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UCLA's Kevon Looney is on the bubble too

Freshman hasn't decided whether he will leave early for the NBA

A month ago, when Memphis Grizzlies guard Jordan Adams visited Los Angeles, UCLA forward Kevon Looney sought advice.

Looney also has spoken with San Antonio Spurs rookie Kyle Anderson.

The conversations were similar.

"They said, 'Enjoy your time here,'" Looney recalled. "They said they actually missed being here. You don't know how much you'll miss it until you're gone' the college life, the fun and camaraderie you build with your teammates."

The subtext to those conversations is that, like Adams and Anderson, who left UCLA early for the NBA last season, Looney has a big decision to make.

Heading into the Pac-12 Conference tournament, Looney has been one of the most productive freshman in the nation. He averages 12.3 points and 9.5 rebounds a game.

And the NBA has noticed. He is projected as a lottery pick, perhaps even among the top five should he decide to make himself available for the next draft.

"His ceiling's crazy high," UCLA point guard Bryce Alford said. "The dude can do just about pretty much anything."

UCLA's season is at a critical juncture. The Bruins open Pac-12 postseason play Thursday against USC and probably need to win the tournament in order to make the 68-team NCAA field, and that's where Looney is trying to keep his focus.

After the Bruins' final game, Looney said he would take about two weeks off, then talk to his coaches and sit down with his parents before choosing between the NBA and another year at UCLA. He has until 8:59 p.m. on April 26 to decide.

Coach Steve Alford navigated a similar process last season, when Adams, Anderson and Zach LaVine left Westwood.

"I've always been about the student-athlete and their well-being first," Alford said. "So when the season's over, we'll sit down and talk and see what he's thinking and what he believes."

In the meantime, Looney is savoring college life. He warmed to Los Angeles as temperatures tumbled in his hometown of Milwaukee. He said he enjoys the campus and the opportunity to learn every day.

"He really likes it there," said Looney's father, Doug. "So that might have an impact on it."

But the lure of the pros could be hard to shake. The Looney home usually had an NBA game on a television screen when Kevon was growing up. Often, the Lakers were playing, and Looney's favorite team just might have an early enough pick to choose him this year if he's available.

The money can be life-changing. All top-10 draft picks are guaranteed more than $2 million in their first season. Top-five selections make at least $3 million.

The 6-foot-9 Looney has played power forward for UCLA, but he might be a small forward in the NBA.

Don MacLean, a former UCLA and NBA player who is now an analyst for the Pac-12 Networks, predicted Looney was a player who would "go through the draft process and NBA people end up liking them even more."

When Looney was being recruited, each coach spoke of his track record for sending players to the pros. Looney knew he'd have a chance to jump to the pros after one year if he played up to his ability.

He kept everyone in the dark about his decision, including his parents. UCLA was a surprise choice, but Looney said he knew the program churned out NBA prospects in bunches. And it was also a tradition-rich program, where success was expected rather than a goal.

"Here you get the best of both worlds," Looney said.

Looney has worked closely with UCLA assistant Ed Schilling, who has trained more than 60 players for the NBA draft.

Looney's length made him a natural rebounder, and his athleticism resulted in mismatches for defenders, but early on his shooting lagged. He needed to learn the pick-and-pop — setting a screen and then stepping into space to accept a pass and take a quick jump shot — which was new because he rarely set screens in high school.

Gradually, his jump shot has become a weapon — he has made 11 of 17 three-pointers in the last seven games after making nine of 28 in the first 24 — and has started to beat defenders who crowd him on drives to the basket.

UCLA is on the bubble for an NCAA tournament bid mostly because the early departures of Adams, Anderson and LaVine left the Bruins inexperienced. But that is not unusual for elite programs.

All high school players must wait a year before entering the NBA, but the vast majority of top pro prospects don't spend more than a season in college.

For teams like UCLA, the rule presents a difficult balance. Steve Alford said the Bruins need players like Looney or they'll fall behind other national powers. But relying too heavily on one-year players can lead to inconsistency.

Alford noted that when he played college ball, Michael Jordan stayed at North Carolina for three years. Today, Alford has said, "Dreams, whether they're ready or not, are happening quicker."

For Looney, his time in college could be brief. At the beginning of the season, he set goals for himself. He wanted to average 10 rebounds, and he's almost there. He wanted to make the all-freshman and all-Pac-12 teams. He's done that.

And he wanted to win the Pac-12 tournament — a challenge that has demanded his focus lately.

Whatever his choice is after the season, his father said this time it won't be a surprise to those close to him.

College was one thing. But the NBA? That, Doug Looney said, is "stepping into a grown-man scenario."

zach.helfand@latimes.com

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