UCLA could leave its mark on this year’s NBA draft class with Lonzo Ball and several of his teammates
UCLA fans will bid farewell to three seniors this week during the team’s final home games, all the while wondering how many underclassmen they might never see again.
Lonzo Ball is as good as gone after this season and there’s a high probability that fellow freshman TJ Leaf will also make himself available for the NBA draft based on his potential selection as a lottery pick. Sophomore Aaron Holiday, junior Thomas Welsh and freshman Ike Anigbogu are the other Bruins with remaining eligibility who must decide whether to give the college try another go-round.
As many as seven UCLA players could interest NBA teams, according to two NBA scouts who recently spoke with The Times, though the scouts suggested that a handful of Bruins could boost their stock by returning for one more college season. The scouts divulged their opinions on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss college players publicly.
The intrigue surrounding Ball doesn’t involve whether he’ll turn pro (yes) or where he’ll be selected (among the top three picks) but how quickly he can make a significant impact. Both scouts said they envisioned Ball being a rotation player as a rookie, but questions remain about his mid-range game and ability to run a team when he’s not zipping past defenders in transition.
“The NBA, especially in the playoffs, comes down to grinding it out and whether he can blow past his guy or be effective in a pick-and-roll action in the halfcourt versus always just pushing it,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “Right now he’s kind of considered a guy that maybe does have a ceiling to where he can be a very, very good pro and always be a guy that can run your team, but is he going to be the next great one?
“You’ve got to have a lot going for you to be that next great one and I think that’s definitely a question mark if he can do that.”
Ball’s father, LaVar Ball, sparked criticism last weekend when he told a radio station that his son would play only for the Lakers before backtracking to ESPN, calling his remarks wishful thinking and saying that his son would play for any NBA team. Asked about what his father had said, Lonzo sounded like an equal-opportunity employee.
“All I do is go out and play basketball, man,” Lonzo said.
Leaf could hear his named called by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on draft night not long after his UCLA teammate. A Western Conference scout said he envisioned Leaf being selected anywhere from near the end of the lottery, which entails the top 14 picks, to No. 20 based on which other players are available.
“He doesn’t really blow you away with any one particular thing,” the Eastern Conference scout said. “What is TJ Leaf great at? It would be hard to answer that, but I can tell you what, he does a lot of really, really good things on both ends of the floor. That latter part of the lottery, yeah, very easily could he fit in there.”
The scouts agreed that Anigbogu was one of the Bruins’ most fascinating players and could be taken as high as late in the first round because of his above-average athleticism and defensive tenaciousness, factors that override his being foul- and turnover-prone, not to mention extremely unrefined on offense.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see someone take a flier on him with that upside,” the Western Conference scout said. “The negatives are what you expect from young bigs a lot of times and he is young, so those fouls and turnovers, that’s there for sure, but the athleticism and size and kind of that raw ability, that’s intriguing.”
The Eastern Conference scout suggested that Holiday should consider returning for one more college season to show how he fares running the Bruins full time after Ball’s departure. Holiday already has the top NBA pedigree among the Bruins considering his older brothers, Jrue and Justin, are in the league, with Jrue having been a former All-Star point guard with the Philadelphia 76ers before being traded to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Both scouts also said they thought Welsh should come back to UCLA next season. Welsh’s size as a 7-footer and ability to consistently knock down baseline jumpers are selling points, but his defense and lumbering style of play make him less appealing than many other prospects at his position.
“There’s probably worse players on rosters already in the NBA,” the Eastern Conference scout said. “He’s just a very solid player and those guys sometimes end up in the NBA and having nice, long careers, but they don’t excite anybody all too much in the draft.”
Perhaps no one on UCLA’s roster has benefited as much from the Bruins’ success this season in terms of draft stock as Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton. The Eastern Conference scout said the senior duo had essentially zero buzz before this season but has gained consideration, particularly Alford.
“If you watch some of the highlight films of Bryce, you could very easily say, ‘Why not?’ ” the Eastern Conference scout said. “I mean, he’s done some really nice things, he’s got a great release” on his shot.
Hamilton remains a fringe prospect who will probably have to prove himself in an NBA training camp, the scouts said. It doesn’t hurt that his brother Jordan spent parts of five seasons in the NBA, but most comparisons tilt in favor of the older sibling.
“Jordan had better size and was a little bit more dynamic,” the Western Conference scout said. “I think Isaac, he’s got some talent, but I’d frankly be surprised if he carved out more than just a cup of coffee.”
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