BERKELEY -- What can we tell from California’s 94-50 win over Cal State East Bay – a game where the Pioneers missed 15 shots in a row and didn’t score a single point for 9:28 in the first half? Well, there are plenty of Golden Bears that were fans of superheroes in their youth. And, some reporters. So, there’s that.
But, #HalloweenAtHaas aside, this team is much different than the one we last saw take the floor against SMU last March, in some good ways, some bad ways, and some ways that we’ll have to see develop over the course of the season.
1. Sing me a song.
If you’d have asked me before the game who would have 10 points, three steals, two three-pointers and three rebounds at the half, I’d have probably said Jabari Bird. But, no, it was sophomore point guard Sam Singer. This was the perfect game for Singer to make his case to be the starting point when the season opens in two weeks, and he proved to be pitch-perfect as Cal got up and down in a mostly transition-based offense.
“We like to push the ball,” said head coach Cuonzo Martin. “When we got opportunities to transition, we like to push the ball. But, the key is, you want to score, but you also want to defend the ball at a high level. You want to be able to play on both ends of the floor. That’s conditioning your body, being able to play a lot of minutes, and be ready when your number is called.”
That high-energy tempo has been evident in the structure of practice, where everybody runs – from the bigs to the guards to the coaches – and very seldom are the bigs separated from the guards over the course of a session in the gym.
The Bears were in a half-court set very, very seldom – on just 22 of 76 possessions -- and Singer was at his best in transition. Of Singer’s three steals in the first half, two ended in lay-ups for him, and a third was dished off but bobbled under the rim.
Singer should have finished the first half with about three assists, but there were some ball-handling issues underneath.
The one knock on Singer’s game on Friday was the fact that he needs to take care of the ball a bit better, as he turned the ball over twice. Singer finished with 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting with seven rebounds, two assists and three steals in 23 minutes. With two bigs in the starting lineup, Singer came off the bench less than five minutes into the game, and played for the next 7:12.
“Sam’s obviously a guy that can be a potential starter, but I think for right now, [two bigs] works, and it can obviously change, but Sam can come off the bench as your one or your two,” Martin said.
2. Biggest surprise? Jabari Bird, and not in a good way.
The former five-star out of Richmond (Calif.) Salesian looked like he was trying a bit too hard in the first half, getting stuffed by the rim when he tried an up-and-under dunk in stead of laying it in, he shot 0-for-4 from the field and was dinged for three personal fouls. Not the performance one would have expected from Bird, and not one that Martin was very pleased with.
“I think he played aggressive, and you want him to stay aggressive, but knowing when to attack, knowing when to run the offense, knowing when to catch-and-shoot, those sorts of things, I think he can be more explosive in transition,” Martin said. “Those one-on-one, in-transition [situations], when you have your defender backpedaling, he made some lay-ups, but there needs to be more explosion when he’s attacking the rim in transition. It’s just a matter of doing it.”
While Singer led the Bears at the half in plus-minus (+21), as badly as Bird played, he was still second on the team with a +17 rating, and had two assists and three boards in 13 minutes.
Bird woke up a bit in the second half, scoring seven points in the first five minutes, but all in all had a very uneven night, signified perfectly by one sequence in the second half. Bird pulled down a defensive rebound, pushed the ball up in transition, and then over-penetrated and was called for a charge. He was promptly signaled by Martin to take a seat.
The bottom line: That good a player should not have that bad a game against a team that lost to the Academy of Art last season.
3. How will the lineup shake out?
Cal started the game with a traditional lineup, with Martin opting to have Tyrone Wallace play the point, with wings Bird and Jordan Mathews, and big men David Kravish and Christian Behrens. In fact, Martin kept two bigs on the floor for nearly the entire game, save for a few moments near the end where Roger Moute a Bidias played guard.
“We’ll go both ways,” Martin said, referring to playing two bigs and four-out at times. “We thought they had two traditional bigs, and in games like this, sometimes, because they have good perimeter players, they’ll play four guards, so it’s hard to get your big guys an opportunity to play together. I thought it was great for us that they had two bigs, so we could keep them on the floor. As much as possible, I wanted to try to keep those guys on the floor so they can get reps.”
