Jaylen Hands isn’t holding anything back in his expectations for this year’s UCLA men’s basketball freshman class.
“We can shoot, we can run and we’re athletic,” the freshman point guard said. “If we put all that together, the way we pass, the way we space and play defense, I think we can win the whole thing.”
Despite losing point guard Lonzo Ball, power forward T.J. Leaf and center Ike Anigbogu to the NBA Draft after only one season in Westwood, UCLA reloaded its roster with ESPN’s No. 5-ranked recruiting class, led by McDonald’s All-American guards Kris Wilkes and Hands.
Steve Alford also has a group of upperclassmen highlighted by senior center Thomas Welsh and junior point guard Aaron Holiday, who said he sees a lot of all-around potential in this year’s team.
“We have length all across the board, starting with the guards all the way to the bigs, and we’re deep this year,” Holiday said. “I feel like we’re going to play defense a lot better than we have been, and we’re gonna be great at slashing to the basket and getting layups in transition.”
The Bruins also lost guards Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton to graduation, so they will have to replace four slots in their starting rotation, as well as refill Anigbogu’s backup center role.
Hands and Wilkes are the leading candidates to play minutes in the backcourt, but Steve Alford said they and fellow freshman guards Chris Smith and LiAngelo Ball all bring different skill sets that UCLA lacked in previous years.
“Wilkes and Chris Smith are 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9 big guards which we haven’t had since we’ve been here. … They bring length, they can score the ball and they can handle the ball,” Alford said. “Gelo gives us his shooting ability and Jaylen allows us to continue to push the ball at a very fast level because he’s so explosive and quick.”
Freshman 6-foot-10 forwards Cody Riley and Jalen Hill – both ESPN top-50 recruits – join UCLA’s frontcourt. Along with Welsh, senior forward Gyorgy Goloman and redshirt sophomore forward Alex Olesinski, the Bruins have five players at least 6-foot-10 for the second consecutive season.
Welsh is the only returning big man who played more than an average of 12 minutes per game last year, so Riley and Hill will likely see extended time. Per Maxpreps, Hill averaged 18.8 points and 12.5 rebounds per game and Riley averaged 16.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game in their senior years of high school.
Riley has 35 pounds on Hill although they’re the same height, so Steve Alford envisions different roles for them.
“They’re versatile in that you have Jalen Hill, who’s athletic and rebounds above the rim,” Alford said. “Cody Riley could be a go-to guy in the post like we haven’t had if he continues to develop.”
Will the ball continue to fall from 3?
UCLA lost four of its five leading 3-point shooters in Bryce Alford, Lonzo Ball and Leaf. Steve Alford, Welsh, Holiday and Hands all said that LiAngelo Ball – Lonzo’s brother – is a good shooter and can knock down NBA-range 3-pointers.
LiAngelo Ball averaged 33.8 points per game at Chino Hills last year, including single-game totals of 72, 65, 60 and 56 points. He has also noticeably slimmed down from his high school playing weight.
“I like the strength he adds. When you’ve got speed and athleticism in different areas in our back court, Gelo brings you a whole different look of somebody that’s 230, 235 pounds,” Steve Alford said. “You don’t see a lot of guards with that kind of body, so we can post him (up), or he can extend the floor to the NBA (3-point line) with ease.”