Tuesday, October 15

Tanner’s Take: UCLA must capitalize on T.J. Leaf decommitment to strengthen 2016 class


The Bruins have an opportunity, and they would be wise to make the most of it.

Five-star power forward T.J. Leaf announced his decommitment from Arizona last Thursday, opening the door for programs across the country to jump back into his recruiting process. In November 2014, Leaf chose Arizona over Florida and UCLA, so it isn’t a shock to hear that the Bruins are already rumored to be the early favorites to land the high school senior.

Leaf’s Amateur Athletic Union basketball coach Etop Udo-Ema spoke with Scout Thursday night to discuss the upcoming process for the Compton Magic player, and he knew exactly what the situation was like in Westwood.

“I’m sure (UCLA is) interested, but the question is do they have a scholarship?” Udo-Ema said in his interview with the recruiting website. “I haven’t talked to them yet. I’m sure they’re going to be interested, obviously.”

While the Compton Magic coach was correct – all 13 of the team’s 2016-17 scholarships are taken – the Bruins are reportedly willing to take junior guard Bryce Alford off of his to open up a spot for Leaf.

The message has been sent loud and clear: UCLA will do whatever it takes.

The move makes perfect sense for head coach Steve Alford – both financially and from a basketball standpoint. The elder Alford makes $2.6 million annually so Bryce’s tuition costs are negligible, and Leaf’s sudden decommitment gives the Bruins a chance to add to a 2016 recruiting class that appeared to be full.

A 6-foot-10-inch forward, Leaf would add a commanding presence under the basket of whichever school he eventually signs with. Scouting reports for the El Cajon recruit cite his upside as an impact player across the court, too – not just on the post.

Current speculation over Leaf’s eventual landing spot is mostly unfounded. Internet theories for his decommitment postulate that he might be bitter at Arizona coach Sean Miller for leaving him off the United States’ U19 roster – Miller actually wasn’t the one picking the roster so we can nix that one – or that he suddenly wants to play overseas and forego an NCAA career. Whatever the reason was, his options are now wide-open, and it is hard to ignore the number of connections he has to UCLA.

Multiple Compton players are committed to become Bruins over the next few years, including fellow 2016 teammates center Ike Anigbogu and guard Kobe Paras. Jaylen Hands, a 2017 recruit, is also said to be leaning toward UCLA, but he is still mulling offers and making visits to potential schools. Those influences, combined with the fact that Leaf is a SoCal native, only add to the growing narrative of an imminent Westwood arrival.

With these recent developments, coach Alford has the opportunity to bring in his best recruiting class since being hired two years ago. In that time, Alford has seen the arrival of three recruiting classes, but the 2013 group was mostly inherited from Ben Howland’s final months as head coach. The 2014 class was ranked No. 7 overall by 247Sports, but Jonah Bolden’s ineligibility left the group with one-and-done Kevon Looney as its lone centerpiece. This year’s freshmen are ranked No. 21 as a whole, and the top-ranked player is shooting guard Prince Ali, who 247Sports lists at No. 41 in the country.

Looney was a great signing by Alford, but his recent recruiting has left more to be desired. Most recently, the Bruins lost out on five-star forward Jaylen Brown, who shocked pundits nationwide when he committed to Cal as a 2015 recruit.

Leaf’s decommitment is a second chance for the Bruins.

His impact would be magnified by the already-strong 2016 class that Alford has put together. Five-star point guard Lonzo Ball is one of the Bruins’ early commits, and he anchors what has already been ranked as the No. 3 recruiting class in the nation. Rivals and 247Sports list Ball at No. 5 and No. 6 respectively, while Leaf follows at No. 12 in both rankings.

The reality is that the worst-case scenario here is quite good for UCLA: Arizona loses its commitment from Leaf, and the talented player departs the Pac-12 for a far-off school like Kansas or Florida. However, this could be a defining moment for Alford’s Westwood career. If he is able to get a second five-star in the 2016 class, the program would see a strong rebound from its recent recruiting letdowns and – most importantly – the Bruins would have a newfound depth that might propel them past the invisible wall that is the Sweet 16.

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Alumni director

Walters is the Alumni director. He was editor in chief in 2016-17. Previously, he was an assistant editor in the Sports Department and has covered men's soccer, men's volleyball and men's water polo.

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