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You say you want an evolution? Look at how far UCLA’s players have come

UCLA players celebrate after an Elite Eight game against Michigan in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament.
UCLA players celebrate after their victory over Michigan on Tuesday to advance to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament.
(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)
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UCLA is back in the Final Four for the first time since 2008 in large part because its players are the same ones who opened the season in name only.

They’ve continually evolved thanks to coach Mick Cronin’s prodding and their own insistence on improvement. Roles have expanded, shooting percentages have soared and weaknesses have been minimized.

Here’s a look at where each player in UCLA’s expected rotation was over the season’s first month versus where he is on the eve of facing Gonzaga on Saturday in a national semifinal:

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Cody Riley | Junior forward

UCLA forward Cody Riley looks to pass against Michigan on Tuesday.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

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Then: Establishing himself as the team’s top big man with Jalen Hill sidelined because of knee tendinitis to start the season, Riley mostly excelled on the offensive end. He was a force around the basket with spin moves for layups, particularly against counterparts who were his size or smaller, and unleashed a reliable 15-foot jumper.

Now: With Hill having departed the team for personal reasons in February, Riley was forced to become the designated rim protector. He’s averaged nearly two blocks per game since the final game of the regular season and has started to resemble his more athletic teammate in other ways, leaping for an alley-oop dunk against Abilene Christian.

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Johnny Juzang | Sophomore forward

UCLA guard Johnny Juzang passes during the Bruins' win over BYU.
UCLA guard Johnny Juzang passes during the Bruins’ win over BYU in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
(AJ Mast / Associated Press)

Then: The Kentucky transfer’s season debut was delayed by a stress reaction in his right foot that forced him to miss four games. A naturally gifted scorer, Juzang occasionally hurt the team’s offensive flow by forcing shots in an attempt to pile up points for a team that desperately needed them.

Now: The impact of Juzang, the breakout star of the NCAA tournament, has transcended his 108 points in five games. He’s vastly improved his ability to stay in front of his man on defense and shown toughness fighting for rebounds.

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Jules Bernard | Junior guard

UCLA's Jules Bernard controls the ball during the Bruins' win over Michigan State in the First Four.
(Robert Franklin / Associated Press)

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Then: Bernard mixed a few big, early performances with others in which he was hardly noticeable. Curiously, he revived an old habit of wildly driving into the heart of the defense, leading to turnovers and missed shots.

Now: Moving into the starting lineup after Chris Smith’s season-ending knee injury, Bernard improved his consistency and became one of the team’s most explosive players, making four of five three-pointers in the first half against Alabama. He fought through a case of turf toe to play 39 minutes two days later against Michigan, his turnaround jumper with four minutes left giving UCLA the lead for good.

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Tyger Campbell | Sophomore guard

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell controls the ball against Michigan on Tuesday.
(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

Then: The team’s most indispensable player, Campbell showed he could be both a scorer and a facilitator when he opened the season by reaching double figures in points in four of the first five games.

Now: Some late-season shooting struggles haven’t stopped the Bruins’ only first-team All-Pac-12 player from making winning plays, including a couple of late baskets against Brigham Young and two charges taken in the opening minute against Alabama.

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Jaime Jaquez Jr. | Sophomore guard

UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. drives up court against Michigan on Tuesday.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

Then: Logging heavy, albeit productive minutes over the opening weeks eventually took a toll as Jaquez fell into a midseason funk in which he scored in single digits in five of six games.

Now: Rejuvenated by a 25-point performance on his birthday in February, Jaquez has returned to peak form in the NCAA tournament no matter how many minutes he’s played. He carried the Bruins with a career-high 27 points while playing all 45 minutes in their opening victory over Michigan State and continues to fight for rebounds and loose balls.

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David Singleton | Junior guard

UCLA guard David Singleton dribbles during the Bruins' win over Alabama on March 28.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

Then: Designated as a three-point specialist, Singleton made some big ones off the bench to start the season before his minutes plummeted upon Juzang’s return from his foot injury.

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Now: Playing off the ball once Bernard took over as the primary backup point guard helped free Singleton for more open looks. He’s also expanded his game beyond three-pointers, driving for pull-up jumpers and scrapping for rebounds.

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Jaylen Clark | Freshman guard

UCLA guard Jaylen Clark attempts a free throw against Washington in January.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Then: Having made practice miserable for his teammates with lockdown defense, Clark wasn’t much of a factor in games, logging only a handful of minutes.

Now: It can be hard to take him out. Whether he’s grabbing rebounds in bunches — nine in only 19 minutes against Alabama — making a free throw to beat Arizona State, shutting down his man or playing center as part of a small-ball lineup, Clark plays with a relentlessness that has sparked multiple victories.

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Kenneth Nwuba | Sophomore forward

UCLA forward Kenneth Nwuba, left, is defended by Arizona forward Jordan Brown during a game on Feb. 18.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Then: Nwuba barely played over the first month as the third big man in a rotation that relied almost exclusively on Riley and Hill.

Now: He’s become a reliable defensive option off the bench, drawing charges against Michigan in the regional final and setting sturdy screens. As a bonus, he’s unveiled some of the team’s most electric dance moves after victories.

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Jake Kyman | Sophomore guard

UCLA's Jake Kyman looks to pass around Michigan State's Marcus Bingham Jr. during the Bruins' First Four win on March 18.
(Robert Franklin / Associated Press)

Then: The sharpshooter who carried the Bruins to victories over Washington and Arizona State last season with a barrage of three-pointers endured a prolonged slump, failing to make more than one shot from long range through the end of 2020.

Now: Kyman still hasn’t posted a big game but has contributed in other ways, making pull-up jumpers and playing better defense. And he may be on the verge of that breakthrough. His two three-pointers in the first half against Abilene Christian helped the Bruins pull away.

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Mac Etienne | Freshman forward

UCLA forward Mac Etienne passes the ball in front of Washington State center Efe Abogidi.
UCLA forward Mac Etienne, left, passes the ball in front of Washington State center Efe Abogidi during a game on Feb. 11.
(Young Kwak / Associated Press)

Then: Etienne was attending a Connecticut prep academy, waiting to find out if there would a basketball season while he completed his coursework toward graduation.

Now: After having joined the Bruins over the Christmas break, spending 17 days isolated in quarantine, Etienne is maximizing a season of free basketball that won’t count against his future eligibility. He’s become more than a bit player, starting one game and memorably blocking a shot by USC’s Evan Mobley while also displaying excellent hands and footwork.

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