NCB On The Trail: UCLA Bruins

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Scouting the country each year I’ll not only see players’ skills, athletic ability and basketball IQ, but I’ll also witness their character along the way. This year’s class might not have any NBA superstars at the moment, but it will have difference-makers for the college game, both in the short term as well as those who will make a difference in time because of their character traits combined with their talent.

As we wrap up the Class of 2014, here are my five final thoughts:

1. The land of the giants

[+] EnlargeJahlil Okafor
AP Photo/The Sun News/Charles SlateDuke center signee Jahlil Okafor finishes the season as the nation's top prospect.
When you look at the top of a class it's so rare to have three post players sitting in the top three spots. Jahlil Okafor, who held the top spot for much of the season, finishes the season as the nation’s top prospect. The center from Chicago is a dominating presence in the paint. A Duke signee, Okafor led his high school team to a 4A state championship and was named the McDonalds Morgan Wooten player of the year.

He is special because he scores down low in the paint with his back to the basket. His combination of size, touch and fluid footwork is too much for one defender and when he doesn’t score, he attracts a double-team, which gives his team an advantage. He operates with patience and poise and when he reads the double-team he will accurately pass out to the open man. Defensively he guards the post and is improving at ball-screen defense as he is a barrier to the rim for his team.

Myles Turner, the nation’s No. 2 prospect, challenged hard for the No. 1 position and shows a big upside. Turner, who is uncommitted, is an elite shot-blocker and scores baskets with a soft touch and range. Cliff Alexander is going to be an absolute difference-maker for Kansas with his ability to rebound, finish and block shots, and he does it in an aggressive manner. Trey Lyles is one of the most skilled post players in this group and his future teammate at Kentucky Karl Towns Jr. has franchise skill-to-size ratio. Thomas Welsh is a fundamentally sound big who will anchor the middle at UCLA.


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McDonald's Game players to watch 

April, 2, 2014
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The basketball world will be watching the 37th annual McDonald’s All-American Game on Wednesday night (ESPN, 9:30 p.m. ET) from the United Center in Chicago.

The 24 players selected to participate have already received the greatest honor in high school basketball, but with practices having started, they’re quickly realizing that this week is as much about things to come as it is a celebration of their careers to date.

The game isn’t just a chance for these players to excite their future fan bases, but also to perform, in many cases for the first time in their career, in front of NBA scouts and front office personnel expected from all 30 teams. It all but ensures a competitive few days of action as the players are always anxious to make a good impression.

That type of environment is also ideal for our ESPN RecruitingNation staff as we take one of our final looks at the top players in the country before ultimately putting the Class of 2014 player rankings to bed. With that in mind, we asked our team of evaluators which player they were most interested in observing this week:


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Recruit and return: UCLA 

March, 28, 2014
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In order to return to the NCAA tournament, a team needs contributions from both returning players and incoming recruits. Here's a look at UCLA and its chances of dancing again in 2015.

Quick references:

2013-14 roster
2014 recruiting

Possible 2014-15 starting five:

PG Bryce Alford
CG Isaac Hamilton
SG Norman Powell
PF Tony Parker
C Thomas Welsh


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CIF Southern Section review 

March, 10, 2014
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The last couple of weeks were spent venturing all over Southern California for the CIF Southern Section Championships, casting my eyes upon some of the better prospects around the region. At the end of the day it became quite clear, yet again, Arizona signee Stanley Johnson (Santa Ana, Calif./Mater Dei) is too much to handle at this level.


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There is a budding dynasty in prep school basketball, and it goes by the name Brewster Academy.

Winners of three of the last six New England prep titles and two of the last four national championships coming into the year, this season was supposed to be a "down” year for Brewster (Wolfeboro, N.H.). However, it turned into perhaps the Bobcats' most successful season in program history.

While this might not be the most individually talented team in Brewster history, it is probably the most cohesive collective unit. The Bobcats approached this season's National Prep Championship -- which they won on Wednesday -- as if they were on a mission. They competed for 40 minutes each time out, defended and shared the ball incredibly well. In fact, they had at least four players finish in double figures in all three of their wins.


