As the murmurs grew louder this season, as the critics on Internet message boards suggested Josh Shipp had grown cocky without reason, had given up on playing defense and would never get off his feet high enough to make what might be called a "jump shot," Debbie Shipp smiled.
Her son, the third of her four children, had suffered great pain before and after having surgery on his hip. He had tried fruitlessly to play in four games last season but the pain was so great Shipp relinquished his place on the floor to cheer from the bench while the Bruins made it to the national championship game.
This season, he is averaging 13.2 points, and while Coach Ben Howland says he is giving the Bruins exactly what they need, Shipp has seemed underwhelming.
He is shooting 29% from three-point range while taking 12 more long-range shots than point guard Darren Collison, who leads the Pacific-10 Conference in three-point shooting. His rebounding average of 3.6 is down from 5.2 in his freshman season and even from last year, when he limped around the court but still got 4.8 rebounds a game.
Then came last Saturday's game at Arizona.
Shipp scored 24 points, making 10 of 14 shots. He made a couple of mid-range banked jumpers from the lane, an instinctive move Shipp said is one of "feel, you know?" "No one else can make that shot," Collison said. "It's just what we need."
And just in time. The fourth-ranked Bruins, 23-3 overall and 12-2 in the Pacific 10 Conference, play host to California (14-12, 6-8) tonight. UCLA has a one-game lead over Washington State in the Pac-10 and hopes to finish the regular season and conference tournament strongly enough to earn a No. 1 seeding in the NCAA tournament.
"Having Josh at his best, that makes us much tougher to beat," Collison said.
Shipp was part of an acclaimed freshman class that included his good friends, Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo. Farmar is gone, off to the Lakers, and Afflalo is making a strong case to be named Pac-10 player of the year.
Yet, of the three, it could have been argued that Shipp was the most pleasant surprise as a rookie. He led all Pac-10 freshmen in rebounding and averaged 29.7 minutes, 9.3 points, 1.8 assists and 1.2 steals while shooting 52.4% from the field.
Wherever the basketball was, that's where Shipp was. His older brother, Joe, played at California; his younger brother, Jerren, plays at Arizona State. It seemed that all his life, Josh has held a basketball.
"Until he got hurt," Debbie Shipp said.
The injury was not an instant "Oh no" moment. Shipp had taken a fall on his right hip during the summer between his freshman and sophomore seasons. "It was two days later when Josh started saying his hip hurt," Debbie said. "Josh never complains so I thought, 'Oh, no, this doesn't sound good.' So we went to check it out and the doctor found several small tears in the hip.
"When the doctor told Josh he would need eight months to recover from the surgery, Josh said, 'I'm cutting that in half.' That's the exuberance of youth."
As soon as he could, Shipp started shooting -- sitting in a chair. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but "I think that's why he has had trouble getting his jump shot back," Debbie said. "He was used to shooting from a chair."
Shipp's natural joy in the game exhibits itself in an almost constant smile -- which seems to rub some Bruins fans the wrong way. "What's he smiling about?" was a frequent question on UCLA message boards.
"I guess that's my fault," Debbie Shipp said. "My father was that way and I'm that way. Josh smiles because he genuinely loves playing basketball."
Debbie's father, James Knight, played basketball while growing up in the Midwest and built backyard basketball courts for his three grandsons and anyone else who wanted to stop by.
"I always want basketball to be fun," Shipp said. "Why shouldn't I smile?"
Shipp said he never lost faith in his abilities, even when he was missing shots in bunches and getting beat defensively.
"My belief stayed strong," Shipp said, "but sometimes I had to wonder when I'd be totally back."
The return of Shipp's confidence and the reappearance of the spring in his step comes at a good time, according to Collison.
"This is just when we need that third scorer," Collison said. "With the tournaments coming up, this is a good extra boost."
Debbie Shipp said she encouraged her son to try to play last season but says now, "I should have told him to wait.
"I knew all along he was feeling pain. I think we both thought he'd have a breakthrough in the threshold of pain."
Shipp has started all 25 games in which he has played. He sat out the first USC game because of an ankle injury.