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UCLA BASKETBALL

UCLA's Josh Smith is playing his way into shape

The sophomore center is 'unguardable' at times, according to a teammate. And he has been staying in games longer.

January 12, 2012|By Diane Pucin
  • UCLA center Josh Smith may have lost some weight since the beginning of the season, but he has made some big performance gains over the past two months.
UCLA center Josh Smith may have lost some weight since the beginning of the… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Josh Smith is big. Six-feet-10 big. Somewhere over 300 pounds big.

But he is not as big as he was earlier this season, when Smith struggled with his conditioning, breathing hard after two or three trips up the court. In fact, he seems to be getting smaller, quicker and more energetic game by game.

After sitting out because of a concussion last week against Arizona, a game that turned into an energizing Pac-12 win for UCLA, Smith came back Saturday and took command of the basketball court as had been expected this sophomore season. He scored a season-high 18 points off the bench in the Bruins' 75-58 win over Arizona State.

Bruins forward David Wear is not a small man himself at 6-10 and 225 pounds. And he said that when Smith is playing at his best, waving his arms and calling for the ball, pushing himself into the space around the basket, it motivates the entire UCLA team and demoralizes the opponent.

"There are times when he's unguardable one on one," David Wear said. "I don't know if people know how strong he is. It's almost a helpless experience guarding him one on one."

Next up to face Smith and the Bruins (9-7, 2-2 Pac-12) is USC (5-12, 0-4) at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Galen Center.

Wherever he goes, eyes follow Smith. He wears sparkling earrings and a smile that softens his massive physical presence.

None of his teammates will say they wish Smith had come back for his second UCLA season in better shape.

Guard Jerime Anderson came closest Tuesday when he said, "Josh was a little bit behind, but now he's improving every game. He looks better at everything, he's a little bit more fluid, back to where he was at the end of last year."

He set a personal mark the last three games — at Stanford, at California and against Arizona State — by playing more than 20 minutes in each. The 12 shots he took against Arizona State (he made eight) were the most he has taken in a game this season.

A little step for a big man, but it is progress.

Anderson and Smith have an ongoing wager. Nothing concrete is on the line except that Anderson will yell at Smith that the big center owes the little guard one, of something, whenever Smith doesn't finish off a play when Anderson makes the pass.

"I tell him all the time he owes me one, he owes me two, three, four," Anderson said. Because when Smith accepts a pass from Anderson and doesn't dunk the ball or lay the basketball in the basket, Anderson doesn't get an assist.

"Lately," Anderson said, "Josh is starting to make up for lost time."

Smith always deflects questions about his weight, but he did say that he has been a little disappointed in his performance so far.

"This was supposed to be a breakout year for me," Smith said. "But when I look at our league right now, there are a lot of good players but not a great player. There's still time for everyone to break out. I know what I have to do to become a better player. I don't have to feel like an Army workout every day. I just do what I have to do, watch what I have to eat. I'm working on it."

Coach Ben Howland envisioned Smith's being one of his top two shot-takers this season. Right now he's sixth. Because he makes 56% from the field, there's no one on the UCLA team who doesn't want Smith taking more shots.

Last season, Smith suffered a concussion during a game against California on Jan. 20, sat out UCLA's game against Stanford two days later and returned with 13 points against Arizona and finished the season strong, including his career-high scoring game (19 points Feb. 5 against St. John's) and a 15-point, six-rebound effort in a Feb. 2 win over USC.

Smith said that after he sat out the Arizona game last week, Anderson reminded him of his aggressive approach to basketball the rest of last season.

For that memory boost, Smith needs to make sure he dunks the ball when Anderson gives him the pass. Or he'll owe Anderson something.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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