Posted: Friday November 2, 2012 12:22PM ; Updated: Monday November 5, 2012 2:32PM
Brian Hamilton
Brian Hamilton>INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

UNC transfer Larry Drew II looking for redemption as senior at UCLA

Story Highlights

After abruptly leaving North Carolina, Larry Drew II returned to California

Drew says he felt uncomfortable in Tar Heels' system and lost his confidence

Drew will likely be UCLA's start point guard, leading Bruins' high-octane attack

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Every year on Halloween, there is a party for Dee. It is Franklin Smith's birthday, though everyone in the family calls him Dee. How his great-grandfather came by this nickname, Larry Drew II isn't sure. But he was sure the party his mother was planning would be humongous, because Dee turned 100 this Oct. 31, and you throw humongous parties when you're thrilled to have someone around for that long.

One of Drew II's favorite things about his great-grandfather is how the man dresses, always sharp and tidy. He'd enter gymnasiums teeming with onlookers in sweatpants and flip-flops and he proudly stuck out as the only man wearing dress slacks and shiny shoes. It's one of those memories that blurs at the fringes when you're far away but grabs hold of you when you're at home. Larry Drew II never thought he missed being home, until he got there again.

At UCLA this year, he plays the final season of a career that began four years ago on the opposite side of the country. The Bruins return to a sparkly newly renovated Pauley Pavilion boasting a sparkly new roster teeming with supercharged freshman talent, and holding it all together may be a 6-foot-2-inch senior guard from Encino who believes he's a different guy than he was 21 months ago in one notable way.

"Well, I have a lot more to prove now," Drew II says. "That should just say it all. I have a lot to prove."

That alone makes Drew II and the Bruins kindred spirits. After UCLA missed the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons, while absorbing a p.r. shiner from post-Reeves Nelson Era revelations in a Sports Illustrated story published in March, coach Ben Howland welcomed the two consensus top 5 recruits in Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson. And as long as the NCAA red tape isn't too thick -- Anderson is cleared but not Muhammad as of Nov. 1 -- Howland faces the alternately scary and tantalizing prospect of reigniting a hallowed program with first-year, NBA-ready studs.

"I don't find having talent terrifying at all," Howland said, laughing. "The flipside, not having the talent, is terrifying. Having young talent is a great thing. And those guys are enthusiastic, they want to learn, it's all new. Yes, there's a learning curve, and they're going to be going through things for the first time that they've never experienced. But overall it's real good."

Yet the player he has deemed most indispensable to the cause is Drew II, because he is the Bruins' lone true point guard who can balance matchups on both ends. And because he's the lone senior. And because it's imperative that his abrupt departure from North Carolina in February 2011 can't be the final word on his character, not when there is a squad full of promise to lead.

"I left a sour taste in people's mouths when I left," Drew II says. "I guess my image was tarnished by it as well. They didn't really get to see what I can do and what I'm truly capable of. My family and my friends, they've seen me play all my life and they know what I can do. And they're just as excited as I am for me to go out there and play, because they want to see me prove to the world, really, what I can do. And I only have one more year to do that. And I got the team to do it, too. It's just a matter of me going out there and taking care of business."

It was an odd way to leave -- "That'd be a nice way to put it," Howland says -- but Drew II and those close to him insist it was the only way to go. Twenty-one games into that season but at the brink personally, he left the Tar Heels and had his father inform coach Roy Williams he was departing. Speculation was rampant: It was because he lost his job to Kendall Marshall, it was because his family interjected itself too much, it was because he just couldn't get comfortable with what Williams demanded of his point guards.

Asked what he guesses people think of him, Drew II said: "Maybe like ungrateful, spoiled a little bit, selfish, all of those maybe. I'm not sure."

He doesn't blame them for it. "No, no, no, I totally understand why people would feel that way," Drew II says. They don't know the whole story, from him. So he's asked what the whole story is, from him. And he laughs. "There were just instances on and off the court where I felt uncomfortable," he says. "I lost my confidence during the process. And I just felt it would be in my best interests to remove myself from the program. So that's what I did."

It was, in the words of Larry Drew Sr., "something that could not wait." The only next move that made sense was to move home.

Drew II was at UCLA for spring quarter in 2011. He paid his own way. He'd visited the place countless times and then wandered around campus on those first days as if in a fantasy come to life. The proximity of family salved whatever open sores remained. "You could just see he was so much happier," Howland says.

Drew Sr., the Atlanta Hawks coach, sent frequent missives to his son during the time he sat out as a transfer, reminding his son he'd be stronger for it. The confidence-boosters apparently took. "I can hear it in his voice," Drew Sr. says. "I can hear it in his tone. I had a chance to watch him work out this summer. I had a chance to watch him practice. Just sitting there, I can see that he's back to being his old self. His aggression on the floor, his attack mentality on the floor, I can just see that he's different than what he was in the past."

UCLA is counting on it. Howland needs a point guard to push tempo at times, given the artillery Muhammad and Anderson and Co. offer. He also needs an extension of his voice. Sometimes, Howland will deliver this message to his point guard succinctly: I need you to be outspoken. I need you to be a fiery leader. I need you to be constantly talking.

Other times, Howland will approach the huddle and say, We need that leader, somebody to pick us all up. "He'll just say stuff in general, but I know he's specifically talking, like, to me," Drew II says. "He's talking right at me. I take those moments as hints: You need to speak up more, so do what he's trying to tell you to do."

He has, apparently. The Bruins made a three-game swing through China this summer and Howland lauded Drew II's decision-making and tempo-setting. "As fast as he is, we just have to turn around and start running up the court and we know we're going to get open passes," Bruins forward David Wear says. "His ability to defend the quickest guy on the other team and keep them out of the paint is huge, too, because there are not a whole lot of guys we're going to play against that are as quick as Larry."

It was months, though, before Drew II felt he was actually at UCLA, that this new reality was in fact reality. It was a 2011 exhibition game in Anaheim. He wasn't playing. But it was bracing to hear Howland, not Roy Williams, set the game plan in the locker room. On the bench, Drew II's palms sweated as if he was about to check in.

This summer in China, Drew II scaled the Great Wall with the Bruins but otherwise had no major obstacles to overcome. No nerves on the floor. He had been waiting for so long, but he knew he wouldn't wait forever. It was just his time, that's all. "I mean, I'm in Hollywood," Drew II, says. "It makes a perfect movie script. This is my last year, to go out and prove people wrong -- in my mind, I'm writing my own movie. So I can write what the ending is going to be."

Brian Hamilton is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. You can follow him at @ChiTribHamilton.

 
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