Wednesday, April 24

Potential NBA draft picks abound in UCLA men’s basketball’s 2018 roster

(Daily Bruin file photos)

(Daily Bruin file photos)

The entirety of coach Steve Alford’s 2017 recruiting class is back – with the exception of three-star recruit LiAngelo Ball – and although there have been some injuries to this year’s freshmen, there is still ample young NBA-level talent on the roster. For the fifth year in a row, Alford is projected to send players to the NBA Draft pool last spring, or if they just got to Westwood this summer, Daily Bruin Sports decided to take a look at the potential pro talent playing for UCLA this season.

Alford’s pro products

UCLA men’s basketball has always been a factory for NBA talent. Ninety-eight Bruins have suited up in the Association, 18 of whom became All-Stars. Since Alford joined the team in March 2013, the Bruins have produced 11 NBA Draft picks. Outside of the 2016 draft, Alford has sent multiple players to the NBA every year, with the highest draft pick under his watch being point guard Lonzo Ball.

Ball was the highest draft pick out of Westwood since Russell Westbrook was selected No. 4 overall in 2008. He averaged 14.6 points, 7.6 assists and 6 rebounds per game in his one season with the Briuns, leading his team to a 31-5 record and Alford’s third Sweet 16 appearance. Ball had two teammates taken alongside him in 2017– forwards TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu – while two more of his teammates – center Thomas Welsh and guard Aaron Holiday – were drafted in 2018.

Besides Ball, UCLA’s only other lottery pick under Alford was Zach LaVine, who is currently averaging 27.4 points per game for the Chicago Bulls. LaVine was drafted No. 13 overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves after Alford’s first season, and he made a name for himself after winning the 2016 NBA Slam Dunk Contest.

Kris Wilkes

Sophomore forward Kris Wilkes is the purest wing scorer UCLA has had under Alford.

He averaged nearly 14 points per game as a freshman, and that was when he was the No. 3 option on offense behind center Thomas Welsh and guard Aaron Holiday. But this year, Wilkes’ usage will go through the roof, and his already impressive numbers should continue to grow. His offensive arsenal is pro-ready, as the sophomore took 4.8 3-point attempts per game last season, hitting them at an above-average rate of 35.2 percent. Then, in the season opener, Wilkes took seven, and hit three. When he was at the NBA Draft Combine in May, he was a top-five shooter from the left corner three spot, and his ability to hit from range makes him valuable at any level.

Wilkes’ 2018-2019 debut against Purdue Fort Wayne showed he is on track to take the leap people expected him to – he dropped a career-high 27 points, pulled down 10 rebounds, shot above 50 percent from the field and didn’t miss a free throw. Yes, it was against a lackluster opponent, but his “take over” mentality was clearly present. Wilkes showed off his score-first playstyle at the combine as well, scoring 12 points on 6-of-11 shooting in 27 minutes of action.

At 6 feet, 8 inches, he has good length for a two guard, but he may need to add to his 195-pound frame in order to play the three in the NBA. He can rebound, and although he needs to take a step forward defensively, Wilkes is on pace to put up eye-catching stats across the board, and he should be in the running to get drafted in the late lottery in June.

Jaylen Hands

Sophomore guard Jaylen Hands may have ironically had one of the smallest hands at the 2018 NBA Draft Combine, but don’t let that distract you from his otherwise impressive showing.

Now, it wasn’t impressive enough – he came back to school after reportedly not getting a first-round grade. His game still had holes in May, and it isn’t perfect now either. But he still recorded eight points and three assists on 4-of-7 shooting in the scrimmage at the event. Hands also posted a 39.5-inch max vertical and a 3.13 three-quarter-court sprint – both good for second best among true point guards.

Hands’ weaknesses shined through at the combine too, however. He picked up four turnovers in the scrimmage after he notched nine games with a negative assist-to-turnover ratio last season for UCLA. And with Aaron Holiday gone, Hands will have to take over the primary ball-handler role and show scouts that he has vastly improved his ball control and decision making.

Hands has always been a flashy, high-flying prospect and him cutting down on turnovers won’t change that. His dunks and alley-oops will always be a major part of his game, but he showed in the exhibition against the New York Institute of Technology that he has added more dimensions to his offensive arsenal. He has started to pull up for open floaters when the defense retreats under the basket. Instead of forcing the ball down low, his court vision has already improved enough for him to read defensive spacing and create for himself.

He does have a size issue, which means he won’t be able to play off ball very often in the NBA. Lucky for him, Alford will be giving Hands plenty of time as the floor general. If Hands proves he can handle the responsibility, he should be able to end the season with a first-round grade.

Moses Brown

Freshman center Moses Brown is already dominating competition,

Given, his two opponents so far were NYIT and Purdue Fort Wayne, but it’s hard to deny his potential. He posted a near 20-20 game in his debut Tuesday, and that’s after being double-teamed for the majority of the game. Time will tell how well he can perform against Power Five opponents but, for now, he’ll continue to tear up inferior competition.

There’s much more to get to on Brown, but it is important to note that, even as a freshman, he is yet to play down to competition. That can be an issue for many freshman, but Brown has shown the consistency and dominance to avoid that problem so far.

Brown is over 7 feet tall, which automatically makes him a serious candidate to go to the NBA. Add to that his five-star pedigree and hype, as well as solid fundamentals, and Brown instantly becomes ripe for a one-and-done label.