Martin said last week that he had four concrete starters, and Bird, Kravish, Mathews and Wallace certainly seem to be that core four. The changes will come with how Martin winds up using that fifth spot. It could go to a second big or Singer, who was lightning in a bottle off the bench. With Singer’s play on Friday, particularly in the first half, showing that he can be an ace in transition and be a pure distributor, the question of who plays the point is still unanswered, and, frankly, it may never be. We may very well see Wallace starting off and Singer coming in off the bench, moving Wallace to the two, as the Bears get into nonconference play.
“They weren’t bad,” Martin said of his two point guards, Singer and Wallace. “They have to run the team, they have to direct traffic. I think they did a great job of pushing the transition, but sometimes we have to do a better job in areas with decision making, in transition where guys are flowing. It has to do a lot with the guys that are making passes, too, to make the right decision, but I thought they did a good job with pushing, putting pressure on the defense.”
That second big in a traditional lineup could be Behrens (as close to a traditional big that the Bears have, aside from Kravish), as it was tonight, or Dwight Tarwater (if Cal can afford to play small at the four spot), and we even saw a bit of Kingsley Okoroh on Friday, but the key here is to establish a point guard as the floor leader, because elder statesman Kravish won’t take that mantle.
“He has to demand the ball a little bit more, because he has the ability to score, face up, make shots,” Martin said.
Wallace was very effective both at the point and playing off the ball, as should be expected going against a Division II opponent, with a game-high 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting and 5-for-9 at the free-throw line.
“I was able to take what the defense was giving me,” said Wallace. “I feel that very few people can stop me from getting to the basket. It’s a strength of mine, so I might as well get to the basket of I can, and when I’m open and the shots there, then take it. We didn’t need to force up shots today. I think we managed the game well, and I think I did a pretty good job of choosing my shots.”
Martin has made it plain that Wallace’s strength is not beyond the three-point arc, and Wallace has always been more of a creator without the ball in his hands. He didn’t try a single three-point shot in the first half, and most of his shot attempts came from 15 feet in, with his first jumper coming with 8:40 left in the game.
“I thought he played well, and I thought he was aggressive in attacking the rim,” Martin said. “He knows how to use his shoulders, get around guys and go over guys, so I thought he did a great job attacking, jump-stopping, being under control. I thought that was good. Don’t settle for threes if you don’t have to. If it presents itself, knock it down, but don’t settle.”
Wallace is more of a driver than a shooter, just as Mathews is more of a shooter than a driver. Bird can do a bit of both (when he’s on), so the Bears aren’t really doubling up on any skill set with those three on the floor. The problem is that none of those three can be an effective four, meaning that when Singer -- who’s more of a true point – is in the game, the second-tallest man on the floor will be 6-foot-6 Wallace, though we didn’t see that look at all in the first exhibition.
“I was definitely happy to be at the point position,” Wallace said. “I feel like I did pretty well. I missed some guys on open shots and open rolls, but overall, I think I did a pretty good job. No turnovers. I’d like to see more assists, but it’s going to come as the games keep coming.”
This is a situation we’ll have to keep our eyes on.
4. What about those big guys?
Kravish is a known quantity. He’s a likely all-league player when all is said and done, and the fact that he’s now 6-foot-10, 240 pounds with a nifty 11-foot spot-up jumper and a patented baby hook may mean that he plays professionally somewhere. Kravish wasn’t really tested much against the Pioneers, recording 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting with four rebounds and two assists in 16 minutes.
Kravish got going early, with three of his patented mid-range jumpers and baby hooks, and he even got in the three-point game, hitting the only shot he took cleanly, after going just 2-for-7 from beyond the arc last year.
“I thought he played well,” Martin said. “He’s improved his three-point shot, but he needs to be more demanding with the ball, instead of me telling the guys to throw him the ball.”
The rest of the post play was a mixed bag.
“We did a poor job of boxing out,” Martin said. “Our guards didn’t do a great job of getting long rebounds. Their big guys played a physical brand of basketball. They did a good job getting offensive rebounds, so we’ve got to do a better job of that. Overall, though, I think we did a solid job.”
Behrens brings a lot that most other traditional big men don’t, in the sense that, now, without his knee brace, he can run the court fluidly, get up and down without too much effort and really utilize his length and athleticism down low. That was tested a bit against the Pioneers, who had three players check in at 6-foot-8, one at 6-foot-7 and another at 6-foot-10, so it wasn’t as much of a post mismatch as last year’s first exhibition against Humboldt State.
