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October 30, 2012

Allen Crabbe has heard the criticisms; now it's time to put them to rest



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Allen Crabbe hears everything.

He hears the whispers: He's too passive. He doesn't deserve to take over for the lion-hearted Jorge Gutierrez and the stern guidance of Harper Kamp. He's not anywhere near ready for the NBA.

Allen Crabbe hears it all. How does he shut them out? How can he? How will he?

"By proving it to them," he says.

Crabbe's first shot at proving his critics wrong will be on Wednesday, when the Bears host an open intra-squad scrimmage starting at 4 PM at Haas Pavilion. Granted, it will be against his own teammates, but Crabbe will finally get to show the fruits of his labor over the summer, when, instead of going home to his family, he stayed in Berkeley and did nothing but work out -- taking just one day off from either lifting or court work.

"The fact that he stayed -- He likes home," says head coach Mike Montgomery. "He's kind of a homebody kid. The fact that he was willing to stay and go to both summer sessions ... He's gotten stronger, he feels as good as he's ever felt, just physically, and obviously much better. We're really pleased."

Last summer, Crabbe went to try out for USA Basketball's U19 world championship team. Early in the tryouts, he got smacked in the nose with an elbow, sustaining a broken nose, a concussion and a corneal scratch. Not only did he not participate in the bulk of the tryouts because of the concussion, but he also was unable to get any work in to prepare for the upcoming college season, which, according to Montgomery, set him back substantially.

"It hurt. He really didn't like the mask. The experience of playing with the USA team would have been very valuable to him, and he didn't have that opportunity, as well, so what could have been, I think it set him back, and he was about maybe a half year short of where he would have been, I think," says Montgomery.

After starting off hot with a pair of 20-plus-point performances against the likes of UC Irvine and George Washington, Crabbe went three straight games with less than 10 points, as he averaged 15.8 ppg through the nonconference schedule. In the first half of Pac-12 play, he averaged 15.91 points per game. In the final seven games of the conference schedule, though, Crabbe's average dipped to 13.71, and in the postseason, he averaged 13 points per contest.

Suffering a painful abdominal pull, Crabbe retreated into himself. Gutierrez would regularly scold him for being too passive, for passing up the open jumper or the dribble-drive for a safer pass to one of his teammates. He was timid. He was looking for a way out.

"It would just be like, 'You're passing up too many shots.' It was like, 'Why are you doing that? Stop being tentative. The coaches have faith in you to make shots, so do that,'" says Crabbe. "Honestly, I do not really know why I'm tentative. I guess I just happen to always look for the next-best play, instead of just focusing on me trying to get a basket for the team."

Instead of getting stronger down the stretch, Crabbe faded. Those two weeks he missed months prior took a toll on his conditioning.

"I was disappointed in how we all performed down the stretch," says Montgomery. "I think we got back on our heels and got passive and didn't have anybody step up and take over. We relied on Jorge so much, and Jorge was beat. Jorge had about had it, and we needed somebody else to take a more active role. We can't let that happen again."

For Montgomery, Crabbe's season was a source of frustration. He knew Crabbe had a beast inside of him -- he'd seen the ability during Crabbe's recruitment. He just never let it out. As team-oriented as he was, Montgomery would have preferred if, at times, Crabbe would be just a little bit more selfish.

"Well, you never know, despite what everybody says, you never know how a kid's going to turn out," says Montgomery. "He could really shoot the ball, he had long arms, he had a good basketball body and it was a matter of filling out and becoming more aggressive, scoring, and a lot was going to depend on what his attitude towards how good he wanted to be. I had no notions of what he was going to be, but he's turned out, obviously: Freshman of the Year, all-conference and better than that, now."

Crabbe, too, was dissatisfied. He saw plays run through Gutierrez and Kamp. The ball wasn't going to be in his hands if he wasn't feeling it. That was no more evident than a two-game stretch against Oregon and Colorado.

At Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene, Ore., on Jan. 28, Crabbe was a force, scoring a game-high 26 points on 9-of-16 shooting, going 8-for-11 from the floor in the second half and 5-of-6 from three-point range, pulling down seven boards after halftime.

Four nights later in a loss to the Buffaloes at Haas Pavilion, Crabbe went 2-for-9 from the floor and scored just nine points.

"That's the flashes that you're talking about, when the basket looked like a bathtub to him, and then he got confident and started getting shots and making shots," says Montgomery. "I don't know that the defense that night was the same that Colorado presents, but he's got to get closer to that and be a threat at any given time to be able to do that."

"It was a lot of inconsistency, with me," says Crabbe. "I feel like there were games, when I showed up to play with a lot of energy, and there would be other games where I would just be lagging, not playing as hard, not doing the extra stuff like helping on defense or extra rebounding. I just feel like sometimes I wasn't focused at all times.

"I think that I let my game get to me a little bit too much. If something's not going right on the offensive end, I let it affect me in other areas of my game, which is a bad thing. That's something that I'm learning from, and you pretty much won't see that from me this year."

Staying in Berkeley this offseason, Crabbe rehabbed the abdominal pull with strength and conditioning coach Scott Thom, while working out on the court with high school teammate Richard Solomon, point guard Justin Cobbs, big man Bak Bak, wing Ricky Kreklow and Jeff Powers. Crabbe says that he took one day off all summer.

