Chris Smith announces he will not be returning to UCLA
From the moment he fell to the court inside Pauley Pavilion on the final day of 2020, his knee ligament having given way, it was widely anticipated that Chris Smith had played his final game for UCLA.
Coach Mick Cronin essentially said as much when the diagnosis was delivered two days later while also making sure that his only senior knew that he would be welcome back for one more season. The option to return was granted thanks to an NCAA eligibility extension related to the pandemic that would allow Smith to come back while not counting against the team’s scholarship limits.
Some fans held out hope they might see Smith in a Bruin uniform once more, wondering how the guard could forge ahead with his NBA ambitions given that he had not considerably enhanced his draft stock even before suffering an injury that prevented him from working out for teams or participating in the draft combine. Smith’s remaining on campus to work out as part of a recovery that could stretch into late this year only enhanced those hopes.
Terry Donahue, who guided UCLA to its longest run of football glory under a single coach, died Sunday evening at his home in Newport Beach. He was 77.
But Smith extinguished the possibility of a UCLA return on Monday evening, announcing via Instagram that he would commence his professional career even though he’s absent from many NBA mock draft boards. Should he go undrafted, there’s always the possibility that a team could agree to sign him as a free agent and pledge to develop him upon his recovery.
“Even though my last year did not go the way we all wanted, I feel as if it was the best,” Smith wrote on Instagram as part of a farewell note in which he also thanked his teammates, coaches and support staff. “Although I wanted to be out there fighting with my brothers every night, I loved nothing more than watching everyone grow as players, coaches, men, and together as a family.
“And to everyone who reached out during this tough year, words cannot even express how much I appreciate you all. I am so blessed and lucky to be in this position, to now have a chance to live out my childhood dream of playing basketball for a living. I gave my all every single day I wore blue and gold. Every second was worth it. I will always love you UCLA, and thanks to you I proudly say, I am a Bruin for life!”
The Bruins are still waiting to learn whether sophomore guard Johnny Juzang and redshirt junior forward Cody Riley will remain in the NBA draft or return for another college season; each player has until July 7 to announce his decision. It’s widely expected that Riley will return after not being invited to the NBA draft combine, but Juzang has a more difficult decision to make after having crept into the first round in some mock draft boards.
A bouncy 6 foot 9 with exceptional length for his position, Smith had intrigued NBA executives with his potential and exasperated them with his inconsistency. Selected as the Pac-12 Conference’s most improved player during the 2019-2020 season, Smith had returned last season to show improved reliability before enduring more ups and downs.
Having scored in single digits in the two games immediately preceding the start of conference play, Smith was on his way to a breakout against Utah on Dec. 31, making all six of his shots before going down with an injury before halftime. He returned only to suffer what trainers believe was the torn anterior cruciate ligament in the game’s final minute.
In eight games last season, Smith averaged 12.6 points and 6.4 rebounds while making 50% of his three-pointers.
“I totally support Chris Smith, and we all thank him for his fantastic attitude and all his contributions to UCLA men’s basketball,” Cronin said in a statement. “Personally, I’m going to miss Chris and seeing him flash that great smile. I’d like to publicly thank him for his support and belief in myself and our coaching staff when we took over two years ago. Chris will make it as a professional as he gets healthy, no doubt.”
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Smith remained a constant presence around his teammates after his injury, a bulky brace unable to prevent him from giving pointers at practice and celebrating from the bench during games.
As UCLA made its spine-tingling run to the Final Four, Smith became something of a good-luck charm, huddling with teammates before games and slapping UCLA stickers onto a giant NCAA tournament bracket inside the hotel after each victory to signify the Bruins were moving on to the next round.
“Whenever I’m around the guys I try to be as positive as possible,” Smith said before the start of the tournament, “because I still feel like I’m locked in when I’m there at the games because I feel like I can still affect my teammates in some way.”
Now he’ll have to cheer them from afar, just as they root for his comeback to land him in the NBA.
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