LOS ANGELES -- Tony Parker limped down the long hallway toward the locker room in Pauley Pavilion after Saturday’s game with his shoulders slouched and a forced half-smile on his usually jovial face.
A few months earlier, you couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. This same Parker was the court jester and class clown of the UCLA Bruins’ touted freshman class. The 6-foot-9 center is a big man with a personality to match, quick with a quip and a grin.
But his career hasn’t gone quite as expected so far. A series of injuries has stunted his development as a player and kept him pasted to the bench as the three other freshmen in the class -- Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and Shabazz Muhammad -- have flourished in helping UCLA (12-3, 2-0 Pac 12) shake off a rocky start to the season and jump on a seven-game win streak.
So it’s no surprise that Parker -- a high school All-American out of Miller Grove High in Georgia and the No. 26 recruit in the nation, according to ESPN recruiting -- is beginning to show signs of frustration. He’s averaging only 7.2 minutes per game as back spasms, a sprained ankle, migraine headaches and more back spasms have limited his practice and playing availability throughout the season.
A few weeks ago he put out a message on Twitter indicating he was having second thoughts about coming to UCLA. But after Saturday’s victory over the Stanford Cardinal he said that he’s committed to seeing it through -- at least for this season.
“I’ve been hurt. I’ve been nicked up,” said Parker, who averaged 16.8 points and 11 rebounds as a senior in high school. “I just have to get healthy so I can actually play and help my team. I haven’t been able to show what I can do because I haven’t been able to do it.”
It started the first day of summer practice in July, when Parker tore his hamstring and had to sit out during the team’s exhibition trip to China. He recovered in time to play early in the season and averaged 6.6 points and 2.6 rebounds in 12 minutes through the first three games. However, he encountered back spasms Nov. 19 during a team trip to New York and played only three minutes in two games.
Just as he was returning from that injury, he inadvertently stepped on a basketball during pregame warm-ups before the Cal State Northridge game Nov. 28. That was the day Joshua Smith announced he was leaving the team, a move that should have opened the door to more playing time for Parker, but a sprained ankle held him out of that game and the next against San Diego State.
Finally healthy, Parker managed to play 12 minutes Dec. 8 against Texas and 18 more Dec. 15 against Prairie View A&M. He had a combined 11 points and three rebounds in those games, but it also started to become evident that all that missed time had stunted his development.
He appeared lost in the team defense and didn’t seem to be on the same page offensively. Confidence clearly became an issue. Opposing post players often had their way with him when Parker tried to defend them.
He’s also been extremely foul-prone. He has 23 personal fouls in 93 minutes played this season. That’s a foul every four minutes, or more than seven fouls per 30 minutes. It appears to be a result of his defensive deficiencies. And all of the aforementioned factors combined have led to a decrease in playing time as Ben Howland tried to coach up the fragile 18-year-old.
“I think he’s good about taking instruction, but he needs to see it and learn from it and get better,” Howland said. “He’s going to be a good player. He just has to stay the course.”
It remains to be seen if he will. Parker indicated that after the season, he would weigh his options as far as returning to UCLA.
“I don’t know yet,” Parker said. “I have to talk to my parents and see what they say.”
Asked if he regretted coming to UCLA, Parker said, “No comment.”
Parker made it clear, however, that his discontent is not due to some perceived rift between him and Howland. A Georgia native, who is 3,000 miles from home, Parker said a large part of his unhappiness stems from homesickness after his first holiday season away from his family.
His health issues are also to blame, he said, and he fully understands that he’s behind because of them and that he and Howland have a good player-coach relationship.
“He’s coaching me and making me get better,” Parker said. “He’s a good coach. He’s a good person. I don’t think he’s pushing me out at all. It’s just a learning process, and I just have to keep working.”
Still, that doesn’t make sitting on the bench any easier.
Last week, Parker played only two minutes against California and two against Stanford after sitting out of a practice Monday with migraine headaches, then sitting out Wednesday’s walk-through after his back flared up again.
He received acupuncture on his back and said he could have played more against Stanford. A player with Parker’s pedigree is not used to riding the pine that much, even with the injuries.
“It’s different,” Parker said. “I’ve never sat on the bench before. I’ve never been on a team where I was on the bench like that. It’s different. I’m kind of getting used to it, but I don’t want to get used to it. It’s not a thing I’m going to get used to.”
Of course, it’s even more difficult to take when he sees Muhammad and Adams leading the team in scoring and Anderson leading the team in rebounding. That just adds to the pressure Parker feels, he said. He wants to carry his weight as one of the freshmen brought in to help rebuild the program, and it’s a major blow to his ego -- as it would be for anyone -- that he’s not contributing to the team’s success.
“There are a lot of expectations for all these freshmen,” Howland said. “It’s tougher for Tony because all these other three freshmen are playing a lot more. You have to remember that there are a lot of outside influences on these kids. It’s constant, including the media. But more so, it’s friends and people that are in his ear.”
It’s not unusual for players to develop at different rates. Anderson and Adams, for instance, played at two of the top high school programs in the country in St. Anthony High School (N.J.) and Oak Hill Academy (Va.), respectively, and likely had a more solid fundamental base when they came to UCLA. Muhammad is simply a special talent.
Parker may well be, too. But so is NBA All-Star Russell Westbrook, and Westbrook only averaged nine minutes a game during his freshman year at UCLA. Howland said he has no doubt Parker is on track to fulfill his potential; his injuries have simply slowed the process.
“It’s something he’s going to have to work hard at,” Howland said. “From the first practice it’s just been one thing after another. He’s learned a lot. He’s getting better. I really do believe that. It’s just all new but he’s a great kid and he’s a hard worker.”
Howland insists that Parker is still a big part of UCLA’s plans. The season is not yet halfway through and the Bruins are about to enter the thick of conference play. UCLA will be facing teams in the Pac-12 against which they will need Parker’s skills to help with a rebounding deficiency. The Bruins have been outrebounded 137-113 during the past three games.
As Parker gets his game legs back and continues to show in practice that he can handle a bigger work load, Howland said he would see more minutes.
“Just watch, he’s going to be thrust into a major role in huge games coming up here,” Howland said. “It’s going to happen. The key is going to be how he is ready to handle that when he is thrust into those situations.”
If all goes well, it just might return that heretofore beaming smile back to Parker’s face.