At home in Los Angeles, Bryce Dejean-Jones has been observing UNLV’s unsettling offseason and plotting his next move.
No, he’s not secretly planning to transfer, and he never considered entering the NBA Draft. His only move is to a new role, one carrying far more responsibility.
A year ago, Dejean-Jones had yet to appear in a game for the Rebels and was a long way from being a leader. Now, the 6-foot-5-inch junior guard is the team’s top returning scorer and highest profile player on a new-look roster.
“The past few months haven’t really been good for us. It’s kind of crazy,” he said. “But I think we have a great group of guys, and everybody is committed and focused. I’m preparing myself to go in there and motivate guys to do better than we did last year.”
Since losing its NCAA Tournament opener to California in March, UNLV has continued to incur losses of the personnel variety. Assistant coach Justin Hutson bolted for Mountain West rival San Diego State, and six players departed the program.
Anthony Marshall, Justin Hawkins and Quintrell Thomas graduated. Freshman forward Anthony Bennett declared for the NBA Draft, and junior forward Mike Moser announced his intention to graduate this summer and transfer to Oregon.
To top it off, freshman guard Katin Reinhardt, who vowed to return, had a change of heart Sunday and is transferring to Southern California. Bennett and Reinhardt, who ranked one-two on the team in field-goal attempts, were coach Dave Rice’s most prized recruits.
“I was surprised more about Katin than Mike,” said Dejean-Jones, who transferred from USC after his freshman year. “With Katin, I didn’t see that coming.”
Rice, 25-10 last season and 51-19 overall, is entering a third year shrouded in uncertainty. The Rebels won’t appear in any preseason Top 25 polls, and expectations will be considerably lower. That might not be a bad thing, for a change.
Despite the defections, Rice has pieced together a roster that is plenty talented, and UNLV should contend with New Mexico, San Diego State and Boise State for the conference title.
“I feel confident,” Rice said. “I think it’s a hard-working group with good team chemistry. I don’t think we’ll have any deficiencies in terms of athletes at any spots.”
Of the Rebels’ top eight scorers last season, only Dejean-Jones and 6-9 junior Khem Birch, a transfer from Pittsburgh, will return. Both are expected to be starters — Dejean-Jones at shooting guard and Birch at center — but several spots in Rice’s rotation are open for competition.
The point guard position will be hotly contested with four players in the mix. Daquan Cook, who logged just 107 minutes in 25 games as a freshman, is joined by incoming freshman Kendall Smith and junior college transfers Jelan Kendrick and DeVille Smith.
Birch and Kendrick were McDonald’s All-Americans in high school, one sign the Rebels’ roster is more talented than some might think.
Kendrick is 6-7 and DeVille Smith is 5-11, so Rice can utilize a big point guard or a smaller, quicker one. Kendrick also can play small forward. Kendall Smith is a combo guard who scored 52 points in a game at Deer Valley High School in Antioch, Calif.
Cook could redshirt, though that decision will be made later. Dantley Walker, a shooting guard from Lincoln County High, is another redshirt candidate after finishing a two-year Mormon mission.
One major question mark will be perimeter shooting. UNLV made 227 3-point shots last season. Dejean-Jones (42-for-121, .347) is the only returnee who hit more than two 3-pointers.
But the Rebels will be athletic and deep on the front line with Birch, 6-11 senior Carlos Lopez-Sosa, 6-8 junior Roscoe Smith, 6-6 sophomore Savon Goodman, 6-9 redshirt freshman Demetris Morant and 6-10 freshman Chris Wood.
Roscoe Smith, a transfer from Connecticut, and Wood, a highly touted and versatile freshman from Findlay Prep, each has 3-point shooting range.
UNLV might not score in 3s as often, so Rice is planning to create offense by applying more defensive pressure.
“The majority of these guys can play multiple positions,” Rice said. “From a personnel standpoint, we couldn’t play the way I wanted us to play last year. I am absolutely committed to picking up full court on makes, free throws and dead balls. We will guard the whole floor.”
By the end of the season, Dejean-Jones was the Rebels’ best perimeter defender. He started 29 of 35 games and averaged 10.3 points, third on the team behind Bennett (16.1) and Marshall (10.4).
“I think Bryce’s development as a person and a teammate helped him become a leader,” Rice said, “and guys have seen that improvement and that helps his credibility.”
UNLV’s lack of team chemistry on and off the floor last season led to disappointing results in relation to the talent level and expectations.
The Moser and Reinhardt transfers could be perceived as negative signs for Rice’s program, but Dejean-Jones disagreed.
“I just feel like those are individual decisions. I don’t believe it has an effect on the team in any way,” Dejean-Jones said. “It was a group of guys that were playing with each other for the first time, and it was a big adjustment for a lot of the guys.
“I’m excited to get back out there. I think we’re going to come back even better.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.