UCLA freshmen Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf look to overcome recent struggles

UCLA forward TJ Leaf, trying to block a shot by USC guard Jordan McLaughlin on Jan. 25, is coming off two subpar performances.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

If this is as bad as it gets for Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf, they might look back on it like world-class marathoners who stepped on a few wayward water cups in Mile 17.

Oh, yeah. They remember that. Barely.

The UCLA freshmen who maintained such a frenzied pace to start their college careers finally stumbled a bit recently.

Leaf grabbed a season-low three rebounds while being manhandled by Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen and then scored a season-low eight points four days later while struggling against USC’s four-guard lineup. Ball logged a season-worst seven turnovers against the Trojans while being the focal point of a pesky 2-3 zone defense.


The Bruins lost both games in which their top newcomers sputtered, giving No. 11 UCLA (19-3 overall, 6-3 in Pac-12 Conference play) its first two-game losing streak of the season.

The search for answers will take the Bruins to what can feel like the edge of the (Pac-12) earth, where the gently rolling hills of the Palouse will serve as the backdrop for a potentially pivotal game at Washington State (11-10, 4-5) on Wednesday evening.

Theories abound as to the cause of the clunkers for Ball and Leaf. Maybe they encountered better or more inspired opponents. Perhaps they slammed into the so-called freshman wall. Or might it have been just a matter of smart adjustments by well-prepared teams?

“There’s a lot of tapes out, which they’re not used to,” UCLA senior guard Bryce Alford said of his younger teammates. “This is the first time they’ve ever been scouted by other teams in depth, so now teams are starting to focus on different things. TJ gets doubled a little more in the post, teams go zone to take away TJ in the post. People are guarding Lonzo in different ways.”

Leaf didn’t sound like someone ready to make excuses for a couple of bad games.

“Yeah, with all the tapes out, scouting’s definitely a little bit harder,” he said, “but it’s just basketball.”

Later, when asked about his difficulties against USC’s zone, Leaf seemed to concede that the Trojans had made the game more toilsome than usual.

“They had us pushed out and they had us doing stuff that we’re not used to,” he said.

UCLA’s schedule might have also contributed to the freshman funk. Coming off a truncated 3 1/2-day Christmas break, the Bruins were one of the first teams to start Pac-12 play and one of the last to get the “bye week” in which they played only once.

“You’ve got to remember they’re 18, so that becomes a long deal for them and I think that’s why this bye week has really helped,” Coach Steve Alford said.

Ball and Leaf have never played so many meaningful games in such a condensed stretch. Leaf appeared refreshed coming back from a two-day break after the USC loss.

“I’m feeling good,” Leaf said.

There’s plenty of reason for optimism for the two freshmen who are likely headed to the NBA after this season. Ball is averaging 8.0 assists per game, putting him on pace to edge Pooh Richardson’s school record of 7.61 assists per game over a season. Leaf is UCLA’s top rebounder (8.6 per game) and second-leading scorer (16.3).

It seems unlikely that a bad game or two is going to stop them from getting to the finish line.

“They’re smart guys,” Bryce Alford said, “and we’ve got smart guys around them that can we can help them figure that stuff out.”




When: 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Where: Beasley Coliseum, Pullman, Wash.

On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 1150.

Update: The place where UCLA won every game for nearly two decades suddenly seems like a lost cause. The Bruins have dropped three games in a row at Beasley Coliseum after having won 19 consecutive games there from 1994 to 2012. UCLA lost its final regular-season game against the Cougars during Coach Steve Alford’s first season with the team in 2013-14 before going on to win the Pac-12 Conference tournament. The Bruins also fell on the first weekend of conference play last season. “I have no idea,” Alford said of his team’s struggles in this venue. “We just haven’t played well.” Maybe the apathetic atmosphere has something to do with it. Washington State is again last in the Pac-12 in attendance this season, averaging 2,368 fans per game. UCLA shooting guard Bryce Alford said the team was even changing hotels in an effort to shift its fortunes.

Twitter: @latbbolch