Assessing the Bears Going into the New Year
Unpredictable is the nice way to describe this Cal basketball team.
Inconsistent. Maddening. Young. Those are other ways to describe Cal basketball this year.
Either way, it paints the picture of a Cal team that needs a lot of work one way or another. There's the highs of beating San Diego State on the road (Cal's first win over the Aztecs since 2011) or coming back from 17 down to beat Stanford in Maples Pavilion for the first time since 2014. Then there's the lows, boat-racings by the likes of Central Arkansas, Portland State, and Chaminade, along with a loss to UC Riverside. Let's be clear, this Cal team is far away from the goal of winning the conference, let alone championships, but the win over Stanford was different.
This year, Cal games have followed two patterns, with a few exceptions. The first is the boat-racing, Cal getting down early and not coming back. The second is the closer than they should be wins, where the Bears have gotten out quick, but other teams force their way back in, like San Diego State, Cal Poly, and Cal State Fullerton, where Cal has pulled things out. There've been a couple exceptions, like Cal breaking Seattle in Key Arena and breaking down against Wichita State late, but the comeback against Stanford is the first time they showed the growth to make a comeback, something Wyking Jones noted.
"Just really excited that we found a way to dig ourselves out of a hole," Jones said after the comeback, "We’ve been in this situation a couple of times this year and found a way tonight, so I’m very excited about that."
At 7-7 going into the new calendar year, the Bears haven't turned the corner yet, but there's been enough shown so far that's somewhat encouraging, especially with the youth dominated roster that Cal has at the moment.
Let's be frank, this is a year where it's hard to look for positives. It's a year where growth has to be a focus with such a young team. It's a roster that can't play the style that Jones would like, and to his credit, he's reassessed defensively, backed off on some of the pressure, while still trying to get to where they want to be with the zone. It hasn't always been successful, as we've seen with a number of three pointers dropped on them, and has to be an area of emphasis moving forward.
Cal is somehow 3-0 in true road games, 4-4 at Haas, and 0-3 in neutral site games so far, as we take a look at how the players have done in 2017.
Starting with the freshmen:
Clearly better than advertised, McNeill came in and with a few early bumps, he's becoming a three-point threat, a pull-up jump shooter, and a lengthy guard around the perimeter who can succeed on and off the ball. He's used his length to create steals, and has been the most consistent of the freshman group. The biggest standout among the freshman so far as a two way player.
Has shown some three-point shooting ability to go along with his driving, which he's been effective at. Somewhat inconsistent, but he provided a spark to the lineup in the early going, and he's cemented his starting spot ever since. A hero against Stanford. A name that lends itself to puns and wordplay.
I don't think we've seen entirely what Harris-Dyson is capable of. Losing 20 pounds to the flu right before the outset of the season hasn't given him the opportunity to regain some of that muscle. He's gotten to show flashes of the "Spiderfly," using his length to create steals and rebounding bigger than his size, but he still needs to develop a shooting touch to become the deadly player he has tools to become. At this juncture, he still needs time, and with Jones moving away from the press for the most part, his skills haven't been utilized a lot either. To his credit, he hit two clutch free throws to take the lead against San Diego State cold coming off the bench, taking the ball down the court on the break after a Sueing steal.
Anticevich is a bit of a projection at this point, one that shows some early promise in regard to lack of fear and size, but needing the polish to become more efficient in the post. What I like about him is his recovery ability, as there has been multiple occasions where he's jumped at pump fakes, but recovered enough to contest closer jump shots. Against Stanford, he didn't hesitate taking a corner three that cut the Cardinal lead to one. He has the basketball sense, it's a matter of developing his skills.
Winston hasn't gotten all that many minutes since starting at the beginning of the season, and while that's partially due to McNeill being so solid, Winston has quite a ways to go. From what I've seen, he's unafraid to shoot, which is good, as he can be a scorer, and I don't think his athleticism is as big of an issue as it was coming in. That said, he hasn't shown enough at the current juncture. He's ok for now as a backup, but when Paris Austin comes on the scene next year, Winston's going to have to work himself into some minutes.
