UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell emerges as a scorer as well as a distributor
The din inside the McKale Center had reached a menacing level for the first time all night, buoyed by a heavily contested jump shot by Tyger Campbell that hit the backboard but missed the rim.
UCLA’s resulting shot-clock violation midway through the second half last weekend sparked deafening “U of A!” chants that served as the soundtrack for Arizona’s 8-0 push. Bruins coach Mick Cronin called a timeout to steady his team, its lead having dwindled to one point.
Before he could speak, another voice rose above the clatter of the crowd.
“They made their run,” Campbell told his teammates, “now it’s our turn.”
It was a prelude to a staggering counterpunch, UCLA scoring 14 points in a row to secure its latest unexpected victory over a nationally ranked team. Campbell was in the middle of that burst, making a tough floating jumper and finding guard David Singleton for the three-pointer that completed the run.
That Campbell would nudge the resurgent Bruins (13-11 overall, 6-5 Pac-12 Conference) to their fifth win in seven games, with both his words and his play, served as the latest comeuppance for anyone who doubted a pint-size point guard coming off major knee surgery.
Sabrina Ionescu could have been the first pick in the WNBA draft last season. But the Oregon star returned for her senior season, intent on helping the Ducks win a national title.
His belief amid what might seem like crushing circumstances, his affirmation to forge ahead no matter what, has come to define the aye of the Tyger.
“Tyger was keeping us together,” junior guard Chris Smith said after the Bruins polished off their 65-52 victory over then-No. 23 Arizona, “every chance he could.”
The floppy-haired Campbell, generously listed at 5 feet 11, heads into UCLA’s game against Washington State (14-10, 5-6) on Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion on a productivity binge. The redshirt freshman averaged 15.7 points and six assists while making 42.1% of his shots over the last three games, well above his season averages of 7.8 points and 4.4 assists on 38.1% shooting.
The uptick in scoring is evidence of Campbell emerging as not just a pass-first player but a win-first one. Cronin told Campbell that he needed to be more of an offensive threat or defenses could sag off him, essentially playing five on four. The message sparked a flurry of floaters and drives while thriving in pick-and-roll plays that also set up his teammates for easy baskets.
“When I get in the lane and look for my shot,” said Campbell, who scored a career-high 22 points during a recent victory over Utah, “the defense might come in and then somebody will be open, so it kind of spreads it out.”
He’s also vastly improved defensively after struggling to stay in front of quick guards earlier this season. That wasn’t a problem Saturday, when he held Arizona counterpart Nico Mannion to five points on two-for-14 shooting in a lockdown effort against a player projected as an NBA draft lottery pick.
Playing point guard might have seemed like a birthright for Campbell, who comes from a line of gifted ballhandlers that includes his older brother, Teyshawn, and father, Tony, who played at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. They taught him that the position entailed more than dribbling and passing.
“Confidence is a big thing when you’re handling the ball,” Tyger said, “because if you’re shaky then you’ll lose it.”
Named after golfer Tiger Woods, spelled with a playful twist, Tyger became a fan favorite and wildly popular teammate at La Porte (Ind.) La Lumiere School thanks to his savvy, unselfish play that resulted in a six-to-one assist-turnover ratio as a sophomore.
“Everyone loves playing with Tyger because he’s going to hit you right in your shooter’s pocket with the seams ready to catch and shoot,” said Patrick Holmes, his coach at La Lumiere. “So he helps elevate the game of the guys around him.”
Campbell was widely viewed as the galvanizing presence the shoot-first, pass-later Bruins needed when he arrived in the fall of 2018. He had departed La Lumiere a year early after a reclassification following his sophomore year, going from junior to senior in an instant because he was ahead academically and felt he had nothing to gain from another season of high school basketball.
His freshman season of college was also over in an instant. It was the last play of practice in early October, his team trailing by three points, when Campbell came off a screen, intending to rise for a tying jumper. He planted his left foot and tweaked his knee, feeling a pop as he lifted into the air.
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He landed in a heap and a doctor told him after a preliminary examination that he feared Campbell had torn his anterior cruciate ligament.
“I kind of had it in my mind like, dang, it could be bad,” Campbell said.
An MRI exam confirmed the initial diagnosis. His freshman season was over before it began. He was left to watch UCLA go 17-16 without him, confined to a three-hour daily dose of drudgery while rehabilitating the knee.
Even then, there were signs that the team’s smallest player carried an immeasurable piece of its heart. Point guard Jaylen Hands, who now plays for the Long Island Nets of the NBA’s G League, said this week that Campbell “was always uplifting” around his teammates, spreading positive energy in the locker room, at practice and on the bench during games.
He returned to the court in September with a bulky knee brace that he finally shed before the Bruins played USC in January, having cleared the 14-month threshold that significantly reduced the risk of re-injury.
“It was kind of heavy,” Campbell said of the brace he stashed in his locker, “so it was good to have it off.”
Cronin enhanced his point guard’s confidence by ripping off the handle-with-care label that usually accompanies freshmen and treating him like a veteran, prompting Campbell to act as if he needed to play like one, even if the early results in his return from injury were uneven.
His highlights included a jump pass to Jake Kyman for the game-winning three-pointer against Washington, the ball leaving Campbell’s fingers while he was in midair. It was the sort of play that recently prodded Smith to call him “probably the purest point guard in college at the moment.”
“He just loves when his teammates succeed,” Smith said. “That makes him happy. That just pulls a team together and makes us play for each other when you know that somebody that’s handling the ball every single possession is trying to get you the ball when you’re open.”
Campbell’s belief carries over to teammates who receive a scolding if they pass up open shots. Those are shots you’ve got to take because you’ll make them, they are told.
When UCLA started tightening up amid Arizona’s run last weekend, Campbell sensed a team on the brink ... of success. All the Bruins needed was to be told that they were capable of making the Wildcats squirm.
“I tried to grab everybody and pull them together like, you know, we’ve just got to bounce back,” Campbell said. “This is their run, we need to go on our run. We can’t let this determine the game. It’s time for us to go.”
VS. WASHINGTON STATE
Where: Pauley Pavilion.
On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 1150.
Update: The Cougars defeated the Bruins in overtime last month and have already exceeded last season’s win total thanks largely to the play of guard CJ Elleby, who scored a career-high 34 points during a victory over Washington on Sunday.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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