A year after Mick Cronin brought everyone back, it’s back to basics for UCLA basketball.
The Bruins feature eight true or redshirt freshmen who have a lot to learn regardless of how many recruiting stars were beside their names coming out of high school. Cronin can detect overload among the newcomers based solely on their expressions.
“You look at a guy and you can see his brain is just completely fried,” Cronin said Thursday, “and it’s hard for them to stay focused and keep listening.”
Lessons must be absorbed quickly given that the first college season might be the only season for five-star freshmen Amari Bailey and Adem Bona, who are candidates to make a speedy jump to the NBA. Cronin said the only way for the newcomers to make a significant contribution on a team with national championship aspirations is to compete like veterans.
Though he’s still determining who’s the quickest learner, Cronin appears to have found his swiftest player. The coach said true freshman point guard Dylan Andrews was the fastest player with the ball in his hands that he’s had in 27 years.
Andrews will give redshirt senior Tyger Campbell his first true backup at the position since Campbell arrived on campus, but Andrews may not take a backseat to anyone on defense.
“As he picks up the full court, he’s a dog,” Campbell said of Andrews. “We kind of needed a defensive guy like that.”
Playmaking appears to be in abundance. In addition to Andrews and Campbell, Cronin identified Bailey and fellow guards David Singleton and Jaylen Clark as ready facilitators on a team stocked with selflessness.
“I don’t have to force ball movement as much on this team,” Cronin said. “We’ve got guys who can create shots.”
The 6-foot-5 Bailey has impressed with his ability to find teammates because of his combination of size, athleticism and court vision. Those attributes are even more remarkable considering Bailey won’t turn 19 until February, making him younger than some of the players the Bruins are recruiting in high school.
“He can really break the defense down and he’s got a super-competitive streak,” Cronin said. “The elite guys that hopefully can impact winning as freshmen, they can physically compete and their talent can supersede their inexperience, and he is such a physical specimen.”
With the sort of springiness rarely seen in someone who’s 6-10, Bona could turn Pauley Pavilion into the new Lob City. Cronin compared Bona’s competitive spirit to that of former NBA most valuable player Kevin Garnett and said Bona was more advanced offensively than expected because of his willingness to learn while working with assistant coach Darren Savino, the team’s big man guru.
“I’m not gonna lie,” said redshirt senior forward Kenneth Nwuba, “every time I practice with him, I want to be doing what he’s doing.”
Cronin also lauded the fiery nature of freshman Abramo Canka, the Italian swingman who recently joined the team after having competed against older players internationally.
Redshirt freshmen Will McClendon and Dylan Andrews continue to practice with a leg brace as they complete their recoveries from major knee injuries. The hope is that they will be fully cleared by the season opener Nov. 7 against Sacramento State.
With so many young players, Cronin has enlisted Campbell, Singleton and fellow veteran Jaime Jaquez Jr. as co-instructors to help ease the newcomers’ transition.
“This guy is untrained,” Cronin said of his message to his older players as far as assisting a freshman who might be struggling, “he is in his second week of practice, he does not know what he’s doing and he’s tired, he’s never practiced this hard, he’s never had coaches so demanding, he needs your help.”
Jaquez described the freshmen as athletic and advanced defensively, which could accelerate their learning curve. They have already infused the team with a vibrant but humble spirit, Nwuba pulling out a hip-hop term to describe their impact.
“What’s the word that L.A. uses? Boujee,” Nwuba said. “But team-wise, it’s gonna be great.”