When the Bruins got knocked out in the Sweet 16 by eventual national champion runner-up North Carolina, it was widely expected to be the end of an era of sorts.
Not a total program reset, but there were serious questions about the statuses of Jaime Jaquez Jr., Johnny Juzang, Jules Bernard, Cody Riley, Myles Johnson, Jake Kyman and Peyton Watson moving forward.
Still, there was a general expectation that maybe half of those players would return to Westwood for one last hurrah, ushering in the next era with a high-ceiling transition period by blending the old and the new. As it turns out, they’ll only be getting one of them back.
With the news that Bernard will remain in the NBA Draft coming out late Wednesday night, the transition period may have to be more intense than initially anticipated.
Despite none of them seeming to have first round grades, Bernard, Juzang and Watson have all turned pro and are officially leaving UCLA men’s basketball behind. Johnson effectively retired, Riley stepped away without much fanfare and Kyman transferred to Wyoming.
The Bruins have gone from a team potentially returning four or five starters to one that’s bringing back just two – Jaquez and Tyger Campbell.
Of course, the sky is certainly far from falling, as coach Mick Cronin managed to reel in two McDonald’s All-American recruits in combo guard Amari Bailey and big man Adem Bona, plus four-star point guard Dylan Andrews. Forward Mac Etienne and guard Will McClendon are returning from the torn ACLs that kept them out for all of last season, and two new walk-ons will be joining the fray as well.
But that’s all big picture – for the time being, it’s time to focus on what Bernard’s departure means for the program.
Bernard leaving isn’t going to impact the team in the long term, considering he only had one year of eligibility remaining anyways. As for this year’s team, though, he will surely be missed.
David Singleton announcing his return in April made sure the Bruins wouldn’t be completely without shooting next year, but looking at the top of their rotation, they really lack shot volume and efficiency from beyond the arc. UCLA already ranked No. 11 in the Pac-12 in 3-point attempts per game and No. 6 in 3-point percentage during conference play, and those figures could dip down even further without Bernard.
Bernard attempted the most 3s per game on the team with 4.7 last season, and Juzang was second with 4.2. Kyman, Riley and Watson combined for another 2.6 attempts per game, meaning the Bruins are losing 53.8% of their total shot attempts from long range.
While Bernard only shot 33.7% from deep, that can mostly be attributed to a severe cold streak in the middle of the season coming off a month-long COVID break. Bernard shot 45.7% on 4.6 attempts per game across his first 10 appearances and 42.9% on 5.8 attempts a night in UCLA’s six Pac-12 and NCAA tournament games, and that’s after shooting 39.6% as a junior.
The Bruins are returning Campbell – a 41.0% 3-point shooter on 3.7 attempts per game – and Singleton – a 45.1% 3-point shooter on 2.5 attempts per game – but the former was a career 25.9% 3-point shooter prior to last season and the latter works almost exclusively in catch-and-shoot situations.
Bernard’s departure doesn’t just create perimeter problems though, considering he had been elite at getting to the line from the day he stepped foot on campus.
Campbell and Juzang may have had slightly higher free throw percentages than Bernard, but neither got to the line enough to qualify for the Pac-12 leaderboards and Benard wound up leading the conference with an 81.8% clip. His 3.5 attempts per game were second-most on the team, and now Jauqez is the only returning player who took more than 2.4 freebies a night.
On the boards, Jaquez was also the team-leader with 5.7 rebounds per game last season, but UCLA will now be without the players who ranked No. 2 through 5 on that list. Replacing Johnson and Riley’s rebounding on the block is simple to make up with the new big men in the rotation, but Bernard and Juzang were well-above average defensive rebounders at the wing position.
Bernard also played backup point guard during chunks of the past few years, and while Andrews should be more than capable of filling that role in bench lineups moving forward, there is a void when it comes to off-ball guards who can serve as secondary ball-handling options.
So from perimeter shooting and drawing fouls to rebounding and playmaking, UCLA is getting docked in a wide range of categories heading into next season.
So what do Cronin & co. do to get things back on track?
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For starters, they can work with what they have.
The offense can switch things up a bit, and role players like Singleton and McClendon can become high-priority options in off-ball actions. Maybe just getting healthy would help, as Jauqez shot 39.4% from 3 his sophomore year and started his junior year shooting 40.9% before the COVID break and multiple ankle injuries caused his outside efficiency to nosedive.
Bailey’s high school shooting numbers were barely average, but he played his senior year at Sierra Canyon (CA) battling a foot injury that many assumed was hurting his outside scoring efficiency. The incoming freshman is aggressive with the ball, meaning he should get to the line as long as he’s not afraid to absorb some contact, something else that could be dependent on his health.
Campbell is still one of the top floor generals in the country, and perhaps Bailey, McClendon and Andrews could help facilitate and drive-and-kick alongside him similarly to how Bernard did.
It wasn’t too long ago that Bernard would have seemed like a square peg in a round hole as a playmaker with veteran savvy – he boasted an 18.2% turnover percentage and a 0.56-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio through his first two years in Westwood.
But Bernard vastly improved in that department, cutting his turnover percentage down to a Pac-12-best 7.7% his senior year while also more than tripling his assist-to-turnover ratio to 1.76-to-1. It isn’t far-fetched to think that Cronin and his staff can develop another guy like that again, even if the precise candidate may not be overwhelming clear at the moment.
Clark was already arguably the best rebounder on the team last year, and with more minutes, he should more than make up for Bernard’s lost production on the wing in that department.
And then there is the option of external additions, more than likely via the transfer portal. After all, UCLA does have three scholarship spots open.
That could take the form of athletic Kentucky wing Keion Brooks, young Washington State forward Mouhamed Gueye or maybe a pure 3-point shooter.
Doing so may come at a cost, though.
Bernard’s departure makes it all but certain that Clark and Bailey will both be part of the starting lineup, each approaching 30 minutes per game. If Cronin were to go out and add a transfer, he would be robbing them of that projected starting spot.
Clark is heading into his third year in the program, and he has set the expectation for himself that he will take a Russell Westbrook-esque leap in 2022-2023. Presumably, that means he is expecting to start, and that makes sense based on the current roster makeup and his all-around efforts as a hard-nosed team player.
Bailey was a McDonald’s All-American and consensus top-three recruit in the entire nation. Cronin already handed Watson – his first McDonald’s All-American and five-star commit at UCLA – reserve minutes last year, and he wound up leaving the program after one year. To do it again to an even higher-profile pro prospect might severely ding Cronin’s reputation on the recruiting trail.
That isn’t to say he shouldn’t or couldn’t add a player from the portal, but Bernard’s departure has put Cronin in a position where he has to make a choice. Had Bernard come back, either Clark or Bailey could have accepted their bench role knowing that they’re playing behind an incumbent and All-Pac-12-level fifth-year veteran.
But bringing in a fresh face to directly displace their spot in the lineup may not go over quite as well. And even if it did, playing Clark and Bailey as many minutes as possible would help their development and, as a result, the team’s future.
UCLA is in a bit of a pickle, and it’s not an easy one to navigate out of.
Regardless of which path Cronin chooses, the Bruins have more talent and internal consistency than any other Pac-12 contender. Even as currently constituted, they will more than likely be heavy preseason favorites to take home the conference crown for the third year in a row.
Where UCLA goes over the next few weeks – whether that’s in the transfer portal or in tailoring their offseason workouts to kickstart certain players’ development in new roles – will decide whether these Bruins are an ordinary preseason top-10 team or a true national championship contender.
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