UCLA thrived early last season in large part because its top freshmen didn’t resemble freshmen.
Point guard Lonzo Ball and power forward TJ Leaf seemed NBA-ready from the season opener, enduring few hiccups as part of a team that preferred ball movement to selfish play.
Contrast that with the current crop of Bruins freshmen who look … like 17- and 18-year-olds. Point guard Jaylen Hands has been turnover-prone while focusing more on scoring than passing. Small forward Kris Wilkes has struggled with his shooting touch, making 27.3% of his three-pointers and 53.3% of his free throws. Swingman Chris Smith brings admirable energy but often plays out of control.
The other half of UCLA’s freshman class is either in limbo or Lithuania.
Forwards Cody Riley and Jalen Hill haven’t played while serving indefinite suspensions after being caught shoplifting, and shooting guard LiAngelo Ball, also suspended, recently withdrew from school to sign with a professional team overseas.
Any way you divvy it up, UCLA’s freshmen haven’t made the impact alongside veterans Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welsh and G.G. Goloman that has been needed to make the Bruins elite.
UCLA (7-3) has shown some defensive growth recently, but its offense largely revolves around dribbling and one-on-one play. The Bruins also seem to lack reliable long-range shooters; only Prince Ali (48.3%), Hands (46.9%) and Welsh (46.2%) have made more than 33.3% of their three-point shots.
Turnovers have been another problem as the Bruins continue to search for an offensive identity. UCLA averaged 19 turnovers in its last two games, losses to Michigan and Cincinnati.
“A lot of that, we’re talking about ballhandling and ill-advised passes,” Bruins coach Steve Alford said Saturday after his team committed 15 turnovers in the first half of a 77-63 loss to the Bearcats. “Those are things we really got to correct and shape up.”
Alford said he doesn’t like comparing this team to the one that won 31 games last season, because it’s considerably younger, featuring five players who were not in the rotation last season. That number would increase to seven should Riley and Hill be cleared to return from their suspensions at some point.
Holiday said he’s told his teammates they’re going to be fine despite their first losing streak of the season heading into a game against South Dakota (11-3) on Tuesday night at Pauley Pavilion.
“We haven’t shown it yet obviously, but we’re going to be a great team,” Holiday said before alluding to what might be holding the Bruins back. “We’re a young team. We gotta go through this type of thing to get where we want to be, so we’ll figure it out.”
VS. SOUTH DAKOTA
Where: Pauley Pavilion.
On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 570.