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UCLA men’s basketball freshman Adem Bona makes marked on-court progress

UCLA men’s basketball freshman forward Adem Bona defends Colorado guard Nique Clifford on the perimeter. (Shengfeng Chien/Daily Bruin staff)

By Jon Christon

Jan. 17, 2023 12:18 p.m.

Adem Bona, like many of his teammates, had a slow start to Saturday night’s contest.

In the game’s opening 20 minutes, the UCLA men’s basketball freshman forward did not score a point and grabbed just one rebound against Colorado.

And it looked like more of the same coming out of the halftime locker room. Coach Mick Cronin pulled Bona after six more ineffective minutes – still sitting at zero points with three fouls to his name. Soon, UCLA was down nine with just over 10 minutes to go and Bona on the bench.

The Bruins were stuck in the mud.

“I fell into my old habits, like fouling early and then some silly fouls,” Bona said. “I just knew I had to … keep my head up and play harder.”

Even with Bona’s early struggles, Cronin entrusted his freshman big to lift UCLA out of its hole and avoid an upset loss, subbing him in one final time.

He didn’t disappoint.

“I just knew it was going to come,” Bona said.

Scoring nine points and blocking three shots in the game’s final 10 minutes, Bona catalyzed a massive second-half run that turned the game on its head.

What began as a nine-point deficit quickly turned into a double-digit advantage – and the Bruins have Bona to thank.

“We’re a better team with him in there,” Cronin said.

(Shengfeng Chien/Daily Bruin staff)
Bona looks to pass to a teammate. (Shengfeng Chien/Daily Bruin staff)

Checking in at the 10:21 mark in the second half, Bona made quick work of Colorado’s interior. He grabbed a missed layup from senior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. and quickly put it back in through contact.

And-one. Six-point deficit.

Moments later, Bona ran the floor, parlayed his size into advantageous post positioning and drew a foul down low. Two free throws swished in, and the Bruins found themselves down only four.

The offensive success quickly translated to the defensive end. On the next possession, Bona, anchoring the middle of UCLA’s zone defense, swatted a shot high off the glass and right into the waiting arms of Jaquez, who pushed the pace and found junior guard Jaylen Clark for a transition 3.

Bona and the Bruins had rattled off seven unanswered in a minute and a half – and that was just the beginning. The freshman forward had opened the floodgates and set Pauley Pavilion ablaze.

“It’s an energy boost,” Bona said. “Everyone feeds off my energy.”

Seven unanswered turned into 17. From the moment Bona checked in for the final time, the Bruins outscored their opponents 33-10, including a 24-3 run, and won the game by 14.

A slow start for Bona suddenly became one of his best performances in a stretch of standout play – a microcosm of his career so far in Westwood.

“If you watch him at the beginning of the year to now, it’s not even the same person,” Clark said. “I mean, everybody in the nation knows who he is. … It’s turning to another level.”

Bona has been a day-one starter for the blue and gold, but played just 19 minutes per game in his first 11 games as a Bruin. His slow start culminated in a 12-minute, 0-point, 4-foul performance against Kentucky on Dec. 17, with season averages of 7.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game at that point.

Since the game against the Wildcats, however, Bona has blown past his freshman struggles.

In the six games after UCLA’s win over Kentucky, Bona has improved in every statistical facet of the game. He’s averaged 11 points a night – good for fourth on the team across that span – grabbing 6.3 rebounds and blocking 2.2 shots per contest while playing 27.5 minutes per game. His field goal and free throw attempts per minute played have increased, while his foul rate has plunged.

“Coming from high school, … it’s a different ballgame,” Bona said. “I came in, I started slow. (But) my teammates were there for me. They supported me the whole time. My coaches were there. They were trying to get me to do the right stuff.”

Bona now has the best net rating on the team, according to CBB Analytics, with UCLA outscoring its opponents by 38.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court versus only 11.3 points per 100 possessions when he’s off.

Cronin said Bona’s improvement comes from the freshman’s winning mindset.

“All he cares about is winning,” Cronin said. “It’s unbelievable and one of the best attitudes out of any player I’ve ever coached.”

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Jon Christon | Sports senior staff
Christon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously the Sports editor on the men's basketball and football beats and the assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats. Christon was previously a contributor on the women's basketball and softball beats.
Christon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously the Sports editor on the men's basketball and football beats and the assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats. Christon was previously a contributor on the women's basketball and softball beats.
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