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LOS ANGELES -- During the last couple of weeks, there have been a plethora of one-day showcases, including stops at the Cavalier Classic, Southern California Shootout and the MLK Shootout.

A year ago, names like Stanford signee Michael Humphrey (Phoenix/Sunnyslope) and Boise State signee Chandler Hutchison (Mission Viejo, Calif./Mission Viejo) were virtual unknowns. However, with their development, they're now national names and terrific prospects going forward.

Most versatile (post player)
Michael Humphrey (Phoenix/Sunnyslope)
2015, PF, 6-foot-9, 210 pounds
Status: Signed with Stanford

The Cardinal will be losing quite a bit of their frontline, but they'll have some reinforcements with Reid Travis (Minneapolis/De La Salle) and Humphrey. Strength is a concern at this stage, but Humphrey's bounce, lateral quickness, ball skills and touch are impressive.


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Forty-six Division I schools came into the season with a new basketball coach. The vast majority of those changes were met with optimism and enthusiasm.

But with conference play now revving up, many first year coaches are dealing with the harsh reality that rebuilding isn’t going to happen overnight. And in those types of situations, sometimes your first year recruiting class can be more important than your win-loss record.

A coach’s first recruiting class is absolutely critical to his long-term success. It’s about more than just filling out next year’s roster. It’s about setting the tone for the way in which the staff and program will be viewed by prospects, high school coaches, and AAU coaches moving forward. And this time of year, when the product on the floor isn’t always something a coach can sell, making an initial splash on the recruiting trail is often times all it takes to develop the type of positive momentum to build on.

With that in mind, here’s a look at how seven first-year coaches are doing on the trail:

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UCLA is hot both on the court and in recruiting.

After a huge crosstown win against USC on Sunday, the Bruins landed ESPN 25 prospect Lonzo Ball (Chino Hills, Calif./Chino Hills High School.)

Why he committed:
When Steve Alford and his staff took the UCLA job, they immediately begin recruiting Ball, and now it's paid off. Ball was recently on an unofficial to UCLA when the Bruins pounded USC, and it only took a few days after that win for him to commit to the Bruins. Once Ball witnessed the up-tempo atmosphere of Alford’s offense, he felt that he would be a perfect fit in that system.


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UCLA under new coach Steve Alford has landed the nation’s No. 11 recruiting class. A big part of that class -- no pun intended -- is 7-footer Thomas Welsh, who has made improvement from last spring.

After Jahlil Okafor and Myles Turner, Welsh is in the conversation for next-best low-post player in the class.

Let’s take an in depth look at his game:


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Under Armour Holiday Classic recap 

December, 31, 2013
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SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- After a down year in 2012 in terms of talent, the 2013 Under Armour Holiday Classic featured a tournament loaded with individual talent and quality teams.

Savvy veterans like North Carolina-bound Theo Pinson (High Point, N.C./Wesleyan Christian Academy) and Arizona-bound Parker Jackson-Cartwright (Los Angeles, Calif./Loyola) had their way with the competition, while up-and-comers Lonzo Ball (Chino Hills, Calif./Chino Hills) and Bryce Aiken (Elizabeth, N.J./The Patrick School) exhibited glimpses of what the future beholds.

Best All-Around
Theo Pinson (High Point, NC/Wesleyn Christian Academy)
2014, SF, 6-foot-6, 210 pounds
Status: Signed with North Carolina

With his athleticism, length and improved perimeter skill set, Pinson pretty much did whatever he wanted against the competition. He was electrifying in the open court, made sound decisions (played point guard at times) and was disruptive on the defensive end due to his long arms and active hands.


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Mack’s stock on the rise 

December, 22, 2013
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The 12th annual Chick-fil-A Classic holiday basketball tournament features some of the nation’s top prospects. One prospect who came into the weekend without national fanfare but is seeing his stock rise is junior shooting guard Tevin Mack (Columbia, S.C./Dreher High). The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Mack has three high-major offers with more expected.

