A deep foray into the NCAA tournament might be a secondary feat for UCLA’s freshmen this season.
They’ve already beaten LeBron James.
The Cleveland Cavaliers star was on the losing end of a pickup game against a group of Bruins in August in the men’s gymnasium on campus.
UCLA’s team included freshman point guard Jaylen Hands and … the details are already getting a bit fuzzy two months later.
“I honestly couldn’t remember, to tell you the truth,” Hands said Wednesday during media day when asked who else was on his team.
Former Bruins forward Josiah Johnson tweeted that UCLA freshmen LiAngelo Ball and Cody Riley were also members of the team that defeated James, a three-time NBA champion, four-time MVP and 13-time All-Star.
“LeBron’s amazing,” Hands said. “He is the best player I’ve ever seen with my own two eyes, so I was just taking in the experience of just being on the same court as him, picking up how he talks, how he pushes his teammates, so that was the biggest takeaway I got.”
Hands didn’t overdo it with the celebration, merely retweeting Johnson’s matter-of-fact description of the outcome.
“I mean, it’s pickup, so it’s a different objective,” Hands said. “We’re all focused on getting better in what we worked on this summer, so it was just more of being there and experiencing how he plays, how much he talks, how hard he goes.”
Other Bruins were more excited.
“For any collegiate athlete to beat LeBron is pretty cool,” said junior point guard Aaron Holiday, who missed the game because he had a class.
James got some revenge later in the month when he beat another UCLA team consisting of senior center Thomas Welsh, sophomore guard Prince Ali, freshman forward Jalen Hill and freshman guard Chris Smith in addition to Ball. James’ teammates included Washington Wizards center Marcin Gortat and former Bruins and NBA point guard Baron Davis.
UCLA players routinely face NBA counterparts in pickup games because of the high volume of professional teams that shuffle through campus. Bruins coach Steve Alford said the Toronto Raptors, Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder and the Clippers were among the teams who staged workouts in Westwood this summer.
“Best runs in the world!” Hands tweeted in August. “Daily.”
A double threat?
Alford said he intended for his team to mimic the frenetic style of last season, with one major exception.
Vastly improved defense.
“We’ll have to continue to play fast,” Alford said, “but now we’ll have to guard people at a higher level.”
The Bruins appear to have the length, athleticism and depth necessary to be more tenacious defensively. Their rotation could go 11 players deep, Alford said, including the 7-foot Welsh; 6-11 Gyorgy Goloman; 6-10 Riley, Hill and Alex Olesinski; 6-9 Smith; and 6-8 Kris Wilkes.
“We’re very deep this year, so I feel like we’re going to play a lot of defense, a lot better than we have been,” Holiday said. “I feel like we just have a lot more heart than we did in the past — no offense to the other teams, but we obviously are more athletic and we can get to certain places quicker, so I think we’ve just got to get out there and play hard.”
Welsh made four consecutive three-pointers during one stretch of practice, showing off his increased range. He lost a recent three-point competition with Holiday by one shot. … UCLA has restored the classic center court circle it had used for decades inside Pauley Pavilion as part of its re-branding efforts. The Bruins had used a “UCLA” script logo upon the building’s reopening for the 2012-13 season. “To me,” Alford said, “this is what’s always embodied the UCLA men’s basketball program.” … Holiday spent part of his summer working out with brothers Jrue and Justin, both NBA players. … Goloman played with the Hungarian national team this summer.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch