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UCLA's Joshua Smith expects to hear it from Huskies' fans

The freshman center grew up in Washington but fell in love with the Bruins. He might be the key to UCLA ending a six-game losing streak in Seattle.

March 02, 2011|By Ben Bolch
  • UCLA center Joshua Smith is hounded by Washington State's Charlie Enquist, left, and Faisal Aden during a Pac-10 game at Pauley Pavilion.
UCLA center Joshua Smith is hounded by Washington State's Charlie… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Joshua Smith is going home again, albeit into enemy territory.

He returns to the Pacific Northwest a UCLA Bruin instead of a Washington Husky, and he is sure he'll hear all about his alleged betrayal Thursday night at Alaska Airlines Arena.

"In their opinion," Smith said, "I'm a traitor."

The freshman center grew up in Kent, Wash., a suburb of Seattle, and he seriously considered playing for the hometown Huskies. His mother attended Washington and was a classmate of current Huskies Coach Lorenzo Romar.

But the pull of purple began to fade once UCLA Coach Ben Howland started recruiting Smith toward the end of eighth grade.

"That's when I followed them and fell in love with their program, fell in love with their team," Smith said. "And when I came on my visit and saw the campus and I saw the fan support, I just fell in love with it."

The adoration has been mutual since Smith's first college game. The 6-foot-10 standout, who appears closer to 350 pounds than his listed weight of 305, has given the Bruins a physical presence unrivaled in the Pacific 10 Conference.

He leads the conference with 3.3 offensive rebounds a game while ranking seventh in field-goal percentage (56.1%) and eighth in blocked shots (27). When opponents double-team Smith, he uses his soft hands and deft passing touch to find open teammates.

"He has really given them an inside presence everyone else can play off of," said USC Coach Kevin O'Neill, who compared the big man to a more skilled version of former NBA widebody Oliver Miller.

Smith's size figures to be a target of Huskies fans. His father, Josh Smith Sr., joked that his wife might try to fight the entire Washington student section if its chants become too mean-spirited.

"The last thing I need," the younger Smith said, "is to look up there and see my mom trying to tell the whole student section to shut up."

Fortunately for the Bruins, Mr. Smith goes to Washington a bigger man not only in terms of physical stature but mental maturity. Taunts that led him to give the middle finger to a USC fan in January no longer seem to provoke him.

"The SC game, there was some dude talking and I really let it affect me," Smith said. "Now it really doesn't affect me at all."

It has been a season of transformation for Smith. He was in the starting lineup until Howland decided in December it would be a better idea to bring him off the bench to avoid early fouls. He also is defending screens differently than he was earlier in the season, staying closer to the basket to avoid bumping smaller players with his body.

As a result, he has fouled out only once in his last 13 games and is averaging 10.8 points and 6.2 rebounds for the season.

The biggest change came from within. When Smith threw down a monstrous one-handed dunk on Arizona State's Jordan Bachynski in late January, it was as if he had sprouted a more assertive version of himself.

"You can just tell when he gets the ball that he feels no one can stop him," Romar said, "and a lot of the time that's the case when he gets it down there."

UCLA could use that kind of force at a place where it has lost six consecutive games, including a 29-point defeat last year that was the worst of Howland's tenure with the Bruins.

Having grown up in the Seattle area, Smith knows a big reason why Washington is 13-1 at home this season, winning by an average of 23 points.

"I've been to U-Dub games," he said. "I know how hostile it gets. … It's nothing to be scared of."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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