UCLA preview: Smith is team's focal point
By ADAM MAYA / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Published: Nov. 10, 2011 Updated: 4:40 p.m.
LOS ANGELES – There was a moment during UCLA's exhibition this past Sunday against Division II Cal State San Bernardino in which forward Reeves Nelson finally screamed what everyone in the arena was thinking.
"Get the ball to Josh!"
That would be Joshua Smith, the 6-10, 300-plus-pound center who some consider the best NBA prospect in the Pac-12. Like several of his UCLA brethren before him, the sophomore might jettison the college game early, even as soon as next year.
For now, he is the Bruins' most important player. Smith might not grace the cover of Sports Illustrated (Nelson is featured on the front of this week's issue), he might not even start full-time, but Coach Howland wants him to be the focal point of the Bruins' offense this season.
And, heading into Friday's season opener against Loyola Marymount, the entire UCLA locker room seems to be on board.
"I was screaming from the bench," point guard Lazeric Jones said when asked about Nelson's gesture. "You know if you get the ball to Josh, something good's going to happen. Why not keep feeding the whale?"
Guard Tyler Lamb added: "Everyone on the team believes that. Josh is dominant. Why not give him the ball every time? Start the offense through him. As big as we are, it wouldn't make sense for us not to go inside."
This was hardly the case last season, with veterans Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee manning the perimeter and vying for control. Smith was the team's fourth-leading scorer, averaging 10.9 points a game as a freshman while playing just 21.9 minutes because of constant foul trouble.
The Bruins went 23-11 and won a game in the NCAA Tournament, but there's a sentiment around Westwood that they could have done more. Ultimately, one ball simply wasn't enough for Honeycutt, Lee, Nelson and Smith, the foursome never quite figuring out how to play with each other.
Losing Honeycutt and Lee to the NBA eases much of that confusion.
"We know where our strengths are," Jones said. "We have a good group of guys who know that if we do the right things and play to our roles we can do something really special. Malcolm and Tyler are really great players. They deserve to have the ball also.
"But with Josh, it's inevitable; you have to get him the ball."
It doesn't figure to be an issue given how UCLA is currently constructed. Jones is a pass-first point guard, Lamb is a defensive minded wing, and Nelson is a high-energy player content with playing off the ball. That leaves Smith as the first and last option in the Bruins' rugged, motion offense.
"None of us are selfish," Nelson said. "No question, we need Josh to be more selfish."
Smith said Howland wants him to play about 28-30 minutes a game. He played 27 against in the exhibition while continuing last year's trend of starting the game on the bench.
Howland wants to make sure Smith avoids early foul trouble and is on the floor in crunch time. Helping his case for the latter is an improved touch from the foul line. Smith made 14 of 18 free throws against CSSB. He made just 61.3 percent last tear.
"He's going to get to the foul line a lot," Howland said. "He's just a load to handle. His free-throw shot is much improved from where it was a year ago at that time, really nice compact stroke. Anything above 70 percent is great for him."
With the praise comes critique. Howland hasn't been shy about expressing his displeasure with Smith's conditioning, recently noting he isn't where he was at the end of last season. He also he wants Smith to be more aggressive with the ball. Smith has the tendency to dribble in the paint, allowing defenses to bring help and keep him from finishing potential three-point plays.
UCLA's ninth-year coach, who has tutored the likes of NBA veterans Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Darren Collison, Jrue Holiday, Jordan Farmar and Aaron Afflalo, is admittedly hard on his latest star pupil. He said he came away from a recent scrimmage dissatisfied with Smith, then gave it a second thought and remembered he'd been by far the best player on the court.
"I just want him to reach his full potential," Howland said. "The way he is right now, he's going to be is a dominating player. But the way he can be potentially is really special. That's what I want from him."
So do his teammates.