The newest Bruins help the team off to its best start in 10 years.
The last time UCLA started 9-0 was the 2006-2007 season. That team featured sophomore Russell Westbrook, junior Aaron Afflalo, and senior Darren Collison and got off to a 14-0 start. Ten years later, UCLA has sophomore guard Aaron Holiday, junior center Thomas Welsh and senior guard Isaac Hamilton, providing the team with a wealth of veteran experience.
Hamilton leads the No. 2-ranked undefeated Bruins in scoring with 18.1 points to go along with with 3.8 assists over nine games started. Holiday continues to add on to the backcourt as a threat from outside the perimeter. The 6’1 sophomore is shooting 53.3% from behind the 3-point line, averaging 12.9 points per game. Welsh provided the Bruins with a post presence, averaging 9.6 rebounds while totaling 20 blocks.
One of the biggest differences between the 2006 and 2016 teams, though, is the freshman class. UCLA signed California’s three best players from the Class of 2017: point guard Lonzo Ball, power forward TJ Leaf and center Ike Anigbogu. The highly-ranked trio were even featured on The Players’ Tribune before the start of the season. So far, Ball and Leaf have started in all nine games, leading UCLA in scoring, rebounds and/or assists in each contest. The two have worked well together in the front and backcourt in the team’s undefeated start.
While Ball was the No. 1 player in California and at the point guard position coming out of Chino Hills High School, Leaf also has emerged as a major contributor for the Bruins. Leaf, a five-star recruit from El Cajon, is averaging nearly a double-double with 17.2 points (second only to Hamilton’s 18.1) and 9.4 rebounds, behind only Welsh with 9.6. Leaf has been the top rebounder in four of the first nine games. The Bruins’ 6’10” starting power forward is a force in the paint, making 71.4% of his 2-point shots. His shooting versatility is also evidenced by his nine made 3-point shots in 18 attempts. Leaf’s highest scoring game thus far has been 26 points against San Diego on Nov. 17. He added 10 rebounds to finish with a double-double.
Leaf’s biggest overall game, though, was helping the Bruins defeat a then No. 1-ranked Kentucky team with four players 6’10” or taller in Lexington. He continued to impose his will in the post, coming up big in a huge game with a team-high 13 rebounds to complement 17 points and five assists.
“What (TJ) Leaf did, he basically dominated the game,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said after the game. “We had no one, unless I was going to go [with a] big lineup, which we haven’t done a whole lot, which shows me maybe we have to be prepared for that. But he killed us.”
In the backcourt, Ball runs the point for UCLA, averaging 9.3 assists with only 2.7 turnovers to complement 14.6 points per game and 13 total steals. This other five-star recruit has five double-digit assist games and has been the facilitator on 36.6% of the Bruins’ shots while he is on the court, the 36th best rate in the country. In addition to being able to find the open man, Ball has the ability to shoot from just about anywhere on the floor, and boasts a 55.4% field goal percentage and 43.5% from behind the arc.
Lonzo Ball showing off the range pic.twitter.com/CnG1h3AmYb— Full Court Prez (@fullcourtprez) December 3, 2016
Should he decide to enter the NBA draft, Ball has a shot at being the No. 1 pick. And even if he leaves, his legacy is already set to live on — fifty miles south of UCLA, Lonzo Ball’s brother, LiAngelo is making waves at Chino Hills High School. The senior scored 56 and 72 points in two consecutive games last month. LiAngelo and sophomore LaMelo, the youngest Ball, are both committed to UCLA to follow Lonzo. Ball truly is life at UCLA.
Anigbogu, a four-star recruit from Corona, is off to a slower start than the other Bruins freshmen after suffering from a slight tear to his meniscus before the season began. He has only played in four games, but has managed to collect seven blocks and record 3.8 points and 3.5 rebounds per contest. This included a six-point, six-rebound game in 17 important minutes against the freshmen-laden Kentucky team.
With the win, UCLA halted the Wildcats’ 42-game home winning streak and beat a No. 1-ranked team on the road for the first time since Feb. 3, 2001 against Stanford. Ball went up against Kentucky freshman guard De’Aaron Fox and scored 14 points in addition to dishing out a team-best seven assists.
“I can’t be more proud of our team obviously coming into here with this environment and playing a team like this,” UCLA head coach Steve Alford said after the game. “We proved that if you can run with this team, you can run with anybody.”
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
The win against Kentucky propelled the Bruins from 11th to 2nd in this week’s AP poll as they prepare for Saturday’s home game against Michigan.
Now that Anigbogu is back from injury, he’ll be able to help Leaf down in the post as the season progresses. Meanwhile, Ball and Leaf have been able to make a flawless transition from outstanding prep careers to successful freshmen seasons. In today’s age, there is the question of whether or not they will stay in Westwood, California or be league-bound. If they do stay, the three can be just what the Bruins need to revive their men’s basketball program.
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