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UCLA has prospered from Chris Smith’s focus on what’s next instead of what happened

UCLA guard Chris Smith drives to the basket against San Jose State guard Zach Chappell during the first half of a game Dec. 1 at Pauley Pavilion.
UCLA guard Chris Smith drives to the basket against San Jose State guard Zach Chappell during the first half of a game Dec. 1 at Pauley Pavilion.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The enduring image of Chris Smith before this season was one of his face dropped, shoulders slumped. He would lose the ball and sulk. He would miss a shot and pout.

Sometimes the UCLA guard would linger for a beat in the backcourt, absorbed in what went wrong, as the other team raced down the court on a fastbreak.

The gestures were born of a player who absorbed constant criticism but was always hardest on himself. It seemed as if he was playing catch up early in his college career as one of the youngest players in the game.

He was already younger than many of his classmates before he skipped the second grade. He played his first slate of nonconference games for the Bruins at 17, sprinkling enticing potential atop a mound of mistakes.

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Now, nearing the end of his junior season, he’s ripening quickly.

UCLA’s recent success in Pac-12 play has created optimism about the team’s NCAA tournament chances, but the Bruins still have a long way to go.

Smith has become UCLA’s go-to guy, his talent no longer just a suggestion. He’s leading the Bruins in scoring after becoming the player coaches and teammates want with the ball in his hands late in a taut game. His emergence, it turns out, is as much about them as it is about him.

“The ball goes in a lot more,” Smith said with a laugh, “when you know that the people around you want you shooting that ball.”

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A 6-foot-9, 215-pound string bean, Smith is averaging 13.3 points per game and 15.6 points in Pac-12 Conference play for the Bruins (15-11 overall, 8-5 Pac-12), winners of seven of their last nine games. They face another must-win situation Thursday against Utah (14-11, 5-8) at the Huntsman Center for purposes of sustaining faint NCAA tournament hopes.

Their aspirations would already be sunk without Smith, whose rise has been accompanied by a change in approach. With some heavy prodding from coach Mick Cronin, he’s focusing on what comes next as opposed to what’s already transpired.

“Missed shots don’t matter,” Smith said. “If you turn the ball over, you can always get it back on the defensive end. You can always erase mistakes and the last play doesn’t matter, no matter what it was.”

Good things are happening more regularly whenever Smith gets the ball. His accuracy is up across the board while making 47.4% of his shots, 31.3% of his three-pointers and 85.8% of his free throws, all career highs. The last figure is third-best in the Pac-12.

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Cronin has helped by playing Smith at power forward whenever he identifies a mismatch. One presented itself against Colorado last month and Smith capitalized with a career-high 30 points during an upset of the nationally ranked Buffaloes.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin talks to Chris Smith, Tyger Campbell, Jalen Hill and Jaime Jaquez Jr. (left to right) during the first half of a game against Oregon on Jan. 26.
(Chris Pietsch / Associated Press)

Smith proved almost unstoppable while defended by Colorado’s Tyler Bey and D’Shawn Schwartz, both two inches shorter, and 6-10 Lucas Siewart, considerably slower. He rose for jumpers, drove for layups and made 13 of 15 free throws after getting repeatedly hacked by overmatched defenders.

Along the way, Smith showed that he’s become more selective in the way he attacks on offense.

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“Where he’s improved is being judicious about when he does it and reading defenses,” Cronin said. “That’s what the real scorers do.”

Smith’s bouncy athleticism and tremendous length have always made him an enticing prospect. He was a multisport athlete his first two years of high school, also playing quarterback in a move that he said has helped him read defenses on the basketball court. He declined a post-graduate year of high school basketball for development in favor of starting his college career, believing he was ready.

But questions about consistency have lingered. Last season, after scoring in double figures in each of his first five games, he did so only five more times.

He would often pick up his phone after games to read scathing assessments via text messages from his father, Sean, who was his coach into middle school.

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Isaiah Mobley has learned to deal with adversity since arriving at USC as one of the top college basketball recruits in the nation.

“He texts me after every game and it’s usually along the lines of what I did wrong or what I could have done better,” Chris said. “Obviously, there’s a sense of congratulations [after victories], but immediately after, it’s like, ‘You did this, that, that, that.’ Just so we can keep the whole thing rolling.”

Smith returned for a third college season after realizing he was nowhere near NBA-ready. What did he need to improve on? He rattled off a lengthy list before this season that included shot selection, decision-making, leadership and assist-to-turnover ratio.

Asked this week what remained on his to-do list, Smith mentioned turnovers, having committed six in two games this season. He is also prone to defensive lapses, having been out of position on consecutive plays earlier this week during the portion of practice open to reporters.

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“You’ve given up two layups!” Cronin bellowed.

Cronin appeared to lobby for his players to stick around for more college seasoning after the Bruins’ victory over Washington last weekend, mentioning how eventual Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Reggie Miller stayed at UCLA for three seasons and Don MacLean, the Pac-12’s all-time leading scorer, stayed for four. (Miller actually stayed for four as well, but the point remained.)

As Cronin spoke, Smith sat nearby waiting to speak with the media. Smith later said that he’s not thinking about the future, only a present that has become far more pleasurable with five games left before the Pac-12 tournament.

He called this his favorite group of teammates since he arrived at UCLA, which jibes with the positive vibes he keeps getting. The refrain he’s heard most often is always the same: Shoot the ball!

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“There’s no fakeness around it or anything of me just trying to keep him confident,” freshman point guard Tyger Campbell said. “I really believe in him and I really believe in how he’s playing.”

Smith marinated in the encouragement even before he made the go-ahead three-pointer during his team’s comeback against Washington. His head is hung no longer. He’s too busy with hand slaps, chest bumps and shared smiles, wondering what delightful surprise might come next.

“I’m just having fun winning,” Smith said. “That’s what I’m liking right now.”

UP NEXT FOR UCLA

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AT UTAH

When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. PST.

Where: Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City.

On the air: TV: FS1; Radio: 570.

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Update: Utah has plummeted in the Pac-12 standings but is practically unbeatable at home, where it has gone 10-1 with a narrow loss to Oregon. UCLA guard Tyger Campbell dominated Utes counterpart Rylan Jones during the Bruins’ 73-57 victory on Feb. 2 at Pauley Pavilion, scoring a career-high 22 points.


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