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UCLA center Joshua Smith is what he eats, for better or worse

The big man has a message for everyone who doubts him.

Two simple words for fans who call him soggy around the middle and too slow down the court.

A succinct reply to detractors who insist that he has squandered his God-given talent — and hurt his team — by habitually eating his way out of shape.

Joshua Smith nods his head: “They’re right.”

And UCLA’s center, a lightning rod for criticism over the past two years, realizes the skeptics will not be easily swayed.

Not by the fact that he returned from summer vacation incrementally slimmer. Not by the fact that he played well during a recent string of exhibition games in China, averaging 10.3 points and 7.3 rebounds.

With preseason practice beginning later this week, Smith remains a very large question mark for the Bruins, and it seems that even his teammates are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

“I think the light’s going to come on . . . just that for some people it takes longer,” freshman center Tony Parker said. “When Josh wants it, he’ll get it.”

Limping away from an afternoon workout session last week, Smith looked anything but svelte. For a 6-foot-10 player who is listed at 305 pounds but tips the scales at significantly more, weight isn’t the only significant number.

As a highly touted recruit — one who was supposed to lead UCLA to brighter days — he made the conference all-freshman team in 2010-11 by averaging 10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds, playing almost 22 minutes a night.

But as a sophomore last season, his production dipped to 9.9 points and 4.9 rebounds, in large part because he played barely 17 minutes a game. Too often he looked slow and tired, which led to foul trouble.

“I’d be out of position and reaching and getting to the ball too late,” he said. “The next thing I know, I’ve got four fouls and I’m heading to the bench.”

People who follow college basketball could only shake their heads. They were watching the downward progression of a player with tremendous skills for his size, a center who should have been on his way up.

Things won’t get any easier this winter if Coach Ben Howland makes good on a promise to push the tempo with four highly touted and athletic freshmen joining the team.

“I think Josh is getting better,” Howland said. “But he still has a lot of work to do to get himself in good enough condition to really help us the way we expect.”

If anything, coaches would like to see Smith get angry. He is a preternaturally good-tempered person who, in past seasons, could dismiss his critics with a shrug and a smile, saying, “I was like, whatever, those people don’t know me.”

Two things opened his eyes this summer.

Family and friends back home in Washington remarked on how sullen he looked during games last season. That did not fit his sunny personality.

“It doesn’t look like you’re having fun,” his father told him. “Basketball should be fun.”

Smith also studied videotape of recent UCLA big men such as Kevin Love, Alfred Aboya, Luc Mbah a Moute and Lorenzo Mata. He noticed a common trait — effort.

This observation was driven home when Aboya recently came by campus and worked out with Smith and Parker.

“We’re going through drills and he’s not letting us get any touches,” Smith said. “We were getting frustrated but I told Tony, ‘This is going to help us.’”

Much has been written about Smith’s struggle with weight. It wasn’t just how much he ate, but also how he ate.

Too often, he slept in late, leaving no time for a proper breakfast. At lunch, he grabbed only a snack or a fruit smoothie and subsequently ran out of fuel during afternoon practices.

“By the time I got home at six or seven o’clock, I’m starving,” he said. “Then it’s boom, boom, boom.”

Coaches could not follow him around all night. The UCLA training staff warned him that a lopsided eating schedule could slow his metabolism. Even with daily workouts, he grew larger.

Having moved from the dorms to an apartment, Smith now talks about starting the day with a decent meal and shopping for groceries with a team nutritionist, buying chicken breasts and microwaveable vegetables. He makes roast beef sandwiches on wheat bread.

Trainers still weigh him regularly but have stopped telling him what the scale reads. Instead, they focus on whether he has gone up or down, trying to keep him motivated.

Arriving at UCLA two years ago with 25% body fat, Smith says that he has improved to about 17%. He adds: “I’m trying to get down to 10%.”

During a practice in Beijing, the junior looked somewhat more fit than last season but still markedly slower than his teammates, falling behind in sprints.

Back in Westwood, he says training sessions held in advance of practice have involved more running than anything he can recall during his previous two seasons as a Bruin.

“I’m trying not to always be the last guy,” he said. “It’s hard.”

The arrival of Parker could put more pressure on him, and any switch to an up-tempo game will start at center. Smith has always been a good offensive rebounder but must improve on the defensive boards to trigger the fastbreak.

“With the athletes we have, I have to get the ball to the point guard right away,” he said. “We’re trying to get easy baskets.”

If opponents lay back to stop the break, Smith could help the Bruins play bigger in the half-court offense along with Parker and David and Travis Wear.

“We’re behind Josh 100% because we know he’s working hard and he wants to be good,” guard Tyler Lamb said. “So we continue to push him, to give him constructive criticism.”

Smith can feel time passing him by, the last two seasons of his college career looming in the not-so-distant future.

“It’s weird that it finally started getting in my head now,” he said. “I’m like, ‘OK, maybe I shouldn’t eat this.’ Or, ‘Maybe I should go to the gym tonight and not just lounge around.’”

Another incentive: He could become a millionaire in the NBA draft if he can pull himself together. But there are a lot of pounds to shed between here and there.

Promising to change means nothing. Smith knows that. The real test begins in practice and, beyond that, with the season opener against Indiana State on Nov. 9.

“Right now it could be all talk,” he said. “I have to go out there and prove it on the court.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton


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