As season winds down, UCLA fans wonder: Will they stay or will they go?
The goodbyes will be difficult Saturday night inside Pauley Pavilion, partly because UCLA fans don’t know how many are needed.
Center Thomas Welsh will play his final home game as a member of the departing senior class when the Bruins face Oregon, but he almost certainly won’t be the only significant UCLA player making his last appearance inside the arena.
Junior point guard Aaron Holiday is widely expected to head to the NBA this summer after withdrawing his name from draft consideration last year. He could be joined by freshmen Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, whose upside could outweigh their uneven performances in their first college season as they decide whether to become NBA rookies in the coming months.
The Bruins’ draft prospects aren’t nearly as enticing as they were a year ago, when point guard Lonzo Ball was selected No. 2 overall by the Lakers and power forward TJ Leaf was taken No. 18 by the Indiana Pacers.
There’s a chance UCLA players might be completely shut out of the first round in June, depending on who decides to enter the draft.
Wilkes could be selected in the first round should he opt to declare for the draft, according to one NBA Western Conference scout who agreed to assess the UCLA players’ draft prospects on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss college players.
“I think the younger you are, the more upside and potential plays into it, and just with his size and physical tools, he’s someone who is going to draw draft interest,” the scout said of the 6-foot-8 Wilkes, who is averaging 13.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. “He has the physical measurables and he’s also produced, so kind of both sides of it there.”
“The size is one thing,” the scout said when asked about what was holding Holiday back from being drafted higher. “He’s a good athlete, not great, and when you’re talking about someone that size, I think it can sometimes be a bigger deal than if he was 6-4 with those physical tools.”
The scout said Holiday did improve his standing by returning this season and showing his ability to run a team after moving from sixth man to starting point guard.
“I think it did me justice for sure,” Holiday said of his decision to come back. “I’ve shown what I can do offensively and defensively, and hopefully I’ve shown I can lead a team, so that’s really the main things I was working on. I feel like I’ve improved all around, which is obviously going to help me get to where I want to be.”
Holiday’s NBA pedigree is another selling point related to his two older brothers. Jrue Holiday was an NBA all-star point guard with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2013, but the scout said that Justin Holiday’s becoming a rotation player with the Chicago Bulls after going undrafted out of the University of Washington may be a factor that works more heavily in Aaron’s favor.
“Obviously with the Bulls he’s playing heavy minutes, and I don’t think people want to make the same mistake” with Aaron, the scout said. “There’s just something ingrained with those guys and Aaron has that toughness to him where it’s difficult to count him out.”
Welsh has added a three-pointer to his offensive arsenal in an effort to enhance his draft prospects after working out for the Oklahoma City Thunder last spring. He’s made 37.8% of his three-pointers this season upon his return to UCLA, increasing the versatility of a player already adept at jump hooks and baseline jumpers.
But there’s one limitation to the 7-footer’s game that he may have trouble overcoming.
The scout described Welsh as a fringe NBA prospect who might have to make a team through a training camp invitation. That was the path that former Bruins forward Travis Wear took to making the New York Knicks’ roster during the 2014-15 season after going undrafted.
“If Travis goes to 25 other NBA teams he might never play a day in the NBA,” the scout said, “but the Knicks see something in him they like and he fits with the triangle [offense]. It was situationally based. … Like we always say, it only takes one team [to like a player] and there’s surprises every year.”
Hands might be the biggest wild card among the Bruins’ draft prospects because he’s been erratic and come off the bench for much of the season. But his size as a 6-3 point guard and playmaking potential are intriguing assets.
The scout suggested that staying another season at UCLA to run the team full time might help Hands in the same way it benefited Holiday.
Of course, there’s no assurance that Holiday won’t still be around. It was widely assumed that UCLA point guard Darren Collison would head to the NBA after his junior season a decade ago before he returned for one more college try.
“We still have like a full season,” Holiday said this week when asked when he would decide about his future. “I’m expecting to go to March and play there, so that’s all I’m worried about right now.”
Where: Pauley Pavilion
On the air: TV: ESPN; Radio: 570
Update: Farewells will be in order for Thomas Welsh, GG Goloman, Ikenna Okwarabizie and Alec Wulf as part of UCLA’s senior night festivities. It will also be the final home game for student trainer Kaviyon Sadrolashrafi, student video coordinator Joe Preston and student managers Sam Schmall and Nick Griffin. Goloman said his mother and sister would be in attendance after traveling from their home in Kormend, Hungary, a small town on the western side of the country. The Bruins (18-8 overall, 9-5 Pac-12 Conference) need to beat Oregon (17-9, 7-6) to enhance their NCAA tournament chances and maintain a top-four seeding in the conference standings, which would provide a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament next month. Point guard Payton Pritchard scored 25 points to power the Ducks to a 94-91 victory over UCLA when the teams met last month in Eugene, Ore.
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