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Plenty left on Chris Smith’s to-do list in final UCLA season

UCLA guard Chris Smith passes over Arizona State forward Mickey Mitchell.
UCLA guard Chris Smith is focusing on consistency in his final season with the Bruins before making himself eligible for the 2021 NBA draft.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

The most improved player in the Pac-12 Conference has some improving left to do. He needs to become a better dribbler, develop his leadership, take the right shots.

More than anything, Chris Smith must sustain a high level from one game to the next.

“Ultimately, I’ve just got to become a more consistent player,” Smith said Tuesday via a videoconference while discussing the reasons he returned to UCLA for his senior season instead of taking his chances in the NBA draft.

Smith was widely projected as a borderline second-round pick when he withdrew his name from draft consideration. His bouncy 6-foot-9 frame and ability to score in bursts provided some enticing upside. His tendency to drift from one game to the next was a less desirable trait.

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Alec Anderson has taken over at right tackle in UCLA training camp after Jake Burton transferred to Baylor in late August.

“He needs his talent level with my intensity level,” Bruins coach Mick Cronin said. “When he gets there, he’s gonna be a first-round pick. And I think that’s where he’s headed.”

Smith has displayed more focus in practice, Cronin said, coaching his teammates whenever he’s not involved in drills. The team’s only senior said it was essential that he provide leadership even if he’s naturally quiet.

“I’m not usually the one that’s up on the court yelling or anything, I just like to let my game talk,” Smith said. “But on the court, when my teammates need me, I want to be there, verbally and physically, whatever they need.”

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Smith is vying for a basketball rarity. He wants to make 50% of his field goals, 40% of his three-pointers and 90% of his free throws after watching former teammate Aaron Holiday come close to those marks in his final college season. Smith vastly improved his three-point (34.1%) and free-throw (84%) accuracy last season as a result of practice repetition and encouragement from teammates and coaches.

“I know they still have that confidence in me,” Smith said. “So now, I’m just going to take that into the next season as well.”

Ahead of schedule?

Cronin hears it all the time, from his assistant coaches as well as the strength and conditioning staff: This team is so much further along than it was at this point a year ago.

All five starters are back and Cronin is entering his second season, eliminating the painful feeling-out process that left the Bruins with a 7-6 record last year before entering Pac-12 Conference play.

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UCLA basketball coach Mick Cronin doesn’t anticipate NCAA decision to give athletes an extra year of eligibility having a big impact on the Bruins.

“We don’t have to go through those learning curves we had the first couple of months when we had to learn Coach’s new offense and defense and what he was trying to get out of us,” sophomore guard Jake Kyman said.

The familiarity should benefit a team that won’t be able to ease its way into the season. The Bruins are expected to open the season against Seton Hall on Nov. 25 in the Wooden Legacy in Orlando, Fla., and could play Kansas a day later. UCLA’s early schedule also includes games against Marquette and Kentucky as well as two Pac-12 games before Christmas.

“So like I keep telling the guys, we can’t wait until January to grow up,” Cronin said. “We’ve got to do it from jump street.”

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Cronin said the challenge facing his team is recapturing the singular mind-set it achieved last season after losing to Cal State Fullerton at home. The Bruins went on to win seven consecutive games as part of a late-season surge in which they went 11-3.

“You can overachieve with a singular mind-set,” Cronin said.

Etc.

One UCLA player had to move from his residence because of rampant partying nearby that raised worries about the spread of COVID-19, Cronin said. “Our concern is not our guys,” Cronin said, “it’s the people they come in contact with.” … Cronin said junior David Singleton would play more point guard this season after getting into better shape and improving his ballhandling, freeing Tyger Campbell from the heavy workload he endured as a freshman. Singleton spent part of his offseason dribbling around the sidewalks of Westwood.


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