UCLA’s starting point guard walks into a bagel shop in Westwood. He orders, pays, and his name is called.
“ ‘Bryce’ is not that hard,” recounts Bryce Alford, sitting with his feet up in Pauley Pavilion before a recent practice.
In trips past, Alford says, he’s been called Price. One time it was Rice.
“I get some weird stuff there,” he says.
Of the many reasons to underestimate Alford, this may be chief among them: He doesn’t really look like a major college basketball player, at least not from UCLA, where NBA point guards have been produced in quantity. He is 6 feet 3 but wiry; he is the son of UCLA Coach Steve Alford, and he was not supposed to be a starter this season.
But Alford is also a member of last season’s Pac-12 Conference all-freshman team, and he may be the key to UCLA’s success in the early going of a season that starts Friday night against Montana State at Pauley Pavilion.
He joins a storied line of UCLA point guards — one that, in the last decade, has included Jordan Farmar, Russell Westbrook, Darren Collison, Jrue Holiday and Kyle Anderson. And the sophomore will have to get his inexperienced team to a high level — fast. The Bruins’ nonconference schedule includes games against Kentucky, Gonzaga and Oklahoma — ranked Nos. 1, 13 and 19 in the preseason Associated Press media poll.
“There’s going to be more responsibility on him to be a playmaker,” says Don MacLean, a former UCLA star who is an analyst with the Pac-12 Networks.
Even before college, Alford says, he was rarely the most athletic player on the court, but he could shoot as well as anyone. To gain an edge, he figured out “little cheats.” For example, if you step on a big man’s feet while boxing out, he can’t jump over you. If you stop short when coming off a screen, you can often draw a foul.
He also knew the game better than most. Basketball was a given for an Alford boy. As a child, when his mom brought him along on trips to Walgreens or Target, he would find a ball, dribble through the aisles and shoot into displays.
By 5, he was sitting in on his father’s locker-room talks and standing next to him at news conferences.
By now, the offense UCLA will run is second nature, “like the back of our hands,” says Kory Alford, Bryce’s older brother and a backup guard for the Bruins. “We’ve run that same stuff forever.”
Bryce Alford set records and won a state title at La Cueva High in Albuquerque, N.M. Yet he never garnered more than three stars out of five in recruiting rankings.
He accepted a scholarship to New Mexico, where his father was the coach, but when Steve took the UCLA job, Bryce came with him.
UCLA rarely dips outside the pool of four- and five-star recruits. Elsewhere in the Pac-12 are talents such as Arizona’s T.J. McConnell, a finalist last season for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s top point guard, and Utah’s Delon Wright, an All-American candidate.
Out of high school, Alford wasn’t at that level. Immediately, skeptics cried nepotism.
“I’ve liked that some people think I only play because my dad’s the coach,” Alford says. “That comment alone fuels me 10 times more to work on my game and to prove to people that I belong out there.”
As a freshman, Alford was able to develop behind Anderson, a giant of a point guard at 6-9. Kory advised Bryce to be coachable, so teammates would take note. Their father, Kory reminded his brother, could be harder on an Alford, knowing he could handle it.
Bryce thrived in a supporting role, averaging eight points and 2.8 assists in 23 minutes per game. His defense lagged behind at times, but he proved he belonged. He could knock down a jump shot and he had a feel for passing and pace. In his one start, he scored 31 points.
“He’s fast, he’s quick, he understands getting the ball down the floor,” Steve Alford says.
The plan was, in Bryce’s sophomore year, if all went well, he would compete for playing time among a stable of guards.
Then the plan fell apart. Zach LaVine left for the NBA. A top local recruit, Jordan McLaughlin, chose USC over UCLA. Jon Octeus, a transfer from Colorado State, was denied admission.
For Bryce, it was a personal blessing: Now he’s the clear best choice. No possible favoritism involved.
Alford is not only a starter, he’s one of the team’s leaders. He says he has already spoken with each of the Bruins’ newcomers. How do you like to score? he asked. How can I get you the ball?
As the team learned the system, guard Norman Powell says, “Bryce was like, ‘If you don’t know it, just talk to me.’”
“They know the plays as well as the coaches,” UCLA assistant coach Ed Schilling says of the Alford brothers.
As a starter, Bryce must figure out how to create more scoring opportunities for himself. He has worked with Schilling to improve his ball handling and develop a mid-range game. In the off-season, Kory often ran him through workouts.
In the UCLA offense, tempo is key, though the point-guard duties are democratic. Every starter but post player Tony Parker has the green light to push the ball.
Still, Parker says, the tempo is predicated on Alford. That’s especially true with so much youth: two starters have yet to play a minute in college, and the reserves are inexperienced.
As a reminder of his importance, during a photo shoot outside Pauley Pavilion recently, Alford stood near a banner — of himself.
Students filed past real Alford and poster Alford, and if anyone noticed they were one in the same, they paid no attention.
That’s normal, Alford says.
Until finally …
“Hey!” a man said, pointing at Alford and smiling.
Maybe it was the start of something.