West Coast Bias: Highly touted UCLA forward could be worth the wait

The Dagger
West Coast Bias: Highly touted UCLA forward could be worth the wait
West Coast Bias: Highly touted UCLA forward could be worth the wait

LOS ANGELES — Jonah Bolden was never lonelier last season than when UCLA played away from home.

Unable to travel with his teammates after the NCAA ruled him a partial qualifier last September, Bolden instead stayed behind on game days and hunted for somewhere on campus to watch on his own.

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BEST IN THE WEST RANKINGS (PRESEASON EDITION):

1. Gonzaga: The nation's premier frontcourt and more perimeter talent than people realize.

2. Arizona: Four new starters, yet plenty of talent, depth and experience once again.

3. Oregon: Can Tyler Dorsey help replace Joseph Young? If so, the Ducks will soar.

4. Cal: This is the most talented roster Cal has fielded since the days of Jason Kidd.

5. Utah: No more Delon Wright, but nine of last year's 11 top scorers are back.

6. San Diego State: Familiar formula: An elite defense and just enough offense.

7. UCLA: Other scorers must emerge to keep Bryce Alford from trying to do too much.

8. BYU: With Tyler Haws gone, maybe triple-double machine Kyle Collinsworth gets his due.

9. Boise State: The one-two punch of Drmic and Webb is the Mountain West's best.

10. Oregon State: A program that overachieved last year gets an influx of talented freshmen.

Sometimes the 6-foot-10 forward's destination of choice would be his dorm room. Other times he'd stop by the UCLA basketball office and take notes. When the solitude grew tedious, he'd go over to a friend's place or grab a seat in the cafeteria next to one of the TVs.

"At first, it was really weird not being with my teammates," Bolden told Yahoo Sports. "It was hard for a while, but I had to turn the negative into a positive and focus on myself individually. I had a lot of alone time away from the team and I had to figure out how to use that to my advantage."

Game days ought to be much more enjoyable for Bolden this season now that his NCAA-imposed exile is over. UCLA coach Steve Alford envisions the former top 75 recruit as an instant impact player because of his ability to create mismatches at either forward position.

When Alford asks Bolden to play power forward, the Australia native has the outside shooting ability to force less agile defenders to guard him out to the 3-point arc yet he also has the strength and wingspan to defend and rebound effectively in the paint. When Alford wants two traditional post players on the floor at one time, he's convinced Bolden can slide to small forward and shoot over smaller opposing players without being exposed defensively on the perimeter.

"Jonah's ceiling is very high," Alford said. "He's 6-10 with just an incredible wingspan, he's a very good passer and he has a knack to rebound. As he gets comfortable playing on the perimeter and not only shooting the ball but driving the ball, that can be a big asset for us."

If Bolden proves as versatile as Alford anticipates, that would be huge for a UCLA team with two quality post players and plenty of promising guards but no established options in between. The graduation of Norman Powell and early departure of Kevon Looney leaves UCLA seeking to replace a strong, physical wing who led the team in scoring last year and an athletic combo forward who was a threat to post a double-double every game he played.

Bolden spent much of his year in purgatory studying how Powell and Looney functioned in UCLA's system and doing individual skill work with assistant coach Ed Schilling, placing a big emphasis on his ball handling, outside shooting and perimeter skills. His teammates say his progress has been apparent despite an offseason knee injury that sidelined him for several months.

"Jonah is a 6-10 guard, which is crazy," freshman Aaron Holiday said. "Not many bigs are going to be able to stay in front of him, and if you put a 6-3 guard on him, he's just going to shoot right over them."

High-profile games against the likes of North Carolina, Kentucky and Gonzaga headline UCLA's schedule, however, Bolden is most looking forward to the season opener against Monmouth on Nov. 13. That's the day he'll finally don a UCLA jersey in a game for the first time after so many months in exile.

"I think it's going to be one of the best days of my life to be honest with you," Bolden said. "I just can't wait."

HOW LOSING A TOP 25 PROSPECT MAY HAVE BENEFITED ARIZONA 

All the angst among Arizona fans over T.J. Leaf decommitting two months ago suddenly seems overblown.

The loss of one consensus top 25 prospect ultimately set up the Wildcats to land another heralded player at the same position.

Lauri Markkanen played for Finland in the FIBA U-18 European Championships this past summer (via FIBA)
Lauri Markkanen played for Finland in the FIBA U-18 European Championships this past summer (via FIBA)

Lauri Markkanen, a highly skilled 6-foot-11 stretch forward from Finland, accepted an Arizona scholarship offer this past weekend, choosing the Wildcats over fellow national power North Carolina and Pac-12 rival Utah. Markkanen should have a chance to start as a freshman for Arizona with Kaleb Tarczewski, Ryan Anderson and Mark Tollefson all graduating this spring and only centers Dusan Ristic and Chance Comanche slated to return from this year's frontcourt.

The dearth of power forwards on its 2016-17 roster made it critical for Arizona to fill that void with an elite prospect in next year's recruiting class, not an easy task once Leaf backed out of his commitment and sent the Wildcats scrambling. The 6-foot-10 Leaf is a heralded California native with an enviable combination of skill and athleticism, but one Division I assistant coach familiar with both prospects believes that Arizona should feel fortunate to have Markkanen instead.

"I'm sure Arizona was a little disappointed when they lost T.J. Leaf, but to be honest with you, they may have upgraded," the assistant told Yahoo Sports, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I think Lauri is more of a legit floor spacer with his ability to shoot the ball beyond the 3-point line consistently. He also doesn't have any of the negative stuff that can come with being a highly rated high school player. I don't think Lauri would be disappointed to stay in school more than a year, whereas if someone as highly rated as T.J. Leaf comes in and doesn't play well right away, you might have problems."

That Arizona was able to swoop in late and nab Markkanen is especially impressive considering his ties to his other two finalists.

Markkanen's father played for North Carolina coach Roy Williams at Kansas, averaging 6.9 points and 3.9 rebounds during the 1989-90 season before leaving to play professionally in Europe. Markkanen's assistant coach and mentor Hanno Möttölä is a former Utah star whom the Utes not so coincidentally inducted into their hall of fame the same weekend Markkanen visited earlier this month.

While Markkanen's ability to shoot from the perimeter is his best-known attribute, those familiar with his game say he can also attack the rim off the dribble, score with his back to the basket and defend in the paint or out to the perimeter. Markkanen led the FIBA U-18 European Championships in scoring this summer, averaging 18.2 points per game and shooting 53.9 percent from the field and 41.4 percent from behind the arc.

"He's the equivalent of a McDonald's All-American," said ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, an expert on international prospects. "I don't know if he'd be in the top five in his class or the top seven or the top 10, but if he were in high school, he would clearly be a top 25 recruit. Among the top big men going to college next year, he'd be right at the top of the list as far as offensive skills. He's a definite high-major prospect with the chance to play at the next level someday.

"I wouldn't discount him being a one-and-done but I'd be mildly surprised if he's not at Arizona two years minimum."

How big of an immediate impact Markkanen makes at Arizona could depend on how much muscle he can add between now and then and how aggressively he plays while adjusting to a new setting. Coaches say Markannen is not adverse to contact and has a frame that can carry more weight, but it might take him a year or two of college to fully physically mature.

Markannen represents Arizona's first commitment in the Class of 2016. Among the other prospects the Wildcats are pursuing are Rivals 150 power forward Mitch Lightfoot, elite combo guard Andrew Jones and wing Josh Jackson, a consensus top-three recruit nationally that Rivals ranks No. 1 overall.

THE SMALL-CONFERENCE TEAM POISED TO MAKE A BIG SPLASH

Each time strangers approached UC Irvine coach Russell Turner this offseason, the conversation usually began the same way.

They all wanted to discuss how achingly close the Anteaters came to toppling fourth-seeded Louisville last March in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

UC Irvine coach Russell Turner, left, talks to center Mamadou Ndiaye (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
UC Irvine coach Russell Turner, left, talks to center Mamadou Ndiaye (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

"I tried to be nice, but sometimes I also was like, 'Why would I want to talk about that game?'" Turner told Yahoo Sports. "I'm hoping we can write some new parts to our story this season because that's not one that's all that enjoyable to talk about."

A pair of empty possessions in the final minute of that two-point loss may still gnaw at Turner eight months later, but the UC Irvine coach can take solace in the fact that his team shouldn't be a one-year wonder. The Anteaters bring back 7-foot-6 Mamadou N'Diaye and seven other rotation players from their first NCAA tournament team in program history, raising hope that they can not only return to March Madness but also advance past the opening round.

The biggest reason for optimism — literally and figuratively — is N'Diaye, who enters the season fully healthy after missing 19 games last year with recurring foot problems. In the 15 games he did play, N'Diaye anchored the Big West's best defense with his ability to alter shots. He also averaged 10.5 points and shot 52.6 percent from the field despite frequent double and triple teams.

"If he's healthy, I think he can be dominant," Turner said. "I don't know if he's going to score 20 a game. He could if people try to play him straight up. But the impact he has on the game when he's out there is enormous. Our opponents have to commit a lot to guarding him because he's so big, so powerful and he does shoot such a high percentage."

While N'Diaye's size commands a lot of attention, the strength of his supporting cast shouldn't be overlooked.

Senior point guard Alex Young is a four-year starter who has averaged at least 8.9 points per game every season while also producing at least a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Backcourt mate Luke Nelson is a native of England who has averaged double-digit points his first two seasons at UC Irvine and dished out four assists per game last year. The Anteaters will miss graduated starters Will Davis and Travis Souza, but Turner is confident fifth-year seniors Mike Best and Dominique Dunning will be adequate replacements.

