Jaylen Hands drove for what looked like an easy breakaway basket … until the degree of difficulty rose unexpectedly. Shifting the ball between his legs, he tried to go behind his head for a dunk.
He missed. And he heard about it moments later when his high school coach yanked him from the taut game.
“I told him, ‘Hey, man, I’m not here to watch your highlights, we’re here to win games,’ ” Zack Jones, Hands’ coach at Balboa City High in San Diego, said with a chuckle. “He just looked at me like, ‘But, I … I …’ ”
No excuses were necessary once Hands reentered the game. He dominated with a vengeance and went on to be selected most valuable player of the tournament he helped his team win.
It’s a sequence that probably sounds familiar to UCLA fans based on what they’ve seen over the last year.
Hands has vacillated between thrilling and infuriating even as his sustained effort to become a pass-first point guard has begun to pay some hefty dividends. The sophomore recently completed a stretch in which he tallied 10 assists or more in three consecutive games, becoming the first Bruin to do so since the school regularly began recording assists during the 1973-74 season.
Yet, the play involving Hands that was most heavily dissected on message boards after a narrow victory over Notre Dame last week featured a wayward between-the-legs lob while in midair.
Wrote one fan of Hands: “He just tends to make the game much harder than it should be.”
Wrote another: “Just shouldn’t be allowed to do that unless we are up 20, if even then. I wish [coach Steve Alford] would bench him for that.”
Alford allowed Hands to stay in the game but acknowledged his displeasure with the unnecessary theatrics. The play was almost identical to a between-the-legs lob that Hands had thrown last season, with one notable exception — teammate Kris Wilkes snatched that pass for a layup, making it instant highlight-reel fodder.
Alford said his message to Hands was the same both times.
“If you’re going to do that,” Alford said, “it better end up on ‘SportsCenter’ like it did last year because it was successful. So I don’t like the play because you make the simple play and that’s how you grow. But again, I don’t like taking personalities away from players, I don’t like to do that, but I’ve still got to teach and the right play there was just to throw the lob; it cost him an assist, it cost us two points.”
It didn’t cost the Bruins the game, saving Hands from further rebuke.
Hands has mostly generated praise among teammates and coaches with his recent conversion from focusing on points to assists. He leads the Pac-12 Conference with 6.8 assists per game and has increased his production across the board, logging the first double-doubles of his career in each of his last two games. He scored all nine of the Bruins’ points during one crucial second-half stretch against the Fighting Irish when Wilkes went to the locker room because of calf cramps.
Hands’ father, Ronnie, noted that his son is filling a familiar role, having been more of a distributor before his senior year of high school and first season at UCLA behind starting point guard Aaron Holiday.
“He’s just really reverting back to who he really was in the first place,” Ronnie said. “I know that may come as a shock to a lot of people, but he really was more of a facilitator than he was a scorer.”
He’s doing both now, averaging 12.6 points and 2.9 turnovers per game to give him the coveted assist-to-turnover ratio of more than two to one.
The flashy plays, his father said, are a reflection of the joy Hands has found in the game since taking his first shots on a makeshift indoor court. The 5-year-old flitted across the house from a basket attached to a door frame to a Nerf basket.
“We have video of it,” said Ronnie Hands, who played point guard at Inglewood High and San Diego Mesa College. “And he shoots the ball the same way now that he shot it then. It’s kind of hilarious.”
Hands made a memorable first impression at UCLA, leaping over a hunched-over Alford for a dunk during a fan event at Venice Beach. He showed flashes of brilliance while maintaining that hot dog style as a freshman, making three three-pointers in less than a minute against Arizona, but struggled with consistency.
“He was trying to figure out where he was and what he was doing with Aaron on the team and it was tough,” said Brad Leaf, who coached Hands during his senior year of high school at Foothills Christian in El Cajon. “Aaron was the beast.”
Hands flirted with declaring for the NBA draft after last season before his workouts led to some sobering feedback: He had gobs of talent but little direction with his game.
A move-the-ball mandate seemed clear entering this season with Holiday playing for the Indiana Pacers and freshman point guard Tyger Campbell sidelined for the season because of a knee injury. But it still took a handful of games for the 6-foot-3 Hands to change his style.
He had eight assists in the first half against North Carolina last month and maintained that sharing approach in Las Vegas, averaging 10.3 assists over his last three games, all Bruins victories.
It hasn’t been enough for some fans who continue to question Hands’ ability to attack a zone defense or properly execute the pick and roll. His father said his son hears the critiques and brushes them off like a pesky double team.
“He doesn’t allow criticism to cripple him,” Ronnie Hands said. “He understands that it’s just a moment and some of it’s fair, some of it’s not and as he grows as a young man, he’s going to be ultimately better for it.”
Hands seems to recognize he’s got some cleaning up to do when it comes to those between-the-legs lobs like the one that went astray last week.