SACRAMENTO — Amari Bailey is familiar with the Golden 1 Center, home of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.
He was a freshman in high school when Sierra Canyon played there in the CIF State Open Division final in March 2019. The highly touted lefty tallied nine points, three rebounds and four assists to help the Trailblazers beat Sacramento Sheldon 76-52 and hoist the program’s second consecutive state title.
He also created a viral moment in the game, dunking over 6-foot-8 Brennan Newsom, which gave Southern California a tease of what was to come before Bailey went on to an outstanding prep career and earned McDonald’s All-American status.
UCLA’s Amari Bailey is familiar with the Golden 1 Center. He won a CIF State Open title with Sierra Canyon as a freshman in March of 2019.
Four years later, he’s a college freshman in his first NCAA tournament back in Sacramento.
I was there in 2019. I’m here now. Time flies. pic.twitter.com/5GU6hsDboS
— Tarek Fattal (@Tarek_Fattal) March 17, 2023
Four years later, Bailey is a college freshman back in the state’s capital looking to help UCLA make a deep run in the NCAA tournament when they need him most.
After an 86-53 first-round victory over UNC Asheville on Thursday night, the second-seeded Bruins will face seventh-seeded Northwestern in the second round at 5:40 p.m. Saturday in the Golden 1 Center.
The 6-foot-5 Bailey filled the stat sheet in the win, notching 17 points, six assists, four rebounds and three steals in 30 minutes.
“It was just a surreal feeling. It felt like a full-circle moment,” Bailey said about playing in the same arena. “I just had chills running through my body. I just wanted to stay focused and stay present in the moment.”
At Sierra Canyon, Bailey was in support of then-seniors Cassius Stanley, Scotty Pippen Jr., KJ Martin and Christian Koloko – all future NBA players.
“Amari has an amazing ability to morph into whatever player the team needs him to be,” Sierra Canyon coach Andre Chevalier said. “He knew he wasn’t going to be a primary scorer.”
“He was going to play defense,” Chevalier added. “He was our ‘no-catch’ guy. We would put him on the other team’s best player.”
When Bailey arrived in Westwood, his role was eerily similar to the role he had at Sierra Canyon in year one, supporting Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell and Jaylen Clark. But adjusting to the college game is, of course, a lot more challenging.
“I think it’s just a lot harder than people realize, to find a comfort zone,” Cronin said. “You have to find a comfort zone on our team. You’re coming in and playing with the Player of the Year in the Pac-12 [Jaquez], (Tyger) Campbell and Dave (Singleton), a lot of guys that have been around. It’s been a process for he and I of trying to get him to the comfort zone.”
Bailey’s role has helped UCLA win 30 games – the most of any power six conference team – win a Pac-12 Conference regular-season title, and get as high as No. 2 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll while averaging 10.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game.
Since Jaylen Clark – the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year – went down with a lower leg injury, Bailey has shown that morphing ability Chevalier was referencing, averaging 18 points and 5.3 rebounds per game during the conference tournament, including a career-high 26 points in UCLA’s 80-69 win over Colorado.
On top of his play as of late, Bailey has responded well to Cronin’s well-known tough coaching.
“I’m no Mick Cronin, but I coached (Amari) pretty hard, I’d say he’s had a lot of practice,” Chevalier said laughing.
Bailey has a history of answering the call when challenged. He championed the defensive role as a freshman in high school. He turned into Mr. Do-it-all his junior season, averaging 29.2 points, 9.1 rebounds & 6.5 assists and notched three triple-doubles. He has been an outstanding role player throughout UCLA’s regular season, but now he’s being called on to be more in the team’s run toward a national title.
More defense. More rebounding. More offense. More minutes.
So far, he’s answered that call, too.
“He’s embraced the defensive end, which doesn’t surprise me. The guy is from the south side of Chicago. He’s tough,” Cronin said.
UCLA (30-5) vs. Northwestern (22-11) What: NCAA second round
When: 5:40 p.m. Saturday
Where: Golden 1 Center, Sacramento