'Everybody's a free agent': UCLA is headed for what might be its wildest offseason

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 09: UCLA Bruins head coach Mick Cronin talks to UCLA Bruins guard Dylan Andrews.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin talks to guard Dylan Andrews during a game against Arizona State on March 9. Cronin has a lot of decisions to make after the Bruins' disappointing season. (David Dennis / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Dylan Andrews made his way around the locker room inside T-Mobile Arena, going from one teammate to the next.

The UCLA point guard exchanged hand slaps, hugs and words of encouragement, his eyes glistening with tears born of a season having reached its cruel conclusion.

There was no way of knowing whom he was saying goodbye to for the final time.

Even though nearly every player on the Bruins’ roster has remaining eligibility, they all have decisions to make about their futures.

Should they return for another season together? Declare for the NBA draft? Chase more playing time on another team? Head back to Europe? See what kind of name, image and likeness deal they could get elsewhere?

“Look, it’s all crazy,” coach Mick Cronin said Thursday of the new world order in college basketball after the Bruins were eliminated from the Pac-12 tournament during a quarterfinal loss to Oregon. “Everybody’s a free agent. It’s the way it is. We’ll deal with it all.”

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The scholarship math isn’t as simple as it seems. UCLA has one available at the moment, with the likelihood of more to use in the coming weeks once players’ decisions start trickling in like election results.

The only known movement involves the departure of sixth-year center Kenneth Nwuba and the arrival of freshman guard Eric Freeny from Corona Centennial.

But sophomore center Adem Bona could declare for the NBA draft and a host of others could either seek more prominent roles or more NIL dollars with other college teams. Bona’s situation will be the most closely watched after he finished the season as the Pac-12’s defensive player of the year.

Not currently projected to be selected in the first round of the draft, Bona has to weigh the risk of ending up on a two-way contract that could pay him roughly $500,000 versus returning and improving his professional stock while probably making just as much or more in NIL money.

Coming back to UCLA for one more season could allow him to further enhance his offense and work on eliminating his tendency to commit needless fouls that limit his playing time. Those improvements could be enough to vault Bona into the first round of the 2025 NBA draft.

UCLA forward Adem Bona dunks against Oregon State in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament on Wednesday.
UCLA forward Adem Bona dunks against Oregon State in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament on Wednesday. (John Locher / Associated Press)

His eyes welling from emotion after playing only 17 foul-plagued minutes in what might have been his final college game, Bona declined to speak with reporters in the locker room afterward.

Meanwhile, Andrews, junior guard Lazar Stefanovic and freshman guard Jan Vide told The Times they intended to return next season to run it back alongside a core group that would no longer comprise one of the youngest teams in college basketball after their roster featured seven freshmen and three sophomores.

“If this whole entire team comes back,” Andrews said, “that would be special. You know, we have a year of great experience under us now.”

Andrews’ return is critical for next season given his surge in production, averaging 21.2 points over his final six games. Stefanovic will continue to fill a vital role after averaging a team-high 6.1 rebounds and making 38.9% of his three-pointers in his first season as a Bruin after transferring from Utah.

Vide’s playing time was on the rise over the last week, possibly providing incentive to return after he averaged just 7.3 minutes for the season. The Slovenian native was among four freshmen who arrived from Europe to great fanfare only to make modest contributions while struggling to adjust to the college game.

“It’s a big change,” Vide said. “The pace [in Europe] is way slower compared to here, there’s more physicality and I’m playing with other guys that are like 24 years old and are practically men.”

Freshman center Aday Mara (Spain) showed the most promise among the bunch, his sky hooks starting to fall and his blocks piling up over the season’s final weeks. Freshman forward Berke Buyuktuncel (Turkey) was hindered by injuries and inconsistency on the way to averaging 4.5 points and 2.5 rebounds in 16.3 minutes per game. Freshman guard Ilane Fibleuil (France) received only spot minutes, mostly for defensive purposes.

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Freshman forward Brandon Williams battled fatigue and illness in recent weeks after earning a spot in the starting lineup but presumably would have an important role should he return next season. Freshman forward Devin Williams (no relation) needs to improve his strength to receive additional playing time after averaging just 3.2 minutes in 10 games.

Given the demands of his scheme that can take a season or more to master, Cronin must balance the need for continuity with upgrading the level of talent through the transfer portal. Among their top needs, the Bruins could use a veteran post player as insurance for Bona’s possible departure, another point guard to help offset Andrews’ heavy workload and more shooting on the wing after making an underwhelming 33.2% of their three-pointers.

“It’s hard when you’re asking guys to do stuff they’re not ready to do yet, they’re not trained to do yet,” Cronin said of the shortcomings of a team that posted a 16-17 record while ending its coach’s streak of participating in 12 consecutive NCAA tournaments. “Unless your talent supersedes your inexperience, it’s really, really hard. And our talent didn’t supersede our inexperience this year. So therefore I had to ask a lot of guys to do stuff they weren’t quite ready to do.”

Stefanovic acknowledged that just coming back won’t be enough for the Bruins to have the kind of success they want in their debut Big Ten season.

“There’s big potential,” Stefanovic said, “but we’ve got to put in the work and remember what this felt like and use it throughout the whole offseason to really fulfill our potential.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.