NCAAM Teams
Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer 464d

In crucial season, UCLA will lean on its freshmen

Men's College Basketball, UCLA Bruins, Arizona Wildcats, Arizona State Sun Devils, Washington Huskies

Newcomers don't take long to impact college basketball -- not in this world of one-and-dones and transfers. Over a two-week span, we will look at the top five newcomers in each of the 10 biggest conferences. Next up is the Pac-12.

Within the scrum of the 2015-16 season, the Pac-12's entry of seven members to the NCAA tournament pool seemed surprising by season's end.

The turbulence in the league kept the race hot until Oregon subverted the field late and won both the league and tournament titles. The Ducks alone advanced beyond the first weekend in the NCAA tournament. Yet the conference salvaged its rep by securing three of the top 10 slots in the NBA draft (Cal's Jaylen Brown, Washington's Marquese Chriss and Utah's Jakob Poeltl), and four within the first round (the San Antonio Spurs picked Washington's Dejounte Murray at No. 29).

The league will again boast some of the most talented players in America within its pool of newcomers.

Lonzo Ball, UCLA Bruins

It's not clear how coach Steve Alford, who is undoubtedly on the hot seat, will balance the minutes between Bryce Alford -- his son and the team's ambitious veteran point guard -- and Ball (No. 4 in the 2016 class per RecruitingNation), a 6-foot-6 prodigy point guard whose major in Westwood should be "NBA future."

It is clear, however, that Ball's production will factor into UCLA's decision about its head coach's future. The hot-seat talk that boiled late last season simmered as UCLA's fuming backers remembered the load of incoming talent that would soon reach the Westwood campus. Ball's versatility, size and skills will be added to a UCLA program that could contend for the Pac-12 title a year after missing the postseason.

He's not worried about minutes or lineups, either. Ball recently told ESPN.com that the Bruins have a "championship mindset" now that they've battled and bled together in summer pickup runs (and an upcoming trip to Austrailia). That's a great sign and the right attitude. Yet, Ball didn't come to UCLA to play a backup or secondary role. He's a leader, distributor and finisher. That's the combo that could elevate the program again. He's a star. He knows it. His team knows it. And soon, the rest of the country will, too.

Markelle Fultz, Washington Huskies

Since he arrived in Seattle in 2002, coach Lorenzo Romar has developed nine players who were selected in the first round of the NBA draft, including two in June. Fultz (seventh in the 2016 class per RecruitingNation) is an early contender for the top spot in next summer's draft. Michael Porter Jr., the Washington commit ranked fourth in the 2017 class per RecruitingNation, should extend Romar's streak in 2018.

The 6-4 Fultz will lead a squad that lost its top three scorers from last season but returns multiple players from a team that featured 11 underclassmen in 2015-16. He's a big, explosive, athletic point guard who will leave early if he, as expected, delivers a season filled with big numbers and a flurry of highlights.

"Markelle is a dynamic guard," Romar told the Seattle Times after Fultz signed with the program in November. "There's not anything he can't do on the basketball floor. He can go up and jump over the top of you and dunk it. He can dunk on a 6-10, 6-11 guy. He can really pass the ball. He's gotten now to where he can shoot the ball really well."

T.J. Leaf, UCLA Bruins

If Alford shows up to UCLA's midnight madness wearing a "How do you like me now?" shirt as he rolls out his new recruiting class, who could be mad at him? A disgruntled fan flew a "Fire Coach Alford!" banner over his campus this summer. He responded to the backlash by returning a year of his contract extension. Now he has Ball and Leaf, the 6-9 power forward ranked 13th in the freshman class by RecruitingNation, and multiple veterans.

The Leaf-Thomas Welsh frontcourt will rival any unit in the Pac-12. Welsh is a sturdier interior presence. Leaf's athleticism is his best asset. He's the type to windmill a dunk, take his man off the dribble or pivot in the lane and score on a hook. He'll challenge, block and alter shots on the defensive end. A UCLA defense that plummeted to 140th in adjusted efficiency per KenPom.com last season needs an agile big man to solve its greatest challenge: pick-and-roll defense. Leaf will help there. He'll give Alford and Ball a target for alley-oops and entry passes, too.

Ray Smith, Arizona Wildcats

You could argue that other Arizona newcomers belong in this spot. All three five-star recruits (Lauri Markkanen, Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins) deserve consideration. All three could end the season as the Pac-12's most productive newcomer. But Smith has an advantage: time.

When Smith (No. 29 in the 2015 class per RecruitingNation) tore his ACL in his right knee before last season -- he sat out his senior year of high school because of a torn ACL in his left knee -- Arizona lost a prospect who would have helped coach Sean Miller's program in 2015-16. That didn't happen.

But that loss will help both Miller and Smith in 2016-17. He has spent a year in the program and learned the system. He's not naïve to Miller's persistent demands, and he has added weight to his 6-8 frame. That's why talk of a lottery pick isn't crazy. The most important newcomer on Arizona's roster could be the redshirt freshman who lost a year in 2015-16 but should help the Wildcats fight for the Pac-12 championship in 2015-16.

Shannon Evans, Arizona State Sun Devils

Yes, coach Bobby Hurley lost Savon Goodman (9.6 points, 6.4 rebounds per game) and Andre Spight (6.6 points) this offseason. But their decisions to transfer did not disrupt his plan to turn Arizona State into a basketball power. He signed the No. 16 class in the country per RecruitingNation. It's a group that's anchored by three top-100 prospects.

Those youngsters will help next season. But Evans, who transferred from Buffalo before the 2015-16 campaign, is the Arizona State newcomer to watch. He made 38 percent of his 3-pointers and 80 percent of his free throws in 2014-15. He also scored 15 points (5-for-9 shooting) in a first-round loss to West Virginia in the NCAA tournament that year.

His postseason experience and maturity will help an ASU squad that will rely on its incoming freshman and demand a greater contribution from Tra Holder. The new faces are part of Hurley's rebuilding plans. Evans, who has two years of remaining eligibility, gives his former coach at Buffalo additional time to develop those young talents.

^ Back to Top ^