"Physically, I feel a lot stronger, I feel a lot more explosive in my legs, and I feel like, last summer, I was just out," says Crabbe. "I was out for a couple of weeks. I wasn't able to work with the team right away, and I just feel like I was playing catch-up, so that time being behind and being out, it seems like I was just behind."

Now, he's ahead, though Montgomery won't go as far as saying he's made that jump the staff has been waiting to see.

"I don't know about any jump. He's a good player. He's gotten better. He said to me the other day, he said, he's so glad that he stayed this summer. He thought it was the best thing for him, by far," says the Cal skipper. "Kids mature. They all do. It's fun to watch. Allen's a little bit of a homebody. Parents take pretty good care of him. Now he's comfortable away from home. He takes care of his business. He's become a college student with all the things you expect to have, and he's still, he needs to become more aggressive from the standpoint of knowing how good he is."

Crabbe acknowledges his failings and his tentativeness. He's heard the criticisms. He's internalized them.

"I just feel like, if I can just play the way I played against Oregon on the road in the second half, if I can play like that for the whole 40 minutes, I really feel like that's the mindset that I really need, for me to be aggressive and for me to help out the team a lot this year," says Crabbe. "That's really been one of my main focuses this offseason. Working out, I wasn't really focusing on getting a lot of shots. That's what I do: I shoot the ball, and I do it pretty well, so that just really wasn't my main focus. This offseason, I really focused on my ball-handling a lot, and in practice situations, I'm getting the rebound, pushing it up the floor. I'm not looking to pass to the point guard; I'm looking to do things that I can get comfortable with and practice so I can take it over to the game."

Crabbe doesn't just have to take his newfound habits over to the game. He has to take over games. With Gutierrez and Kamp gone, he's the man. He's the go-to guy.

"I think that Allen was always welcome. He'll always shoot an open shot, if somebody got him one. But, sometimes he was open and didn't get it, and that bothered him, but now he's got to get more aggressive," says Montgomery. "We're telling him every day, in practice: 'Look, you've got to make the play. You've got to try to make the play. You can figure out what it is you can do - what you're capable of - and the rest of the team can figure out, OK, he's likely to get a shot here, so I need to get in offensive board position.' He cannot just let the game come to him. He needs to take an aggressive, active role in his game and our team's success."

Crabbe's quiet nature and his passivity are part of his personality. He's not a firebrand like Gutierrez. He's not vocal like Markhuri Sanders-Frison. He's not a fighter like Cobbs.

"Well, he's obviously, he's an all-conference player. He has to play like it game-in and game-out," says Montgomery. "He's going to draw people's attention. If I'm scouting us, I'm thinking, well, OK, I can't let Crabbe do what he does, so Al takes the next step: He puts it down, he goes by people, he attacks the rim and he makes his teammates better, so that just by being who he is, he'll make our team better and his teammates better, and they'll appreciate him for that. If they play him straight-up, he's got to know that, 'I've got a chance to really get off tonight.'"

That ability will be even more crucial given the early-season absence of Kreklow, who underwent offseason surgery on a stress fracture in his foot. Kreklow was expected to be a counterpoint to Crabbe, with his sweet stroke and physicality. For at least the first few weeks of the season, Crabbe -- and others, including true freshman Tyrone Wallace -- will have to make up for his absence.

"Ricky hasn't ever played, so we didn't know what Ricky was going to be able to provide there. We don't expect Ricky to be at the level that Allen is, but he's a tough kid and he's got some size," says Montgomery. "With Tyrone coming along and Brandon and Justin Cobbs, Jeff Powers is playing pretty well. We've got enough, but initially, it puts a little stress on depth and rotation and who plays the two, but Ricky's making good progress and injuries happen, so probably better that it happens now, than later."

Much like Crabbe was pressed into service from Day One of his freshman year, so too will Wallace.

"He'll have to, early," says Montgomery. "We just don't have a lot of choices. It's the question of whether we move Allen to the two and play Powers at the three. Right now you may be looking at starting Brandon and Justin at the two, with Tyrone in a rotation there. So, there's no question that somebody's going to have to play, and my guess is, we're hoping that Tyrone can be the one."

Crabbe is smooth and deliberate, yes, but this summer and the first weeks of practice have all been about breaking down the barriers, bending the bars and letting the beast free -- turning him into an assassin, instead of just a sharpshooter.

"No question -- he's getting better at it, and I think he knows that the future really depends on his ability to get by people and get to the basket, get to the paint," says Montgomery. "He's got a good mid-range game, and now the next step is getting to the basket, get up, get fouled and get to the line, finish three-point plays, or dish to his teammates. He needs to do a little more of that."

"I feel a lot stronger. People don't push me around like they were freshman and sophomore year," says Crabbe. "The game is all mental. Most of it is mental. I just have to go in there and be aggressive on both ends and tell myself. You've kind of got to have a cocky swagger to it, but not so much cocky, but you have to go out onto the court, knowing that nobody can guard me. Nobody is going to be able to stop me. Nobody on the other team is going to out-play me tonight, and that's something that I have to build up so that I can become the player that I want to be."


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