With another top-five recruiting class in hand, Steve Alford and UCLA look to make it big on the court
The prediction for a rebirth of UCLA basketball came from a high school guard still months away from hoisting his first shot inside Pauley Pavilion.
Jules Bernard watched the Bruins lose to St. Bonaventure in an NCAA tournament First Four game last month and felt a surge of disappointment. Then came the resolve.
“Right after that,” Bernard said Monday of UCLA’s first loss before the tournament’s opening round, “I told my parents, ‘That’s not going to happen next year.’ ”
Preventing a repeat of March sadness will largely be incumbent on the Bruins’ newcomers. Bernard is part of what’s expected to be a highly touted six-man freshman class that UCLA hopes to finalize soon after the start of national signing day on Wednesday.
The team received binding letters of intent from Bernard, shooting guard David Singleton and center Kenneth Nwuba during the early signing period in November. If everything goes as planned, they will be joined by power forward Shareef O’Neal, center Moses Brown and point guard Tyger Campbell to form what 247sports.com has ranked as the No. 4 recruiting class nationally, trailing only those of Duke, Kentucky and Oregon.
It’s the latest impressive haul for UCLA coach Steve Alford, whose results in March haven’t always kept pace with the talent he’s been able to secure. His previous recruiting classes were ranked Nos. 5, 11, 24, 7 and 12 nationally; the Bruins finished only two of those subsequent seasons ranked in the top 25 nationally by the Associated Press while making three appearances in an NCAA tournament regional semifinal.
“I think if you’re Steve Alford, your argument before this season would be that he did have three Sweet 16s in four years,” said Josh Gershon, a national recruiting analyst for 247sports.com, “and I think if you’re a UCLA fan, your argument would be, ‘Well, we as UCLA fans have always kind of expected more than that.’
“And that’s kind of the predicament of being the coach at UCLA because you’re expected to recruit extremely well and you’re expected to have deep runs in the tournament pretty much every single year. I understand where both sides are coming from, but I think you would have to look at this past season with a little bit of an asterisk.”
That “asterisk” involved the seasonlong suspensions of Jalen Hill and Cody Riley, and the loss of fellow freshman LiAngelo Ball, for their involvement in a shoplifting incident in China. The return of Hill and Riley next season could lead to the Bruins rolling out an all-freshman starting lineup, depending on whether small forward Kris Wilkes and point guard Jaylen Hands opt to keep their names in the NBA draft or come back to UCLA as sophomores.
At least three starting spots became available after the departures of Thomas Welsh and GG Goloman to graduation and Aaron Holiday to the NBA draft; Holiday has hired an agent, ending his college eligibility.
Early defections to the NBA have been at least partially responsible for UCLA’s largely underwhelming results in recent seasons. Since Alford’s arrival, the Bruins have lost freshmen Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu after the 2016-17 season, Kevon Looney after the 2014-15 season and Zach LaVine after the 2013-14 season.
Freshmen also have sparked a quick turnaround, such as UCLA’s 31-5 record during Ball’s lone college season, which followed a rare losing season for the Bruins. But Gershon cautioned that the Class of 2018, while deep with quality players, may not feature the kind of high-end stars UCLA enjoyed with Ball and Leaf.
Brown, a shot-blocking 7-footer, is the only player to receive five stars on 247sports.com, but even he is considered somewhat raw.
“If I had to guess if he was going to be a huge impact player as a freshman, I would probably say it’s less likely that he is,” Gershon said, “but the light turns on for kids at different times. If he learns to play hard and gets stronger, which is going to be really important for him, and he takes defense seriously, he could play right away.”
O’Neal has the most established pedigree as the son of former Lakers star Shaquille O’Neal, though his moves bear no resemblance to the power game of his 7-foot-1, 325-pound father. Shareef is a 6-9, 205-pound face-up power forward who has drastically improved his game the last few years but could use increased consistency, Gershon said.
Bernard and Singleton are wing players whose skills should complement one another. Bernard is tenacious and fearless, once grabbing 30 rebounds to go with 29 points in a game against Santa Monica High. Singleton, a gifted slasher, could provide the kind of scoring punch the Bruins will need to offset the loss of so many key contributors.
While the 6-10 Nwuba is considered the project of the class, needing time to bring his offensive skills up to the level of his defense, Campbell might be the pass-first point guard who brings it all together for the Bruins thanks to his high-level playmaking.
Bernard could be considered one of UCLA’s lead recruiters of O’Neal because he pitched his former high school teammate on the Bruins after O’Neal withdrew his commitment to Arizona in February.
“After I heard that he was leaving Arizona, I was in his ear a little bit telling him about the program and what UCLA is about, what the coaches are about, what the culture is around campus,” said Bernard, O’Neal’s teammate for two seasons at Los Angeles Windward High before O’Neal transferred to Santa Monica Crossroads. “I didn’t pressure him too much. I just gave him little ideas of what UCLA was like and how the players are, and I just let him make his own decision. Luckily, UCLA was his choice.”
Asked about his development of young players in a late-season interview, Alford pointed to the consistency of Wilkes, who scored in double figures in 26 of 33 games, and the emergence of freshman swingman Chris Smith.
“He’s a big, big piece to our future,” Alford said of Smith, who became a significant member of the rotation by season’s end. “I think he’s going to be special — 6-9, over a 7-foot wingspan. He’s supposed to be a senior in high school, so he’s really learning.”
Bernard said he was drawn to UCLA by what he described as “a culture of winning” that he sensed during his campus visits and interaction with players and the coaching staff. It’s something that didn’t happen as often as the Bruins would have liked during a 21-12 season, but Bernard said he didn’t foresee an extended downturn.
Once again, UCLA’s future will largely be in the hands of its freshmen.
“We believe we have one of the best classes in the nation, and we can do some big things,” Bernard said. “I think we have a good chance to make a deep run in the tournament next year.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.