Larry Drew II enjoying homecoming

LOS ANGELES — Ben Howland can’t stop talking about how comfortable his point guard is.

Larry Drew II agrees.

Drew, the fifth-year senior playing in his first season with the Bruins, is back home. He’s in a controlled environment, both on and off the court.

Away from the floor, he has such liberties as spending time with his family, like being there for his great grandfather’s 100th birthday party in October.

On the floor, he had the chance to go head-to-head with younger brother Landon when the Bruins hosted Cal State Northridge last month.

His assist-to-turnover ratio speaks to the comfort zone he’s in on the floor.

Being comfortable, is in fact, unfamiliar territory for Drew in his collegiate career. After Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson, Drew was supposed to be next in line in Tar Heel point guard lore under Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams.

Felton and Lawson each led the Tar Heels to a national championship. Drew, who played behind Lawson as a freshman on the 2009 NCAA championship team, entered Chapel Hill with huge expectations and high on confidence. He left with a dose of humility.

“I was just so used to being the man where I was,” he said.

Two and a half uncomfortable seasons in Chapel Hill proved otherwise.

Like a square peg in a round hole, the California kid just didn’t fit in in Chapel Hill. A traditional point guard in every since of the word, conforming to Williams’ Secondary Break Offense ended up being a lot tougher than he anticipated.

Having to execute at break-neck pace — for a point guard who liked to see the floor and get his teammates involved in a more controlled environment than the Secondary Break would allow — just wasn’t working out.

“I was a little sped up,” Drew said. “I was playing a style of play I wasn’t comfortable playing.

“I never used to go 100 miles per hour when I’m out there on the court. The first thing coach Williams used to tell me to do when I got the ball is ‘Just go as fast as you can … just go like a rocket.’”

He grew up learning the nuances of the pick and roll from his father, Larry Drew Sr. The elder Drew played 10 seasons in the NBA, four of which were split between the Clippers and Lakers. He’s now the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks. Those lessons he learned from his father at a young age he also applied at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, Calif., which led to him becoming a McDonald’s All-American in 2008.

There weren’t many opportunities to do that at North Carolina.

The game became increasingly frustrating. He left the team abruptly in February of 2011 without saying anything to anyone. His father informed Williams his son wouldn’t be returning to the team.

It was an unceremonious departure for a once-prized recruit. He was bashed in the media and through social media by rabid North Carolina fans.

Drew returned home to California, where, on the advice of his father, he took a break from the game. He needed to regain the love he once had for basketball. He needed to find the love he had as a youth when he watched “Pistol Pete” Maravich dribbling exercise videos and mimicked the moves on the hardwood floors in his Encino home.
 
The game was never far away. He called friends to meet him for games of pickup basketball at Genesta Park near his home in Encino.

There was no Dean Dome. There was no ACC craziness. The game was fun again. Being back home erased the problems that haunted him in Chapel Hill.

“It’s crazy,” Drew explained. “All of my problems. All of my issues, they went away once I left (North Carolina). I was just so happy to just be able to just clear my head. I had so much that was on my mind at the time.”

UCLA was one of the many schools that recruited Drew coming out of Taft High School. He was approached by Howland again after receiving his release from North Carolina. Without talking to any other schools, he decided he wanted to be a Bruin. He actually had to pay his own way for his first two quarters of school in Westwood.  

Drew is a throwback of sorts; a pass-first point guard who would much rather get his teammates involved than look for his own. 

He entered this week fourth in the country in assists per game (8.2). Three times this season, he’s recorded double-digit assist totals, including a career-high 13 against Cal State Northridge. In those three games, he totaled just 17 points.

“I look at an assist as two points,” he said. “Basically, it is. You’re helping somebody get an open shot.

“When you have a bunch of people on the same team that all they want to do is score, the game’s not really fun. I would love to score but that’s not what I’m here for.”

Howland has raved about his decision making. His assist-to-turnover ratio has become the stuff of legend around Westwood. Howland says it’s the best he’s seen in his 10 years as UCLA’s head coach.

“It means a lot to me,” said Drew. “Especially this year. I really just wanted to make it a point of emphasis to myself to take better care of the ball than I had done during my previous college years at North Carolina.”

In his two and a half seasons in Chapel Hill, Drew was dubbed “Turnover Jesus” by North Carolina fans for his assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.00. That mark is better than Darren Collison’s 1.91 with the Bruins in 2008-09 and Russell Westbrook’s 1.74 in 2009-10.

Drew is admittedly more comfortable in Howland’s offense. His 4.63 assist-to-turnover ratio is 10th in the country.

Although he has just one season to play for UCLA, he’s relishes what he calls a second chance to play the game he loves, this time surrounded by those he loves most.
When UCLA took on Cal State Northridge, there were close to 70 family members in attendance to see him and his younger brother battle at the new Pauley Pavilion.

“(This) is my city,” he said. “This is where I was born and raised.”

There’s comfort in that.