Redemptive season for Larry Drew II helps drive UCLA

LOS ANGELES -- Admit it: You didn't think Larry Drew II was going to be this good.

It's OK, not very many people did.

His track record at North Carolina gave very few indications that he'd turn into the single-season assist record holder at UCLA and the player who has hit more game-winning, late-game and late-clock clutch shots than any other Bruin this season.

Drew left North Carolina with the nickname "Turnover Jesus" and with the stigma of a quitter after his departure was portrayed as sneaking off into the night in the middle of the 2011 ACC season.

He has silenced critics of both his play and his attitude this season, emerging as both a playmaker and floor leader for a young UCLA team, and earning first-team All Pac-12 honors. Those roles figure to become even more prominent this week as the Bruins begin the NCAA tournament Friday against Minnesota in Austin, Texas.

Drew is the team's only senior and the only player on the roster with NCAA tournament experience. As the point guard, he'll be the guy with the ball in his hands most often. And not only that, but he has the experience of winning a national championship ring. Drew played part-time as a freshman on North Carolina's 2009 NCAA championship team.

UCLA has the nation's top-ranked recruiting class this season with top freshmen Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson getting much of the attention, but Drew, not long ago cast aside as a has-been, has become the team's most valuable new addition this season.

"I couldn't be happier for a player to play the way he has after all he had to go through," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "I think he really got a raw deal in terms of his reputation because he's been nothing short of a model teammate and exceptional leader for us this season."

Drew is averaging 7.6 points, is No. 4 in the nation with 7.4 assists per game and is No. 3 in the nation with an assist-turnover ratio of 3.12. On a team with three freshmen starters, Drew became the experienced leader, and in a season in which it seemed every game came down to the wire, Drew made clutch shot after clutch shot, including a buzzer-beating game winner against Washington Huskies and at least three other late-game shots that sealed victories.

And as the season has gone on, Drew's game has continued to evolve. Early on, he didn't score much, but as teams started to sag off him, he realized he'd have to do more than just distribute the ball. He's averaging 10.1 points and shooting 51.1 percent over the past 12 games. He has made 61.3 percent (19-of-31) of his 3-point attempts during that stretch.

You would have had to search a long time to find anyone who would have pegged Drew as that type of player two years ago. Drew was the starting point guard at North Carolina in 2009-10, when he averaged 8.5 points, 5.9 assists and 3.2 turnovers, but fans made him the scapegoat when the Tar Heels failed to make the NCAA tournament that season.

In the middle of the next season, Drew lost his starting job to freshman Kendall Marshall after averaging 4.4 points, 3.9 assists and 1.8 turnovers. Soon after, he quit the team without telling anyone and had his father call coach Roy Williams with the news.

So Drew left North Carolina as a former McDonald's All-American who had busted as a player, and a point guard who quit on his team.

"Those were pretty low times for me," Drew said. "You start having all kinds of doubts."

One person who continued to believe was Howland. When Drew was playing at Taft High in nearby Woodland Hills, Howland offered Drew a scholarship, but withdrew the offer after another touted point guard, Jerime Anderson, committed to UCLA.

It's a decision Howland regrets to this day, calling it "a major blunder on my part." Given a second chance to get Drew, Howland didn't hesitate.

"I got some snide remarks," Howland said. "But I was like 'Hey, this is a no-brainer.' "

The scoffing and snickering reached across the country and all over the Internet, but Howland was so convinced that Drew would make it at UCLA, he called the senior point guard his "most indispensable player" even though the nation's No. 1 freshman class was coming in. The laughter became even louder when Howland named the former quitter as a team captain.

Nobody is laughing anymore.

Without Drew, the sage veteran on a squad of Baby Bruins, it's doubtful UCLA would have become the Pac-12 champion and advanced to the NCAA tournament. And without Drew and his experience, the Bruins have little chance of advancing in the tournament.

"We're relying on him from the standpoint that he's our point guard and our leader," Howland said.

The fact that he's been through the grind of an NCAA tournament before is an added bonus. Drew said he has been trying to impart some of his wisdom on the subject this week.

"This is what everyone has been playing for," Drew said. "It's where everybody wants to be. The spotlight is on every team and every game. Everybody is watching, the media is crazy and the hype surrounding everything. I think my guys understand completely the ramifications of the games to be played and what we have to do in order to survive."

And that, after all, is what it's all about this time of year: Surviving and persevering through heavy scrutiny and tough times.

For those reasons alone, it's nice to have a guy like Drew on the team. After all, he knows a thing or two about surviving and persevering through difficult situations.