Aday Mara commands superlatives.
Tallest player, biggest baby face, best passer …
It’s looking that way. If UCLA’s 7-foot-3 freshman isn’t the most skilled player moving the ball on this season’s team, he’s certainly in the conversation.
That’s just part of the unique blend of talents the Spanish sensation has displayed in a handful of practices since arriving on campus last month.
“He can dribble, he can move,” said UCLA associate head coach Darren Savino, who appeared on behalf of coach Mick Cronin on Tuesday at the Southern California Basketball Coaches Tip-off Luncheon at the Los Angeles Athletic Club because of a practice schedule conflict. “His touch, you’ll see, he can spin and shoot with either hand, he’s an unbelievable passer. He might be our best passer.”
Including the guards?
“It’s pretty high-level,” Savino said. “Now, he’s not going to have the opportunity as much as the guards because they have the ball more. … We haven’t played any games, but I have never coached a big guy with that kind of skill level on offense.”
Mara figures to play plenty alongside sophomore center Adem Bona considering Savino said the Bruins plan to use two big men for the first time since they deployed Cody Riley and Jalen Hill together during Cronin’s first season.
“How long that lasts, I don’t know,” Savino said, “[it’s] depending on strategy as well, who we’re playing. But the goal is to play two big guys and we’ve got different options.”
Others who could help fill that front line include 6-9 freshman Berke Buyuktuncel, veteran Kenneth Nwuba and freshman Devin Williams. Bona has resumed participating in non-contact drills in his recovery from the shoulder injury he suffered late last season, Savino said, with the hope that he will be fully cleared sometime in the next month.
“He looks great,” Savino said. “To me, he looks 100%, but we’re very cautious and making sure it is 100%, what the doctors consider 100%, so he’s not quite full go but he does everything other than full contact.”
Having signed his letter of intent before he visited the UCLA campus, Mara met most of the team on its Spanish tour in late August, attending an exhibition game in Madrid. His height wasn’t the only thing that immediately struck his new teammates and coaches.
“He’s such a big person,” Savino said, “but then when you get close to him and look at his face and talk to him, he’s still a boy almost, he’s young in the face, but it’s a pretty unique fun thing to see, to have his skills and hands and footwork, be that tall.”
One thing fans probably won’t see Mara do much is shoot three-pointers. But his range extends to the top of the key, Savino said. Like any young player on a Cronin team, he has a long way to go to master the coach’s concepts when it comes to getting stops.
“He struggles right now with defensive intensity, moving his feet on defense, pick-and-roll defense, defending the rim, just being more consistent with his energy, and I think he’ll get better with that once he gets a little stronger and gets in better condition,” Savino said. “But he can run the floor pretty well; it’s not like you have to wait for him to finally come down and join the team. He can move.”
Back at you
A day after Lakers star LeBron James dedicated his season to son Bronny, the USC freshman who collapsed this summer because of what’s been diagnosed as a congenital heart defect, Trojans coach Andy Enfield said the warm feelings were mutual.
“It’s an amazing basketball family,” Enfield said, “and we all try to reciprocate the support by rooting for the Lakers this year with LeBron and we hope they have a great season.”
Enfield said the younger James would return “at the appropriate time” but provided more clarity regarding sophomore center Vince Iwuchukwu, who is expected back from a back injury before the start of the season. The Trojans expect to unveil what Enfield called “probably our most athletic team,” led by guards Boogie Ellis and Isaiah Collier.
“We’re fast, very athletic and long arms and we hopefully can use our length in our man-to-man and zone defense to be very good defensively once again and push the pace a little more on offense,” Enfield said. “We try to adjust our offense every year based on the strengths of our team, and this year our most dynamic scorers and ballhandlers and creators are at the guard position.”