May 18, 2024

Living with someone who’s 7 feet 3 doesn’t only lead to looking up.

A few months ago, Lazar Stefanovic glanced across the four-bedroom apartment he shares with Aday Mara and two other UCLA freshmen and noticed a stool that had been in the living room was now residing in Mara’s bedroom.

The tallest Bruin since 7-7 center Mike Lanier in the early 1990s, Mara had placed that stool at the end of his bed so that his size-18 feet would have something to rest on. It was a temporary fix, Mara eventually getting the bed outfitted with a more comfortable extension.

Even so, his size figures to be a seasonlong storyline. Stefanovic, who at 6-7 is not exactly short himself, likes walking around campus with Mara because it renders him practically invisible. Everyone they encounter is too busy gawking at the 7-foot freshman and asking the same questions.

How tall are you? Do you play basketball?

Mara’s arrival means that sophomore center Adem Bona no longer has the biggest shoe size (17) or wingspan (7-4) on the team. At 6-10, Bona has also been bumped into a three-way tie for the second-tallest player alongside sixth-year senior Kenneth Nwuba and freshman Devin Williams, all ceding five inches to Mara.

“Aday is just a big human being,” Bona said with a laugh. “He’s such an amazing talent and I think it’s going to be trouble for teams having both of us on the floor.”

They’re just part of a supersized, freshman-heavy roster that could help UCLA hit the big-time in its fifth season under coach Mick Cronin and first without trusted sidekicks Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell.

The Bruins are massive in the post (6-9 forward Berke Buyuktuncel will also be a huge part of the rotation in addition to Bona and Mara), on the wings (6-6 Ilane Fibleuil, 6-3 Will McClendon and 6-7 Brandon Williams will rotate with Stefanovic) and at point guard (6-2 Dylan Andrews, 6-3 Sebastian Mack and 6-6 Jan Vide are all significantly taller than predecessor Campbell).

All that height has prompted Cronin to say he would go with a two-big lineup for the first time since Cody Riley and Jalen Hill patrolled the paint during Cronin’s first season with the Bruins. Yet the coach will be watching two categories closely. If his team isn’t dominant in rebounding and defense, he might reverse course and go back to using four guards.

Don’t count on it. Having Bona and Mara on the court together for long stretches could cause problems for opponents beyond the obvious issues scoring over their length.

“You drive in and you see those guys,” Stefanovic said, “you’re like, all right, I’m dribbling out, I’m not shooting over them.”

Bona is quick enough to switch onto point guards on the perimeter, and Mara is deceptively fast for his size.

“That’s something that people don’t understand,” Bona said of his teammate. “They think he’s 7-3 and he can’t move well; that dude can also guard the pick-and-roll really well with his frame, with his size and his length, his wingspan. Good luck to people trying to get around that.”

After having his first college season end prematurely because of a shoulder injury, a fully recovered Bona is expected to become a two-way force. He’s added a midrange jump shot and new post moves to his effortless catching lobs for dunks. Cronin has repeatedly said Bona will be the team’s best player and a first-round NBA draft pick in June.

There’s one thing Bona’s willing to concede. Even with his long limbs, he’s given up trying to contend with the Mara sky hook that has led to Bona calling his teammate Kareem Abdul-Mara. It’s a playful spin on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the former Bruin (then known as Lew Alcindor) whose favorite move helped him become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer before being eclipsed by LeBron James.

The babyfaced Mara has wowed teammates and coaches with his ability to shoot with either hand and pass like a point guard, though he might need to avoid getting a little too cutesy.

“Aday, even though I love the way he plays,” Nwuba said, “the one-handed passes, you’ve got to be cautious about that.”

The last holdover from the Steve Alford era, Nwuba is no longer an insurance policy. He’s the only player on the team who has played in a Final Four, not to mention filling in admirably for Bona last year in the NCAA tournament before a pinched nerve in his hip early in the second half of a Sweet 16 loss to Gonzaga limited his mobility.

Now he’s in the best shape of his career, adding a turnaround jumper to an array of increasingly impressive moves around the basket.

“Kenny’s the best non-starter in America, is what I would tell you,” Cronin said, “America’s backup.”

Cronin immediately corrected himself, saying Nwuba could start some games. That would mean beating out a talented cast of counterparts that includes Buyuktuncel, another immensely skilled big man who can score in a variety of ways.

“He has a good all-around game,” Stefanovic said of Buyuktuncel, another giant who inhabits his apartment alongside Mara and Vide. “He can play inside-outside, he can pass pretty good, he’s a lefty, so the lefties are usually a little atypical and harder to guard.”

Another benefit to playing with so much size is that it should lead to more open shots from the perimeter given the need for opposing defenses to pack the interior to limit easy scoring opportunities. That could reverse a worrisome trend in which UCLA’s three-point percentage has declined in each of the last three seasons, from 37.2% in 2020-21 to 35.3% in 2021-22 to 34.9% in 2022-23.

Stefanovic could be the veteran who holds the team together in his first season after transferring from Utah. A junior sharpshooter known for making the smart play, he’s already instituted rules about keeping common areas clean in the apartment he shares with those freshmen.

“I don’t care what you do in your room,” Stefanovic said of his edict, “but the areas we use together, it has to be clean. You can’t leave the dirty stuff behind.”

No one has to tell Mara what to do every time he enters the apartment. He has no choice. Lowering his head and shoulders, he ducks.

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