With both hands on Steve Alford’s arms, Jaylen Hands carefully positioned the UCLA men’s basketball head coach under the basket. The freshman from San Diego wiped his shoes, squeaking his sneakers on the hardwood court that was starting to gather condensation as the sun set over Venice Beach.
The approach was slow. A two long steps and a dribble. Then Hands exploded over Alford’s head, slamming a one-handed dunk through the net. The crowd roared at the McDonald’s All-American who made quite an impression during his first public appearance in a UCLA jersey.
From Hands’ 360-dunks during warm-ups to an impromptu dance party at center court, UCLA’s vivacious six-man freshman class stole the show during UCLA basketball’s kickoff event at Venice Beach on Saturday that featured both men’s and women’s teams. After losing three NBA draft picks, including star point guard Lonzo Ball, from last year’s Sweet 16 team, the Bruins will need contributions from their freshmen on and off the court to have a chance at contending for titles this season.
“I love their personality,” Alford said of UCLA’s freshman class that is ranked fifth in the country by ESPN. “It’s personality, it’s swag, it’s whatever you want to call it. … Most freshmen, they’re not going to try to do all that, they just kind of fit in, and these six have really stepped in right away.”
Hands faced off with fellow freshman Kris Wilkes in the dunk contest finals. Hands won it with a perfect 50-point score and a fan vote. Wilkes enlisted another freshman, 6-foot-10 forward Cody Riley, to toss the ball off the side of the backboard, but Riley was eventually replaced by junior Aaron Holiday on the final attempt. Holiday delivered a dime for Wilkes’ reverse dunk.
Guards LiAngelo Ball and Chris Smith and forward Jalen Hill round out UCLA’s highly touted freshmen.
“From the get-go, from the summer time, we all started bonding well, we got to know each other and know each other’s backgrounds,” Wilkes said of the freshman class. “The older guys, we got to talk to them more and we’re all one cohesive unit so we should all shine together.”
Alford, entering his fifth season in Westwood, said the team is likely the deepest, tallest and most athletic group he’s had during his UCLA tenure. With Smith and Wilkes, the Bruins have 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-8 guards. Hands is a 6-foot-3, 175-pound athletic dynamo. Ball showed a slimmed-down figure Saturday that Alford said has helped his overall game improve.
Veterans Thomas Welsh and Holiday offer necessary balance to the young roster.
“They’re a goofy group,” said Welsh, a senior center who is UCLA’s only returning starter from last year. “But they’re fun. They’re great people to have in the locker room but they work hard too and that’s what you really care about.”
The women’s team that is coming off back-to-back Sweet 16 runs also showed off its young talent in the joint showcase. Freshman guard Chantel Horvat won the knockout challenge that featured players from both teams and UCLA students. Senior guard Kelli Hayes won the skills challenge for the women’s team, besting Holiday in the final. Holiday won the 3-point contest by one point over junior guard Kennedy Burke.
The women’s team has four freshmen and return All-Pac-12 honorees Jordin Canada and Monique Billings. Billings, a 6-foot-4 forward, even advanced to the finals of the dunk contest.
“We got a lot of really great returning players but with an influx of really exciting freshmen. Both programs sort of mirror that, which is really fun,” women’s basketball head coach Cori Close said. “I fully expect both programs will be playing in regionals, or regional finals or Final Fours.”
source: daily news