UCLA basketball recruits crave truth about reaching potential

Any coach would find Amari Bailey tantalizing. The wiry athleticism. The devastating first step that leaves tormented defenders in his wake. Mick Cronin told the high school standout that he’d love to have him at UCLA, but in the meantime the coach suggested that the left-hander work on going to his right more and developing a consistent jumper.

Any coach would find Peyton Watson tantalizing. The ability to get to the rim in a flash. The multiple growth spurts suggesting that at 6 feet 9 he might not be done sprouting. Cronin told the high school standout that he’d love to have him at UCLA, but that he would have to earn a starting spot.

Any coach would find Will McClendon tantalizing. The unwavering grit. The willingness to play and defend any position. Cronin told the high school standout that he’d love to have him at UCLA, but it would be great if he could learn more about the pick-and-roll play and moving with purpose off the ball.

To be a Bruins basketball recruit means hearing less about how great you are than how far you have to go. Those who require coddling and assurances of a starring role best look elsewhere. The only promises Cronin makes are that you will work hard and get better.

“I mean, it’s what I wanted to hear,” said Bailey, the Chatsworth Sierra Canyon junior guard who might be the best player in his class. “You know, oftentimes you’ll get lured in because programs are telling you what you would like to hear, not what you need to hear, and I just know that everyone on that coaching staff and everyone on that campus has my best interests and I’m thankful to be in an environment like that.”

Judging by the slew of top high school prospects who have pledged their allegiance to UCLA, Cronin’s blunt approach is resonating with almost everyone besides his recruiting rivals. Among others, the coach has lured Watson, the Long Beach Poly senior who will end the Bruins’ two-year drought of not having a McDonald’s All-American on their roster, and Bailey, part of a 2022 class that could become the best in the country.

Sierra Canyon's Amari Bailey dunks against Culver City.

Sierra Canyon’s Amari Bailey dunks against Culver City during a game in April.

(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Both players picked UCLA before the Bruins’ unexpected Final Four run made them an even more fashionable pick for elite recruits. Rather than being put off when told he wasn’t promised a starting job — an assurance other schools pursuing him had been quick to make — Watson was further sold on the idea of playing for Cronin.

“I loved it,” Watson said. “I know Mick is a straight shooter, so hearing that from him validated that, obviously. He’s always been honest with me throughout the entire recruiting process.”

Cronin called his candor with prospects “front-end recruiting” because it provided a primer of what to expect when playing for him. His honesty had the added benefit of weeding out those who either won’t put in the necessary work or would be unhappy doing so.

“I’ve tended to end up with players that want to hear the truth,” said Cronin, who has capitalized on his access to the bountiful Southern California recruiting base by signing the top local player in the classes of 2021 (Watson) and 2022 (Bailey). “You know, let’s talk about what you need to get better at to achieve what you’re trying to achieve. I don’t recruit and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to shoot every ball, you’re going to be the best player, the offense is going to run through you.’

“You tell 12 guys that and then they get in the locker room and they all say, ‘Hey, he told me the same thing,’” Cronin continued with a laugh. “And then you see the team play and you wonder why they’re disjointed. I try to be honest — I know I’m honest with them on the front. Everybody doesn’t want to hear that, though, and that’s OK.”

Those who require more pampering usually end up as someone else’s headache. Cronin’s recruiting focuses on what he called “winners,” players who put the team and its needs above their own and often reap far greater rewards as a result. The coach unveiled a template while guiding undermanned UCLA to its first appearance in a Final Four since 2008 because every player was willing to maximize his role — Johnny Juzang as a scorer, Jaime Jaquez Jr. as a scrapper, Tyger Campbell as an orchestrator.

Finding the brand of recruits that Cronin seeks goes back to his childhood. He would accompany his father, Hep, to high school and college baseball games when the older Cronin worked as a scout for the Atlanta Braves, a fruitful 30-year association that led to the discovery of outfielder David Justice and the signing of infielder Chipper Jones. Among the tools that prospects were graded on, the final one was makeup.

“You know, what type of person is this guy, how’s his work ethic, all that stuff,” Mick said.

