A year after key injury, UCLA's Adams relishes NCAA Tournament debut

Former Central Gwinnett standout and current UCLA Bruin Jordan Adams plays against Fresno State. (Special Photo)

Former Central Gwinnett standout and current UCLA Bruin Jordan Adams plays against Fresno State. (Special Photo)

Change can be a scary thing in many situations, even for a big-time college basketball player like UCLA’s Jordan Adams.

This time last year, the Lawrenceville native and former Central Gwinnett standout was dealing with plenty of potentially frightening changes, including a major injury that prematurely ended what was otherwise an outstanding freshman season and a coaching change.

But what a difference a year makes, one that brought other changes that have left both Adams and his team anything but frightened, with UCLA headed back to the NCAA Tournament to take on Tulsa on Friday in San Diego.

While the invitation to the Big Dance is a perennial engagement for the Bruins (26-8), it will be Adams’ debut after a fractured foot suffered in the semifinals of last season’s Pac-12 Conference tournament left him unable to play in last season’s NCAA.

“This time last year, I was on crutches,” recalled the 6-foot-5, 220-pound sophomore guard. “Now, I get to participate. It was tough (not playing), especially with an injury (to) my foot. I didn’t know how I’d heal or how soon I’d be able to come back from that.”

The injury, and specifically its timing, couldn’t have been worse.

Adams was enjoying an outstanding freshman season in which he not only ranked second on the team and eighth in the Pac-12 in scoring by averaging 15.3 points per game, but also the Bruins in steals win an average of 2.2 per game.

And his absence was definitely felt in UCLA’s 20-point first-round loss to Minnesota the following week.

Adams’ foot injury not only hurt Adams physically and the Bruins from a competitive standpoint, but also all those close to him.

That included his former coach at Central, David Allen, who has maintained a close relationship with Adams even after he left to play his final two high school seasons at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia.

“I was fortunate to go to Las Vegas to the Pac-12 Tournament (last year),” said Allen, who guided the Black Knights to the Class AAAAA Final Four during Adams’ sophomore season in 2010. “So, I was there when he got hurt. It tore my heart out as well because he was playing so well. … I have a lot of respect for Jordan. He’s a special player.”

Watching his teammates fall in the NCAA Tournament the following week and having to go through the physical and emotional strain of rehabbing his injury was only the beginning of the challenges Adams would face.

Ben Howland was fired as UCLA’s head coach shortly after the loss to Minnesota and replaced less than a week later with New Mexico coach Steve Alford, leaving Adams with yet another adjustment to make.

But having left his home in Gwinnett County for Virginia during his high school years before adjusting to college life clear across the country, adapting to a new situation is hardly a foreign concept.

However, Adams says it helped that Alford reached out to him shortly after being hired and was generally there for him even as his rehab limited what he could do in workouts last summer.

“I’m used to change,” Adams said. “I can get used to anything that happens. … (Alford) was always there working with the guys, and I couldn’t really do much. It was tough, but … once he was hired, we forged a great relationship. He kind of helped me through everything, and once I got back on the court he (treated me) the same. He trusted me to be a leader.”

Adams has rewarded that trust throughout the season, leading the Bruins in scoring (17.2 ppg) and steals (2.7 spg), while ranking among the team’s top three in rebounding (second at 5.3 rpg) and assists (third at 2.3 apg) to earn first-team All-Pac-12 honors.

Still, he admitted it took a few games before he could really be comfortable about how his injured foot would respond.

But after a 22-point, three-assist, three-steal outing in a 91-60 win over Oakland in the Bruins’ second game of the regular season Nov. 12, the old Adams confidence was back.

“It was maybe the second or third game of the season,” Adams said. “I really got my groove back and felt that I could come (all the way) back.”

If he hadn’t demonstrated he was all the way back before, his performance in the Pac-12 Tournament last week — played on the same court in Las Vegas he was injured on a year earlier — should have.

He not only scored 19 points in the tournament championship game on Sunday, but his 3-pointer with 43 seconds remaining gave the Bruins the lead for good in what turned out to be a 75-71 upset of No. 4 Arizona for the title.

“I’m just glad Coach (Alford) called my number,” Adams said. “It was a big shot against one of the best teams in the country, and I made the most of it.”

But Adams hopes that moment won’t be the pinnacle for this season for him or his teammates.

“I’m still very excited,” Adams said. “It’s my first tournament. Last year, I had to just sit and watch, but this year, I finally get a chance to participate. I want to make the most of it. We still want to go farther.

“This first game against Tulsa, they’re a very good team. We know they’ll come out and play hard. It should be a good game.”