He showed off several post spin moves against NYIT, and he demonstrated his plus vertical and speed against Purdue Fort Wayne. He has a soft touch – only missing one of his 10 attempts in the season-opener – but he can dunk hard too, notching 11 slams in his first two appearances combined.

Brown is still growing, but to make it in the NBA – as well as Pac-12 conference play – he will need to bulk up. When he starts playing more talented big men, he can just dip and dive, and power his way to the hoop with such a thin frame. It is doable with his agility and skill, but once he meets a strong upperclassman or fellow 7-footer, he needs to be able to stand his ground.

At the moment, Brown probably has a first-round grade locked up, and if he can prove himself to be a reliable 15 and 12 guy, with defense to go along with that, he should cement himself as a lottery pick in 2019.

Cody Riley

When redshirt freshman Cody Riley entered the NBA Draft pool in April, it was widely accepted that he would return to school before the May 31 deadline.

But Riley waited until the final day to officially announce his decision to come back to UCLA.

People seem to gloss over it, but Riley was extremely close to going pro last year. He missed the entire 2017-2018 season after being suspended for shoplifting in China, but he played 16 minutes in the preseason exhibition against New York Institute of Technology. Riley notched nine points and four rebounds on 3-of-4 shooting – including going 1-of-1 from 3-point range.

But Riley hurt his jaw in practice last week, and will miss a minimum of three weeks , meaning his return could come in time for the Las Vegas Invitational against Michigan State and either North Carolina or Texas. It will be interesting to see how he plays against big-time competition in his first collegiate appearance, but Riley is already mature enough physically to stand his ground.

Riley is only 6 feet, 9 inches, but his 240-pound frame gives him an NBA body right out of the gates. He was only 6-foot-7-inches and 200 pounds in high school, so Riley took last year’s absence as a chance to solidify his build before taking the court. The redshirt freshman averaged 8.3 rebounds per game in his high school career and set the California state championship game record with 22 boards in the Division V title game.

With NBA size and refined rebounding skills, Riley will already stand out in the Pac-12. If he can diversify his offensive game to include both post moves and an outside shot, Riley could earn a late-first or early-second round grade when he inevitably enters the draft pool again this spring.

Looking ahead

In all likelihood, only four Bruins will enter the 2019 NBA Draft, but there will always be more NBA prospects coming through Pauley Pavilion.

Two of those prospects are playing for UCLA right now – freshmen forward Shareef O’Neal and guard Tyger Campbell. Both were four-star recruits, with O’Neal being ranked inside the top 50. Campbell’s NBA dream is a little more up in the air, but he has the explosiveness and raw talent for Alford to mold into a valuable player for the Bruins when he returns from his ACL tear next season.

O’Neal has NBA pedigree, being the son of Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, but his game stands on its own as well. He has a well-developed jump shot and while he doesn’t have his father’s height, he does have a very mature post game. He was a plus defender in high school, but it remains to be seen if he can match up with Pac-12 big men while at UCLA. He will miss this season after he undergoes heart surgery in early December, but when he comes back, he’ll be another superstar for Alford to send packing to the NBA.

Freshmen guards David Singleton and Jules Bernard were two of Alford’s other four-star commits this season, and although they are projected to get significant playing time, neither should be a one-and-done candidate. They are both knockdown shooters, so if they can mature into consistent contributors with well-rounded, two-way play styles, they could be playing the pros after three- or four-year stops in Westwood.

There may not be any more NBA-level talent on the roster this season beyond that, but there’s always another star for Alford to poach.

Center Trayce Jackson-Davis and forward Keion Brooks are both five-stars from Wilkes and Alford’s home state of Indiana. Jackson-Davis is a 6-foot-9-inch center, so he might not have the size to go one-and-done. Brooks is a high-flying transition athlete, and if he gets playing time early, he could be a real NBA prospect.

Jaden McDaniels is the No. 4 recruit in the class of 2019, and UCLA is in his top five. He is another clear one-and-done candidate the second he steps foot on an NCAA court. The Bruins are the favorites to reel in internet sensation, four-star combo guard Cassius Stanley. He has the hype and the raw skills to go to the NBA right away.

Other four and five-star prospects – Zeke Nnaji, Precious Achiuwa, Lester Quinones and UCLA commit Jaime Jaquez – could also have a road to the pros that runs through Westwood.

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Assistant Sports editor

Connon is an assistant Sports editor for the baseball, men's soccer, women's golf, men's golf and cross country beats. He currently writes for the football and men's basketball beats and contributes movie reviews for Arts & Entertainment. Connon was previously a reporter for the women's basketball and baseball beats. He is a second-year pre-communications major from Winchester, Massachusetts.

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  • Big Apple Chuck

    So you completely disregard the fact that Chris Smith has the highest ceiling and will probably be the best NBA player of all of these guys you mentioned. Horrible observation by you. The kid is still 18 y/o and is at least 2 inches taller than Cody Riley and is a better ball handler and playmaker than Wilkes. I like Wilkes but he is a one trick pony. Shouldn’t be that hard to see Smith’s potential. They need to use him better or he will be gone and have a path like Lavine’s, where he is overlooked at UCLA and becomes a star once he is somewhere that people know how to actually use his talent. He is not a PF. Wilkes is more of a PF than Smith.