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Jaylen Clark and Peyton Watson infuse UCLA with a welcome youth movement

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On the rare instances in which he’s beaten defensively, Peyton Watson can use his length and explosiveness to recover in an instant and block a shot from behind. He’s done it several times.

When his team needs a big steal late in a game, Jaylen Clark can use his active hands and quick feet to badger his counterpart into a turnover. He’s done it several times.

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They are plays Watson and Clark are uniquely qualified to make. They’re also becoming more commonplace for UCLA with a recent uptick in playing time for the young players who are the most athletic on the team.

Clark, a sophomore guard, made his first career start last weekend against Oregon State and rewarded the Bruins with a career-high 11 points in addition to his usual lockdown defense.

Watson, a freshman guard, showed the many ways he can help his team while playing 21 minutes against Oregon and nearly 23 minutes against Oregon State. It was the most playing time he’s earned in back-to-back games and portends the possibility of a larger role as No. 9 UCLA (11-2 overall, 3-1 Pac-12) prepared to face Utah (8-10, 1-7) on Thursday night at the Huntsman Center.

“It’s exciting that both of those guys are improving because they’re our two best athletes and I think that it shades a weakness of ours at times with our lack of athleticism on the court,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “So long term, for us to get where we want to go, I think that both of those guys are going to have to be factors for us.”

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Clark was everywhere the Bruins needed him during their bounce-back victory over Oregon State, particularly in the first half. The long hours he spent working on his shot were on display when he buried a corner three-pointer, banked in a running jumper, sank a long jumper from the other corner, made a backdoor layup off a bounce pass from Cody Riley and completed the onslaught with a driving layup.

UCLA legend Bill Walton, working the game as an analyst for the Pac-12 Network, said on the broadcast that it was the best offensive game he had seen Clark play in his two seasons. And it wasn’t even halftime.

“I just saw it as an opportunity,” said Clark, who earned the start after teammate Jaime Jaquez Jr. was sidelined with a swollen ankle. “What happened to Jaime was unfortunate, but it gave me the opportunity to go out there and show them what I can do. … I know people know I can defend the ball. I was put in spots where I can score where I normally wouldn’t have, so I just tried to make the most out of it.”

Clark’s averages of 6.2 points and 4.3 rebounds in 18.5 minutes per game are all up significantly from last season, his point and minutes averages more than doubling what he posted as a freshman. His recent strong play is all the more impressive considering he’s endured one setback after another, including a concussion, a lengthy illness and the team’s COVID-19 layoff that lasted 26 days.

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“Hopefully he can stay healthy here,” Cronin said, “because what you saw in the Oregon State game is how he was playing in the preseason, so I think that could be huge for us.”

Watson has also enjoyed a fast rise over the last week. His highlights against Oregon State included taking a charge, blocking Dashawn Davis’ shot from behind after initially being beaten on the play, triggering a fastbreak that ended with Johnny Juzang‘s layup, and making a feathery jumper in the final minute.

“I love to produce, I love to impact winning,” said Watson, who is averaging 4.1 points and 4.0 rebounds in just 15.1 minutes per game. “That’s my main thing, I just want to help our team win and continue to have a successful season. So I’ve been working day in and day out, just getting more comfortable with the college style of play, working my butt off in practice, really pushing myself and other guys. I think it’s really shown here in these past couple of weeks in my practice performance and that’s translated over to the game.”

Even with a roster that includes every player back from the team’s Final Four run last season, it could be hard to keep Watson and Clark off the court. Jaquez is probably going to return against the Utes after practicing this week, making Cronin’s roster management the most challenging it’s been in his three seasons.

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Walton suggested as much in his postgame interview with Clark last weekend.

“Now be sure and tell coach Mick Cronin, ‘See what happens when you start me, coach, I need more time,’” Walton said with a smile.

Clark just smiled back, his expression saying it all.

TONIGHT

AT UTAH

When: 8 p.m. PST.

Where: Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City.

On the air: TV: FS1; Radio: 570.

Update: Utah has dropped six consecutive games, its last victory coming against Fresno State on Dec. 21, but that could make the Utes all the more dangerous and desperate on their home court. “In conference play, every game’s a bloodbath,” Cronin said. “So if you don’t come ready to play from the opening tip, you give another team confidence. As Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas [showed], it’s hard to turn the tide sometimes, so we’ve got to worry about us and our mission. … We need to focus on what we need to do to defend Utah, what we need to do to execute and score against Utah and make sure that we play with physicality and toughness and improve our defensive rebounding as well.”

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