Before the UCLA men’s basketball season got underway, a conversation with Larry Drew II turned to the NBA. It’s a subject that Drew can speak about at length, since he has spent his entire life watching his father play and coach in the NBA. He follows the professional game closely, takes notes and harbors dreams of suiting up as a pro.
The scouts scattered around Pauley Pavilion during games are always keeping tabs on prospects. The talent evaluation process takes months, if not years, while teams size up collegians, literally and figuratively.
Asked what he had to do to make it to the next level, Drew was focused on catching the eyes of his potential future employers with something immeasurable.
“I need to make sure that this team wins games,” said Drew, “and everything else will take care of itself.”
Drew was talking about leadership back in November. It’s something he never grasped at North Carolina thanks to years of poor decision-making with the ball, culminating in getting benched his junior season in favor of a true freshman. It’s also the trait he thinks will help him land in the NBA when his college career ends in March.
Today, the Bruins are in need of a leader. This has been true all season with a scholarship roster half-filled with freshmen, but talent let them skirt by without needing more direction than their coach gave them. They now need someone to point the way after losing three of their last four, the most recent an embarrassing debacle against their rivals.
Larry, you’re needed now.
It doesn’t take more than a quick glance at the eight-man UCLA roster to see why.
Cross off the three lightly used bench players since they barely have the faith of their coach to play, let alone lead. Redshirt junior forward Travis Wear carries the Bruins at times but his on-court presence is a silent one. The other three starters are freshmen who are going through their regular ups and downs while they develop the emotional maturity required to weather rough stretches.
The leader has to be Drew, for more than the sole fact that he’s the only senior on the roster.
During his time at North Carolina he went through more hardships than any of these current Bruins. Those experiences were humbling, turning Drew into the player he is today: a sharp ball-handler who knows where his teammates are at all times.
Drew is usually a mild-mannered guy. The 6-foot-2-inch point guard speaks softly but eloquently, sometimes cracking a smile when he talks, confident but not overconfident. As a floor general his style is more lead-by-example than lead-by-volume, which fits his personality.
Drew wasn’t his usual self Wednesday against USC, which was great for UCLA. Down double digits in the second half, he raised his arms and pumped up the anxious crowd, getting them to believe that a comeback was possible. Drew made it a reality with two key buckets – one an aggressive coast-to-coast layup that showcased his blinding speed, the other a slashing drive through a double-team ending in a finger roll.
Talking after the game Drew still forced a grin, seemingly bemused by the fact that the Trojans had just celebrated on the Bruins’ home court. The volume in his postgame comments was even more noticeable. Drew dropped veiled shots at his teammates for not being “all the way into the game” and wondered aloud why UCLA was falling behind so often.
“Obviously we have the talent to come back and overcome any type of obstacle, but why are we down in the first place?” Drew said.
Well, Larry, you can make sure no one asks this question again.
It’s that kind of self-awareness that cements Drew’s profile as the only adequate leader on this team. He understands his game, the team and what both parts need to do to succeed.
For all of his talents as a distributor, he doesn’t tap into his scoring abilities much. He has taken the sixth-most shots on the team and opposing teams are now daring Drew to shoot the ball, which creates a conundrum. Drew knows he’s supposed to be a passer to make the offense work, not a scorer, since UCLA has plenty of those around him.
“That’s what the defense wants me to do … take it away from guys like the twins, Shabazz and Jordan, and just have Larry shoot the ball,” Drew said Wednesday night.
As soon as he sized up the problem he pledged to solve it. As he figures it, another scorer on the floor can only help.
“I can get to the rim, I can get around anybody whenever I want, and I can still get guys open looks. It’s something that I’m going to have to adjust to.”
If Drew can be the player he was on Wednesday moving forward, it would go a long way to helping the Bruins get back on track. More baskets like that pair would only help make the Bruins more of a threat. And the way he put his teammates on notice is an even better thing, provided he can be more vocal with his teammates than he was with the media.
It will take a little bit of scoring and a lot more shouting but only one Bruin is capable of steadying this turbulent ride.
If you wanted to show you can lead, Larry, now is your best chance.