“On other visits, they would like cater to me a lot more — what do I need? — and I know when I get there, that’s not how it’s going to work.”

Will McClendon, Bishop Gorman star on why he liked UCLA coach Mick Cronin’s direct recruiting style

Bishop Gorman's Will McClendon #1 sets up the offense.

Bishop Gorman’s Will McClendon sets up the offense against Roselle Christian during the 2020 Hoophall Classic.

(Gregory Payan / Associated Press)

It’s the sort of intangible measurement that makes a player like UCLA freshman Jaylen Clark more attractive than his recruiting profile might suggest. Clark was a top-100 high school player nationally and a consensus four-star recruit, but he rated even higher with Cronin because of his dogged dedication to his team.

Clark averaged only 2.5 points in 8.9 minutes per game last season, numbers that might have hastened others into the transfer portal. Yet Clark was eager to return after sparking UCLA’s 14-point comeback against Michigan State in the NCAA tournament with a couple of assists, an offensive rebound and a layup. A week later, he was an anonymous hero against Alabama, grabbing nine rebounds and playing lockdown defense.

UCLA’s march through March didn’t just make its current players crave a rerun; watching the 11th-seeded Bruins advance from the First Four to the Final Four, pulling off one upset after another, high school prospect Dylan Andrews envisioned the ways in which he might contribute to another riveting postseason.

“I’m a team guy; I like to win, and so I’ll do anything I have to do to make sure we get the ‘W,’” said Andrews, a junior point guard from AZ Compass Prep in Chandler, Ariz., who has committed to UCLA as the anticipated successor to Campbell. “Playing winning basketball doesn’t just mean getting the ‘W,’ it means playing the right way as in making the right pass, making the right defensive play, getting 50-50 balls, taking charges — doing all the stuff that leads to getting the ‘W.’”

It also can mean going largely unsung. McClendon, a senior guard from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High who will arrive in Westwood later this month, said he didn’t care if he scored as long as he contributed to a UCLA victory. For a combo guard who has drawn comparisons to Jrue Holiday, the Bruin-turned-Milwaukee Buck, that could involve passing, defense and hustle in addition to scoring.

Watson and Bailey said they were similarly eager to do whatever’s needed to help UCLA win its first national title since 1995.

Said Watson: “I’ve always been a winner, I’ve always been someone who first and foremost wants to be someone who contributes to a win more than any statistical category, and that’s how coach Cronin is and I think I’ll fit in perfectly.”

Said Bailey: “I put winning above all. It’s just a great feeling when you can just compete for something bigger than yourself and really put it all on the line with your brothers and your team.”

The traits embedded in his recruits leave Cronin with no worries about their disrupting the winning chemistry he has forged in his two years on campus.

Windward guar Dylan Andrews pulls up for a jumper against Sierra Canyon guard Bronny James.

Windward High’s Dylan Andrews pulls up for a jumper against Sierra Canyon guard Bronny James.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

For one thing, they’re committed to getting better before they get there.

Cronin and his assistant coaches dissected Bailey’s high school game and practice footage to show him how his tendencies fit into their primary and secondary fastbreaks. The coaches also advised him that defenders were likely to sag off him at the college level to avoid getting beat off the dribble, necessitating a more consistent jumper as a countermeasure.

“They broke down like all my offensive plays and my offensive calls that we go through every day in practice, defensive calls, defensive plays, just me in transition and half court,” Bailey said, “so it was almost like synergy in a sense, breaking down everything.”

The no-nonsense approach carries over to official recruiting visits. McClendon sensed that he was getting a realistic feel for what life might be like as a Bruin during his time on campus, where he was given access to practices and the locker room inside Pauley Pavilion during games so that he could see how Cronin interacted with his players.

“On other visits, they would like cater to me a lot more — what do I need? — and I know when I get there, that’s not how it’s going to work,” said McClendon, who also considered Washington and Mississippi. “So I just feel like [Cronin] was more down to earth with me, just talking and film studies. He was telling me what I needed to work on.”

It was Cronin’s way of welcoming another prospect to Westwood, the grind that leads to winning and starts long before he slips on the UCLA uniform.




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