LOS ANGELES -- The thought crept into Joshua Smith’s head without warning: What if two more years go by and nothing has changed?
The 2011-12 UCLA basketball season was forgettable for the Bruins in part because Smith’s untapped potential remained trapped in underachievement.
Those types of seasons tend to send thoughts streaming into your head. What went wrong? Why did it happen? What could I have done to prevent it? Those are the questions for which Smith had easy answers. He came to camp out of shape, never did anything about it and should have done more than sit on his couch in Washington all last summer.
But the thought of another season in which he fails to live up to expectations inspired Smith to take action. He vowed not to let his conditioning go unchecked for an entire summer. Instead of returning home, he would stay on campus and work with his team. He sought the advice of a nutritionist and bought a Magic Bullet blender.
In short, he decided that he no longer wanted to be the guy who was supposed to break out as one of the country’s best big men. He wants to be the guy who does.
“Two years have already gone by,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of things I would want to change, but I can’t. I’ve got two years left to do something. It’s kind of like I woke up after my sophomore year and said I don’t want to look back at college and say, ‘If I would have done this or if I would have gotten in shape, things would have been different.’ I just want to do it and see what happens.”
Smith took the lion’s share of the blame for UCLA failing to meet expectations last season. A 6-foot-10 All-American coming out of high school, Smith seemed destined to become a star. He’s charismatic, well-spoken and has shown flashes of NBA ability throughout his two seasons.
Motivation, however, has been an issue since before he stepped on campus. Smith never was one of the players who stayed after practice to work on skills and conditioning. He didn’t put much stock into grinding in the weight room. He played basketball mostly because he was big. And because he was big, he could hold his own. But he sometimes thought of himself as a baseball player trapped in a basketball body.
“I’m not going to lie, I questioned how much I wanted to play basketball,” he said. “I never really loved the game. I just kind of coasted off the fact that I was 6-10.”
In college, Smith clearly couldn’t coast. Guys he easily outplayed in high school were outworking him by leaps and bounds and out-playing him. He averaged 10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds as a freshman, but that dropped to 9.9 and 4.9 as a sophomore. The main culprit was foul trouble that kept him off the court. He played 21.7 minutes a game as a freshman and only 17.2 last season.
Many of those fouls were conditioning related. He got tired easily, so he got lazy and began reaching in or tried plowing though people because he didn’t have the stamina to make a move. Teams routinely neutralized him with double teams because he simply didn’t have the energy to find a way out of it.
Smith acknowledges he knew things weren’t going well, yet did little to prevent it. This year, he said, is going to be different.
“I want to actually do something about it and not just talk the talk and not walk the walk,” he said. “That’s just what I’m trying to do now so that when it comes to the season, people are like, ‘Wow, this guy is really serious. He’s lost 20-30 pounds and he’s motivated.’ I don’t want to show up like I did last season where since the exhibition game, it just went all downhill.”
If Smith follows through on those promises, UCLA will be a force in college basketball this season. The Bruins have added the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class with players such as Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, who can be immediate difference-makers.
Add in a solid core of returning players, such as twins David and Travis Wear, Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell , and you have a team that many are picking to make a serious national championship run. Smith, of course, is the X-factor.
If Smith is in shape and effective, it will either open the floor for slashing scorers such as Muhammad and sharpshooters such as freshman Jordan Adams or create a favorable matchup for Smith in the paint.
“I think Josh is key,” coach Ben Howland said. “I think that Josh is as hard of a matchup as there is. I don’t think anybody in the college game can stop Josh one-on-one in the post. He is the key for us, no doubt.”
And Howland said Smith is finally beginning to figure out just how much better the team will be if he can play productive minutes.
“He understood that last year because I told him that,” Howland said. “But I think he’s starting to embrace it.”
He’s also making strides in the effort to get in better condition. He’s eating smarter, for one thing. Last year, he said, he wouldn’t eat before practice and that created a vicious circle in which he would run out of energy while practicing and therefore be unable to work himself into shape.
Then, to make matters worse, he’d go home after practice and eat a big meal because he was so hungry from not eating and working out.
“I was having a Jamba Juice and that’s all I would eat,” Smith said. “I’m running on fumes, two workouts and a practice and then by the time I’m eating, I’m in starvation mode.”
Now, with the aid of a nutritionist and his Magic Bullet blender, Smith is eating smaller meals spaced throughout the day. He also checks in with her before he goes out to dinner and asks for some good options at the restaurant.
He gets weighed once a week but never asks the total. He knows only that he has lost between 15-20 pounds since the end of last season and still has a long way to go.
“I feel a lot better,” he said. “I’m just trying to take care of my body, just make sure I’m hydrated, make sure I’m eating and I just feel good. Running up and down I feel like I can still do better to where I can play 30 minutes a game without getting in to foul trouble and giving it my all.”
Given what happened last summer when Smith said he “was chilling and enjoying my summer,” his teammates promised to keep a close eye on him this summer. They all know how important he is to the team’s success and wanted to make sure he reported ready to play when the season opens. So far, however, they haven’t had to say much.
“We haven’t really had to be on him,” Lamb said. “Everybody saw what happened to us last year and Josh knows what he can do and what he’s capable of and he’s been on himself. He’s been real disciplined.”
It’s already paying dividends on the court. During a practice session of nearly an hour Tuesday, the Bruins worked exclusively on transition offense -- getting out and running the floor. Smith played the entire session without a break and never seemed to lag far behind.
He ran the floor as hard as he could, scored, rebounded and blocked shots. A youth basketball camp was there watching and, after the session was over, the Bruins treated the kids to a slam-dunk session. Smith threw down three two-handed power jams without much of a problem.
“It’s just a process,” Smith said. “I feel better running up and down, but the season isn’t for another four months so I’ve got to keep going. … People aren’t expecting anything out of me. They’re just like, 'Josh had a decent year his freshman year, had a lackluster year sophomore year and it’s not like he’s the kind of guy who can do that' and I’m just trying to prove them wrong.”