“It’s Georgia, Clemson, VCU, Mississippi State, Florida State, South Carolina and Virginia Tech recruiting me the hardest,” Mack said on Friday. “My biggest offers are Georgia, Virginia Tech and Houston, but Clemson and VCU are recruiting me very hard. Clemson, VCU and also Wake Forest want me to come see them. Wake Forest said they will offer if I come up there for a game.”


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UCLA lands ESPN 100 PF Bolden

December, 10, 2013
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After a slow start to the 2014 recruiting race, the Bruins appear to be finding their groove as they landed one of the nation's better unsigned prospects in 6-foot-8, 205-pound power forward Jonah Bolden (New South Wales, Australia/Findlay Prep).

The ESPN 100 recruit chose the Bruins over SMU, USC, Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky. The Bruins were seen as the favorite and it appeared to be only a matter of time before he chose to continue his career in Westwood, despite Larry Brown and SMU making a strong push.

Bolden is one of the better under-the-radar prospects in the country, but he was able to exhibit his talents in August at the adidas Nations event in California. The finesse 4-man is a willowy, skilled prospect with an intriguing skill set. He can face up his defender and either drain the 19-foot jump shot or display his underrated passing skills. He needs to get considerably stronger and much more assertive, especially in the paint, but his upside is quite impressive.

Steve Alford has a nice nucleus arriving in Westwood next season with the likes of ESPN 100 prospects Kevon Looney (Milwaukee/Hamilton) and Thomas Welsh (Los Angeles/Loyola), as well as skilled 5-man Gyorgy Goloman (Weston, Fla./The Sagemont School). Along with Bolden, this group will provide the Bruins with length, skill and savvy. If UCLA can somehow land a point guard, Alford will have all of his needs met for the 2014 class.

Scout's take: Welsh stays home at UCLA 

November, 20, 2013
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Four-star center Thomas Welsh (Los Angeles/Loyola) committed to UCLA over Stanford, California, Arizona State and USC among others.

This is a big one for new Bruins coach Steve Alford since he landed a nationally ranked prospect from his backyard in Southern California.

Why he committed: The ESPN 100 No. 90 overall player will have an opportunity to play and provide an immediate impact on the Bruins front line especially with the Wear twins being seniors this season.

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With seven ESPN 100 commitments in as many days, the last week has been incredibly busy on the recruiting wire, but the best could still be yet to come with Reid Travis, Cliff Alexander, Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones all likely to make decisions in time to sign during the early signing period, which begins next week.

In case you missed any of last week’s headlines, here’s a rundown: Devin Robinson chose Florida over Indiana on Wednesday; later that night, big man Michael Humphrey picked Stanford over Arizona; Devin Booker started a busy Thursday by picking Kentucky over Missouri; James Blackmon Jr. pulled a surprise by spurning Kentucky to recommit to Indiana; Kevon Looney’s commitment to UCLA was equally surprising, with most predicting Duke, Florida or Tennessee; former UCLA pledge Trevon Bluiett picked Xavier over Butler and Michigan State on Friday; and Trey Lyles chose Kentucky over Louisville on Tuesday.

That flurry of activity, along with the upcoming announcements, has brought more clarity to a lot of top national programs. Here’s a look at some of the implications:


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Scout's take: Looney to UCLA 

October, 31, 2013
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Kevon Looney, the No. 11 player in the ESPN 100, picked UCLA on Thursday over Duke, Tennessee, Florida, Michigan State and Wisconsin.

Here’s a look at why he picked the Bruins and how the 6-foot-8, 190-pound power forward fits in with new coach Steve Alford.

[+] EnlargeKevon Looney
Kelly Kline/adidasESPN 100 power forward Kevon Looney will allow UCLA to run a more wide-open offense.
Why he committed: Looney committed to the Bruins for reasons on and off the court.

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