Wed Oct 27 06:17pm EDT
LOS ANGELES — When the dark-haired man sat down in the bleachers, removed his jacket and revealed a UCLA basketball polo shirt this time last year, point guard Lazeric Jones admits it caught him completely by surprise.
"UCLA doesn't typically recruit junior college kids, so I was wondering, 'Wow, who's he here for,'" Jones recalled. "Then my coach called me over and introduced me to (UCLA assistant coach) Scott Duncan. It brought a huge smile to my face."
That UCLA made Jones its first significant junior college signee in more than two decades may help the Bruins patch up some of the holes exposed by an ugly 14-18 season last year. The 6-foot-1 Chicago product from John Logan College in Carterville, Ill. gives UCLA coach Ben Howland a capable ball-handler and strong defender at point guard next season if incumbent Jerime Anderson continues to struggle.
One of the crown jewels of UCLA's ill-fated top-ranked Class of 2008 recruiting class, Anderson faltered so badly in all facets of the game last year that Howland benched him at midseason and slid wing Malcolm Lee over to point guard. Howland intends to play Lee at his natural shooting guard position this season, so he has declared the starting point guard job "a full-on competition" between Anderson and Jones.
If either Anderson or Jones embraces that challenge and develops into a trustworthy point guard, it would be a huge boost to a UCLA team that already has a pair of NBA prospects at wing and adds McDonald's All-American Josh Smith to a solid frontcourt. Jones played with the first team during an open practice earlier this week, but Howland insisted on a recent teleconference that neither point guard has edged ahead in the competition thus far.
"They're both competing well," Howland said. "Jerime benefits from having the experience of having been in the program a couple years and Zeke's doing a nice job defensively for us early in his tenure. The good news is they really compete hard against each other and they really make each other better."
It would be difficult to find two point guards who took more divergent paths to get to Westwood than Jones and Anderson. As Jones was fighting to catch the attention of marquee Division I coaches while toiling in obscurity in junior college, Anderson was struggling to live up to the hype that accompanied his ballyhooed arrival at UCLA.
Expected to emerge as Howland's next great point guard when he signed with UCLA out of nearby Canyon High in Anaheim, Anderson did not meet expectations after inheriting the starting job from Darren Collison as a sophomore. He averaged a meager 5.8 points and 3.4 assists, losing first his confidence and then his starting job as his aggressiveness, outside shooting and decision-making ability all faltered.
It's hard to pinpoint Anderson's nadir as a sophomore because there were so many forgettable moments. There was his 1-for-11 shooting in a season-opening loss to Cal State Fullerton. There was the game against Cal when he was benched at the start for being late to a rehab session. And there was the time against cross-town rival USC when he got stripped calling a play while bringing the ball up the court, leading to Marcus Johnson's game-clinching fastbreak dunk.
"There were times where I lost confidence in myself and my game," Anderson said. "Last summer I had a job and different things like that trying to make some money and my head wasn't where it should have been. This year, I worked harder than I had my whole life. My focus was on basketball and getting better."
Motivation wasn't difficult for Anderson to find this summer during early-morning weight-lifting sessions or on-campus pick-up games against NBA players at UCLA's men's gym. Anderson didn't want to experience another season like last year and he knew his place in the starting lineup and the rotation was on the line since Howland had brought in Jones and persuaded Class of 2011 combo guard Matt Carlino to enroll a year early.
The renewed commitment from Anderson hasn't gone unnoticed by teammates and coaches.
"I feel like his whole mindset has changed," Lee said. "He's been working out a lot more and I think it's going to show in his game. I remember I saw him on campus one day and I was like 'J, why are you so sweaty right now?' He told me he'd just gotten done running on the track and running on the bleachers. I had a lot of respect for him after that."
For Jones, simply receiving a scholarship offer from UCLA was the culmination of a lifelong dream.
Undersized and lightly recruited at Chicago's Simeon High, Jones opted to pass up the handful of low-major scholarship offers he received and enroll in junior college in hopes something better might one day come along. Sure enough, he improved his decision-making, worked hard in the weight room and experienced a late growth spurt, blossoming into the nation's most coveted junior college point guard and drawing interest from the likes of Arizona, Nevada and Wisconsin in addition to UCLA.
"If I could do it all again, I'd do it the same way," Jones said. "At the time I may not have liked the decision to go to junior college, but as time went on, it was always the right one for me to get me to this level. It gave me a lot of patience and taught me a real lesson. In life, you have to build your way up. Nothing's going to be given to you. You have to work for everything."
UCLA's unexpected interest in Jones last winter revealed several things about the Bruins' mindset at the time. They were concerned about the lack of progress made by Anderson, they were rightfully fearful of striking out with marquee Class of 2010 targets Ray McCallum and Trey Zeigler and they viewed Jones as a potential ideal insurance policy.
Although the point guard position may not be a strength for UCLA this season, one exciting aspect for UCLA is that Anderson and Jones seem to compliment each other quite well.
Jones is the better on-ball defender and finisher at the rim, though his knowledge of the offense is a work in progress. Anderson is a skilled passer and he's confident his jump shot has improved, but a lack of lateral quickness or length will probably prevent him from ever developing into a defensive stopper.
The other encouraging aspect for UCLA is that the heated battle for the starting job between Anderson and Jones hasn't hasn't created an off-court rivalry.
They go to dinner a few nights a week. They sit together during classes. And they're always in each-other's rooms either watching movies or playing spirited games of NBA 2K11.
"Zeke's already one of my good friends," Anderson said. "People on the outside see we're going for the same spot and they automatically assume we don't like each other, but at the end of the day, we're working for the same goal. I know Zeke wants me to do as good as possible and I want Zeke to do as good as possible because that's best for our team."