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January 29, 2014

Parker ironing out the kinks in sophomore year

It's been a season of towering highs and plunging lows for UCLA's Tony Parker.

That was neatly epitomized last week when Parker followed a career-high 22-point performance against Stanford with a goose egg against Cal, a season-low.

Parker, who is averaging 7.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game in his sophomore campaign, scored four points the prior game in UCLA's loss to Utah, which makes the recent bump in a scatter chart of his point totals look like Mt. Everest.

After plummeting from the peak, the 6-foot-9 center isn't so much concerned about the tumble, but rather getting back up and learning from it.

"I just keep playing, keep pushing, and keep learning," Parker said before Tuesday's practice. "I had a bad game against Cal, but I mean you have to just keep pushing, keep learning."

Parker's subpar performance against Cal on Sunday was induced by foul trouble, which limited him to a season-low seven minutes.

He committed a pair of fouls within two minutes of each other in the first half, which sent him to the bench. The next half, another pair of fouls - this time within less than 10 seconds of each other. Back to the pine.

Parker thought the officials were calling a tight game on him, which he blames himself for not recognizing sooner.

However, foul trouble is no stranger to Parker.

It's been following him since high school and has been stunting his growth towards becoming a consistent frontcourt presence for UCLA, which the program has been searching for the past few seasons after castoff Josh Smith failed to rise to the expectations set for him.

On three different occasions this season, Parker's fouled out in less than 15 minutes and has had his court time limited because of foul trouble in a handful of other games.

It's been a crippling habit for the former four-star recruit from Lithonia (Ga.) Miller Grove, who only played 6.3 minutes per game in his freshman season.

Although former head coach Ben Howland didn't use Parker frequently last season, he would have seen more time on the court had foul trouble not plagued him. During his freshman season, Parker averaged a foul every 3:50 (team average: 13:30), tallying more fouls in 207 minutes than Shabazz Muhammad did in 987 minutes.

While he's demonstrated this season with performances like the Cal game that foul trouble is still a focal point in his development as a college basketball player, Parker has made progress this season. Sporadic, but steady progress.

Through 20 games, he averages a foul every 6:32 (11:22 team avg.), which is slightly better than senior forward Travis Wear (6:36). By comparison, Smith averaged a foul every 6:53 in his freshman season, during which he averaged 21.7 minutes, a tad more than Parker is averaging this season (19.0 mpg).

Parker's intensity and passion are in place, but establishing a balance between intensity and control is a delicate task for him.

"I have to manage my aggression, especially on defense," Parker said. "It's just me learning and catching on and doing it so I can stay on the court for my teammates and they can have a real good post presence inside."

Managing his aggression and proper defensive positioning will help Parker stay out of foul trouble. The rest is repetition and making the most of the minutes he's on the court.

"He's really going through his freshman year because he didn't get a lot of playing time last year. He's going through it for the first time," UCLA head coach Steve Alford said after UCLA's victory over Cal. "It's a maturity process and for young players it takes some time. Tony is a terrific person. I think he'll really bounce back on this road trip. He had been playing really well.

"I just thought whether he wasn't ready or he just didn't understand … that as you do well you have to continue to do well at a high level because everybody in that other locker room is preparing for you different after you prove you can do some things."

While Parker is now heading out on the road with the Bruins for a trio of Pac-12 conference games, there was speculation a little over a year ago that he might hit the road for good.

Amid his limited court time last season, Parker posted a few obscure tweets that seemed to make reference to his discontent with the program, inducing speculation that he might transfer schools.
Nonetheless, he stayed in Westwood for his sophomore season - or as Alford has renamed it, his freshman season.

"Last year, I was frustrated, but this year it really doesn't matter to me," Parker said. "I'm playing basketball. I'm out here having fun. This year, it's just keep going and keep pushing. Last year was last year, and it wasn't my loss."

It may not have been Parker's loss, but there was little gain for him riding the pine last season. Only so much can be learned from the sideline.

"I'm actually being coached [this year]," he said. "I really didn't play last year, so there was really no point in coaching me. Coach Alford's helping me a lot and he's trusting me, so I have to trust him and keep pushing."

Even with increased minutes and support from his coach, Parker's development has been rocky in his de facto freshman season.

Still, he's adamant about accelerating his growth and becoming a key contributor to his team as it battles through conference play.

"It's a learning process. Right now, going into late January and February, I have to become more of a junior or sophomore now," said Parker. "The games get tougher; the competition gets stiffer; there's more on the line."

As UCLA continues through the next month of crucial conference games, it hopes Parker's development surpasses the threshold of inconsistency.

Especially heading into the hallowed month of March.


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