Enough was enough. It was time to talk.
Chris Smith told his coach there were times he felt lost in the offense. Mick Cronin told his star player he could do more to help him.
For much of the season’s early going, Smith has hardly resembled the UCLA guard who last winter was selected the Pac-12’s most improved player of the year.
Confronted with defenders who have crowded him, providing no room to maneuver, he’s taken too many fadeaway jumpers instead of using his size and athleticism to finish around the basket or draw a foul.
“When they’re being physical with him, you’ve got to use it against them to get to the foul line,” Cronin, who covered a variety of topics during his chat with Smith earlier this week, said of the irritating defenders. “I think he’s trying to jump over people and take harder shots and therefore the defense wins.”
Smith’s last two games have been particularly brutal. He missed all eight shots against Marquette but offset that by collecting seven rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot.
Against Ohio State last weekend, Smith’s two-for-eight shooting was accompanied by five rebounds but no steals, blocks or assists.
The senior is averaging 12.1 points per game, one full point fewer than last season, while shooting 39.1% from the field compared to 45.8% as a junior.
Cronin said he was complicit in the dropoff, noting that he had to find ways to get Smith more involved in the flow of the offense.
“I’ve got to help him figure out where his spots are,” Cronin said, “and like I said to him, when we’ve gotten it to him toward his spots, he’s got to score or get fouled.”
Fortunately for Smith, there’s been no falloff in the support of coaches or teammates who have continued to encourage him.
“We believe in him,” sophomore point guard Tyger Campbell said, “and we want him taking his shots and we need him taking his shots and hitting his shots and not worrying about what people on the outside are saying or anything like that.”
Those outsiders include NBA executives who undoubtedly have infiltrated Smith’s thoughts about his performance given that he returned for one final college season to bolster his professional stock. Cronin said Smith needed to focus on being the best possible player, not his statistics.
“That’s all Chris has to worry about,” Cronin said, “making the right play, defense, rebounding, finish better, take care of the ball.”
When: Noon, Wednesday.
Where: Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, Ore.
On the air: TV: ESPN2; Radio: 570.
Update: UCLA will try to end No. 25 Oregon’s 26-game winning streak at Matthew Knight Arena, the fourth-longest active home winning streak in the nation. Any bid to beat the Ducks (6-1 overall, 1-0 Pac-12) starts with the Bruins (5-2, 1-0) frustrating forward Eugene Omoruyi, a senior transfer from Rutgers whom Cronin compared to former NBA All-Star Larry Johnson. “He makes a little over one three a game and in the low post he’s so under control and he's always on balance,” Cronin said of Omoruyi, who is averaging 18.1 points per game. “He can bump you off and score, he can go up and under, he can find the open man. He’s the best player in our league and it’s not even close.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.