism that he eschews even basic understanding. I don’t remember much of Russ from his days at UCLA apart from his game sealing dunk against Texas A&M in the second round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament. But something, even then, was undoubtedly magnetic about him. The 2008-09 NBA season was the first for the Oklahoma City Thunder (RIP Seattle Supersonics), but they moved across the country with a face of the franchise already in tow – Kevin Durant. They won only 23 games that season. And yet, it seemed so obvious that it would not take them long to ascend to the national forefront. After selecting James Harden with the third pick of the 2009 draft, the Thunder rode their transcendent young core all the way to the playoffs, where they earned the 8 seed and a first round matchup with the eventual world champion Los Angeles Lakers. But where I fell in love with the otherworldly and almost overwhelming mythos of Russell Westbrook was on a Tuesday night. April 20, 2010. Lakers-Thunder Game 2. 5:55 left in the third quarter. The Lakers were up 6. And then this happened.

roos

It was a game I watched from one of those faux-ergonomic desk chairs at a Holiday Inn in Omaha, Nebraska. Everything about the occasion seemed banal. But that didn’t mean that what was happening on the twenty inch screen just a couple feet from my face couldn’t do everything in its power to contradict the idyllic ordinariness of a Tuesday night in middle America. Like the man attempted to throw down on Andrew freaking Bynum from just in front of the free throw line. It was only his second year. And like I said, they won 23 games his rookie year. So this ostensibly qualified as my first HOLY SHIT THIS GUY IS NOT NORMAL moment of my Russell Westbrook experience. Like a regular human being was not supposed to attempt something like that. But he gave zero fucks. He turned around, walked to the free throw line, and calmly high fived his teammates. LIKE WHAT? YOU JUST TRIED TO PUT ANDREW BYNUM ON A MOTHERFUCKING POSTER. And yet it looked elegant and effortless in a way I’m still not sure I’m equipped to describe. He didn’t care what Bynum thought. He didn’t care what I thought. Russ was just gonna do Russ. And that’s the way it will always be. Throughout his career, Russell Westbrook has seemed more symbolic than he has a real basketball player. Emblematic of some level of unbridled kinetic beauty that we’re not yet privy to. He refuses to be reduced to anything by anybody. He has always seemed a supernatural figure, someone who if he was indebted to anything, it was to his own mythology. Which is why this summer was so interesting. It felt like maybe for the first time, Russell Westbrook, the human being was forced into the limelight whether he liked it or not. Kevin Durant left for the Bay. He left for the team he and Russ had blown a 3-1 lead to in the conference finals. So now, if he so chose, Russell Westbrook would be the unchallenged face of the Thunder. And that is exactly what he chose. Why exactly however, still seemed like a mystery. In many ways, he still seemed impenetrable. Revelatory as always because he is the best at what he does, Lee Jenkins talked to Russ and wrote about it in a piece that just recently dropped for Sports Illustrated. The title of the piece – “I Was Never Going to Leave”. What emanated from the piece is that Russell Westbrook is fiercely loyal. To his family. To his friends. To his team. And to his city. But also that he is deeply invested in the journey. In the ups and downs. He knows a championship will not be in the cards every year but he loves that it can be. In many ways he just loves. His overabundant compassion is what makes him him. It is easy to perceive him as the consummate individual. Obfuscatory by nature because he is so wrapped up in himself. But that might just fundamentally misunderstand who Russell Westbrook is. There’s a journey towards understanding, and that’s one thankfully, that we can be on with him.

 

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