The 2021 UCLA Men's Basketball Season Preview, Part I
In this first part, we take a look at the roster UCLA will be running with in 2021.
Hello everyone! Basketball is finally back!
When we last left this team, they were knocked out of the Final Four in one of the best NCAA Tournament games of the last decade. The UCLA Bruins went blow for blow with Gonzaga, forcing overtime and looking to head to a second until a last-second half-court shot by Jalen Suggs ended the game the only way it could. The Bruins, who had been inconsistent down the stretch as they dealt with injuries to key players, proved they were ready to return to the national stage and enter this year as the #2 team in the country and one of the early favorites to win the national championship.
Not a bad turnaround for a team left dead in the water a few years ago, huh?
What makes the Bruins intriguing is that everyone from last year’s Final Four run is back, along with new additions that infuse more talent and defensive prowess into the team. The exhibition win over Chico State proved there is a reason for optimism with this group, and expectations will rightly be high throughout the season.
Let’s get into it by looking at the team.
UCLA only has two losses from last year’s team, and neither of them was a factor during the Final Four run. Chris Smith chose not to exercise his Super Senior option and went off to the NBA, where he signed a two-way contract with the Detroit Pistons. He’s currently assigned to their G-League team while he continues his recovery from a torn ACL. The other missing player, Jalen Hill, retired from basketball in order to focus on his mental health. He does still seem to be close with several of his teammates but his decision to retire is admirable and should be celebrated.
All of that said, the entire Final Four squad is back, which is part of the reason UCLA is generating so much preseason buzz. Leading the way is Johnny Juzang, the shooting guard whose virtuoso performance in the NCAA Tournament springboarded him into preseason conversations for player of the year. Juzang struggled early last year, but it appears that had more to do with a lack of practice time, as he was unable to join the team early for practice due to the pandemic and missed time early due to a foot injury. Juzang really came on in the latter half of the year, and I would guess at that being closer to his level of play than those early struggles. Juzang will likely be UCLA’s leading scorer this year, but an improved commitment on defense could take him to the next level and raise his draft stock.
Returning at point guard is Tyger Campbell, and he’s looking to build on a solid Final Four run as well. Reports coming out of the program say that Campbell has been working to be more consistent as a three-point shooter, and if he can raise his shooting percentage up to 30% (he’s a career 25.9% shooter from distance) that would go a long way to making opposing defenses more honest. Still, you can expect a steady presence from Campbell this year, especially with one of his potential backups out for the year with an injury (more on that in a bit).
Rounding out the starting guards will likely be Jules Bernard. Bernard was easily the most improved player last year, stepping into the starting lineup early due to the injury to Juzang and never truly relinquishing the spot, starting 28 of the Bruins’ 32 games. Bernard saw a subsequent rise in his minutes and responded in kind, posting new career highs in points, rebounds, and assists per game, while keeping his turnovers per game at 1.2 despite the increase in minutes. Bernard was a more confident player and helped to form a strong trifecta that I am tentatively calling the Killer Js (we can workshop this). If the exhibition game is any indication, Bernard will likely continue to start this year but could move to a bench role so that he can better fill in as the backup point guard as the year moves on. In either scenario, I would not expect his minutes to decrease by a substantial amount, and may only go down by virtue of the depth that the team possesses.
Moving to the frontcourt, we have to start with UCLA’s best all-around player, Jaime Jaquez Jr. Jaquez went from being the glue guy in Mick Cronin’s first year to being THE guy in the second, posting increases in his counting stats across the board while becoming one of the better three-point shooters on the team at 39.4%. Interestingly enough, it’s that three-point shooting that Cronin singled out to Jaquez as the thing he needs to work on to get to the next level, and it appears that message was received loud and clear - in the Chico State exhibition, Jaquez was a perfect 8-8 from the field, including sinking both of his attempts from deep. Ideally, Jaquez will not have to play the ridiculous amount of minutes that he did last year thanks to improved wing depth, but I would still expect him to average around 30 minutes a game.
Finishing with the starters, it appears Cronin is going to ride with longtime interior stalwart Cody Riley as his early starter. It’s understandable - Riley started every game last year and has an ability to hit mid-range jumpers that his counterpart Myles Johnson currently lacks. That floor-spacing ability is extremely important on the offensive end as it opens up driving lanes for the other Bruin players. However, Riley’s offensive game has never been the question for him; the bigger question has always been how Riley holds up on the defensive end, and last year was an encouraging sign as Riley’s defense improved. Riley has improved his underlying defensive numbers in each of the past three seasons, with last year representing a player who was not far removed from Jalen Hill analytically. Riley is never going to be a consistent rim protector, but he doesn’t need to be on this team - he just needs to play defense at a good-enough level to complement his offense.
