Johnny Juzang’s decision to come back for another UCLA season doesn’t just give the Bruins an elite scorer.
It completes them.
Now it’s a team that can go 13 deep, with a freshman sensation in Peyton Watson, a superior rim protector in graduate transfer Myles Johnson and a second unit that probably could topple some top-25 teams.
All that, plus its newfound postseason hero, who’s back for more.
UCLA sits No. 1 or No. 2 in scores of (admittedly premature) preseason rankings and likely will be a fashionable pick to win the national championship once the 2022 NCAA tournament bracket is released.
Here are 12 reasons the Bruins could raise banner No. 12 in April:
1. Their postseason protagonist is back
Heeeeere’s Johnny … the sequel.
Heavily fortified by its three newcomers and a roster that returns almost intact, UCLA won’t need Juzang to average 22.8 points like he did during that unexpected run to the Final Four. But it’s nice to know that the junior shooting guard can unleash that kind of scoring burst whenever it’s required.
Juzang returned to bolster his NBA prospects and leave a lasting legacy, and just like he does every time he steps to the free-throw line, he’s primed to go two for two.
2. Their rim protector is here
Lots of shots figure to meet an untimely demise in the hands of Johnson.
The graduate transfer from Rutgers ranked second in the Big Ten Conference last season with 2.4 blocks per game and will give the Bruins the interior defensive presence they were missing once Jalen Hill left the team in February because of anxiety and depression.
An engineering savant who is completing a summer internship at IBM, Johnson is one of the smartest guys on campus who happens to be intensely likeable. If the 6-foot-10 center can improve his conditioning and free-throw accuracy (39.7% in three seasons with the Scarlet Knights), he might blossom into an All-Pac-12 player.
3. Pauley Pavilion could become Peyton Place
The moment he steps onto the court, Watson will immediately become the most athletic Bruin.
The 6-9 freshman’s quick burst can help him get to the rim in a way no UCLA player could last season, and he’s also a top passer. His willingness to defend as a freshman — he had two blocks for the USA U19 team in its gold-medal victory over France — should quickly endear him to both coach Mick Cronin and Bruins fans.
Adding Watson to a team that reached the Final Four almost seems unfair, like giving a marathoner a five-mile head start.
4. Their rotation is deeper than a Dostoyevsky novel
UCLA’s second unit could probably finish in the upper half of the Pac-12 Conference.
The rotations will require some juggling and could remain in flux for the entire season, but it’s possible the Bruins unveil a reserve unit of Watson and Johnson alongside returning players Jaylen Clark, David Singleton and Jake Kyman.
If Watson and Johnson win starting spots, it would likely move Jules Bernard and Cody Riley into the second unit. Either way, it’s a win-win for the Bruins.
Cronin also won’t hesitate to use any of his scholarship players because they’ve all played meaningful minutes, including end-of-the-bench forward Kenneth Nwuba, whose defensive presence helped the team notch a few victories last season.
5. The senior leaders have arrived
When UCLA lost four consecutive games entering the NCAA tournament — thanks in large part to late lapses — Cronin spoke enviously of his counterparts’ steadying seniors.
Colorado had McKinley Wright IV and D’Shawn Schwartz. Oregon had Chris Duarte and Eugene Omoruyi. USC had Tahj Eaddy. Oregon State had Ethan Thompson and Zach Reichle.
UCLA had no active seniors on its roster after Chris Smith was lost on the final day of 2020 because of torn knee ligaments.
This time around, the Bruins will have seniors Riley, Bernard and Singleton plus Johnson, a graduate transfer. With so much veteran savvy, the final minutes of a taut game should be winning time.
6. Those wobbly legs won’t be an issue anymore
The days of Jaime Jaquez Jr. (34.9 minutes per game last season) and Tyger Campbell (33.7) ranking in the conference’s top 10 in minutes played are thankfully over.
Cronin has enough depth to hold everyone’s minutes to 30 or less, leading to fresher legs and better execution late in games. It could help improve Campbell’s three-point shooting accuracy (25%), which was low in part because he had to run the team and defend a bevy of talented counterparts while logging heavy minutes.
Additionally, UCLA figures to be on the happy end of many blowouts, giving its starters additional rest.
7. They can pick up full court on defense
Among the benefits of so much depth is the ability to sub out players in waves, allowing the team to press on defense without worrying about fatigue.
It might not exactly be Arkansas’ “Forty Minutes of Hell” under Nolan Richardson, but Cronin has the option to have his players pick up full court whenever he’d like.
With freshmen Will McClendon and Watson featuring exceptional length and athleticism, the Bruins could become a supercharged version of the defensive menace that Cronin’s teams were known to be at Cincinnati.
8. They can pick up the pace
Clark told reporters before last season that the team intended to play faster.
It never happened, largely because of injuries and a lack of depth, but now it makes perfect sense for the Bruins to rev things up. They finished No. 11 nationally in offensive efficiency last season, according to the metrics of basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, the first time a Cronin team had finished higher than No. 34.
The Bruins figure to move into the top 10 in 2021-22 because of their experience combined with an infusion of talent. Playing faster will give the team additional possessions to maximize its skill.
9. They might not have to leave California before the Final Four
How’s this for a postseason itinerary? Stop No. 1: San Diego. Stop No. 2: San Francisco. Stop No. 3: New Orleans.
UCLA’s route to the Big Easy could feel a lot like home if it’s able to secure one of the NCAA tournament’s top seeds as expected. The Bruins would be able to play the first two rounds at San Diego’s Viejas Arena before moving on to San Francisco’s Chase Center for the regional semifinals and finals.
Only then would UCLA need to board a plane for a flight exceeding one hour on the way to New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It sure beats being holed up in an Indianapolis hotel room for three weeks.
10. Cronin does his best coaching late in the season
In each of the last two seasons, UCLA became one of the nation’s most feared teams in March.
The Bruins finished the 2019-2020 season on an 11-3 tear, making Cronin the Pac-12 coach of the year after his team had a losing record in mid-January. UCLA appeared ready to extend that run had the pandemic not halted the conference and NCAA tournaments.
Then, after regaining their mojo last March, the Bruins went from the First Four to the Final Four. It might be scary for anybody not wearing a UCLA uniform to see what Cronin can do next spring with a deep, talented and injury-free team.
11. Everybody is acing chemistry
These guys like each other. They really, really like each other.
Whether it’s Campbell calling everybody together at the free-throw line, Juzang tenderly placing an arm around a teammate’s shoulder or Riley delivering a sturdy chest bump, there’s no selfishness on this team.
Adding a trio of newcomers universally lauded as good guys should only enhance their willingness to play for one another.
12. That buzz you hear is a packed Pauley Pavilion
UCLA’s home-court advantage is notoriously lacking early in the season, even when the Bruins are exciting to watch.
During Lonzo Ball’s one season as a Bruin, the team drew only 7,484 fans for a home game against UC Santa Barbara less than two weeks after toppling top-ranked Kentucky to move into the No. 2 national ranking.
The decibel level should be much more headache-inducing this season. The team has already generated nearly 2,000 new season tickets after its Final Four run. That excitement, coupled with fans eager to get back inside Pauley Pavilion after being shut out by COVID-19 a year ago, might make UCLA games one of the hottest tickets in town.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.