Add Joshua Smith on the train out of UCLA, joining Tyler Lamb as the second Bruins player to transfer this month. The 6-10 former McDonald’s All-American has struggled with his weight and conditioning over the past three seasons and apparently he’s decided that he needs a fresh start to salvage his career.
The news can’t come at a worse time for the Bruins, who face Cal State Northridge Wednesday and San Diego State Saturday. They’re currently out of the AP Top 25 poll after an embarrassing loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Now two players who started on last year’s squad are gone.
You can put some blame on Smith leaving over his struggles to lose weight. After three years, it’s on the player to work on making some changes and when the season started, it looked like it was going to be the same story all over again. He’d lose minutes because he couldn’t run late in games and he wasn’t improving as the season wore on, just like his freshman and sophomore years. As gifted as he was, I had questions about his motor and work ethic if this was continuing to be an issue.
But if you step back a bit, the blame has to be shared by Ben Howland and his coaching staff. Smith’s transfer shouldn’t be a surprise because of all the negative comments the coaching staff has thrown at him. That hasn’t made it easier for him to feel accepted. As much as Smith needs to be proactive about his own health, the coaching staff needed to invest far more in him to make sure he was on target. I’m sensing the staff became resigned to accept Smith wasn’t going to lose weight.
It’s another sign that for all of Howland’s greatness as a defensive-minded coach who restored UCLA to prominence, he’s not the best at dealing with personalities and bringing the most out of his players. He doesn’t go out of his way to defend his players and while a coach needs to be honest, you have to balance honesty with building guys up too.
With Smith gone, the Bruins’ front court depth takes another hit. Besides David and Travis Wear, the only big man on the roster is freshman Tony Parker, who steps into the rotation after playing a combined six minutes in the last two games. It also leaves the team with only eight scholarship players. As much as I think Parker is a talented big man, it’s a lot to ask the freshman to immediately step in as a contributor in this situation.
The sad truth is that instability has now become a hallmark of the Howland era since the 2008 Final Four. The players who have transferred or left the program since then? Chace Stanback, J’Mison Morgan, Brendan Lane, Drew Gordon, Mike Moser, Matt Carlino, De’End Parker, Reeves Nelson, Anthony Stover and now Lamb and Smith. 11 in total and all but Nelson and Stover left the program on their own accord.
I say this again. Ben Howland’s days as UCLA coach are numbered. A team that was expected to go deep in the NCAA Tournament now might be lucky to beat San Diego State, who just overpowered USC on Sunday. While Smith’s time at UCLA might be considered a flop due to his own shortcomings, it should also be a reflection of Howland’s shortcomings as a head coach.