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UCLA Basketball Roster Set as Smith, Juzang, and Riley Make Decisions
Juzang and Riley announced their return, while Smith is off to play professional basketball.
The UCLA Bruins basketball program has been in a bit of a holding pattern the past few months as they waited to see what their draft-eligible players would do. Chris Smith had the opportunity to return to school for his super-senior season, while Johnny Juzang and Cody Riley had announced they were testing the waters with the draft. With the deadline to withdraw from the NBA Draft coming today, Bruin fans expected a flurry of news on that front, and a flurry of news is what they got.
Let’s start with Chris Smith, who made his announcement first a few days ago. Prior to last season, it was expected that Smith would be entering his last year at UCLA, but an ACL injury and an extra year granted due to the COVID-19 pandemic opened the door to a potential run-back for 2021. That said, it was not all that shocking to see Smith choose to end his collegiate career.
Smith has been a rock for the UCLA program over his 4-year career. Originally coming in as part of the much-heralded 2017 recruiting class headlined by Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, Smith found himself thrust into a regular role well ahead of schedule after the events in China. Smith struggled in his first two years under former coach Steve Alford, looking very much like a player who had some intriguing talent but was not getting a good amount of coaching (sound familiar to anyone else?). That all changed when Alford was let go and Mick Cronin was brought in, and Smith flourished in Cronin’s system, becoming a team leader en route to winning Pac-12 Most Improved Player in 2020. Unfortunately, his 2020-2021 season was cut short by an ACL injury at the start of Pac-12 play, but he maintained a presence around the program throughout the season and into their magical run through the NCAA Tournament.
Smith will be missed next year for his leadership and especially his defensive ability, which allowed him to reasonably cover 1-5 on the court. That said, the Bruins do seem well-prepared for his departure, as they are bringing in 5-star wing Peyton Watson, who should slide into Smith’s role fairly quickly.
That gets us to today and the first to make his decision known was Cody Riley, who announced his return to UCLA.
In his comments following Riley’s announcement, Coach Mick Cronin mentioned that Riley was one of the hardest-working players he’s ever coached, and that bore out over the past few years, as Riley has transformed his game from the more selfish style encouraged in the Steve Alford era to a more team-oriented version that has improved on defense and expanded on offense. Riley became a pivotal rotation piece this past season, especially once Jalen Hill left the team for personal reasons, providing stability in the frontcourt.
Finally, we have the star of March Madness, Johnny Juzang. Juzang waited until the last few hours, but he too announced his return to UCLA on his Instagram (which he made private in a canny strategy to increase his Instagram followers in this new NIL era).
Juzang struggled through much of last year as he sought to find his place in Mick Cronin’s offense, but he turned it on late in the season to carry the Bruins offensively. That picked up even more once the NCAA Tournament began, and Juzang led all tournament players in scoring, putting up 20+ points in four of UCLA’s six tournament games in the process. It was a postseason performance for the ages and one that shot Juzang into an NBA Draft conversation that he was really not a part of entering March. Still, after getting feedback from multiple organizations, Juzang has made the decision to return to UCLA and further develop his game.
With the return of Juzang and Riley, UCLA is now set up to make some noise this coming basketball season. As March enthusiast Jon Rothstein pointed out on Twitter, UCLA now returns every major contributor from their postseason run and is adding a 5-star wing and an impact interior defender in Peyton Watson and Myles Johnson, respectively. The Bruins will likely trot out a starting lineup with Juzang, Riley, and Watson, rounded out by Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez. That also gives the Bruins an excellent bench with Johnson, Jules Bernard, Jaylen Clark, David Singleton, and Jake Kyman that can match up well with any team in the nation. And this doesn’t even get into how Mac Etienne develops with a full offseason or if Kenneth Nwuba can build off a surprisingly great tournament run, or even if Will McClendon can surprise once he gets on campus.
Bruin fans should absolutely be excited about this coming season. UCLA will rightly enter the season as a consensus preseason top-five team and will likely be the favorites in a rebuilding Pac-12. The Bruins should have their best chance in decades at bringing banner 12 back to a rocking Pauley Pavilion.