Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands were featured prominently in the moments before they walked through a door inside the Pac-12 Conference offices and situated themselves at a table in the back of the room to field questions from reporters.
Wilkes took a pass from his UCLA teammate and made a three-point shot as part of a highlight video shown on a big-screen television. On another play, Hands shifted the ball between his legs in midair before lobbing an alley-oop pass that Wilkes snatched for a layup.
“Hopefully, he’ll dunk it next time,” Hands cracked later when asked about the play.
The Bruins are just grateful there could be a next time.
Wilkes and Hands are back after contemplating a move to the NBA draft following last season. Their departures would have drained UCLA’s roster of its two best remaining players with Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh having already left for the NBA.
Their return makes the Bruins a contender for the Pac-12 title. UCLA was picked to finish second in the preseason media poll released Thursday at Pac-12 media day, behind only Oregon. Washington was picked third, followed by defending champion Arizona, USC, Arizona State, Colorado, Utah, Stanford, Oregon State, California and Washington State.
The poll was completed earlier this week, before the Bruins announced that freshman point guard Tyger Campbell would be lost for the season because of a torn knee ligament. UCLA announced late last month that freshman power forward Shareef O’Neal would miss the season because of a heart defect that will require surgery.
Their absences only heighten the importance of Wilkes and Hands, the top two returning scorers on a team whose rotation coach Steve Alford said could go 10 deep.
“I think this team has a lot of everything,” Hands said. “We’re athletic, we can rebound, we can run, we can shoot, we can go to the basket and score.”
Alford said Wilkes and Hands both returned for their sophomore season stronger and with more of a defensive mind-set. Defense was often lagging last season for the Bruins, who finished with a 21-12 record after a loss to St. Bonaventure in an NCAA tournament play-in game.
Both Wilkes and Hands praised new assistant coach Murry Bartow, the team’s unofficial defensive coordinator, for being a stickler with the details that could make the Bruins much stingier.
“You don’t want to keep watching the same film and doing the same things wrong,” Hands said of Bartow’s do-it-until-we-do-it-right approach, “so it helps you improve more.”
The two NBA teams Hands worked out for before the point guard withdrew his name from draft consideration were blunt in their assessment of his shortcomings.
“My biggest thing,” Hands said, “was just having a lot of talent but no real direction how to play.”
Hands was erratic as a freshman, his highlight moments often offset by blunders. He scored 9.9 points per game but averaged almost as many turnovers (1.8) as assists (2.6). His list of needed improvements was lengthy.
“Way better decision-making, more pace, better assist-to-turnover ratio,” Hands said. “Just a better leader.”
Wilkes returned after the small forward’s workouts for a handful of NBA teams left doubts about his pro readiness.
“I was right there on the line,” Wilkes said. “I was really about to make that decision, but really I thought at the end of the day, if I’m questioning myself now there’s no point of questioning it at all. Why not just wait until I’m 100% sure and come back the next year and be even better?”
Wilkes probably will be the Bruins’ go-to scorer after averaging 13.7 points last season, trailing only Holiday’s 20.3. Alford said he envisioned Wilkes as one of the Pac-12’s leading scorers and a potential lottery pick in the 2019 NBA draft.
Hands and Wilkes were jovial as they moved from room to room Thursday as part of a busy schedule, Hands describing Wilkes’ new free-flowing hairstyle as “a muffin top.”
“I think coach Alford explained it the best,” Hands said. “He said, ‘I just don’t know where you’re going with it.’ I don’t know what he’s doing, or why. I just let it be.”
The teammates munched on spicy chicken tacos on a rooftop patio and donned sunglasses before warbling their way through a karaoke bit for the Pac-12 Networks. Next up, they hope, comes reprising their role as a star duo on the court.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch