In one of his final acts as a Los Angeles Lakers executive, Jerry West did Jason Kapono—and by extension, UCLA—a huge favor in June. "Stay in school, get quicker and stronger," West told Kapono, who was the Bruins' leading scorer as a freshman and had applied for early entry to the NBA draft. Kapono reconsidered and withdrew his name, and suddenly UCLA's upcoming season is no longer a cautionary tale defined by the question What if?
What if this year's Bruins could have featured early departees Baron Davis ( Charlotte Hornets), Jerome Moiso ( Boston Celtics) and JaRon Rush (undrafted but under contract to play in the new ABA 2000)? It's a fair inquiry, but with Kapono, senior point guard Earl Watson and junior center Dan Gadzuric back in Westwood, this is hardly a rebuilding year for the Bruins, who reached the third round of last year's NCAA tournament before losing to Iowa State. "Jason's such a good shooter that teams are going to have to guard the perimeter," says Watson, who had a glittering 28 assists during the tournament's opening weekend. "That's going to create space for Dan in the lane because teams can't double down."
With nine upperclassmen, experience will be a strong suit, but let there be no mistake: Kapono is UCLA's main man. Though he has a penchant for odd headwear, whether it's his many-hued headbands or the hooded red sweatshirt he wears around campus, Kapono was all business over the summer, raising his weight from 199 to 209 and trimming his body fat from 14% to 6.5%.
Kapono likes to speak softly and carry a big body. "No crazy predictions for the season," he says. "Coach will just say, 'That is bulletin board material!' That's why I wear the hood. Keep a low profile." We'll see whether that's still the case next March.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]