Turning to the bench, I really wanted to start with Jaylen Clark, the do-everything sophomore who seems poised for a breakout season. Clark got a lot of run as a defensive stopper last year but showed flashes of an improving offensive game as the season progressed, and proved to be one of the best rebounders on the team. Clark’s flexibility and length allowed him to play up as a guard and down to a center at times this year. In fact, it appears Cronin is more than willing to go to Clark at center to close out games, as he was apparently part of the closing lineup in the secret scrimmage against San Diego State alongside Campbell, Juzang, Jaquez, and Bernard. Clark missed the exhibition against Chico State due to concussion protocols, but reports coming out of the program state that it will be hard to keep him off the court. I expect big things from him this year.
David Singleton faced a choice about leaving the program to try and find more playing time elsewhere, but according to Singleton that was never an option. The senior guard reportedly told Cronin he was coming back to the Bruins the minute they returned to Westwood from the NCAA Tournament, and you can see the appeal. Singleton has played a variety of roles for UCLA over his career but carved out a role last year as a sparkplug shooter off the bench, hitting an impressive 47.6% of his threes on the season while showing off an increased bevy of moves to get points on drives. His athleticism is always going to limit him, but Singleton is a grinder who is maximizing his talents to great effect.
The final rotation bench piece, Jake Kyman, has a bit of a murkier future this year. Kyman is certainly capable of lighting it up offensively - his freshman year featured plenty of games where he blew up the scoreboard, including the last game I was at against Arizona prior to the pandemic - but last year his numbers fell precipitously, with his three-point shooting in particular dropping from 40.3% to 34.6%. His minutes fell only a little, but with more options this year, Kyman is going to need to produce consistently to justify longer stretches of playing time.
UCLA has two more bigs from last year who may see time this year, though it is a question of how much. With Mac Etienne, who early enrolled at the start of the year and found himself getting a surprising amount of playing time down the stretch, the problem is going to be one of health, as he has an apparent knee injury that could keep him out of games for the foreseeable future. Kenneth Nwuba became one of the heroes of March with surprising performances against Michigan and Gonzaga, but with the frontcourt depth shored back up, Nwuba will likely return to spot duty on the season.
Technically UCLA welcomes three new players to the program this year, but one of them will not play this season, as Will McClendon tore knee ligaments during workouts and is out for the foreseeable future. McClendon makes things a little sketchier in the backcourt because he had the ability to play backup point guard minutes and fill in defensively for Campbell, but the hope is that Bernard and Singleton can continue to cover here.
That said, UCLA still ends up with two instant-impact players that are joining the team. The first is Myles Johnson, a grad transfer from Rutgers. Getting Johnson was a major coup for Mick Cronin and the UCLA coaching staff, as Johnson earned Big 10 All-Defensive Team honors last year. Johnson is a legitimate rim-protector, as he had one fewer block by himself than the Bruins had combined last year (68 to 69). On top of that, Mick Cronin seemingly wants to utilize Johnson more on offense than he was at Rutgers, where he averaged a mere 8.0 PPG, and the early results from the exhibition look promising, with Johnson putting in 10 points on 4-5 shooting. Johnson will still likely get most of his points on clean-up duty, but he did show an ability to bully smaller defenders and get to the rim.
Mostly, I assume UCLA fans will be in love with Johnson because he is so willing to put in the dirty work. Johnson led the team in rebounds during the exhibition, and as I mentioned on Twitter the best way to describe him is an angry rebounder. That is, he rebounds the ball with authority and makes it very clear to everyone around him that he will be coming down with it. The Bruins lacked a true rim protector and dominant rebounder during last year’s run, and Johnson provides that.
The other newcomer to the team, and likely the most purely-talented player on the roster, is true freshman Peyton Watson. I’ll let him introduce himself.
Watson is special. Like, potential lottery pick special, which is why his development could be crucial for the Bruins in their quest to win a championship. Watson’s offense is a work in progress, a fact that is understandable considering he missed his entire senior season of basketball due to the pandemic, but his defensive instincts are strong, and his length makes him a nightmare defensively. Cronin is, rightly, going to start with Watson on the bench, which might be surprising to outside observers who are accustomed to five-star prospects coming to campus and immediately starting, but makes sense with where Watson is at. Could he eventually start for this team? Probably, and I would not be surprised if he eventually is, but the Bruins want to bring him along slowly so that he can be a major contributor in the games that matter at the end.
That does it for Part I. In Part II, we’ll take a look at the rest of the conference, the schedule, and figure out what reasonable expectations are for UCLA this year.