UC Irvine will have plenty of chances to establish itself as one of the nation's elite small-conference teams this year because its early schedule is laden with name-brand opponents. The Anteaters visit Kansas, Oregon and Saint Mary's and also take part in the Wooden Legacy tournament, a Thanksgiving weekend event in nearby Anaheim that also includes Arizona, Michigan State, Providence and Boise State.

With UC Irvine coming off a regular season Big West title in 2014 and a tournament title and a near miss against Louisville last year, other programs have begun to show interest in Turner. He had exploratory talks with George Mason last spring but ultimately passed on a job offer and signed a five-year contract extension with the Anteaters.

"I think this can be a destination job if we continue to improve," Turner said. "This place has incredible potential. There's a world-class education available here. There aren't many places that are better to live. So the combination of athletics, location, climate and safety is pretty unique."

Last March, UC Irvine's stature grew immeasurably when it earned its first NCAA bid and nearly pulled off a memorable upset. This year, Turner hopes the memory of coming a basket short against Louisville reminds his team what's possible.

"We played well in that game," Turner said. "If we won, it would not have been a fluke. In fact, from our standpoint, we felt we not only could have won the game but should have won the game. There were a couple of key mistakes we have to learn from, and that's what we plan on doing."

THE COUNTDOWN: BEST BACKCOURTS

5. OREGON STATE: If the Beavers end their 26-year NCAA tournament drought next March, their perimeter strength will probably be the biggest reason. The centerpiece of the unit is 6-foot-3 senior Gary Payton II, a defensive standout just like his father who also led Oregon State in scoring (13.4 ppg) and rebounding (7.5 rpg) last season. Malcolm Duvivier and Langston Morris-Walker are also returning starters from an overachieving 17-win team, however, both will be pushed by promising freshmen. Athletic point guard Derrick Bruce could allow Duvivier to move back off ball. Stephen Thompson will provide much-needed outside shooting and Tres Tinkle could take over the small forward spot and allow Morris-Walker to assume a complementary role.

4. BYU: The departure of BYU's all-time leading scorer Tyler Haws should allow Kyle Collinsworth to finally get his due. The 6-foot-6 senior epitomized the phrase "do-it-all player" last season, averaging 13.8 points, 6.0 assists and 8.7 rebounds, posting a NCAA record six triple-doubles and showcasing an ability to score or distribute off the dribble. While Collinsworth may have to look to score more with Haws gone, he'll have support from sweet-shooting Chase Fischer, who hit 41.5 percent of his threes last season while scoring 13.2 points per game. The last starting spot could go to Jordan Chatman or Nick Emery, both freshmen BYU fans are eager to see. Sharpshooter Jake Toolson should also see playing time.

3. ARIZONA: Sean Miller has never had more perimeter options than he does this season. At point guard, Miller could opt for the steady pass-first Parker Jackson Cartwright or he could turn to Kadeem Allen for scoring off the dribble and perimeter defense. Sharpshooting senior Gabe York seems likely to claim one starting wing spot. The other could go to polished freshman Alonzo Trier if Miller opts to go small, San Francisco transfer Mark Tollefson if Miller opts to go big or freshman Ray Smith if Miller believes the 6-foot-8 small forward is fully recovered from a torn ACL. Freshman Justin Simon could carve out a niche because of his defense, as could junior Elliott Pitts because of his shooting.

2. OREGON: For a program that said goodbye to Pac-12 player of the year Joseph Young and swung and missed in its pursuit of elite recruit Jamal Murray, Oregon is still well-stocked on the perimeter this season. Villanova graduate transfer Dylan Ennis is the likely heir apparent at point guard. California state player of the year Tyler Dorsey will be counted on for wing scoring after averaging more than 30 points per game as a high school senior. And multiskilled small forward Dillon Brooks was one of the Pac-12's most productive freshmen last season and played with the Canadian national team this summer.

1. CAL: While incoming McDonald's All-Americans Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown have received the most preseason attention,Tyrone Wallace may be Cal's most indispensable player. The 6-foot-5 senior averaged 17.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists last year, establishing himself as the Bears' top scorer, playmaker and perimeter defender. Wallace will be flanked on one side by sharpshooting Jordan Mathews and on the other by now-healthy Jabari Bird. Backup point guard Sam Singer will give Wallace the freedom to shift off ball when he enters the game. Brown will spend time at both forward spots depending on whether Cuonzo Martin goes big or small.

LAST CALL

Only once have I ever visited a brewery and come home with something besides beer to drink. San Diego-based Modern Times roasts its own coffee, and my wife and I couldn't resist filling a 64-ounce growler with cold press coffee when we stopped by a few months ago. At the intersection of coffee and beer is one of Modern Times' most beloved year-round offerings, Black House, an oatmeal stout brimming with coffee aromas and flavors. It's a dark, roasty beer that includes a blend of Ethiopian and Sumatran coffees and hints of chocolate. Black House is not quite as creamy as most of my favorite stouts, but its coffee-forward flavor is tasty enough to make up for it. (GRADE: 8/10)

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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