LOS ANGELES – There’s supposed to be an adjustment period for a freshman breaking into high-level college basketball. Isn’t there?
Maybe Amari Bailey is the exception that proves the rule.
UCLA’s prize recruit from Sierra Canyon did enough little things, and then did the big things that brought most of the 8,093 in Pauley Pavilion Sunday afternoon to their feet at the end, as the Bruins got off to a 2-0 start in Pac-12 play by beating Oregon, 65-56, and breaking a four-game losing streak at the hands of the Ducks.
Bailey was 7 for 12 from the field in 29 minutes, finishing with 14 points, five rebounds, two blocks – we’ll get to the most prominent one in a bit – and a plus-minus of 23. He made seven of nine shots in the second half as the Bruins (7-2 overall), who struggled through a first half in which they were 8 of their first 29 from the field and trailed 27-21 at intermission, turned on the burners in the second half.
Strictly numbers-wise, the 14 points probably aren’t as impressive as the 19 at Stanford Thursday night, matching his college high set against Pepperdine the previous week. But he made plays when they were needed – a fast break dunk early in the second half, a spinning jumper in the lane, a drive, a jumper that got a good bounce off the rim, a step-in jumper off a ball fake.
And the two memorable ones at the end. Bailey was in position to cash in when Tyger Campbell whipped a pass to Jaime Jaquez Jr. underneath, and Jaquez found Bailey with a touch pass for a dunk that brought the house down, and gave the Bruins a 63-54 lead with 1:51 left, at the end of a game-deciding 14-5 run.
Moments later, the 6-5 Bailey hustled back upcourt and blocked 6-2 Brennan Rigsby’s dunk attempt, maybe the afternoon’s final punctuation.
“Tiger hit Jaime, and I just kept running my lane to see if I could catch up,” Bailey said. “He made a great play and I was able to get rewarded.”
And on the dunk? “I got beat” downcourt, he said, but recovered spectacularly.
None of this surprised junior Jaylen Clark, who had seen Bailey as an opponent during Sierra Canyon-Etiwanda high school duels.
“I’ve seen him grow from year after year after year, because we could never beat Sierra Canyon,” Clark said. “Everything ran through (him). I mean, to see it and then to finally play with it, he’s a nice thing to have on the floor. You know, you can have explosive plays like that block at the end. Some guys would have just let him dunk and just took it out. He said, nah, I’m gonna challenge it. That’s just his demeanor.
“That’s why he’s gonna be outta here (and in the NBA draft) next year,” Clark said.
But isn’t there an adjustment, even a slim one, between top-level high school basketball and this level of college play?
” Nah,” Clark said. “That’s why he’s a top-five ranked kid, one of the top five highest recruits to come here. For most kids, yeah. But for him, … am I lyin’? It’s about what he was doin’ there, too.”
Recruiting Bailey was pretty much a no-brainer, but it’s safe to say that the more that Mick Cronin sees him, the more he likes.
“He’s got great talent,” Cronin said. “What he does, going 7 for 12, he’s now shooting like 55 percent (54.2 percent, to be exact.) Very rare. Very rare for a young player to understand shot selection. He’s got an unbelievable basketball IQ. I can’t tell you how many guys, in seven years as an assistant and then as a head coach, I’ve coached begging (them) to understand you’ll be a better player if you shoot high percentage shots. Very few guys get it. Very rare as a freshman, very rare. He doesn’t force it.”
Sunday was a case of the Bruins needing a spark after a dreary first half. Bailey stepped up, but so did Jaquez, who was limited by foul trouble in the first half, had four points before intermission but got to the foul line often enough to finish with 12 points as well as all five of his rebounds and all three of his assists in the second half. So did Campbell, who was 4 for 15 from the field but got the Bruins going with a couple of early 3-pointers in the second half.
“Jaime had the right statement at halftime,” coach Mick Cronin said. “He said, we can’t worry about all that. We’re in the game still. They only got 21. We can’t stop there.’
“I got a good friend of mine – I use that loosely because neither one of us are very sane. He won the Stanley Cup, Erik Johnson (of the Colorado Avalanche),” Cronin added, noting that yes, he did drink from the Cup last summer. “He said that their motto is, sometimes what’s not best for you is what’s best for the team.”
And no, Cronin said, he didn’t scream at his guys at halftime. Well, not a lot, anyway.
“Usually I try to be calm, then I raise my voice,” he said. “Then I realize I’d like to live. So I try to be calm again.
“I knew this was coming. They got big, calm athletes. They gave Jaime real trouble around the rim. Look what happens: (Oregon’s N’Faly) Dante gets in foul trouble, Jaime gets in foul trouble. Amari got in foul trouble. That’s conference games. You just gotta find a way to get a win … win and improve.”
So now the No. 21 Bruins have five days before their next game, against Denver, followed by appointments next week against No. 22 Maryland and No. 19 Kentucky. But this is finals week at UCLA, so you might want to be careful before describing it as time off.