UCLA men’s basketball prepares for season with a roster full of new faces
Coach Mick Cronin gestures to the bench during a game. Cronin is entering his fifth season as UCLA men’s basketball’s head coach. (Joseph Jimenez/Photo editor)
Oct. 7, 2023 5:32 p.m.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. casts a large shadow over the Bruins’ practice court.
The former guard/forward walked the halls of the Mo Ostin Basketball Center for four years.
But after the Miami Heat picked him No. 18 overall in the 2023 NBA Draft, all that remains in the training facility is his name and image on the decor commemorating first-round Bruins – right next to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Jaquez – alongside former guard Tyger Campbell – was a stalwart in Mick Cronin’s first four years at the helm. Now, the fifth-year coach will have to grapple with a group dominated by new faces.
“I pull out a coach (Rick) Pitino line every now and then,” Cronin said. “I tell somebody to open that door and see if Tyger’s coming through. Check if Jaime’s over here. Nope.”
UCLA men’s basketball hosted its first open-media practice session Friday morning, giving a first look at nearly all of the Bruins’ newest players and most of their returners as well.
All but one freshman was at practice, with forward Berke Buyuktuncel absent from the workout because of an illness.
Even with the departures of Campbell and Jaquez to the NBA, their remaining influence could still be felt on the court. After a mistimed pass during the team’s four-on-four scrimmage from sophomore guard Dylan Andrews – Campbell’s backup at point guard last season – Cronin reminded Andrews that he watched both his predecessor and Jaquez make that same play all last season.
Sophomore forward/center Adem Bona did not participate in the scrimmage as he continued recovering from a shoulder injury endured against Oregon on March 10. Instead, the reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year contributed off the court, at one point motioning to freshman forward Devin Williams to use two hands when going for a rebound. Bona returned to the court for shooting drills after the completion of the scrimmage.
Cronin said Bona’s absence has opened up chances for other players, but the Bruins will need him when the season starts.
“I have to remind everyone our best player’s not in,” Cronin said. “We’re going to look a lot better with Adem Bona out there. But I think it’s helping us get all these other guys reps. But when the lights come on, we need to have him ready.”
Bona will be joined in the frontcourt this season by freshman center Aday Mara and redshirt fifth-year forward/center Kenneth Nwuba. Cronin added that the Bruins would employ rotations featuring two of the three centers throughout the season, as the team is taller than it has been in years past.
Freshman Brandon Williams had a significant presence during the practice, loudly shouting in celebration after collecting an offensive rebound over players taller than himself and scoring on a layup. The 6-foot-7 guard/forward – the same height and position as Jaquez – later drained a shot from beyond the arc.
“He’s (Brandon Williams) got a lot of Jaime in him,” Cronin said. “Where he’s from, he’s got no fear. He’s skilled. He really knows the game too.”
Junior guard Lazar Stefanovic is the lone transfer to join the Bruins in 2023. The former Ute has already played two seasons in the Pac-12 and is now one of the oldest players on the team, alongside Nwuba and walk-on redshirt junior forward Logan Cremonesi.
With seven freshmen on the roster, Cronin said the experience that Stefanovic brings is crucial to both him and the team.
“You got to have some older guys. Lazar’s helped my sanity,” Cronin said. “That’s somebody that can be in the right spot that I don’t have to worry about all the time. And he helps other guys get in the right spot.”
UCLA is now just under a month away from its season opener against Saint Francis and will have the rest of October to prepare for the year ahead.
Until then, Cronin said there’s still learning to be done.
“We’ve got so far to go,” Cronin said. “The truth of this is, we’re still working on them understanding that they are the UCLA Bruins, and they are going to decide whether we win or lose.”