Freshmen Prince Ali, Aaron Holiday bring needed jolt to UCLA backcourt
Last season, after a middling Pac-12 Conference performance, the UCLA basketball team sneaked into the NCAA tournament and made a run to a regional semifinal for a second consecutive season.
The Bruins did it with a critically thin roster, especially in the backcourt, that left little room for injuries or growing pains.
Now, they hope they’ve solved their depth problems with a Prince and a legacy — incoming guards Prince Ali and Aaron Holiday, the brother of former Bruin Jrue Holiday.
Full practices won’t start for another month, but the backcourt pair has impressed Coach Steve Alford during preseason workouts.
“Prince and Aaron are, I think, way ahead of it physically, more physically ready to play college basketball than most guards are,” Alford said. “Those are two physical guards.”
UCLA’s basketball newcomers spoke with the media for the first time on Monday. In addition to the guards, the Bruins added forwards Alex Olesinksi, a freshman, and Ikenna Okwarabizie, a sophomore junior college transfer.
But it is the new backcourt members who will be most crucial.
Ali, who attended the same high school in Florida as UCLA sophomore forward Gyorgy Goloman, is a 6-foot-3 scorer who was ranked No. 30 overall in his class by Rivals.com. Holiday, No. 60 overall, attended North Hollywood Campbell Hall High. At 6-1, Holiday offers Alford the most natural point guard he has had at UCLA as he heads into his third season.
Bryce Alford, the coach’s son, is expected to be the starter at point guard, Steve Alford said, but Isaac Hamilton and Holiday should also see time at the position.
“My role is to be a facilitator and score when I need to,” Holiday said.
Bryce Alford is most productive in catch-and-shoot opportunities, but he rarely operated without the ball last season. With Holiday as an additional point-guard option, Alford should be free to try to score more.
“That’s what we’re hoping,” Steve Alford said. “I think what we’ve seen in the summer has given us an awful lot of confidence that that can happen.”
Last season, UCLA was hindered by a lack of guard depth. UCLA had one reserve in the backcourt, Noah Allen, who contributed only marginally on offense. The three starting guards averaged 33.9 minutes per game.
Alford and Hamilton endured long uneven stretches around the start of conference play, but Steve Alford had no choice but to keep them on the floor.
This season, the Bruins will be five deep at guard — and that’s not counting Jonah Bolden, who can play guard or forward.
UCLA’s roster is the deepest it has been during his tenure, Alford said.
Ali impressed evaluators with his athleticism in high school. He has played mostly point guard, but he said he could play any of the three guard positions. “I’ll be very versatile,” he said.
In the frontcourt, where UCLA already had forwards Goloman, Tony Parker and Bolden, along with center Thomas Welsh, newcomers will have more time to develop.
Okwarabizie has been hampered by shoulder tendinitis in preseason workouts. Olesinksi said adapting to the next level was “actually a big adjustment for me.”
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