McDonald’s All-Americans can be the college basketball equivalent of fast food: They quickly satisfy before leaving a queasy feeling as they depart after a season or two for NBA riches.
In the case of UCLA’s Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes, the gratification was a bit delayed.
Hands was a shoot-first point guard prone to turnovers during the season’s first few months, while Wilkes scored with regularity but rarely passed, collecting four assists over the first six games.
The struggles of the team’s two most highly touted freshmen placed an increased burden on senior center Thomas Welsh and junior point guard Aaron Holiday to carry the Bruins. On nights when Welsh and Holiday both failed to produce at a high level, UCLA’s chances of winning were greatly diminished.
But the recent emergence of Hands and Wilkes in tandem has super-sized the team’s options.
Wilkes has made 54.3% of his shots while averaging 2.3 assists over his last four games, while Hands is coming off his most impressive performance, a career-high 10-assist, one-turnover gem against Stanford on Jan. 27.
“That’s what’s expected of those guys,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said Thursday. “Kris has been really consistent here and Jaylen is starting to get to that point.”
Hands had generated nearly as many turnovers (41) as assists (55) before the Stanford game but said watching film with Alford has helped him improve his decision-making.
Hands moved the ball with a purpose against the Cardinal in his second game back in the starting lineup since early in the season, showing he could help the Bruins on a night he made only two of seven shots. Meanwhile, Wilkes made six of seven shots, continuing an uptick in consistency that started against Kentucky on Dec. 23; he has scored in double figures in 10 of 11 games since then, collecting nine points in the other game.
Wilkes is averaging 13.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, ranking second on the team in both categories. Hands is averaging 11.2 points and 3.1 assists, his assist total trailing only that of Holiday’s 5.3 assists.
“The more we can get those two playing at a high level,” Alford said of Wilkes and Hands, “it obviously helps us.”
The between-the-legs lob and the windmill dunk generated considerable buzz inside Pauley Pavilion. It was what preceded them that most excited Alford.
Wilkes made a steal that led to his breakaway windmill dunk against Stanford, and a block by Welsh triggered the fastbreak that concluded with Hands’ wild alley-oop pass to Wilkes for a layup.
The run and fun would not have been possible without the grit and grind on defense.
“When we get more stops, we get out in transition and we’ve always been a very good transition team,” Alford said, “so getting the ball out that way is a lot better than taking it out [of the net]. If we’re always taking it out, then it slows us down and we allow defenses to set up.”
UCLA has made 83.5% of its free throws over its last four games, boosting its season accuracy from 69.4% to 72.0%. Holiday made all nine of his free throws against Stanford, the fifth time in his career that he has made every free throw in a game with at least six attempts.
Wilkes has shown the biggest recent improvement, making 76.1% of his free throws over the last 12 games after having made only 53.3% over his first 10 games.