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UCLA’s Amari Bailey may be goofy off the court, but freshman courts serious accolades

UCLA guard Amari Bailey (5) dunks against Oregon State.
UCLA guard Amari Bailey dunks against Oregon State on Feb. 9.
(Amanda Loman / Associated Press)
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Amari Bailey always lets his teammates hear it.

A high-pitched scream at a random moment. Yodeling as they’re about to step into the shower.

It often pierces the silence. It always makes everyone on UCLA’s basketball team laugh.

“He’s a whole different person off the court,” teammate Jaylen Clark said, cracking a smile at the memory of the auditory assault. “That kid you see off the court, he acts like he’s 12, if you know what I mean.”

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On the court, Bailey acts as if he’s as old as some of those dusty banners hanging inside Pauley Pavilion. He looks so serious that he sometimes has to explain his demeanor.

“I may look checked out or pissed off or reserved,” Bailey said, “when the whole time I’m just locked into the game plan. I’ve looked like this my whole life.”

The No. 4 Bruins have won 21 consecutive games at Pauley Pavilion and look to go undefeated at home for the first time since the 2006-07 season.

Feb. 16, 2023

The Tao of Amari makes perfect sense for the surging Bruins. The self-described goofball has provided levity and gravitas, not to mention a quick burst and silky moves, for a team that needs it all in search of its first national championship since 1995.

Teammates describe him as a quick learner who readily absorbs scouting reports and never has to be told anything more than once.

“The maturity level that he’s at, it’s really rare to see a young guy have that,” fifth-year senior David Singleton said of the baby-faced teammate who is a front runner for Pac-12 freshman of the year even after missing more than a month with a foot injury.

Both sides of Bailey’s personality were on display in December when he dropped 14 second-half points on Oregon, then after the game picked up a phone that had been placed on the table in front of him to record his words.

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“Hello, hello, hello,” Bailey said into the phone before putting it down and taking the first question.

This is just what he does. Put in the work and have a hearty laugh about it later.

UCLA dominated Cal on Saturday, but its lack of quality wins compared to Arizona might force the Bruins to start their NCAA tournament trek in the East Regional.

Feb. 18, 2023

“I’m going to find a way to have fun, best believe,” Bailey said with a chuckle as the fourth-ranked Bruins (23-4, 14-2 Pac-12) prepared to play Utah (17-11, 10-7) on Thursday night at the Huntsman Center. “I mean, I feel like if you’re not enjoying anything that you’re doing, I don’t think you should be doing it — I mean that wholeheartedly. I’m enjoying every moment of this, just the process.

“I feel like if you can enjoy the process, the result doesn’t really matter — win, lose or draw. I mean, obviously we would all love to win in a perfect world, but really the process to get to whatever moment it is, like you have to hunt moments and then just put your head down and work and that’s what I’ve been doing.”

In many ways, Bailey’s approach is the antithesis of the entitled five-star prospect. A teen sensation since a video of him dunking in middle school transcended the usual basketball circles, Bailey arrived in Westwood well on the way to his current cache of 565,000 Instagram followers.

His father almost went down in Indianapolis Colts lore, wide receiver Aaron Bailey nearly hauling in Jim Harbaugh’s Hail Mary on the final play of the 1995 AFC championship game against Pittsburgh. As he leaped in the end zone amid a scrum of defenders who tipped the pass into his stomach as he fell, Bailey momentarily looked as if he might make the play of a lifetime before the ball rolled off his belly onto the turf. He spent five seasons with the Colts before finishing his career in the Arena Football League.

Amari moved from his native Chicago to Southern California before high school in search of a new challenge, enrolling at Sierra Canyon in Chatsworth. He verbally committed to UCLA twice — once under former coach Steve Alford and again one month before Mick Cronin guided the Bruins on their goosebump-inducing run to the Final Four in 2021.

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UCLA guard Amari Bailey handles the ball in a game against Maryland.
(Terrance Williams / Associated Press)

The common denominator in both commitments was a love of UCLA. Playing for a coach who was going to push him was a bonus, not a deterrent.

“He never asked me a question about NIL, never asked me a question about how I was going to use him, what position he was going to play,” Cronin said. “And he knew how I was — we’re gonna play to win, you’re gonna have to listen. And that’s not always easy, man. I’m well aware of it. But it’s like eating vegetables, though — it’s good for you.”

Sprouting from his college debut, when he scored 10 points against Sacramento State, the willowy 6-foot-5 guard has elevated the Bruins’ veteran core with his elite passing as well as a natural athleticism that allows him to get to the basket and stay in front of his man on defense.

His best basketball has come just as the calendar approaches March. Since returning from the foot injury late last month, Bailey has averaged 11.7 points on 53% shooting, including a career-high 24 points against Oregon State. Some of his most animated celebrations have come on assists that he’s followed with a fist pump, Bailey explaining that he enjoys seeing teammates succeed more than himself.

Watch him long enough and he just might make eye contact. He’s always observing those around him, from forward Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s moves around the basket to the way walk-on guard Russell Stong IV runs the offense in practice.

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Any credible scouting report also would note Bailey’s tendency to offset highlight plays with turnovers as well as endure defensive lulls such as the first half against Stanford last week, when he was benched for not generating any deflections.

UCLA offensive lineman Atonio Mafi is sharing his journey to the NFL draft through a weekly diary leading up to the event April 27.

Feb. 22, 2023

“Coach will tell me all the time, ‘What good is being 6-5 if you’re not going to get deflections and steals and blocks and just making it tough on the passer when you’re on the ball?’ ” Bailey said. “So I’m using everything that I’m being coached on and just applying it every single day. I mean, I’m going to make mistakes and get yelled at, but what’s the risk-reward, what are you willing to do?”

A reminder of how far Bailey has come and how much mileage is left in the journey came last week when he turned 19. There was birthday cake in the locker room after a victory over California, part of a joint celebration with Jaquez turning 22 that day.

As Jaquez lingered on the court to complete an interview, first dibs on blowing out the candles went to Bailey. His happiest moment might have come when he got to sign the team’s ceremonial deflections dog bone, an honor for the player who piles up the most tipped passes, steals, blocks and loose balls of any Bruin in that game, the latest tribute to his relentlessness.

“There are two types of people — the guy that goes and gets the job done and the guy that says ‘I tried,’ ” Bailey said, repeating one of his coach’s mantras. “So I keep that with me repeatedly every time I wake up.”

The goofy side is never far off. Recently he drove aimlessly around Westwood with Singleton just for fun. Sometimes, as he leaves a room, he’ll turn off the lights even if others are still inside. Or unleash one of his unexpected shrieks.

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“That’s me,” he said, “the big kid in the locker room.”

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