Amari Bailey's moment has arrived. How far will it take him and UCLA?
His ethos can be found under his right bicep, in large black letters.
“No Vanity,” the tattoo reads.
It would be so easy to indulge in just a little now.
Amari Bailey is no longer an up-and-coming college basketball star. He’s here.
With every slick move to the basket, every defensive stop, every pass that finds a teammate in the perfect spot, the UCLA freshman guard is elevating an already formidable team into a potentially unstoppable force at just the right time.
He’s become so invaluable that his coach lamented not getting him the ball more during the Bruins’ 68-63 victory over Northwestern in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“What did Amari have?” Mick Cronin said afterward, scanning the box score for the point tally. “Fourteen. I was hoping for 18. But it’s my fault he didn’t get enough shots. Still working on figuring that one out.”
Fortunately for the Bruins, Bailey is more than capable of getting his own shot. He spun around Northwestern’s Boo Buie for a fastbreak layup, nailed a jumper at the end of the shot clock and buried a three-pointer to give his team its largest lead of the game.
Along the way, he showed that UCLA’s offense no longer consists of Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell and whatever scraps the team can find.
“Give Amari Bailey credit,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “Thought he really stepped up and gave 'em great production as a third scorer.”
It wasn’t an anomaly. In the five games since Jaylen Clark suffered a season-ending lower-leg injury, Bailey has averaged 17 points, including a career-high 26 against Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament. That average is nearly double the 9.6 points Bailey had averaged before Clark’s injury and makes Bruins fans understand they better enjoy his presence during what figures to be a brief college stay.
How long might he stick around?
“Really just focusing day by day,” Bailey recently told The Times when asked about going to the NBA or coming back for a second season at UCLA. “You know, I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. Right now, I’m focused on helping win banner No. 12, that’s my No. 1 goal.”
He’ll need to be at his playmaking best to watch that blue-and-gold fabric rise inside Pauley Pavilion, rising to each exponentially harder challenge. Up next for the second-seeded Bruins is a regional semifinal at T-Mobile Arena against third-seeded Gonzaga on Thursday at 7 p.m. PDT.
Anyone who thinks Bailey is just a scoring dynamo isn’t watching closely. His lockdown defense on Buie, the Wildcats’ best player, kept him without a field goal in the first half and seemed to make him unusually passive before he got going in the second half. Buie finished with 18 points but made only five of 13 shots and was so out of sorts that he missed a gimme layup with 13 seconds left that sealed the Wildcats’ fate.
Bailey also drove and dished to center Adem Bona for a dunk early in the game, showing his elite passing skills. Yes, his three turnovers were the most on the team, a continuing trend that might make those hoping Bailey comes back next season hold out hope that he wants to fix that issue before going to the next level.
One aspect of Bailey’s game that’s NBA-ready is his competitiveness.
“I love guys that play hard because they get better,” Cronin said. “You can polish up the other stuff if a guy will compete. Like if I was a front-office executive [in the NBA], if I couldn’t get the answer to that, I could care less about length, skill, height, upside. If I watch a guy and he doesn’t have a ticker and he won’t physically compete, I can tell you that guy’s got no shot in the NBA because those guys, for all their drama, those guys play hard, man.”
Bailey was a big brand before setting foot on campus, having accumulated most of his 565,000 Instagram followers. But he didn’t big-time anyone or get lost in his own celebrity.
“I never get into all of that, honestly,” Bailey said of getting caught up in the hype. “I view myself as a human being, first. I catch myself at times like from maybe what I may be perceived as, but at the end of the day, I’m a 19-year-old kid that’s just figuring it out like everyone else. I’d say I’m going to make mistakes and I’m here to learn through all of them, really just being a sponge and soaking up everything I can and just seizing every day that I get here.”
Bailey studies every teammate, even watching Russell Stong IV’s moves in practice. Top players staying connected to the walk-ons has kept the locker room unified, no cliques forming based on the number of stars anyone received in high school.
“I haven’t played on a team where we were so cohesive,” Bailey said, “really just wanted the best for each other — it didn’t matter what we had going on personally, it didn’t matter what we had going on off the floor, as soon as we got in between the line or come to the practice facility, get on the plane or whatever, there’s an instant release, so that’s something I can always look forward to.”
For two more weeks, if all goes well.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.