The run-and-fun possibilities involving UCLA’s top freshman duo emerged in one spellbinding sequence.
When a Norfolk State player made the mistake of trying to take Jaylen Clark off the dribble, forced into an awkward double-pump along the baseline, he had no counter left for the other defensive menace lurking nearby. The ball went up and Adem Bona, the Bruins’ new rim protector, stepped over to swat the shot.
UCLA’s David Singleton grabbed the loose ball, and the Bruins were off and running, Jaime Jaquez Jr. throwing a bounce pass to freshman Amari Bailey for a breakaway one-handed dunk.
On a night in which Clark continued to show there might not be a better two-way player in the Pac-12 Conference, if not the nation, it was equally encouraging for the Bruins to see the comfort level of Bona and Bailey to continue going up, up, up.
Both freshmen were among six UCLA players to reach double figures in scoring during the No. 8 Bruins’ 86-56 victory Monday night at Pauley Pavilion.
Bailey tallied 11 points on five-for-six shooting along with five assists, two rebounds and a steal. Bona logged 10 points with five rebounds, two blocks and an assist.
“I felt like it just slowed down,” Bailey said of his increased comfort. “Just not doing too much and letting the game come to me and reading the defense, honestly.”
Clark led everyone with 19 points on seven-for-11 shooting, including a career-high five three-pointers, to go with nine rebounds, two steals and a block. Clark has made seven of 13 three-pointers (53.8%) this season after having made 24.3% in his first two seasons. UCLA coach Mick Cronin said Clark reconstructed his shot, changing his form.
“I feel like half of it is confidence,” Clark said, “but the real answer is just work. We’re shooting every day after practice, after film, after walk-throughs, off days, on days, I’m shooting every day, getting up like at least 700 shots on the gun — I don’t need a trainer or anything like that — and just seeing the ball go in over time and it gives me confidence.”
Clark also mentioned the open looks he got as a result of playing alongside Jaquez and point guard Tyger Campbell, who often demand double teams. Jaquez scored 12 points and Campbell had 11 for the Bruins, who also got 11 points off the bench from Singleton.
The Bruins (3-0) built leads as large as 34 points over the Spartans (2-2) thanks to defense that stiffened after halftime. They were so comfortably ahead that walk-on guard Russell Stong IV entered with six minutes left. Stong missed his only shot but grabbed two rebounds.
Clark’s eight deflections were a season low but also a testament to teams avoiding him whenever possible. He noted that his two steals that gave him 13 for the season kept him on pace for the school’s single-season record of 95 set by Jordan Adams in 2013-14.
The first half belonged almost exclusively to Clark, who took a charge and followed a steal with a three-pointer that extended the Bruins’ lead to 15 points. At that point, Clark had a career-high three three-pointers. There were 3 minutes 41 seconds left in the first half.
There were also some highlights for UCLA’s ballyhooed freshmen. Bailey made his first college three-pointer after missing his first four attempts over three games, and Bona showed how he elevates UCLA’s defense.
When Norfolk State’s Kris Bankston backed down Jaquez near the end of the shot clock and tried a jump hook, Bona came over to block it and force a shot-clock violation. Cronin noted similar defensive improvement from Bailey.
“Amari couldn’t guard me a month ago with the suit on that I have,” Cronin cracked. “Our goal is for him to be a defensive stopper, to have two of them, and we need that, and he’s taken that to heart. When you’re as athletic and as tough as he is — you know, he’s an NBA player someday — he should be able to guard college players. It’s just a mindset.”