Bruins are turnover-prone, but Alford’s OK with it
Ball-Leaf crew is gone but coach unfazed by roster churn thanks to stellar incoming class.
The sparkling courts and locker rooms inside UCLA’s soon-to-open Mo Ostin Basketball Center should serve as a fitting backdrop for the players who will occupy them starting early next month.
The Bruins are essentially a new team, with a sixman freshman class joining a handful of veterans in pursuit of the school’s first trip to the Final Four in a decade. Coach Steve Alford has called it the biggest recruiting class in his lengthy career.
Of course, UCLA would surely be willing to make room for one more freshman. Power forward Marvin Bagley III, the consensus top high school player in the country, reportedly visited campus this week and is mulling his college choice as he attempts to reclassify into the class of 2017.
A handful of things would need to happen for the standout from Chatsworth Sierra Canyon High to become a Bruin. The NCAA would need to clear his eligibility and he would need to pick UCLA from a lengthy list of suitors that also includes USC, Arizona, Duke, Kansas and Kentucky. Alford cannot comment on recruits who have not signed letters of intent.
The coach did lavishly praise his newcomers Thursday during an interview with The Times, saying he envisioned them enabling the Bruins to play a style similar to the run-and-fun group that captivated fans last season, when the team won 31 games and sold out Pauley Pavilion nine times on the way to an NCAA tournament regional semifinal.
“I think we’ll be a little bit more disruptive defensively, so we may look a little bit different,” Alford said, noting his team’s increased length and athleticism, “but as far as how fast we play, I hope that stays the same.”
UCLA’s pace will largely depend on the play of point guards Jaylen Hands and Aaron Holiday, whom Alford said could spend lots of time together on the court next season regardless of who is in the starting lineup.
The Bruins were bolstered by the return of Holiday and Thomas Welsh, who withdrew their names from NBA draft consideration in May to preserve their college eligibility. Alford said he anticipated both players being first-round picks in the 2018 draft, which is widely considered not as deep as the one this summer in which Bruins guard Lonzo Ball and forward TJ Leaf were taken in the first round.
Alford said Welsh has worked on increasing the range on his jump shot after taking — and making — the first three-pointer of his career last season. “I told him that will probably change now,” Alford said of the frequency of Welsh’s threepoint attempts.
The Bruins preferred an eight-man rotation last season but could go deeper in the coming months with the return of guard Prince Ali and forward Alex Olesinski after redshirt seasons.
The roster turnover has prompted Alford to take a more hands-on approach during summer workouts in an attempt to instill the culture he wants among the newcomers. The workouts took on added importance because the team won’t be able to bond during a foreign trip like last year’s squad was able to do on its summer exhibition tour of Australia.
“I’ve been at every one and ran every one of them,” Alford said of the workouts. “I just thought it was important since we didn’t have a trip like that, that they start hearing my voice right away and my expectations right away.”
Alford said freshman guard LiAngelo Ball’s demeanor has reminded him of Lonzo Ball’s, describing the younger brother as “a complete joy to coach.” Asked whether he had any concerns about meddling from LaVar Ball, the outspoken father of both players who has predicted his middle son would become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, Alford said, “I don’t see that being any issue at all.”
The Bruins expect to move into their new practice facility by early September, Alford said, alleviating the scheduling conflicts that had become routine at Pauley Pavilion. The men’s and women’s basketball teams will each enjoy their own courts along with new weight rooms, training rooms and locker rooms.
“We cannot wait, because it’s everything I’d hoped for,” Alford said. “It’s spectacular.”
‘I think we’ll be a little bit more disruptive defensively . . . but as far as how fast we play, I hope that stays the same.’ — STEVE ALFORD, UCLA basketball coach, assessing the athleticism of the Bruins’ six-man recruiting class