It’s never too early to look at what’s to come. During the next few weeks, we will give you a peek of what’s ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and some other teams expected to be players on the national scene. Next up: UCLA.
Before the 2015-16 UCLA Bruins were a disaster — before they’d become just the fourth team in program history to finish a season with a losing record — they were, well, fun. The precise retrospective peak isn’t hard to identify: It was Dec. 3, 2015, in the second half of a game at Pauley Pavilion, when freshman guard Prince Ali soared through the lane, flagrantly violated the personal space of multiple Kentucky defenders, drew a foul with his finish and put a packed crowd pocked with former Bruins stars into a frenzy.
That night was more than a win over No. 1 Kentucky, it was an existential bounce back from the previous season’s 83-44 loss to the Karl Anthony Towns-led group — the one with the famous 41-7 first half. Coach Steve Alford would call the redemption a “very, very special” win. His son, Bryce, would laugh about the surreality of the crowd: “I try to look at Prince [after the dunk], and Baron Davis is in the background going absolutely nuts,” he said.
Yet even then, in the season’s most buoyant moment, hints of malaise were in the air. One example: During the postgame news conference, local media asked Alford about the night’s crowd, how good it had been, how to maintain that “momentum,” and so on. An outsider in the room was quietly blown away by the premise. The No. 1 team in the country was in town. Why would the crowd be anything less than good? (And, for the record, that’s what it had been — good.)
The night was, in the end, aberrant on all fronts. Save another exception or two (a win at Gonzaga and a home win over Arizona), UCLA rarely showed their talent again. They were 7-14 after Dec. 15, 6-12 in the Pac-12, losers of their last five games and — worst of all — losers three times over, each by double-digits, to rival USC. Fans began to grumble, then openly revolt. On March 15, a plane hauled an unsubtle message high over Pauley Pavilion: “UCLA DESERVES BETTER! FIRE ALFORD!” On March 20, Alford issued a public apology, called the team’s record “simply unacceptable,” and announced he would give back a one-year extension to his contract — stopping his self-punishment just shy of a Walk of Atonement down Westwood Boulevard.
So, yeah: not fun.
Which brings us to Lonzo Ball, the Bruins’ top recruit, whose arrival couldn’t be more perfectly timed.
This is not just because Ball is a gifted young basketball player — good enough to lift a program and its fans from a sub.-500 record to Pac-12 title contention. That’s exciting, sure, but it’s not the full extent of Ball’s promise. Rather, it is the way Ball plays, the style with which he delivers his points, that may be the difference between last season’s bad vibes and whatever comes next.
The words “the next Steph Curry” are relevant here. They are being used with increasing frequency about Ball, in large part because of the way Ball’s father, LaVar, has taught his sons — with almost revolutionary fervor — that “a bad shot is a shot you don’t practice.” Lonzo Ball and his brothers are thus more than comfortable shooting 3-pointers, lots of them, from 30 and even 40 feet. Ball’s team at Chino Hills High School blew away recruiting analysts with its breakneck up-tempo style. For the past two seasons, as Curry and the Warriors have basically broken the game of professional basketball, the college game has been waiting for that stylistic influence to trickle down. Maybe, just maybe, that’s Lonzo Ball: The first player of a new age.
At the very least, he’s a supremely talented guard, one Alford should immediately entrust with primary ballhandling duties — allowing Bryce Alford to move off the ball, where his best attributes (perimeter shooting) aren’t outweighed by his worst (a tendency to over-dribble chief among them). It also offers the promise of a potent 1-5 pick-and-roll combo with 7-footer Thomas Welsh, whose midrange pull-up shooting was one of last season’s most surprising bright spots. Or perhaps the top point guard in the class will pair best alongside the No. 3-ranked power forward, T.J. Leaf, who will, with center Ike Anigbogu, be an almost guaranteed frontcourt upgrade over departing forward Tony Parker.
In 2013-14, Alford’s first season at UCLA, he inherited an up-tempo team and kept them playing uptempo. It would not be a surprise to see him speed things up again in Westwood to maximize Ball’s ability. In either case, there are plenty of questions about personnel and rotations, about how much last season’s mediocre defense can improve in one season, about whether Ball himself can adapt to the college game. Sometimes can’t-miss prospects miss. It happens.
Compared to questions about contract refunds and airplane banners and whether fans can be convinced to show up for games, though, these are good problems to have. Fun, even. And if Ball is as good as advertised, his impact on UCLA will be measured in ways far less tangible, but no less important, than sheer wins and losses.