Thomas Welsh was just tinkering when he stepped out beyond the three-point line in an almost empty gym.
The 7-footer hoisted some long-range shots with teammate Isaac Hamilton in the days before UCLA’s final home game last season to see how it would go. The shots kept going in.
Welsh figured that if a good opportunity to take his first career three-pointer came in that game against Washington State, he would give it a shot. It did and he did, the ball falling through the net.
The normally stoic center smiled while teammate TJ Leaf raised both arms in celebration from the bench.
“That was awesome,” Welsh recalled recently, smiling once more at the memory. “Oh, my gosh. That was really exciting.”
Welsh is having even more fun with his new offensive weapon these days. He’s made six of 11 three-pointers this season, his 54.5% accuracy tops among the Bruins (7-2) heading into a game against No. 25 Cincinnati (8-2) on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion.
The need to extend his range was one of the reasons Welsh returned to UCLA for his senior season after getting feedback from NBA teams before the June draft. Welsh said he was told he might have been selected late in the second round or maybe even not at all, giving him all the more incentive to come back and complete his degree in economics.
Showing he can consistently make three-pointers could be a launching point to improving his NBA stock.
“As the game has progressed, that’s kind of where basketball is headed to where the five man can stretch the floor a little bit and shoot farther away from the basket,” Welsh said. “So I think for me that’s going to be big.”
Welsh already possessed one of the most reliable midrange jumpers among college big men, particularly along the baseline and the elbows. Moving back beyond the college game’s 19-foot, 9-inch three-point line hasn’t involved much of an adjustment.
The form on his shot stays the same. He keeps his right elbow at a right angle above his right knee while holding the ball above his eyes and lined straight toward the basket. The only difference with shooting three-pointers is generating more power with his knees.
“The most important thing is staying true to my form,” Welsh said, “just sticking to what I know with the 15-footer, except just putting a little more force on it.”
Welsh’s jump shot sprouted from epic backyard battles with his brother Henry on a concrete court. Offering pointers would be their father, Pat, who was known for a deadly mid-range jumper when he played as a 6-2 center for Rim of the World High in Lake Arrowhead.
“It was a weapon for me,” Pat quipped, “because I got my shot blocked when I was in the key.”
Pat explained to his sons how a big man equipped with a 15-foot jumper would force his defender to pick between stepping out to guard him or staying back closer to the basket to protect against a driving teammate. It’s a shot that Thomas and Henry would both perfect, the latter now using it as a 6-10 sophomore forward at Harvard.
“It’s difficult to guard when someone drives down the lane,” Thomas said. “They have to pass to you if a big helps, or if not, it’s a layup.”
Welsh gradually extended his range while working with his father and shooting coach David Nurse, comfortably draining 18-footers last season before sinking the only three-pointer he took.
Welsh got up 400 to 500 three-pointers a day over the summer, simulating pick-and-pop situations and sliding from one spot to another behind the arc. He’s had his greatest success from the wings this season, making all four of his attempts from those areas. He’s made two of six attempts from the top of the key and has missed his only attempt from the corner.
UCLA coach Steve Alford has found only one flaw in Welsh’s three-pointers after he made both of his tries last week against Michigan.
“We gotta get more of ’em,” Alford said.
Welsh said it’s important that he takes the long-range shots within the flow of the offense and doesn’t abandon his effective moves around the basket.
His increased range has added another layer to postgame discussions with his father. Pat likes to offer constructive feedback, telling Thomas whether he’s rushing his shot or could have used a shot fake in a certain situation.
There hasn’t been much to critique when it comes to the three-pointers.
“I just hope they keep going in,” Pat said.
When: 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Pauley Pavilion.
On the air: TV: Channel 2; Radio: 570.
Update: UCLA is badly in need of an attention-grabbing victory before opening Pac-12 Conference play in less than two weeks. The Bruins (7-2) had a Ratings Percentage Index figure of 88 as of Friday and were not included in ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi’s most recent NCAA tournament projections. No. 25 Cincinnati (8-2) returns three starters from the team that lost to UCLA 79-67 last season in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Bearcats have dropped two of their last three games but feature one of the nation’s top defenses, holding opponents to 36.1% shooting and an average of only 60.6 points per game.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch