Benching turned the season around for Joshua Smith, UCLA
UCLA has played well since coach Ben Howland decided to bring freshman Joshua Smith off the bench.
By Percy Allen
Seattle Times staff reporter
Originally published Wednesday, March 2, 2011 at 4:12 PM
Ben Howland had to bench Joshua Smith.
He did it to save the former Kentwood High star from himself, and in doing so, the UCLA coach also rescued the Bruins' season.
When the Pac-10 season began, Smith, the 7-foot, 305-pound freshman phenom, was out of control on the court.
He collected four fouls in the conference opener against Washington State and two days later fouled out against Washington.
"I have no comment on the fouls," Smith said after the game. "We get different refs, and they call it different ways. Today I got three fouls for setting screens.
"Like I said, there's really nothing I can say about the refs. I'm not going to badmouth them. They call what they call. I don't agree with half the calls, but there's nothing I can do. They feel they have to call them, and I just have to keep my head up and keep playing."
In UCLA's next outing, at USC, Smith fouled out again in another Bruins defeat. After the game he lashed out at the officials again.
"The refs were terrible," Smith told reporters. "They're giving me ridiculous answers. They're telling me this, this and this. I mean, I'm a guy who will own up to it when I foul.
"Hopefully, they can watch tape and correct themselves."
Smith's comments drew a reprimand from the Pac-10 and forced Howland to remove him from the starting lineup.
Looking back, it was the best thing that could have happened to Smith, and to the Bruins.
Since going to the bench, Smith has scored in double figures in 10 of 13 games he's played and UCLA has lost just two games, at No. 18 Arizona and a four-point overtime defeat at California.
UCLA is 21-8 and is tied atop the Pac-10 standings with a 12-4 record, in part because Smith has matured on and off the court.
"The improvement of Josh Smith and what Ben and his group have done with that kid has elevated the growth of their team," USC coach Kevin O'Neill said. "Since we beat them here they won 12 out of 14 and that kid has gotten better every single game, every week. He has really given them an inside presence that everyone else can play off."
Smith is averaging 10.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 21 minutes. The team plays most efficiently when he's on the floor.
"He's such a good threat down low," Howland said. "He's scoring well. He's getting better with his post moves, and he's doing a good job defensively being able to block more shots in recent weeks. He's getting better and better."
The Joshua Smith the Huskies (19-9, 10-6) will face at 6 p.m. Thursday is more mature, more confident and far more dangerous than the one they played against in Washington's 74-63 win Dec. 31.
"His physical size and his ability to catch and finish and UCLA's execution to get him the ball is alarming," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "I don't care who they play from this point on, getting Josh Smith in foul trouble and not allowing him to have a big role is something that will be to UCLA's opponent's advantage.
"If he's in there and he can have the role that they want him to have on offense, he can really change the game."
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar knows all about Smith. He began recruiting him when Smith was in the eighth grade and was captivated by his enormous size.
"The first thing that stood out was everyone else was up to his knees," Romar said.
When Smith picked the Bruins, the Huskies signed junior-college transfer Aziz N'Diaye months later.
"It was really close," Smith said after the UW game. "They were the team that lost out to UCLA. I really considered going there. I thought about it. I still think about it, but I made the right decision to come down here."
Smith collected two fouls against the Huskies because he was unable to defend guard Isaiah Thomas on the pick-and-roll. After the game, UCLA made defensive adjustments on how it defends ball screens in the open court.
"They don't bring him out as much, which keeps him out of foul trouble," UW junior forward Darnell Gant said. "He does a good job of protecting the basket. He's a good player. I didn't know how good he was, but he's good."
Despite a rocky college start, Smith appears to have a bright NBA future.
"He may end up being the best player out of this league at the next level," O'Neill said.