Saturday, January 14, 2012

UCLA men's basketball would benefit from Joshua Smith shaping up and slimming down

The Daily Bruin in Men's Basketball, Sports
Published January 12, 2012, 12:22 am               

New Year’s is the most predictable holiday. It’s not like Christmas time, when you do all sorts of fun things in the weeks leading up to it and can spend time hunting down creative gifts.

It’s not like Valentine’s Day, where you can be super romantic and do something original.

This whole “New Year’s resolution” phenomenon is dominated by one overwhelmingly popular sentiment: getting in shape.

Now by no means am I critiquing the craze, even though I do have a Cheesecake Factory gift card in my wallet and something called Banana Bread Beer in my fridge.
But the hordes that swarm to Wooden Center the first few weeks of the winter quarter speak volumes.

The start of the new year is a good time for people to pledge to work out more.
Joshua Smith, are you paying attention?

Smith, the sophomore center for the UCLA basketball team, has had an up-and-down couple of seasons since his arrival in Westwood.

He’s shown flashes of brilliance, tenacity and utter dominance, but has also had moments of immaturity, laziness and complete ineffectiveness.

With Reeves Nelson having been permanently dismissed from the program in early December, the burden on Smith is bigger than ever.

The Wear twins are effective players when they’re going well, but neither has the ability to take over a game the way Smith did against Arizona State last Saturday.

Of course, the primary thing holding Smith back is his conditioning: his weight has seemingly fluctuated as much as production during his time in Westwood, but if ever there were a time to commit to getting in shape, it’s now.

UCLA needs a boost this season. A slimmer Smith could make the difference in the Bruins making a run at a conference tournament title.

A trimmer Smith could make the program more appealing for the recruits it’s currently chasing.

There’s more to the story than that though. I mean, most of the folks in the Wooden Center these first few weeks of the quarter aren’t hitting the ellipticals so that they can help a team be successful. They’re doing it for their own personal motivations.

Hopefully Smith will be willing to do the same. The longer he shows that he is unwilling to get in shape, the more money he’s costing himself when the NBA eventually comes calling.

At the Maui Invitational back in November, I ended up sitting next to Chicago Bulls general manager Gar Forman on press row during the UCLA-Michigan game.

He was keenly interested in Smith’s story, and we talked a lot about his lack of conditioning (we shared a bag of milk chocolate macadamia nuts while doing so).

Point is, people in the NBA have their eyes on Smith, and it’s sometimes easy to see why. His skills are off the charts for a guy his size, and they were on display on Saturday when he scored 18 points on eight-of-12 shooting in just 21 minutes.

“We need Josh to play as he did Saturday,” coach Ben Howland said earlier this week. “He was very inspired. He played really hard, with a little animation.”

Maybe a little animation is what it’s going to take to make the magic happen. Call it The Pixar Effect, and a healthy Smith could turn UCLA into Monsters, Inc. down the road.

My hope is that Smith takes all of these ideas to heart, and to midsection. There’s not a chance that he isn’t aware of all of this.

He needs to be reminded of how good he can be at his position, every morning when he looks at a box of Honey Bunches of Oats and sees the cereal maker: Post.

A Smith resolved to make 2012 his most productive year yet means there’s hope for a somewhat-floundering program. Without the leaner version of the big man, though, chances of success are slim.

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