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Tony Parker's emergence has UCLA eyeing a trip to the Elite Eight

UCLA is on the brink of the Elite Eight thanks to the emergence of junior big man Tony Parker

LOUISVILLE, Ky.—A day before he delivered the biggest game of his college career, Tony Parker snapped. Over and over again, as he roamed around the UCLA locker room wielding a Canon ID Mark IV camera, Parker took photos of his teammates. There’s Bryce Alford fielding questions from reporters. Snap. There’s Norman Powell seated on a chair. Snap.

Parker’s not a photographer, but this routine was familiar. The Daily Bruin staffer who brought the camera to KFC Yum! Center here said Parker has done the same thing two or three times before. “Everybody wants to take pictures of me because of how pretty I am, so it’s good for me to take pictures of everybody else,” Parker said.

Here was Parker being Parker: The Bruins’ resident jokester, whose sense of humor brings a refreshing change of pace to typical news conference rhetoric. The difference on Friday was what came next.

Parker, a junior, scored a season-high 28 points on 11-of-14 shooting, grabbed 12 rebounds and dominated UAB’s frontline in the Bruins’ 92-75 win in the Round of 32 on Saturday. His performance secured UCLA’s second consecutive trip to the Sweet 16 and marked a stark contrast from Parker’s effort two days earlier against SMU.

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Against the Mustangs, Parker converted only one of his six field goal attempts, logged just 18 minutes and did not return after being subbed out with more than five minutes remaining. UCLA won anyway, but the Bruins needed him to play better in the next round because they made Parker a focal point of their game plan.

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After burying 10 three-point shots against SMU, the Bruins focused on generating offense in the post—a design influenced, in part, by the Bruins’ win over the Blazers in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November. Parker delivered by repeatedly sealing off his man, catching near the basket and either finishing or drawing fouls.

It helped that UCLA was able to use dribble penetration to force haphazard rotations, which often put Parker in even better position to convert from close range. With Alford and Powell beating their men off the bounce, UAB struggled to adjust its coverage, and UCLA took advantage. The Bruins outscored the Blazers 52-22 in the paint and registered 1.37 points per possession, well above their average during Pac-12 conference play and .51 PPP higher than Iowa State, one of the top per-possession offensive teams in the country, rang up on UAB in a Round of 64 loss two days earlier.

“When [Parker] got single coverage, then it was on Tony,” coach Steve Alford said afterward. “We got him the ball—and it wasn't just Bryce. Isaac got him the ball. Norman got him the ball. We did a really good job of getting it to the rim, and then Tony really finished well. Other than his first move in the second half, that was a fadeaway on a right block, everything was to the rim. When he does that, he's a big load.”

I re-watched the game against UAB—which multiple UCLA assistants said they believed was the best of Parker’s career—and logged his offensive touches. The chart shows that Parker had few unproductive possessions against the Blazers. Though he benefited from easy layups that resulted from defensive lapses, it’s clear UAB’s frontcourt had a hard time dealing with the 6’9”, 265-pounder.

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Consider the following possession late in the second half. Parker catches a bounce pass from Alford and begins backing down UAB’s Tosin Mehinti. After briefly losing possession of the ball, Parker passes it out to Powell. Powell drives into the paint, loses his defender and forces Mehinti to slide to provide help.

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The rotation leaves Parker open on the left block, and Powell slips him the ball. Though Parker misses his first attempt, he outmuscles UAB’s William Lee for the rebound and converts the putback.

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Not included on the chart are Parker’s contributions on the other end of the floor. He recorded three blocked shots and eight defensive rebounds. “He’s capable of doing these things,” guard Isaac Hamilton said. “But today, he was just a monster in the post—rebound, scoring, just everything was just going his way.”

For Parker, Saturday’s game marked the high point of a career that has thus far been more notable for what he has not accomplished. A former top-30 prospect out of Miller Grove (Ga.) High, Parker drew reported scholarship offers from Kentucky, Kansas and Ohio State, among other programs.

In April 2012, he announced his commitment to UCLA at a lengthy ceremony that was widely panned as yet another example of the absurdity of modern recruiting. In choosing the Bruins, Parker joined a recruiting class that was ranked No. 2 in the country by and featured three future first-round draft picks in Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Shabazz Muhammad.

But Parker did not live up to expectations as a freshman. He battled hamstring, ankle and back injuries and received limited playing time. A series of tweets that seemed to express homesickness and other comments prompted speculation over whether Parker would consider transfering. After Parker’s first season, UCLA fired Ben Howland and replaced him with Alford, and Parker elected to remain with the program.

He worked on improving his body and saw his playing time and production increase the next season. Parker has made another leap as a junior: He is playing an additional seven minutes per game, drawing more fouls, recording more assists, and his per-40 minute points and rebounds averages have increased from 15.9 and 10.3 to 18.5 and 10.8, respectively.

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Parker said he’s lost more than 20 pounds since his freshman season. “My nickname around the locker room and campus is big sexy,” Parker said. “So, keeping my hair being curled and my body in a nice manner—it’s good for the team and the basketball and it’s good for the ladies off the court.”

Parker’s performance notwithstanding, it’s remarkable the Bruins even reached this point.

UCLA’s at-large chances appeared slim when it failed to knock off Arizona in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament. The Bruins were slotted as an 11-seed in the South region, but not without hearing loud protests over whether their résumé —which included a 4-11 record in road and neutral games and few quality wins—merited a bid.

To reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 2008, UCLA will need to knock off a Gonzaga team that handed the Bruins their only loss at Pauley Pavilion this season in December and that dismantled Iowa in the Round of 32. Still, UCLA is capable of at least pushing the Zags if Parker turns in an another dominant performance.

It would be a scene worth documenting with a photograph.