How Kobe Bryant’s rookie airballs sparked UCLA’s growth mindset

It seemed like an unusual search for inspiration.

Earlier this season, UCLA coach Mick Cronin told his players to Google “Kobe Bryant rookie airballs.”

The first YouTube video that showed up was footage of the Lakers guard shooting four airballs during a 1997 playoff loss to Utah.

“They were all right on line,” the late Bryant said in an interview accompanying the video, “but they were short. I gotta get stronger.”

Jerry West, the former Lakers executive who orchestrated the trade to acquire Bryant’s NBA draft rights, called it the defining moment of Bryant’s Hall of Fame career because “that’s one of the things that spurred him to greatness.” Bryant said he shot all day after the Lakers returned to Los Angeles from their playoff loss.

Cronin’s point: Even the greats had to push through early stumbles. So stick with the process, Cronin told a team heavy on freshmen but short on confidence, focus on the fundamentals and don’t worry about the results.

After two months of losses, that approach appears to have stimulated a bud break for a young team that has shown visible growth in winning three of its last four games, including a 65-50 flogging of rival USC on Saturday at Galen Center.

A photo on the UCLA basketball Instagram page showed a galvanizing moment in the first half after the Bruins had hounded the Trojans into a shot-clock violation. Seldom-used freshmen Aday Mara and Devin Williams, who helped force the turnover, can be seen celebrating with guard Sebastian Mack while center Adem Bona points jubilantly toward the other end of the court, indicating that his team would get the ball back.

“It felt great being out there, it felt like a spark was risen,” Williams said Tuesday after having played a critical role upon being inserted in his first game in nearly a month.

With their team struggling to solve the Trojans’ zone, Williams and Mara helped the Bruins (9-11 overall, 4-5 Pac-12) dig out of a seven-point hole late in the first half. Mara used his impossibly long arms to grab a rebound and score on a putback. He tapped out another offensive rebound that led to a Will McClendon three-pointer. Williams blocked a shot and used his strength and quickness to score two quick baskets.

UCLA guard Will McClendon shoots against USC guard Oziyah Sellers on Saturday at the Galen Center.

UCLA guard Will McClendon, right, shoots against USC guard Oziyah Sellers on Saturday at the Galen Center.

(Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

“That was a huge part of the run,” said Cronin, whose team ended the first half with a 22-4 surge.

How did Williams stay ready for his moment? He said he continued to work, asked questions, took mental notes about how he would respond to certain situations while watching teammates and remained confident in his talent. Given a chance, he knew he would do his best to contribute even if things didn’t go the way he wanted.

“You can’t control making every shot, you can’t control someone making a tough one,” Williams said, “but you can control grabbing every rebound, you can control diving on the floor, you can control blocking shots. There’s different ways to change the game, so don’t worry about the results, just focus on what you can control.”

Of course, that could be tricky for players who read what was being said about the team on social media only a few weeks ago, when the Bruins appeared destined for their first losing season in nearly a decade. Their coach advised them that none of that mattered given the shallow analysis they would find.

“If you win, you’ll be popular on that platform because all that platform knows is you win or you lose,” Cronin said. “They have no idea whether you’ve played well or whether you’ve improved because nobody knows what the hell they’re talking about on that platform. … So you have to block that out because you have to get better and that’s what successful people do.”

Bryant wasn’t the only basketball legend Cronin cited in showing his team how failure can be key to success. He mentioned point guard Jason Kidd taking an awkward tumble on a fast break and former Bruins sharpshooter Reggie Miller missing more than half of his shots.

“He focused on doing the footwork and fundamentals,” Cronin said of Miller. “The results? He knew he was going to shoot 45 or so percent on his perimeter three-point shooting and be one of the greatest ever, which means he missed 50-something percent of his shots. So sometimes you’re going to miss five in a row.”

Without hesitation, Williams rose for the first three-pointer of his college career against the Trojans. That it was off the mark won’t dissuade him from trying again given it’s something he works on every day, knowing a payoff is inevitable if he maintains the right approach.

“I feel like we’re starting to change and get better every single day,” Williams said, “and I’m extremely proud of us and proud of coach and how he’s been training us, getting us prepared for that battle because it’s hard out there, for sure. But I think our progress has been great.”

UCLA guard Lazar Stefanovic celebrates his three-point basket with guard Dylan Andrews against USC on Saturday

UCLA guard Lazar Stefanovic celebrates his three-point basket with guard Dylan Andrews against USC on Saturday at Galen Center.

(Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

Injury updates

Cronin said freshman forward Berke Buyuktuncel, who sat out the USC game because of a left hand injury, was progressing toward a return, “but he’s sore, so I wouldn’t say he’s all the way back yet.” Buyuktuncel’s first day practicing since his injury was Monday. … Mack, who suffered a toe injury against the Trojans, worked with the team during the portion of practice open to reporters Tuesday. … Junior guard Lazar Stefanovic has been playing through a bothersome foot issue for about a month, Cronin said. Stefanovic’s practice workload has been reduced to help him manage the injury. “It’s just going to be something we’ve got to get through the whole season,” Cronin said.

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