Lessening the disappointment of UCLA’s most recent trips has been a diverting game of lost and found.
The Bruins lost twice in Lahaina, Hawaii, but discovered Jaime Jaquez Jr.
They fell to Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., but unearthed Shareef O’Neal.
A few more finds and UCLA might be well on its way to identifying the core of players who can accelerate coach Mick Cronin’s rebuilding efforts.
O’Neal provided the toughness that Cronin’s teams are known for against Notre Dame on Saturday, snagging a career-high 11 rebounds to go with eight points in 17 minutes.
“When I got into the game,” O’Neal said Thursday, “I was worrying about defense and rebounding and everything else just came to me.”
He became the latest Bruin to make a case for increased playing time on a team rife with raw players but devoid of the ready-made talent that has long populated Westwood. UCLA’s roster contained at least one McDonald’s All-American in every season from 1978-79, the first season after the inaugural McDonald’s game, through 2018-2019, when Kris Wilkes, Jaylen Hands and Moses Brown gave the Bruins three alumni of the all-star game.
This season? Nada.
That means that finding the team’s next elite players could require a more prolonged star search. O’Neal’s minutes have been on a steady uptick, the redshirt freshman power forward averaging 18.7 minutes over his last three games after averaging 7.2 minutes in his previous five appearances.
“Right now with all our young guys,” Cronin said, “it’s like depositing money in the bank that’s going to pay off for us.”
Shortly after his breakthrough against the Fighting Irish, O’Neal received a thumbs-up from his father, Shaquille, the Lakers legend who told his son he needed to play that way every game. Shaquille has not been able to attend one of his son’s college games but could be there Saturday afternoon at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas when the Bruins (7-4) face North Carolina (6-5) as part of the CBS Sports Classic.
Shareef said he did not anticipate Shaquille yelling from the crowd like he did when Shareef attended Santa Monica Crossroads High, often calling his son over to his seat behind the team bench to give pointers.
“He’d be the only voice I’d hear when I’d play,” Shareef said. “In all the crowd, I could just hear his voice. He’d just tell me to be more aggressive. He would tell me to do this, to do that.”
Shaquille never told his son to be just like him. At 6 feet 9 and 220 pounds, Shareef is about four inches shorter and 100 pounds lighter than his father, who often bulldozed opponents out of the way before becoming a member of the Hall of Fame.
Shareef said his father realized he would have a different skill set and had him work out with guards such as former NBA All-Star Tracy McGrady. Nevertheless, both father and son knew the comparisons would persist.
“People saw my dad play, they saw the dominance he had in high school, college and in the NBA and I think that people just automatically try to translate that to me and my little brother,” said Shareef, who is averaging 3.1 points and 3.4 rebounds after sitting out last season while recovering from surgery to correct a heart defect. “I feel like Dwyane Wade’s son gets it too and LeBron [James’] son gets it too.
“They just want you to be either what your dad is or better than your dad. It’s kinda hard. I kinda block out the noise. I know what I can do, my dad knows what I can do.”
Playing for the defense-minded Cronin is helping the previously offense-focused O’Neal become a more well-rounded player while continuing to emerge from the hulking shadow cast by his father.
“It’s just a world that he’ll always have to deal with until he plays enough to where he has his own identity and I think he’s creating that,” Cronin said. “The more he plays, the more he’s going to create his own identity and is going to be his own player.”
Cronin said sophomore guard Jules Bernard, who sat out the Notre Dame game because of a shoulder injury, remained day to day in his recovery and had not resumed contact work. “He can shoot and he can move,” Cronin said, “we’re just concerned [if] can he deal with any contact if he was to get hit on that spot on his shoulder.”