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UCLA men’s basketball sees emergence of shooting star in Will McClendon

Redshirt sophomore guard Will McClendon looks to his right while holding the ball against UC Riverside. McClendon has already quadrupled his number of made 3-pointers from last season in just seven games. (Myka Fromm/Assistant Photo editor)

By Jack Nelson

Dec. 3, 2023 4:07 p.m.

The space beyond the arc was the moon to Will McClendon.

A season ago, the redshirt sophomore sank two of 28 attempted 3-pointers, missing every one of his final 11. At times, he tossed up undeflected balls that fell well short of the rim.

But the groans from the Pauley Pavilion crowd that once accompanied his shooting have since dissipated.

“He worked really hard in the offseason, summer, and we saw him this year in practice, preseason before we started playing games,” said associate head coach Darren Savino. “He was one of our, if not our best, 3-point shooter.”

McClendon’s offseason transformation into a deep scoring threat has reaped rewards for UCLA men’s basketball. In his team’s 66-65 escape act against UC Riverside on Thursday, the guard swished three of four 3-point attempts to tie the team high, with all three coming in the final 9:05 of the second half.

Pressure from the Highlanders demanded it. They were on fire from 3-point range all night, going 14-for-32 and draining eight after the break, eventually forcing a game-winning jumper from the Bruins with just seconds left to secure the win.

Had it not been for even one of McClendon’s three makes, the Bruins would be looking at one of the biggest upsets of the coach Mick Cronin era instead of preserving the nation’s longest home winning streak.

“The coaches trust me, they get mad at me when I don’t shoot it,” McClendon said. “So I was just happy to see it go in today (Thursday).”

Quality shooters have been few and far between in Westwood this season, and 3-point shooting has been but a luxury.

Only two Bruins are 30% or better from deep – McClendon and junior guard Lazar Stefanovic. As a team through seven games, UCLA has attempted fewer than 100 shots from that area of the court and has sunk 31.3% of them – a percentage that ties for 248th in the country.

McClendon’s improvement as a shooter failed to show in his first few outings. Even with back-to-back starts against Lafayette and Long Island, he went 1-for-5 from three before the Maui Invitational and 1-for-9 overall from the field.

But the former four-star recruit has gone 7-for-17 since the end of UCLA’s season-opening homestand, including a 50% mark from three. He’s quickly become the off-the-bench sharp-shooting option that the Bruins lost with former guard David Singleton’s departure.

In the past four games, McClendon’s field goals have strictly come when operating as a 3-point shooter.

“If he starts to take hard shots and too much movement, that’s where he would struggle,” Savino said. “But when he’s open and we can kick it to him, we’re pretty confident that he can make it. So moving forward, it’s a nice little weapon for us if he can continue to play with that confidence.”

Among Bruins with double-digit 3-point attempts, McClendon has gone from the team’s worst to its best, improving his 3-point percentage by 35%.

And with UCLA developing a knack for tightly contested affairs – three of its last four games have been decided by four or fewer points – a trusted shooter may be crucial.

“Whether it be me tonight, whether it be somebody else tomorrow,” McClendon said. “But, I mean, it just felt good.”

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Jack Nelson | Sports senior staff
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
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