LOS ANGELES -- When Joshua Smith dunks, it’s electrifying.
It also has been a bit too rare for those who want UCLA to succeed.
Smith’s two-handed power jams often send home crowds into a tizzy. At 6 feet 10, 300-something pounds, Smith has the type of rim-rattling dominance that pulses enough energy through his team to get walk-ons and assistant coaches to jump out of their chairs and spark game-changing rallies and runs.
But those types of dunks have been few and far between this season for UCLA’s sophomore center, who is slowly working his way back into game condition as the season progresses after showing up for the season sorely out of shape.
He showed his first flashes of sustained dominance last Saturday when he threw down three dunks in an 18-point performance against Arizona State and hopes to turn that into a trend as the Bruins face USC on Sunday night at the Galen Center.
He made 8-of-12 shots against the Sun Devils, displaying the type of interior dominance that had been expected of him since the season began and one he will have to repeat with consistency if the Bruins are going to make a run at the Pac-12 Conference title and an NCAA tournament berth.
“We need Josh to play how he did Saturday,” coach Ben Howland said. “He seemed very inspired. He played very well and played very hard and with a little animation, which was good.”
Smith’s lack of conditioning early in the season wasn’t so good. He and the team keep his actual weight a secret, but there was no hiding the fact that Smith was dragging trying to run up and down the court.
His lack of production early on -- averaging only 7.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 16.4 minutes through seven games --was among the biggest disappointments of UCLA’s 2-5 start that dropped the Bruins from a No. 17 preseason ranking to off the national radar.
Even opposing coaches noticed, with USC coach Kevin O’Neill this week calling out Smith, but Smith said his increased production in recent games is a good sign.
“I know what I have to do to become a better player,” he said. “It’s obvious. It doesn’t bother me when people ask, it’s just kind of like, ‘I’m working on it.’”
His dunks Saturday were a sign that he is, in fact, getting into better condition.
Smith has 11 dunks in 16 games this season, a number that leads the Bruins but is surprisingly low number for a player with enormous size and strength -- especially considering he hardly ever takes a shot from outside of the three-foot circle.
His offensive repertoire has mostly consisted of an array of timid one-handed layups, soft bank shots and tip-ins, but rare has been the strong move attacking the basket with aggression. But Smith emerged from what his early-season slumber and routinely took the ball to the basket with authority.
“He was very aggressive and when he was going to score he was going to dunk it and not just lay it in,” Howland said. “He was aggressive and it was fun to watch.”
It was a far cry from the player who showed up for practice in October surprisingly out of shape and unable to perform as expected in early-season games. He played only 16 minutes and scored five points in the season-opening loss to Loyola Marymount. Against Kansas in the Maui Invitational, Smith had one point and one rebound in 13 minutes. Last year, Smith had 17 points and 13 rebounds against the Jayhawks.
“I was really disappointed,” Smith said of the way his season started. “When I sat down with the coaches after last season and looked at how I did, this year in our eyes was supposed to be a breakout year for me.”
His teammates thought the same thing, too. Smith was supposed to be the focal point of the offense this season, but they noticed early on that he wasn’t quite the same player who had 30 points in two NCAA tournament games to end last season and was named to the Pac-10 All-Freshman team.
“I think we all were a little bit surprised,” guard Tyler Lamb said about Smith’s conditioning early in the season. “But I haven’t given up on him. It’s not like he’s going out there and not trying. As long as he’s trying his best that’s all we can ask for.”
Smith has put in a lot of extra time getting his conditioning where it needs to be. He's doing extra running after practice and riding exercise bikes to help build his stamina and it’s beginning to pay off.
In the last nine games, as UCLA has gone 7-2, Smith is averaging 11.7 points in 20 minutes and nine of his 11 dunks have come in the past nine games.
“He’s just breaking the surface, really,” forward David Wear said. “If he played with high intensity and as hard as he could every single moment, he’d be one of the most dominant guys in college basketball for sure.
“I think he was having a little bit of trouble getting up and down and I think it’s a continuous effort on all of us to continue to push him to get in better shape and play longer minutes and be able to be a factor every time he’s on the court. That’s definitely something that everyone and the coaches have been talking about.”
Guard Jerime Anderson is one of the main catalysts in that effort. A senior point guard, Anderson makes sure Smith hears about it whenever Smith misses an inside shot because he layed it up instead of dunking it.
“I tell him all the time ‘You owe me one’ because sometimes in a game he goes up and he’s right there at the basket and he’ll lay it up softly,” Anderson said. “And I’ll just say ‘You owe me one.’ And it just kept growing to two, three, four. Now he’s starting to make up for lost time.”
The Bruins are 2-2 in Pac-12 play and right in the thick of the conference race. They will need Smith to continue to progress to stay in the race because he is not only effective, but he opens up things for other players as well.
He draws double teams because he’s nearly impossible to guard on-on-one when he’s on his game and he’s a good passer, so the inside-out game works better when he becomes a focus for the opponent.
Smith says it’s not too late to become the dominating player many expected him to be this season. He even has visions of competing for Pac-12 player of the year honors.
“I mean if you look at right now, who would you even say is the best player in our conference?” Smith said. “There’s a lot of good players, but there’s not really one great player so there is still a lot of room for anybody to break out.”
A few more performances like Saturday’s and Smith will be well on his way and that would be a welcome addition for the Bruins.
“We’ve been waiting for it for a while,” forward Travis Wear said of Smith breakout game against Arizona State. “But we expect him to build on that and carry it over to the next games we play.”
And that, of course, means more dunking.