His work never done, UCLA’s Johnny Juzang hunts success, not shots
It’s long after practice and weightlifting sessions have ended, the final shot falling through the net and the dumbbells placed back onto the rack, that the work can begin.
Johnny Juzang drives up the 405 Freeway and cuts over on the 101 toward a workout facility in Woodland Hills. He’s greeted by Jamal Lovell, a player development coach who bombards his only UCLA client with many of the same messages delivered earlier in the day by Bruins coach Mick Cronin.
Take better shots. Trust your teammates. Don’t rush things. Attack the basket more. Be aggressive in trying to get to the free-throw line. Crash the boards. Move your feet defensively. Talk more and be a better leader.
During sessions that can last an hour, sometimes half that if Juzang is wiped out, the pupil and his mentor will dissect game footage and conduct on-court workouts designed to enhance his skills. They meet as many as five times a week, depending on Juzang’s schedule and if the Bruins are at home or on the road.
Lovell’s other clients include a handful of current and former Lakers in addition to the Sparks, but he’s never seen a college player push himself as hard as Juzang has during the sophomore guard’s first season with the Bruins after transferring from Kentucky.
“It’s super rare that you find guys that go through a whole practice, go through their lift and still want to come in and get better,” Lovell said. “Hard work is undefeated, so as long as you keep working, you’ll always give yourself a chance to do something good.”
UCLA men’s basketball has been COVID-19 free all season, but players are wondering when they’ll be able to do team bonding again.
What Juzang has done over the last few weeks could be described as special. Reggie Miller special. Juzang became the first Bruin to score at least half his team’s points in a game since Miller did so 35 years ago when Juzang dropped a career-high 32 points on Washington last weekend.
The biggest difference was that Miller’s scoring outburst came in a loss to Washington State and Juzang’s nudged the Bruins to a 64-61 victory over the Huskies that ended a losing streak at two games.
Juzang has nearly doubled his scoring output in recent weeks, averaging 20.8 points on 42.4% shooting over his last five games after having averaged 10.9 points on 38.8% shooting in his first 10 games as a Bruin. He’s now the team’s leading scorer, averaging 14.2 points per game as UCLA (14-5 overall, 10-3 Pac-12 Conference) prepares to face Arizona (14-7, 8-7) on Thursday at Pauley Pavilion.
One could call it an unselfish scoring spree, given that Juzang doesn’t necessarily want to tally half his team’s points.
It’s just so happened that that’s the spot the Bruins unexpectedly find themselves in heading toward March. Highly touted newcomer Daishen Nix defected to the G League before the season, senior guard Chris Smith went down in late December with a knee injury and the remaining roster is rife with players who are mostly complementary pieces.
“Coming into this, I just wanted to be a part of a winning program and win games and have a successful season and get challenged and coached and learn and grow,” Juzang said. “I wasn’t really like, oh, this is going to be the pecking order, you know what I’m saying? But things play out how they play out and then that’s kind of what it is. We’re just trying to win games.”
Transferring from Kentucky after his first college season allowed Juzang to move closer to his Encino home while playing for Cronin, a coach who could maximize his talents as part of a team that needed additional production even before the Bruins started losing expected contributors.
“I think it’s just a match made in heaven,” said David Rebibo, who coached Juzang at Harvard-Westlake High in Studio City. “Johnny wants to be coached. Johnny wants to be told things. Johnny knows he’s not always going to like it, but he wants it.”
After skipping his senior season of high school because he felt he was ready for the challenge of major college basketball and then struggling to make an impact as a freshman with the Wildcats, Juzang redoubled his improvement efforts. There were two-a-days and sometimes three-a-days during the offseason with Lovell, a morning run followed by pickup games and evening shooting sessions.
The 6-foot-6 Juzang wowed his new coaches and teammates in preseason practices, appearing headed for an immediate breakthrough before a foot injury forced him to miss the team’s first four games while slowly rounding into form. He also had to adjust to a bigger role that involved becoming a full-time starter who needed to help carry the scoring load.
Cronin figured some early season struggles were coming. Juzang made only six of 26 three-pointers (23.1%) through his first six games, hardly resembling the player who had sunk shot after shot in practice while also sparking message board fury about being a ball hog.
“Rick Pitino said this a long time ago when I first got with him: Young players shoot a low percentage when they first get minutes,” said Cronin, who worked under Pitino at Louisville. “The more minutes you play, the game slows down, your shooting percentage is going to go up. And that’s what you’ve witnessed with Johnny this year.”
There’s plenty of room for growth for a player who’s still only 19. Juzang sometimes rushes his three-pointers instead of driving to shoot a pull-up jumper or going all the way to the rim and getting fouled, which would present additional scoring opportunities for someone who shoots 91.2% from the foul line.
Juzang also acknowledged the need to become a better rebounder and defender, areas in which he’s made significant progress. He’s averaged nine rebounds over the last three games and hasn’t been beaten off the dribble as much as he had been earlier in the season.
UCLA continues to show perseverance in close games while top players are out because of injuries and others are not performing to their potential.
When he’s scoring like he did against Washington, Juzang said, it’s not a result of hunting shots but seeking the best opportunity for his team. It starts with screening and cutting to create proper spacing before reading the defense to create an advantage.
“Once we’re playing with that advantage,” Juzang said, “it’s either that I am knocking down the shot or looking for if somebody’s helping, who’s open or where the rotation’s coming from.”
After his big showing last weekend, Juzang becoming UCLA’s first Pac-12 player of the week in nearly two years, there was no marinating in the achievement. It was practice, lift and get back onto the freeway for more work, Juzang ready to log the next miles on his journey.
“We got right back to it,” Lovell said, “just letting him know this is not enough, this is just the beginning for you, man.”
UP NEXT FOR UCLA
When: Thursday, 6 p.m.
Where: Pauley Pavilion.
On the air: TV: ESPN2; Radio: 570.
Update: The Wildcats have lost three of four games to fade from conference title contention, but Cronin lauded them for not checking out during a season that won’t end in the NCAA tournament because of a self-imposed postseason ban. Arizona leads the Pac-12 in scoring, averaging 76.5 points per game, and presents matchup problems with a lineup featuring 6-11 forward Azuolas Tubelis and 7-1 center Christian Koloko. The Wildcats got UCLA’s big men in massive foul trouble during the first meeting between the teams this season, but the Bruins pulled out an 81-76 victory largely on the strength of repeatedly getting to the foul line and making 27 of 32 attempts (84.4%).
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