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NCAA Tournament star Johnny Juzang is returning to UCLA

 

UCLA

UCLA's Johnny Juzang drives to the basket against Gonzaga's Joel Ayayi last Saturday in the NCAA tournament.

After one of the most amazing NCAA basketball tournament runs in years, the UCLA Bruins fell in a heartbreaking loss to Gonzaga in overtime on a Hail Mary buzzer beater, 93-90. That left all Bruins fans wishing for another shot at the NCAA men's basketball championship. Last week, Johnny Juzang granted that wish by deciding to drop out of the NBA draft and return for another season in Westwood.

Juzang posted on Twitter, "Going through the process has been an amazing experience. I was blessed to connect with great people, learn and grow, and get a feel for life at the next level. I want to thank everyone who has helped me in this process including my family, trainers, school, and especially my dad who helped for countless hours!"

Juzang added, "Westwood, I can't wait to go to war! We've got a team full of warriors and there is nobody I'd rather fight beside. With Coach Cronin and our staff, I'm very excited for this season. Let's do something special!" Juzang's NCAA tournament performance was something special, as he averaged 22.8 points per game in the NCAA tournament.

Juzang's return to Westwood was not a complete surprise. He had not played well at the NBA draft combine and some of his weaknesses as a defender and ball handler were exposed. While Juzang had done enough in the NCAA tournament to be selected in the two round NBA draft, the money is always better in the first round. A first-round pick gets guaranteed money in the first two years of a contract as a first-round pick.

"We are very excited Johnny will be returning to UCLA," said coach Mick Cronin in a statement. "Obviously, we had a special run in March and Johnny, playing on a sprained ankle, was magnificent along with his teammates. We are all excited to get back to work and build on our success."

The Bruins will now return everyone from a team that went 5-1 in the NCAA Tournament. They will add center Myles Johnson, 6-foot-11 center from Rutgers, McDonald's All-American forward Peyton Watson from Long Beach Poly high school, and Will McClendon, a 6-3, 190-pound shooting guard from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman high school to a deep and talented roster.

Johnson is a transfer from Rutgers with two years of eligibility left, due to the NCAA's blanket waiver for all winter student-athletes during the 2020-21 academic year. Johnson gives the Bruins a true shot blocker in the middle. The Bruins as a team in 2020-2021 blocked 69 shots in 32 games. Johnson blocked 68 shots in 28 games, while playing 24 minutes per game. Johnson made the Big Ten All-Defensive team, adding 8.5 rebounds per game. Johnson played his high school basketball at Long Beach Poly.

Watson is a rated a five-star performer and the top player in the state of California. Watson is already being projected as an NBA lottery pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. He will be difficult to keep out of the starting lineup or off the floor. The 6-foot-7 small forward can play in the backcourt as well as the frontcourt.

McClendon, rated a four-star player by 247sports.com, is the No. 3 rated player from Nevada in the Class of 2021. A scouting report from Sports Illustrated describes him this way: "McClendon's ability to score on all three levels efficiently makes him tough to stop. He's nearly automatic as a catch-and-shoot guy but has the ability to put the ball on the floor and create his own shot. His toughness and skill set will enable him to contribute right away at UCLA."

Also returning from last year's team will point guard Tyger Campbell, guard Jules Bernard, forward Jaime Jaquez Jr., and center Cody Riley. Campbell was first team All-Pac-12, while Juzang and Jaquez both were selected to the All-Pac-12 second team. Jaquez also made the Pac-12 All-Defensive team. Riley will return to UCLA for one more season after withdrawing from the NBA draft.

The challenge for the coaching staff will be integrating all this talent and finding minutes for each player. With all five starters, plus five key players off the bench returning, plus the addition of Johnson, Watson, and McClendon, it will be interesting to see how Cronin and his staff spread the minutes around during games. The practices should be intense and fun to watch.

Another potential issue for the coaching staff is a back-up point guard. Starting point guard Campbell is a key component to the Bruins offensive attack. In the six NCAA tournament games last spring, Campbell had 27 assists and just 7 turnovers. Campbell's decision making on the court was a huge factor in upset wins over Michigan State, BYU, Alabama, and Michigan. He is like a coach on the floor.

Bernard, a 6-foot-5 starting guard, and David Singleton, a 6-foot-4 reserve combo guard, are the backup point guards to Campbell on the roster. That could be an area of concern if Campbell is injured or gets into foul trouble in a key game. Cronin and the coaching staff will need to develop other options at point guard, such as Watson, or hope to develop Singleton in that role.

The early predictions on the 2021-2022 college basketball season already show UCLA is a strong favorite to win their 12th national championship. Andy Katz of NCAA.com has the UCLA Bruins ranked No. 1 in the nation, with the Gonzaga Bulldogs as the No. 2 ranked team in the nation. The Bulldogs added three of the top players in the country to their potent attack, including the top rated player in the nation, 7-foot center Chet Holmgren out of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

With the first and second round 2022 tournament games played in San Diego and the Sweet 16/Elite Eight games played in San Francisco, there is a chance that the Bruins would not have to leave California if they are the top ranked team headed into the NCAA tournament. UCLA will play a very tough schedule that will include a neutral site game against North Carolina, as well their twenty-game conference schedule, but with the return of Juzang, Campbell, and the additions on the roster, the 2021-2022 season could be "something special."

 

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