Happily ever after

Now the smile makes sense.

Now, when Josh Shipp gets that grin on his face, it means he has drained a jump shot or driven to the rim for another two points.

“I’m definitely having fun,” he says.

The kind of fun that results from a late-season hot streak, the UCLA swingman leading his team with an average of better than 19 points during the last month.

“Probably the best he’s played in his career,” Coach Ben Howland says.

And that’s good for the 18th-ranked Bruins as they head into the NCAA tournament with a first-round game against Virginia Commonwealth at the Wachovia Center on Thursday night. It’s also a big switch from last season.

A year ago, Shipp fell into a slump over the final weeks, scratching to make 30% of his shots, going 0-for-endless from three-point range.


It got to the point in which Howland would call a play for him, and he would pass up an open look. “I know I’ve got to knock down shots,” he says.

Yet -- to the vexation of UCLA fans -- that grin never left his face.

“It just happened to be a rough stretch,” he now says. “I knew I was a shooter. I knew I could shoot the ball.”

The statistics paint him as a 6-foot-5 forward who runs the floor well and has made about 46% of his shots over four seasons, averaging 12.3 points, with some highlights along the way.

As a sophomore, he led the team with 18 points, five assists and four steals in a Final Four loss to Florida. Last season -- just before the slump -- his baseline floater with one second remaining gave UCLA an 81-80 victory over California in the regular-season finale.

But statistics tell only part of the story. Go back to that smile.

When Shipp arrived in Westwood five years ago, Howland suspected the kid from Fairfax High might be a little too laid back. It took a while for the coach and player to reach an understanding.

More to the point, it took Shipp’s replacing an injured Cedric Bozeman, proving he would work at defense and leading all Pac-10 freshmen in one of Howland’s favorite categories -- rebounding.

Shipp needed to show even more grit in the years that followed, fighting his way back from a hip surgery that wiped out his 2005-06 season, and another in the spring of 2007.

Howland says he thinks that Shipp’s occasional shooting struggles can be traced to summers spent rehabilitating instead of practicing. USC guard Daniel Hackett, who played with Shipp on a junior team, sympathizes.

“It’s hard to come back like he did from hip surgery; not a lot of guys can do that,” Hackett said. “Hips, elbows and knees are something you use a lot in basketball to go through screens. Every time you fall, you fall on that.”

Through pain and missed shots, Shipp’s expression rarely changed.

“Always, always,” center Alfred Aboya said. “He’s always smiling, so you never know if he’s sad or mad.”

Shipp explains his demeanor this way: Basketball is a game, it’s supposed to be fun, so why should he sweat the ups and downs? Besides, he had a feeling things would turn out fine.

His optimism paid off this summer, when he was finally healthy enough to stay on the court. That translated into a couple of solid games in the early season, his scoring average rising slowly through December.

Instead of faltering as the weeks passed, he has grown stronger. There were career-high games of 27 and 28 points against the Oregon schools in the final week of the regular season. When UCLA shot 27% in a dispiriting loss to USC in the Pacific 10 Conference tournament, Shipp was a relative bright spot, scoring a team-high 19.

“I’ve been able to add to my mid-range game, play better defense, get out and run the wing more,” he said. “Just my overall game has improved by me being healthy.”

That’s important to a UCLA team that has spent all season trying to replace the offense it lost when Kevin Love left school early for the NBA draft last spring.

Oregon State Coach Craig Robinson watched Shipp shoot 10 for 15 against his team this month and said: “It was like he was shooting in his yard.”

Now, the Bruins need him more than ever.

A team coming off three consecutive Final Fours is starting off with a No. 6 seeding, traveling across the country to a distant region. If the Bruins get past VCU, they will probably face third-seeded Villanova, a school that played a few home games at the Wachovia Center this season.

Shipp doesn’t seem particularly worried. His confidence is high, bolstered by his making better than 50% of his shots for an average of 14.4 points this season. He leads all starters at 44% from three-point range.

“It’s my last go-around,” he said by way of explanation. “I’m shooting a lot more and, fortunately, they’re going down.”

That makes him smile. As if he always knew things would turn out fine.