Jules Bernard cried a lot as a newborn, earning his family nickname. He was called Noni by his mother after one restless night bouncing him, staring into his brown eyes, trying anything that might relieve his colic.
“I’m like, ‘No, no, no, ni, no, ni, no,’ ” Kristene Bernard said, recalling her weary state.
UCLA fans had a similar reaction after watching Jules barrel into the paint during his first two seasons. He would often run into a wall of defenders and lose the ball, fall down or take too many steps. The size and strength that had allowed the 6-foot-6 guard to score on almost anybody in high school couldn’t provide the same advantage at the major college level.
This time, amid the discomfort of piling up nearly twice as many turnovers as assists, there would be no coddling. There would also be no whimpering.
The days of sulking over bad performances had ended long ago. Bernard’s parents never babied him after he outgrew his onesies, his mother recording his youth basketball games on an iPad and showing him the incontrovertible evidence any time he disputed that he had played poorly. Car rides home involved constructive critiques.
“I’d be pouty at the time,” Bernard said, “but I sort of got used to it and started to not really listen to the tone with which they were speaking to me but the message.”
That made him the perfect pupil for Mick Cronin, the Bruins coach who favored an equally pointed approach. Cronin told Bernard that he needed to become more cerebral, reading defenses so that he could make better decisions about when to pass, pull up for a shot or make one of his forays toward the basket.
The result has been a coming-of-age season for the junior who turns 21 Thursday, when the No. 24 Bruins (11-2, 7-0 Pac-12) face California (7-8, 2-6) at Haas Pavilion. Bernard helped UCLA avoid embarrassment last weekend against Washington by leading the Bruins with 20 points and nine rebounds while committing zero turnovers in a taut win over a last-place team, prompting Cronin to label him the team’s toughest player.
He’s averaging career highs in points (10.4) and rebounds (5.3) while making 47.3% of his shots and 38.9% of his three-pointers. Just as important, he’s on pace to finish a season with more assists than turnovers for the first time.
“He’s made a tremendous transformation,” Cronin said. “He’s got a great attitude, he’s willing to learn, so it was never that he was indignant or defiant. I mean, it’s hard to change your game.”
Bernard’s perseverance at UCLA under multiple coaches has a familiar feel to those who have tracked his career. At Los Angeles Windward High, he played for three coaches in roughly a year, sticking it out while high-profile teammates Shareef O’Neal, Payton Moore and Christian James all transferred.
Windward coach Colin Pfaff would often find his phone bombarded with early-morning texts on Saturdays, Bernard asking to get into the gym for extra shooting practice. He did more than score in games, once snagging 30 rebounds and sometimes playing out of position at power forward to help his team.
His blend of speed and power was partially the result of good genes, his mother a former high school basketball post player who could shoot three-pointers and his father — also named Jules — hailing from a family of decorated sprinters in Trinidad. Both parents have grabbed rebounds for their son during campus visits that often involve stops at his room, where they marvel at his meticulous cleanliness and organization down to the way he inventories his perfectly folded shirts.
A fashionista with a contemporary, European bent, Bernard even recognized one of Cronin’s Audemars Piguet watches during a timeout. At times last season, Cronin’s first after having replaced Steve Alford and interim coach Murry Bartow, it might have felt like the clock was ticking on the possibility of Bernard maximizing his potential.
“I think Jules was frustrated at times and I’m sure Coach Cronin was frustrated at times with Jules turning it over or missing some bunnies in the paint, those kinds of things,” said Pfaff, who remains close to Bernard. “But because Coach Cronin is who he is and sticks with it and is consistent and honest and transparent, guys can work with that and Jules especially can work with that because he’s going to work.”
Bernard is an economics major, but he might as well have a minor in film studies considering the time he spends watching game footage with his coaches and parents. He’s learned to hold his follow-through longer and make sure his feet are set on three-pointers while developing more confidence driving to his right to avoid relying on his natural preference as a left-hander.
His ability to read defenses has improved as a result of not just tracking the player directly in front of him but those who might converge to stop him should he try to drive toward the basket.
“If I see there’s a tight gap and I can’t hit it then I’m not going to take it,” Bernard said, “or if I see there’s an open lane then I’m going to be ready to take the gap as quick as possible before the defense gets set.”
Another potential obstacle materialized before this season with the arrival of Johnny Juzang, a 6-6 guard who transferred from Kentucky to take Bernard’s spot in the starting lineup once Juzang recovered from a stress reaction in his right foot. Bernard shrugged and thrived off the bench, averaging 12 points over the next three games before moving back into the starting lineup upon guard Chris Smith’s season-ending knee injury.
“Jules has got a great work ethic,” Cronin said. “He never takes a play off, he’s after every loose ball, he never sits out. He never claims he’s tired; I mean, the guy’s work ethic allows him to improve. This guy’s got no quit in him.”
When: 6 p.m.
Where: Haas Pavilion, Berkeley.
On the air: TV: ESPNU; Radio: 570.
Update: The Golden Bears are coming off their best victory of the season, a 72-63 road triumph over Utah in which they scored 50 points in the second half without leading scorer Matt Bradley (ankle). Cal guard Makale Foreman has played well since Bradley was hurt earlier this month, averaging 13 points and making 42.9% of his three-pointers over his last three games.