May 23, 2024

Giving up about two feet as he stood next to the 7-foot-3 center, the coach and the freshman looked like reflections from funhouse mirrors.

The bigger presence belonged to the coach.

Mick Cronin paired his considerably smaller body with a booming voice to demonstrate proper positioning to Aday Mara.

“We’re not standing there like a … Christmas tree!” Cronin roared, adding a not-so-festive word for emphasis.

Whether addressing a freshman or a senior, one of his new Europeans or an American holdover, Cronin used the same language Friday while teaching what’s essentially a brand-new UCLA basketball team. Sophomore Adem Bona is the only full-time starter back from the veteran-drenched team that felt like it was around since the turn of the century.

Massive turnover necessitated a seven-man freshman class heavy on international players plus the arrival of Lazar Stefanovic, a transfer from Utah. It’s also forcing Cronin to get back to basics.

“What you’ve got to do is remind yourself they don’t know,” Cronin said of his freshmen after allowing reporters to watch the final 30 minutes of practice. “They have no defensive habits and it’s not their fault. So, you can’t just think, ‘Well, we worked on that yesterday.’ It takes, like, sometimes two months, sometimes two years to get guys to habitually do the right things defensively — on the ball, off the ball, blocking out, just all the fundamental things. So that’s why older teams tend to have the advantage.”

Cronin’s players had made his point moments earlier. Passes flew out of bounds. Defensive rotations were missed. Balls were stolen from the backside.

Sophomore point guard Dylan Andrews might have felt like a freshman considering he’s now running this team for the first time upon the departure of Tyger Campbell.

Giving Andrews pointers on attacking a defender from the wing, Cronin added, “You saw Tyger and Jaime [Jaquez Jr.] do it all season.” A few moments later, Cronin praised Andrews for finding his way into the lane for a mid-range jumper, no matter that it didn’t go in.

“That’s what I want,” Cronin said. “You’re going to make eight out of 10 of those.”

With Berke Buyuktuncel home sick and Bona cheering on his teammates during four-on-four drills while waiting to be fully cleared from the shoulder injury that sidelined him late last season, sixth-year senior center Kenneth Nwuba capably manned the middle.

Showing off a muscular frame that reflects the best shape of his career, Nwuba unleashed a variety of impressive moves. There were turnaround jumpers, a dunk off a lob and a layup off a jump stop.

“Kenny’s the best nonstarter in America, is what I would tell you — America’s backup,” Cronin said. “But … I’m not saying he’s not going to start this year.”

Cronin was also pleased by sophomore guard Will McClendon’s active hands that made him the deflections king during the open part of practice and the toughness of freshman forward Brandon Williams, whose put-back in heavy traffic prompted him to flex his arms and roar in celebration.

A summer tour of Spain in which the Bruins played three exhibition games accelerated the young team’s growth, but there are going to be limits on how much freshmen can do. Cronin said he’s going to have go with a heavy rotation to compensate for freshman fatigue — ”They go from playing well to awful as soon as they get tired,” the coach said — and make sure he doesn’t ask young players to execute concepts they haven’t mastered.

Cronin reiterated the plan to play two big men at once, saying that meant the Bruins needed to be really good on defense and at grabbing rebounds. On the latter front, with the tallest team of his five seasons in Westwood, Cronin said this could be his best offensive rebounding team.

The Bruins ended practice with a drill in which they tried to make 100 mid-range shots in four minutes. As shots fell through the net, Cronin yelled, “Footwork!” as a reminder of the often ignored part of shooting form.

The final tally: 121. With the season opener a month away, the young team met the moment.

“That,” Cronin said, “means I didn’t make them practice hard enough.”

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