By SCOTT M. REID / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Published: Jan. 14, 2012 Updated: 7:52 p.m.
LOS ANGELES – Jerime Anderson has been keeping a tab.
Every time UCLA center Joshua Smith passes up an opportunity to dunk and fails to convert inside, Anderson, the Bruins point guard, adds it to the tab.
"I tell him all the time 'You owe me one' because sometimes in a game he goes up and he's right there at the basket and he'll lay it up, softly lay it up and I'll just say 'you owe me one,'" Anderson said. "And it was one and then two. And then it just kept growing.
"Now he's starting to make up for the lost time. Finally."
Anderson and the Bruins head into Sunday night's game with USC at the Galen Center convinced Smith is finally ready to establish himself as the Pac-12's dominant big man.
"I'm very optimistic about his direction," Coach Ben Howland said, "where he's headed right now."
Until last week it wasn't clear whether Smith, the 6-foot-10, 300-plus sophomore, or the Bruins were headed in the right direction.
Smith, overweight and out of shape through the first two months of the season, was unable to pick up from where he left off in a freshman season in which he led the Pac-10 in offensive rebounds. He was promoted by some rival coaches a year ago as the best NBA prospect in a conference that included Arizona All-America forward Derrick Williams, the No. 2 pick overall in the 2011 NBA draft.
"He has a very high ceiling but and you know going into this season based on the end of last season I thought his ceiling was going to be really high this year," Howland said.
Smith's slow start was a major factor in the Bruins' equally dismal beginning to the season. They dropped to 2-5 at one point and, according to Howland and many others, winning the Pac-12 tournament and the conference's automatic bid was their only path into the NCAA Tournament.
Smith finally announced his re-emergence early in the Jan. 7 victory against Arizona State by throwing down a resounding dunk.
"That gets us fired up, just to see a teammate do that to the other team, just exert his dominance on the other team, gives us confidence," Bruins forward Travis Wear said. "Definitely gets us revved up and it demoralizes the other team, too. We've been waiting for it for a while."
Smith finished the night against the Sun Devils with a season-high 18 points in a performance that suggested even bigger nights the rest of the season.
"The reality is that he is a mountain of a young man physically, and an outstanding player," Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said. "We can draw a defense on the chalkboard for Smith, but the reality is a much different situation.
"He's just too close to the basket and we can't even foul him hard to make him miss. It's like a fly landing on him. You might as well let us play with a two-by-four."
Smith was largely — no pun intended — a non-factor through the first eight weeks of the season, failing to score in double figures in four of the first seven games. He missed his only field goal attempt and finished with just one point and one rebound in a 72-56 loss to Kansas.
Even with a soft nonconference schedule that closed with a stretch of Penn, Eastern Washington, UC Davis, UC Irvine and Richmond — none likely to still be playing in mid-March — Smith entered Pac-12 play averaging just 9.6 points per game. The reason for the disastrous start was obvious.
"Conditioning," Howland said, "just not being in good shape coming into the season more than anything."
Just in case Smith didn't get the message there were plenty of fans, both opposing and from UCLA, willing to remind him. By late December the boos and jeers from Bruins fans were embarrassingly clear during games at a mostly empty Sports Arena.
"I was really disappointed," Smith said of his slow start. "This year in a lot of eyes this was supposed to be a breakout year for me, but it didn't start off that well.
"It doesn't bother me. I know what I have to do to become a better player, you know it's obvious, and it doesn't bother me when people ask."
Smith began doing extra conditioning workouts on a bike, prompting a series of double-takes from joggers at Drake Stadium as he ran a 5k on the track.
"People are definitely surprised to see me out there," Smith said.
But just as Howland and teammates started to notice an improvement in Smith's fitness he suffered a concussion in practice Jan. 4. He missed UCLA's game with Arizona the next night. Smith's dunk early against ASU left little doubt he was back and ready to start paying down his tab with Anderson.
"Now he's really starting to come on," Anderson said. "He's improving every day and obviously that's what we need."