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Chris Smith's improved game has been a pleasant surprise for UCLA basketball

Chris Smith's improved game has been a pleasant surprise for UCLA basketball
UCLA guard Chris Smith motions to teammates in a game against Presbyterian. (Michael Owen Baker / Associated Press)

Chris Smith wasn’t feeling the music blaring inside the Mo Ostin Center when he shot free throws with his UCLA teammates earlier this week, so he changed the tune on the cutting-edge sound system.

Then he got to dancing.

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Lifting his knees high off the court and moving his arms rhythmically, the sophomore guard bopped with such vigor that assistant coach Tyus Edney couldn’t help but point and laugh. Smith commenced a series of spin moves near midcourt before sprinting toward one end of the court to resume shooting.

Having fun had its benefits. Smith said he made 92 of 100 free throws that day.

It seems like everything for Smith this season is one joyous endeavor. His improved play across the board has been part of a transition from the youngest player in the Pac-12 Conference as a freshman to a sophomore who’s playing like a veteran.

“He’s off to a really great start,” Bruins coach Steve Alford said Wednesday of a player who began his college career at 17 and won’t turn 19 until the day before Christmas.

Smith’s scoring, rebounding and assists are up while his turnovers and head-scratching drives to nowhere are way down.

He’s also carved out a new role as the sixth man, his 24 minutes per game rivaling those of every starter besides Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands.

Smith’s 10.3 points per game rank fourth on the team and his 5.5 rebounds rank third. He also has more assists (13) than turnovers (12) one season after compiling more than twice as many turnovers as assists.

Smith has made nine of 23 three-pointers (39.1%) eight games into the season, nearly doubling the five three-pointers he made as a freshman. It’s easy to see why the 6-foot-9 prospect widely coveted for his length and athleticism is one of the Bruins who most intrigues NBA scouts.

Smith said his confidence has soared along with his production, removing the negative thoughts that plagued him last season.

“I always beat myself up after I do anything wrong, especially missing a shot,” Smith said. “So I beat myself up a lot last year, and this year I haven’t been doing it.”

Now he just feels like dancing. A video of his moves on the practice court was tweeted out by the official UCLA basketball account, receiving nearly 9,000 views and 400 likes by Wednesday evening.

“That’s good,” Smith said when informed of the response. “I had a good time.”

Three for three?

UCLA’s bid to lead the Pac-12 in three-point shooting for a third consecutive season is in early jeopardy.

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The Bruins have made 35.7% of their three-pointers, ranking sixth in the Pac-12 and well behind California’s conference-leading 42.9%. That’s also well off the 40.6% mark from long range that UCLA compiled in 2016-17 and the 38.1% the Bruins made last season.

Most concerning is the struggles of UCLA’s three highest-volume shooters — Prince Ali is shooting 34.2% from long range, Hands is shooting 33.3% and Wilkes 31.1%.

Alford said he wasn’t overly concerned with the percentages because he liked the three-pointers his team was taking over its last three games.

“How we’re getting them and the shots we’re getting have been good,” said Alford, who noted that his team has also emphasized more of an inside-out approach.

Etc.

UCLA has made 64.5% of its free throws, ranking last in the Pac-12. A surprising culprit has been Ali, who has made only 42.9% of his attempts this season after making 64.1% last season. “I’m down bad,” Ali said, acknowledging that missed free throws were one of his coach’s biggest pet peeves. “We just need to concentrate more and lock in and make them.” … Alford said freshman power forward Shareef O’Neal’s surgery to correct a heart defect was scheduled for next week. … Junior power forward Alex Olesinski, sidelined all season because of a stress fracture in his foot, has resumed shooting and could return late this month.

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