The last time he ventured to the Bay Area, shepherded from one interview to another at Pac-12 media day, UCLA coach Mick Cronin answered questions about seemingly everything besides the meaning of life.
There were queries about the outsized expectations facing his team one season after a run to the Final Four, about stars Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr., about gritty point guard Tyger Campbell, about sustaining team chemistry, about already having his team in late-season mode in October. Someone even asked about his understanding of cryptocurrency after sophomore Jaylen Clark had launched a $JROCK coin.
Finally, someone asked about senior guard Jules Bernard. Cronin was elated.
“You can’t ask me enough questions about Jules,” Cronin said Thursday night, recalling the moment three months later, “because he deserves to get a lot of publicity for two reasons: One, he is one of the best wing players in America, and secondly, he’s everything this is supposed to all be about, a guy that’s here four years and has gotten better every year, stuck it out through a coaching change, and he’s just a great kid with a great attitude.”
Bernard’s development continues to reward the No. 5 Bruins (9-1 overall, 1-0 Pac-12) heading into their first conference game in more than a month when they face California (9-6, 2-2) on Saturday evening at Haas Pavilion.
Starting every game for the first time, Bernard is averaging career highs in points (13.9), assists (2.6), field-goal percentage (.480) and three-point percentage (.457) while continuing to drastically decrease his turnovers. He is averaging 2.6 assists for every turnover, a staggering improvement for someone who tallied nearly twice as many turnovers as assists in his first two seasons.
“He’s made a lot of changes to his game,” Cronin said. “He gets so much more done now with less dribbling, he’s really worked on his shooting, his toughness, his efficiency — his assist-to-turnover ratio is the turnaround of a lifetime statistically when you look at freshman year to now.”
With UCLA playing for the first time after a nearly monthlong layoff forced by COVID-19 issues, the Bruins relied heavily Thursday on the player they could have dubbed Saint Bernard. He scored a team-high 22 points against Long Beach State, matching the season high he had set against the same team two months earlier, while making seven of 12 shots and four of seven three-pointers.
“Just taking my time,” Bernard said of his approach. “I had open shots, my teammates found me. I missed a few, but I didn’t let my confidence waver. The next open shot I had, I took it, and I made some.”
Bernard’s presence could take on added importance Saturday with Jaquez, the Bruins’ second-leading scorer, potentially sidelined by the sprained right ankle he sustained against Long Beach State. In his last game at Cal, on his 21st birthday last Jan. 21, Bernard delivered a late three-pointer to help UCLA emerge with a 61-57 victory that improved them to 8-0 in Pac-12 play.
Granted another year of eligibility by the pandemic, Bernard will soon face a decision about whether to return for a fifth season of college basketball. His playing days probably won’t end when his UCLA career does, Cronin comparing the 6-foot-7 guard to NBA veteran Josh Hart.
“He’s [6-7] and he can make an open shot, he can defend, he’s a tough guy, I think he’ll survive, like, I think he’ll have a career in the NBA,” Cronin said. “He will play beyond UCLA.”
Where: Haas Pavilion, Berkeley.
On the air: TV: Pac-12 Network; Radio: 570.
Update: UCLA has won eight in a row against Cal but has prevailed in several close games during the streak. The Golden Bears showed how tough they are at home Thursday night before fading late in a 77-63 loss to No. 7 USC. Cal’s defense is known for preventing easy shots and its offense is exceedingly patient, working the shot clock for good looks at the basket. Guard Jordan Shepherd averages a team-leading 14.6 points and forward Andre Kelly is a tick behind at 14.5.