Some introductions were in order Wednesday night when UCLA unveiled its freshman class.
One came in a flash.
Off and running on an early possession, sprinting past players nearly a foot shorter, was a 6-foot-10 blur of freakish athleticism. He soared to grab a lob, missing the dunk, but his rare combination of speed and size allowed him to snag rebounds, block shots and repeatedly cover for teammates’ defensive mistakes.
Welcome to Westwood, Adem Bona.
The newcomer with the biggest impact during the No. 8 Bruins’ 93-63 exhibition victory over Concordia at Pauley Pavilion, Bona finished with five blocks, six rebounds and two points in 20 minutes. Most of the blocks came when Bona quickly shuffled over to help a beaten teammate.
“He’s got blocks where he’s five feet above the rim,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “He’s an elite, elite athlete.”
Here are some other first impressions about the 2022-23 Bruins:
Athletes in action
This is easily UCLA’s most athletic team in years, topping even the Lonzo Ball edition from 2016-17.
In addition to Bona, the Bruins have added two other nimble players in freshman guards Amari Bailey and Dylan Andrews. Bailey was part of a starting lineup that also included Bona and junior guard Jaylen Clark in addition to seniors Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr., giving the team an enticing blend of veterans and freshmen.
Bailey had a quiet debut with six points on two-of-eight shooting with seven rebounds and one assist but played within the flow of the offense and showed the quickness to stay with his man defensively. Andrews was impressive off the bench, making all four of his shots to score 10 points in 13 minutes against the Division II Golden Eagles.
The glut of wing players will allow Cronin the luxury of mixing and matching lineups in his preferred four-out, one-in style of basketball.
It helps that Campbell, Bailey and Andrews are interchangeable at point guard and shooting guard. Campbell clearly looked for his shot Wednesday. He’s taking on more of a scorer’s role now that he has additional help with ballhandling duties and finished with 25 points on 10-of-19 shooting.
The Bruins will gain even more lineup flexibility once big man Mac Etienne and guard Will McClendon return from the knee injuries that sidelined them last season. Neither played against Concordia, though Etienne participated in warmups and is considered closer to being cleared to play.
Jaquez played through some serious ankle issues last season before undergoing a surgical procedure to clean up debris in the area.
He appeared spry Wednesday, unveiling a variety of moves around the basket that helped him match Campbell with 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting. Jaquez added nine rebounds and three assists.
About that defense
UCLA logged 50 deflections, 10 more than the threshold Cronin usually sets as acceptable, but the coach was upset with a defense that allowed Concordia to make 12 of 32 three-pointers (37.5%).
“We’re a bad defensive team right now,” Cronin said, “and I’m not happy with our veteran players defensively.”
Cronin singled out Jaquez and Campbell for their defensive shortcomings while acknowledging that Clark, who finished with six steals to go with two blocks, 11 points, nine rebounds and three assists in the game’s top across-the-board showing, was his team’s top defender with 15 deflections.
“We have one really good defender,” Cronin said. “And I don’t really think it’s a secret who that is.”
Cronin suggested that too many players were focused on scoring and said he could fix their mindset by playing only those who cared about defense. Did Cronin really need to get on his players about defense after they forced 17 turnovers in a 30-point victory?
“If he wasn’t on us,” Jaquez said, “then I would say our chances of winning a national championship would be low.”