UCLA Basketball Preview: Bruins Boast Depth and Talent at Forward
All-Pac 12 first-teamer Chris Smith leads a strong group of forwards for UCLA.
Hey guys, welcome to part two of our 2020 UCLA Bruins men’s basketball season preview. Yesterday we took a look at the guards UCLA will put on the court this year. So, today, we will shift to the frontcourt and focus on the forwards and centers.
UCLA is a fascinating team because they have decent size and excellent length at the forward spots and, perhaps, more experience than any other team in the conference. Led by All-Pac-12 First Team selection Chris Smith, this group matches up well with everyone in the conference and should be a strength of the Bruins in 2020-2021. So, let’s take a look at them!
UCLA has two of their three forward spots essentially locked down, with a third that feels fairly locked down just based on last year’s rotations.
Let’s start with the clear leader of this team, Chris Smith. Smith’s development over his UCLA tenure has been fantastic to watch, as he’s grown from a super young, but toolsy freshman to the big dog on the court, and how his game has grown each year. Smith has grown in confidence under Coach Mick Cronin, showing off an ability to score at all three levels while playing good defense, and has become integral to what Cronin wants to do on both ends of the court. I’ll get into some general strategy stuff tomorrow, but Smith’s size and ability gives UCLA some options in the lineups it trots out, with the Bruins able to go small with Smith at the 5 to a big lineup with Smith playing closer to a point forward.
Smith chose to come back for his senior year in part because there were still some flaws in his game, and I would expect those to be a big focus for his year. The biggest is perhaps his penchant for turning the ball over on drives - Smith’s handle isn’t the tightest around, as he struggles to keep the ball low on drives, which in turn opens him up to get the ball poked away. The good news is this is the clear biggest area of improvement for him, which makes it easier to focus offseason work on fixing up. I would also expect a natural improvement on his shooting from distance - he shot 34.1% from distance but his 84% FT shooting shows good fundamentals.
The other assured starter would be Jaime Jaquez, Jr. Jaquez was a revelation last year after surprisingly being inserted into the starting lineup against Michigan State in the Maui Invitational. That move would pay dividends as the season progressed, as Jaquez showed all of the intangibles of an excellent glue guy, constantly making the correct play on both sides of the court and stepping up whenever the team needed him. His game-winning shot against Arizona State last year is the kind of early career magic that so many UCLA greats hit and, while I would not proclaim that Jaquez will end up in the inner circle (because, let’s be honest, that is a near impossible group to penetrate given UCLA’s basketball history), Jaquez definitely possesses the tools and talent to make an impression on UCLA history. He’s even earning preseason All-Pac 12 honorable mentions already!
I’d expect Jaquez to make some solid improvements this year. Much like Smith, his free-throw percentage of 76.1% indicates he should see improved shooting from distance. While he won’t have a full year inside the program getting stronger due to the pandemic, that’s still a full year in Cronin’s program, which should still indicate more understanding of the systems in place.
The final starter spot at the 5 could go a number of ways based on matchups and who is playing hotter, but I would guess that UCLA will be have Jalen Hill at that spot to start. Hill likely gets the nod because he has showcased elite defensive ability, being an excellent rebounder and shot blocker, and pairing it with solid FT shooting for a big. Hill is not a focal point on offense, which is perfectly fine. UCLA has plenty of guys who are great offensively, and Hill makes his living grabbing offensive rebounds and making putbacks. He could definitely stand to improve a ton on that end, especially in the post, but anything Hill does on that end is essentially a bonus, since his biggest strength is as the anchor of the defense.
The main bench piece here would be the other potential starter at the 5 in Cody Riley. Riley really came on strong as the season finished, showing an excellent ability to score in the post while bringing a much-improved shot from the free throw line. The biggest change for Riley down the stretch was his defense, where he seemed much more locked in on that end and showed improved mechanics. The hallmark of Cronin teams are their defense. So, Riley showcasing improved effort on that end likely led to more playing time and that confidence from the coaching staff in his improvement seems to have inspired more confidence on the offensive end as well. Riley became a huge part of UCLA’s second unit, with him and Jake Kyman combining to blitz opponents from the inside and outside to great success.
Like I said, I think Riley will probably continue in his bench role, but his play last year could lead him to see a start or two. More importantly, that play may cause Coach Cronin to play him alongside Hill in some big lineups, which will necessitate Riley becoming more comfortable from the outside. Riley was a willing shooter his freshman year, shooting 30% from distance, but he rarely shot the ball from deep last year, perhaps at the urging of Cronin. Still, should Cronin want to run a big lineup, one of Hill or Riley will need to take some shots from at least the midrange just to keep opposing defenses from packing the paint, and Riley’s more polished offensive game seems to lend itself well to him being the one to do that.
The other bench piece of note here is Kenneth Nwuba. Nwuba is perhaps the lone true center option on the team, but he’s still very much a developmental player. The return of Smith, Riley, and Hill is perfect for the Bruins, as it means Nwuba can play spot minutes this season and continue his development, in hopes of becoming a bigger contributor down the line. Don’t be surprised to see him get solid minutes against some lesser opponents just for the experience.
Much like with the guards, the forward group has a new face this year, as the Bruins welcome in Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang. Juzang, who played his high school ball at Harvard Westlake in Studio City, was on Cronin’s radar last offseason, when Cronin recruited him heavily before ultimately losing out to the Wildcats. One has to assume that familiarity made things easier for Juzang once he decided to return home and it provides Cronin with a huge option on offense.
Juzang has gotten praise from inside the program for his shooting ability, with Chris Smith in particular proclaiming that he might be the best shooter on the team. Considering Jake Kyman is also on this team, that’s high praise and a good indication of what Juzang can bring to the table. UCLA could realistically run a legitimate 5-out lineup with Campbell/Singleton/Kyman/Juzang/Smith and just bomb opponents away from distance, or mix and match their wings to make sure they always have one of Juzang or Kyman on the court at all times. The biggest question will be how he holds up on the defensive end, but I think there’s a good chance he could be bumped down and take over the starting 2 spot at some point this year.