All that said, Behrens was not very sharp to start out. He was pulled after just 2:21 with a missed gimme lay-up and a defensive rebound, and did not re-enter the game until 11:36.
“That probably was – and I’m not sure; I have to watch it on film – a breakdown in assignment, showed signs of fatigue, one or the other,” Martin said. “It wasn’t a case of ‘Let me rep somebody in.’ If he’d have played 10 straight minutes well, we’d have kept him on the floor.”
There were some sloppy moments all around, and mistakes, to be sure, but unlike Mike Montgomery, Martin let his team play, but missed defensive assignments and bad decision-making were sure tickets to the bench.
“If you ain’t going 100 [percent] the whole game, you come right out,” Mathews said. “He says, ‘Don’t focus on me; focus on the game.’ If you’re coming out, you’re coming out. That’s just part of the game.”
“In a blowout win, he’s still on us,” said Wallace. “At some point, we’re going to face teams that are going to be better and better, so we’ve got to be ready for those challenges ... Coach Martin’s thing is, give it your all; play with 100-percent effort and energy, especially on the defensive end. You’re going to make mistakes. It’s human nature, but continue to play through those and go full-speed at everything.”
Behrens started the second half, and picked up a key defensive rebound, and was much more sure of himself on both ends of the floor. While he missed a wide-open Bird on the break after a defensive board, he still made something of the play with a shovel dish to Wallace, and then finished with a lay-in on the other end to make the margin 52-23 with 18:56 left in the game.
Frankly, I think having Behrens start on Friday was more for the staff to see how he actually reacts in game scenarios without his knee brace, and to see how that knee holds up in extended action. Martin, though, said that wasn’t the case.
“We started him because he earned it,” Martin said.
Behrens missed most of his first two seasons because of that knee – tearing his ACL his senior year of high school and re-tearing it at Cal. Last season, he played in 24 games, but averaged just 6.8 minutes. He’ll have to play a lot more this season, and Friday was his first test, as he played 15 minutes, going 3-of-5 shooting with seven rebounds, one assist and one turnover.
Okoroh played 25 minutes, though it’s apparent that his footwork – and hands down low -- still needs work. Okoroh was impressive on defense in the paint, clogging up the lane and getting his 7-foot-2 wingspan in the way of shots and passes. The freshman seven-footer finished with five blocks and a game-high nine rebounds, and despite his awkwardness at times, only picked up one foul.
“I thought he did a good job,” Martin said. “You’ve got a guy, emotion’s running through you as a freshman playing your first college game on this stage at this level, I thought he did a good job. He really settled down in the second half and played a lot better, just the pace of the game. Defensively, I think he’s fine, and he has to continue to move his feet. Offensively, he continues to get better, and that comes with time.”
Okoroh’s highlight of the night was getting a hand on an in-bound pass and redirecting it out to Bird for an easy three-pointer in the second half, showing a flash of his potential.
“He’s young,” Mathews said. “He has a really good feel. There was that one play where he got the offensive rebound and tipped it back to Jabari for three. That just shows the type of court awareness he has. I feel like he’s going to be really, really good for us, as the season goes on.”
“He’s progressing a lot,” said Wallace. “We definitely feel his presence on the defensive end. Offensively, he needs to be a little bit more aggressive, but we’re not looking for him to score a ton of points. He knows his role, he does well, he’s blocking shots, he’s being big in the paint for us, and, like Jordan says, he’s making plays for other guys.”
5. Rebounding guards.
The Bears saw eight of their first 14 rebounds come from their guards, and based on what we’ve seen over four practices, that’s going to be a theme. Every player who figures to be a regular on the floor recorded at least two rebounds, with Okoroh leading the way with nine, followed by Singer, Bird and Behrens with seven.
On the game, the guards pulled down 20 of Cal’s 51 rebounds, including 19 on the defensive end.
“Our guard play is a strength of ours,” Wallace said. “Whenever we can, coach wants us to get the ball up the floor, be aggressive and attack, but not out of control. If it’s not there, then we bring it back out. The point guard has to run the team, so I’ve got to know when to press it and when to kick ahead to the guards like Jordan and Jabari and let them play off of it, and I’ve got to know when to pull it out and set up something.”
The quote of the night comes from Mathews:
“[Martin’s] whole thing is ‘Don’t be good at one thing; be good at all things,’” Mathews said. “Don’t sit on the three-point line. You’ve got to get in there and mix it up.”