UCLA

Power forward Jonah Bolden could be key to a UCLA victory over No. 17 Arizona

Around this time last year, Jonah Bolden was rumbling across the desert in a pickup truck, headed to Tucson, Ariz.

Like many UCLA students, he followed the basketball team with interest. He'd decided to make a game at Arizona his first road trip.

A friend, Bryce Alford, mentioned that his roommate, Nate Strong, wanted to go too. So the pair loaded into a white Toyota Tacoma and hauled seven hours east across I-10.

Strong had a buddy at Arizona, and the two crashed on his couch. Then they went to cheer on the Bruins.

"It was kind of weird," Bolden said, "watching the team that you're supposed to be playing with."

The 6-foot-10 forward spent all of last season in limbo. Bolden's high school transfer from Australia didn't conform with NCAA rules. He was declared ineligible for his freshman season.

Consequently, he became a castaway — part of the team, but not. For a while, he wasn't allowed to travel or practice with the team, hindering his development.

A year later, he will be playing UCLA's most crucial position when the Bruins play No. 17 Arizona on Friday.

A reserve much of this season, Bolden has started the last two games at power forward. The move was Coach Steve Alford's most visible effort yet to spark a team languishing in the Pac-12 Conference.

UCLA, 13-10 overall, 4-6 in Pac-12 play, defeated Arizona last month and is in dire need of another quality win.

Bolden's eligibility problems stemmed from when he transferred from a high school in Australia to Findlay Prep in Nevada after his senior season had begun. Steve Alford first noticed him at Findlay, and considered him a skilled forward with NBA potential. Eventually, Bolden transferred again, to Brewster Academy in New Hampshire.

Bolden thought his transfers were within the rules.

Alford did too.

"I'm not in the business of pointing fingers of how it all happened," the coach said earlier this season. "But I know he was told one thing, he got here, then all of a sudden he's told he's got [an] … issue."

Bolden had to forfeit his freshman eligibility. For the first few months, he was allowed to work only with the strength coach.

About three days after the ruling, the coaching staff wrote Bolden an individual workout plan. He found someone to rebound for him and did skill and fitness work alone.

He played pickup games at the intramural sports building, but tried to avoid it when he could. He was worried about getting injured.

"It's kind of risky there," Bolden said. "A lot of guys don't really know what they're doing. They'll undercut you when you go up, that sort of thing."

He knew some decent players ran an occasional game at a fitness center not far from campus, so he played there too.

But he missed teammates. He watched games in UCLA's basketball office when the Bruins were on the road. He'd take notes on tendencies and think about how he would fit in the system. Sometimes, he'd set up in his dorm room and invite friends to watch with him.

He was cleared to practice late in January 2015. Immediately, he battled his friend, Kevon Looney, in practice.

This season, UCLA has struggled to replace Looney, who was claimed by the Golden State Warriors in last year's draft. In the Bruins' system, the power forward is crucial. He must be able to run the pick and roll effectively, rebound and spark the transition game.

Until recently, UCLA tried to fill that role with two big men, forward Tony Parker and center Thomas Welsh. But it made the Bruins slow.

The switch from Parker to Bolden as a starter was UCLA's first in-season lineup change in two seasons.

When Bolden is sharp, the Bruins are dynamic. "He opens up the floor for us," guard Aaron Holiday said.

But Bolden has yet to fully find his form. He's averaging just four points and 4.8 rebounds per game. In two games as a starter, he has scored a total of three points.

Without better production from the power forward position, UCLA is in jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament.

A win at Arizona would be a jump in the right direction.

Bolden is already there. This time, he took a plane.

Up next for UCLA: 

at No. 17 Arizona

When: 6 p.m. PST Friday.

Where: McKale Center, Tucson.

On the air: TV: ESPN; Radio: 570.

Update: The first time UCLA (13-10, 4-6 in the Pac-12 Conference) played Arizona this season, the Bruins won on a last-second Bryce Alford three-pointer. Since, the Bruins have struggled, losing four of seven games. Arizona (19-5, 7-4) rarely loses at home. It lost at there this season for the first time in 50 games. Ryan Anderson leads the team with 16.2 points per game.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

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