The UCLA basketball program received some major news on Tuesday afternoon — as C Thomas Welsh and PG Aaron Holiday will return to the program for another season:
Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday coming back gives UCLA two huge veteran presences who will help immensely.
— Ben Bolch (@latbbolch) May 23, 2017
Both players explored the possibility of entering the 2017 NBA Draft. Welsh — a junior — is coming off of a season in which he averaged 10.8 PPG, 8.7 RPG, and 1.3 BPG. Holiday functioned primarily as the sixth man on last year’s Sweet 16 squad. He chipped in with 12.3 PPG and 4.4 APG in only 26.4 MPG.
Ultimately, neither felt comfortable with where they were slated to be drafted (if at all).
This turn of events is a considerable boon for the Bruins’ prospects next season. Four starters from this year’s 31-5 team (Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, T.J. Leaf) have departed. Ike Anigbogu — UCLA’s top big man off the bench — also left. He, like Ball and Leaf, are projected as first round picks in the upcoming draft this June.
The Bruins will be tasked with replacing their top four scorers — a task which would’ve been much more difficult had Welsh and Holiday stayed in the draft pool.
While there’s simply no replacement for Ball (or the impact he had on the program), the recruiting class heading to Westwood is fantastic. Indianapolis native Kris Wilkes and San Diego PG Jaylen Hands were both McDonald’s All-Americans. Small forward Chris Smith is a supremely athletic, defensive-minded wing.
4-star big men Jalen Hill and Cody Riley are amongst the best prospects in the state of California, and LiAngelo Ball (brother of Lonzo) can fill it up from the perimeter.
UCLA might not be done, either. 5-star prospect M.J. Walker is considered one of the best shooting guards in the country. He will announce his college destination on Wednesday afternoon. Sources have indicated that Walker will opt for UCLA over the likes of Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Ohio State, and Maryland.
A repositioning of titles will need to take place. Holiday will now be thrust into a starting point guard position for the first time in his collegiate career. He will be tasked with not only scoring the basketball, but also facilitating to teammates. Welsh also figures to be much more of a focal point on offense.
This will be a very young roster. Multiple freshmen will be forced into playing major minutes — both from a talent standpoint and out of necessity. As such, it makes the return of Welsh and Holiday even more significant.
While it’d be very premature to say UCLA will replicate last year’s highly productive season, this team is likely the deepest and most athletic Alford will have coached since taking over in Westwood.
Arizona and USC figure to be the favorites in the Pac-12 heading into the year, but UCLA cannot be counted out — particularly due to the high-level talent of Wilkes and Hands.
Assuming Walker does sign with the program, here’s a look at a potential starting line-up for next season:
PG: Aaron Holiday
SG: M.J. Walker
SF: Prince Ali
PF: Kris Wilkes
C: Thomas Welsh
Sixth man: Jaylen Hands
Key reserves: Cody Riley, GG Goloman, Jalen Hill, Chris Smith, LiAngelo Ball
Ali is a former 4-star recruit out of New York. He sat out this last season due to injury. However, the guard is one of the most explosive athletes on the roster. He offers plus-capabilities on the defensive end of the floor. He can scoot down from his traditional role in order to play the “three” (and in today’s game, position titles are rather meaningless).
This line-up would have a nice combination of length, athleticism, and shooting ability. Rebounding may be a problem, but the pace with which Alford employs offensively certainly would mesh well with this group.
Image Source: Bruins Nation