Center's inconsistent play this season pretty much mirrors that of the Bruins.
By Chris Foster
The Los Angeles Times
7:29 PM PST, January 25, 2012
Coach Ben Howland sums up center Joshua Smith's value to the UCLA basketball team with a succinct statement:
"We need him," he said.
Exactly how much depends on which "him" shows up.
If it's the 6-foot-10 handful who made eight of 12 shots against Arizona State this month, the Bruins need him a lot.
If it's the 305-pound lump who a week later turned the ball over four times in 12 minutes against Oregon, well, not so much.
Similarly, UCLA's season has had its ups and downs. The Bruins are 10-9 overall, 3-4 in Pac-12 Conference play heading into Thursday night's game against Utah (5-15, 2-5) at the Sports Arena.
"None of us envisioned that this is where we'd be at," Smith said. "We were ranked 17th, we were the preseason pick to win the Pac-12, there was a lot of hype around us. We haven't lived up to the hype."
The same could be said about Smith — and he does.
"I wanted to be first-team all conference," Smith said. "I thought that was a goal I could attain."
Smith paused and laughed weakly. "It's not looking like that," he said. "But right now, I'm not playing for myself. I'm playing for the team."
Often, as Smith goes, so go the Bruins.
"His inside presence helps us so much," forward Travis Wear said. "He can score whenever he wants because he is so big. It opens shots for the guards. It opens up the rebounding for guys like me."
Smith had 18 points in a win against Arizona State, a night when he said he "felt ready." But he meandered in the three games since.
He was in foul trouble in an easy win against USC and was no factor in a loss to Oregon State. Then came a loss against Oregon, which Howland said was "as poor a game as he has played all year."
Afterward, Howland pointed out to Smith that he had been sixth on the team in shots. "He said I needed to be second," Smith recalled.
Smith is averaging 9.5 points and 5.2 rebounds a game — down from last season's 10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds. And his biggest games this season have come mostly against UCLA's weaker opponents.
A year ago, he had a breakout game against Kansas in which he had 17 points and 13 rebounds. This season, he had one point and one rebound against the Jayhawks.
The go-to reason for such performances, for fans and Howland, is conditioning. But Smith said that is not the case.
"It's funny, but I'm actually in better shape than I was last year," said Smith, who was selected to the conference's all-freshman team a year ago. "When I don't play well, the first thing people say is I'm out of shape."
Smith's mannerisms and body language are what caught the attention of senior point guard Jerime Anderson.
"It's a confidence thing," Anderson said. "After the Oregon game, he was telling me something is different and that he needed to make some changes to get back to where he was, and get better."
Smith brought ideas home from Oregon.
"Watching the Oregon game, I saw I was getting good position but I was rushing my shots," Smith said. "My footwork wasn't good. I wasn't reading guys."
Anderson said Smith needs to "be assertive."
"I have no issues with him demanding the ball," the Bruins playmaker said. "I have no issues passing up shots to get the ball inside to get him going."
When that happens, Anderson said, opponents have the issues.
"When he's posting up inside and aggressive to get the ball, that's when we're at our best as a team," Anderson said. "He can take us pretty far when he puts his mind to it."