McCullough has ways to go. While he's a hustle player and standout shooter in practice, he hasn't scored a point on the year, and has mostly come in for depth purposes when foul trouble has mounted. He has nice size, but he hasn't shown his shooting stroke in games, as the Bears could certainly use another shooting threat. McCullough has to get there to see more time.
Now onto some of the older players:
Lee looked dynamic in practice a year ago while sitting out, and he's been a bit up and down, despite racking up a number of double doubles as Jones has had him as the sole big man in the starting lineup. At times, he's shown a decent mid-range jumper, a better post game than anticipated, and some fire. At other times, he's gotten in early foul trouble. He led all scorers against Stanford with 19 points, he can get on the offensive glass, and he's been a shot-blocking threat with his athleticism. With what's needed, he needs to continue his output and do more as the Bears hope to win more. There's no questioning his athleticism and length, and he's been a good free throw shooter to boot.
We're three and a half years into Kingsley Okoroh's tenure on Cal's roster, and we know what we're getting with the British seven-footer by this point. A seven foot shot blocker, with somewhat awkward post presence, solid rebounding, and occasional foul trouble. To the credit of the new training staff, Okoroh moves a lot better than he has in the past with his conditioning and he's working on his mid-range game, but there's still a whole lot of growth needed to become a true two-way player.
A lot better as a defender, hasn't had too many offensive moments except for a perfect shooting performance against St. Mary's. A heady player, one with understanding of what Jones wants to do. I think Hamilton is a better bench player, one that can come in and provide energy, but with the limitations of this team and the roster, he's a starter. It's not a bad thing, he's a serviceable player at the moment, but he can't be what he's not.
I have a lot of thoughts on Don Coleman. He can be an unapologetic gunner who the ball sticks to. He can take over a game. He can score. He's actually a solid passer out of the paint when he needs to be (averaging as many assists as McNeill right now). The heart of the team. Like Reggie Miller, he loves being the enemy, which I think has led to the strong play in true road games. He has the attitude that you want a player to have. He attacks the basket better that anyone else on the roster. He's prone to error more than most, but in spite of that, he's effective. You need a guy with swagger. Coleman is that guy. He's a sixth man archetype, a microwave Vinnie Johnson type player, and he's being asked to bee the primary scorer on this team. While he may not be the best fit for the role that he's given, the attitude that he has about scoring and playing the game of basketball is entirely admirable.
Sidelined with a thumb injury for the majority of the year so far, Welle hasn't had enough time to show what he's capable of. From practice, he's been a solid rebounder, someone who earned a scholarship with his tenacity. Jones appears to be tentative about integrating players into the lineup, and this has partially shown with Welle. Had Welle been healthy, he'd have played throughout the non-conference schedule, getting some solid minutes. For now, he's played 13 total minutes.
He's in his third year and still hasn't played too much. He's athletic at the wing, but hasn't done much of anything at this point, 38 total minutes over 8 games played.
Not playing right now:
Keep in mind that what's been seen in only practice, but just from an intangible standpoint he's a natural leader. Vocal from the point guard spot, a better shooter than he was at Boise State. Him playing in 2018 will allow McNeill to play off the ball, freeing up a 46% three point shooter to get open. Austin can be another three-point threat, and can create his own shot as well. The Cal roster needs another big man to complete the roster in 2018, but Austin adds another dimension to this team in the new year.
Let's state the obvious, this team has lost games in a manner they shouldn't have lost, while they've won a couple that they probably shouldn't have won. The former outweighs the latter at the moment, as conference play will truly get into full gear against the LA schools in this coming week. Cal needs to continue the growth, which is honestly what they season is going to be judged on. Will it happen? That's going to be what determines how the remainder of the season will be judged.