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Freshman Mac Etienne goes from prep school to early riser for UCLA

UCLA head coach Mick Cronin yells from the bench during the second half against Oregon State.
UCLA head coach Mick Cronin yells from the bench during the second half against Oregon State on Jan. 30 at Pauley Pavilion.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Big Mac. Mac Attack. Precocious Mac.

The nickname possibilities seem endless for Mac Etienne after a sparkling college debut that came at a time when the UCLA forward was supposed to be spending his final season in prep school.

For the moment, Etienne said he goes simply by Mac. Call him whatever you want, just don’t compare him to other players wading through their first year in college.

“He’s not even a freshman,” Bruins coach Mick Cronin said, alluding to Etienne’s having enrolled in January after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out his prep season in New Hampshire.

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Whatever the reason, Etienne’s new teammates are thrilled that the 19-year-old will accompany them to the Pacific Northwest this week for games against Washington State and Washington after providing a taste of his potential against USC last weekend.

Even at a lanky 6 feet 9, Etienne looked like he belonged on the same court as Trojans counterpart Evan Mobley, a 7-footer who could be the top pick in the next NBA draft. Etienne outplayed Mobley during one sequence, rejecting his shot before backing him down on the other end of the court and drawing a foul.

UCLA’s athletic department, faced with COVID-19 restrictions and the loss of its contract with Under Armour, posted a 21.7-million deficit for the 2020 fiscal year.

“I feel like it wasn’t too exciting for me,” Etienne said flatly of the head-to-head matchup. “I know what I’m capable of, I know that when I step on the court, I can be a really good player.”

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Cronin acknowledged afterward that Etienne would have played against the Trojans even if forwards Cody Riley (sprained right ankle) and Jalen Hill (personal reasons) had been available. Riley is considered day to day, making him closer to a return than Hill, who has no timetable to rejoin the team.

Etienne came off the bench against USC behind starting forward Kenneth Nwuba but may have earned a start for the Bruins (13-4 overall, 9-2 Pac-12 Conference) against Washington State (11-8, 4-8) on Thursday night at Beasley Coliseum if Riley is unable to return. With eight points on four-for-five shooting to go with five rebounds and two blocks in 27 minutes, Etienne showed he has tremendous upside.

“You guys saw some of the things we see every day” in practice, Cronin told reporters. “Mac’s got some touch, he can score, he’s learning as a defender.”

Giving Etienne minutes now, Cronin said, could help him make the defensive improvements necessary to contribute in March. His syllabus includes properly reacting to screens, learning the other team’s offense and communicating with teammates.

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“At our level, it’s just so much more intricate,” Cronin said, “so I don’t expect him to be great at it, he’s going to have to make up for his lack of experience with raw talent and his effort.”

No one can question his dedication. Etienne spent Christmas in a UCLA dorm room while in quarantine so that he could join the team, binge-watching Netflix shows to maintain his sanity. Coaches checked in with him daily and brought him food, assistant coach Darren Savino dropping off some of his grandmother’s Italian gravy on Christmas.

“I’m texting him, ‘Are you all right in there?’ ” Cronin said.

He was just fine. Etienne was genuinely excited to be here, having picked UCLA despite never having visited campus. His faith in Cronin and Savino based on the success they had at Cincinnati, combined with UCLA’s basketball tradition, were enough to convince him to head for Westwood.

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A native of New York, Etienne had visited California only once previously, never leaving his hotel except to play in the club circuit games that had been the point of the trip. Fellow UCLA freshman Jaylen Clark, a native of Southern California, has been Etienne’s tour guide since his arrival on campus, though the destinations have been limited by coronavirus restrictions.

Etienne has drawn comparisons to Joakim Noah, a former NBA All-Star (and Bruins nemesis while at Florida), for more than their similar facial features and pulled-back hair. Etienne’s skilled post game makes him an emerging threat, one that could come in especially handy for a shorthanded team.

UCLA was forced to lean heavily on Kenneth Nwuba and Mac Etienne in its 66-48 loss to USC after Jalen Hill and Cody Riley were forced to sit out.

Regardless of how daunting the circumstances are, he’ll never back down, taking one nickname off the board.

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Slacking Mac.

“I feel like big stages,” Etienne said, “are where I thrive at.”

Etc.

UCLA fell out of the national rankings after the loss to USC and dropped to No. 24 in the coaches poll.


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