Had Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday both chosen to remain in the NBA draft, UCLA would have needed to replace its top seven scorers from last year’s Sweet 16 team.
Both instead are returning to school for the 2017-18 school year, providing the Bruins with a pair of badly needed veteran leaders to anchor a young but talented lineup.
Welsh and Holiday both announced Tuesday afternoon that they had withdrawn from the NBA draft. Neither were likely to be selected had they chosen to leave school this year, though Welsh was among the 60-plus prospects who received an invitation to the NBA draft combine earlier this month.
A former McDonald’s All-American best known for his lethal mid-range jump shot, Welsh will almost certainly start at center for UCLA next season. The 7-footer averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a junior, displaying soft hands, deft footwork and impeccable touch on pick-and-pop jumpers or around the basket.
Holiday excelled as UCLA’s sixth man this past season, but he’ll enter the starting lineup next year as a secondary ball handler alongside heralded freshman point guard Jaylen Hands. The 6-foot-1 junior-to-be averaged 12.3 points and 4.1 assists while continuing to show promise as a feisty on-ball defender and accurate long-range shooter.
UCLA likely won’t be as explosive offensively with Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton all gone from last year’s 31-win team, but there will still be ample talent surrounding Holiday and Welsh.
The Bruins return explosive shooting guard Prince Ali, who missed all of last season due to injury, and Hungarian forward Gyorgy Goloman, a rotation player on last year’s team. They also welcome another heralded recruiting class highlighted by Hands and forwards Cody Riley and Kris Wilkes.
There’s still a chance UCLA could add to that class on Wednesday too if top 50 wing prospect M.J. Walker chooses the Bruins over Virginia Tech and Florida State. Holiday’s return makes it less certain that Walker would start from the outset, but he’d certainly have a chance to play a big role if he were to come West.
Even without Walker, UCLA now projects as a preseason top 20 team nationally and an upper echelon team in the Pac-12. Along with USC and perhaps revamped Oregon, the Bruins would be one of the challengers who could take advantage if Arizona fails to meet preseason expectations.
It would have been difficult to imagine UCLA rising to that level if Welsh and Holiday both left.
But with two proven veterans back to anchor next year’s team, suddenly the Bruins look much more promising.
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