It was early in UCLA basketball practice Monday, a deflection drill near the three-point line leading to a steal and a two-on-none fastbreak.
Point guard Tyger Campbell dribbled into the paint with forward Cody Riley a few steps behind and only a potential highlight play awaiting the duo. Campbell lobbed the ball off the backboard so that Riley could grab it and dunk it, the players celebrating with a hearty hand slap.
A little more than a week before their season opener, the Bruins are in good hands with Campbell back. The redshirt freshman had to sit out last season after tearing knee ligaments in preseason practice, leaving the team without a pure point guard and resulting in plenty of selfish play.
“I think last season would have been really different if Tyger was able to play,” Sean Farnham, an ESPN college basketball analyst and former Bruins forward, said earlier this month at Pac-12 Conference media day. “He’s a pass-first point guard and so when you have a point guard that doesn’t care to dribble the ball quite as much but cares more about distributing the basketball and making people around him better, and also wants to initiate the defense and lock somebody up and takes great pride in that, I think that kind of sets the tone for everything.”
UCLA was sloppy last season, its 14.1 turnovers per game trailing only Stanford’s 15 among Pac-12 teams. The Bruins figure to take much better care of the ball whenever Campbell is on the court considering he completed one practice this month without a turnover.
“It’s just kind of how I play,” Campbell said. “I’m very low-risk, high-reward, so I don’t really take a lot of risks out there. I think it’s just my game to be poised with the ball and not do too much.”
"It was great. I love playing in front of our fans. It's always awesome when the fans can come out and watch us."— UCLA Basketball (@UCLAMBB) October 29, 2019
Tyger Campbell, talking about last week's preseason showcase in Pauley pic.twitter.com/g9r3KvqnBS
Campbell has been fully cleared since early September. The only reminder of his injury is the bulky brace he wears on his left knee. His speed? Not an issue.
He often wins team sprints, with forward Chris Smith and guard Jules Bernard in close pursuit.
“One of the fastest dudes I’ve ever played with,” guard Prince Ali said. “For somebody coming off an ACL tear, I can’t believe he’s that fast.”
He’s also feisty, befitting his first name, a 5-foot-11 mighty mite who’s unafraid to jostle with players a foot taller.
“Even if he has a mismatch,” said Alex Olesinski, a 6-foot-10 forward, “he’s working hard, fighting the bigs. He doesn’t give up.”
Campbell scored just two points — both on free throws — during the team’s intrasquad scrimmage last week but displayed his massive value because of his ability to disrupt defensively and orchestrate the offense.
Just don’t ever tell him that all he can do is pass.
“A lot of people define my game as pass-first,” Campbell said, “but I would pretty much say I’m win-first.”
UCLA will stage its only exhibition at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday against Stanislaus State at Pauley Pavilion, and the Bruins could use the refresher in basketball protocol. Coach Mick Cronin indicated that one of his players tried to check into a recent scrimmage without going to the scorer’s table. “We may or may not have had a scrimmage where that happened,” Cronin cracked. … Cronin said he hoped to get more usage out of sophomore forward Kenneth Nwuba, who averaged 0.4 points in 2.9 minutes per game last season. “I think he’s one of the strongest guys around the rim I’ve ever coached,” Cronin said. Nwuba’s playing time could hinge on his defensive footwork on the perimeter, one of the areas where Cronin said he needed the most improvement.