BERKELEY -- California point guard Tyrone Wallace says that his grandfather – Charles James Johnson – would likely be proud of his decision to stay in Berkeley to finish his degree, and play his senior season.
“I just wanted to let everybody know, that I’ll be returning for my senior year,” Wallace announced on Thursday afternoon, with his entire team – including graduating Dwight Tarwater and departing Christian Behrens -- quietly, and confidently, grinning in the seats of the first-floor meeting room at Haas Pavilion. It was a choice that most of them already knew, just like Wallace’s mother.
“I haven’t told her yet, but she knows,” Wallace said. “There’s been a lot of thought that’s gone into this process. I’ve talked to my family, my coaches, some of my teammates, and I just felt like this was the best decision for me, ultimately, to get a chance to finish my degree, to finish what I started.”
Wallace had promised Johnson – who passed away before the start of the 2014-15 season – that he would earn his college degree.
“My grampa was a very important man in my life,” said Wallace. “I always looked up to him. It was a big deal for me. He wanted to come to all of my games, even though he didn’t really travel, so he never came, but he always watched me on TV, and we’d always talk. I promised him that I would be the first in my family to get my degree, and I think it’s important for him and for me to stick it out and to finish.”
Wallace – who could possibly graduate next fall, but will likely graduate in the spring -- knew his decision “a couple days ago.”
“I believe in what coach Martin is building, and I think that we have a good chance to be good, so I’m excited,” said Wallace.
The ceiling is high for the Bears going into next season. NBC Sports pegged Cal as a potential top-20 team, with the return of Wallace, and the additions of Ivan Rabb and Tyson Jolly.
“I think we can be really good,” Wallace said. “I like the freshmen that we have coming in, and we still have important parts that are playing with us currently, and so I think we can make a run at the Pac-12 championship.”
“I’m happy for our guys,” said head coach Cuonzo Martin. “In order to be a great team, you have to have great players. You have to have guys that want to be a part of your family. This is probably the closest group of guys I have ever been around when it comes to a team. I’m happy for Tyrone, our program and our Cal fan base.”
As a junior, Wallace was the only individual in the Pac-12 to rank in the top five in points (4th, 17.1 ppg.), rebounds (5th, 7.1) and assists (5th, 4.0). He returns as the league’s active scoring leader and assist leader in 2015-16 with 1,196 career points and 313 career assists through his first three seasons. The career point total ranks 25th on the Bears’ all-time scoring list.
Wallace – a finalist for the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award as a junior -- also enters his senior season fourth among active players in the Pac-12 in career rebounds with 526.
Wallace’s 564 points during the 2014-15 season ranked 14th on Cal’s single-season scoring list. He led the Bears in points (17.1 ppg.), rebounds (235, 7.1 rpg.), assists (131, 4.0 apg.), steals (42, 1.3 spg.) and minutes (1,148, 34.8 mpg.) this past season.
Coming back also reunites Wallace with the wing combo of Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird, as well as two high-level newcomers Rabb and Jolly.
“With the guys we have coming in, with the players we still have here at Cal, we have the opportunity to be very good, and I think we have a chance to be successful and make it far and play in the Tournament, and I think that’s going to help me, growing and getting better,” Wallace said, referring to his draft stock. “I get another year to work on my game, work with my teammates, so I think it’ll help me a lot.”
“We’re intact!” said Mathews after leaving the presser, as he walked around Haas Pavilion. “Great news!”
Wallace’s return means that the Bears return four of their five scorers from last season, while adding now-eligible Georgetown transfer Stephen Domingo to the mix as an outside shooting threat.
Wallace sought counsel from NBA general managers and scouts as to where he would be drafted – he was pegged as high as a late first-rounder during the height of the Bears’ 10-1 start to the season – but fell out of the first round as the season went along.
There are still elements to his game that need improvement, and, the good thing for Wallace is that they are facets of his game that he can improve on through enough work: He can become a better on-ball defender, he can improve his dismal free throw percentage (60.6% last season) and he can become a better three-point shooter (31.3%).
“I’m not going to go over the details – that’s for my coaches and my family,” Wallace said when asked about his feedback from the NBA. “It was positive feedback.”
Wallace sought that feedback soon after the season ended, after he and Martin spoke following the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball tournament in Las Vegas.
“After we played our last game in Vegas, that following week they went to spring break, and then came back that week, and Tyrone and I sat down,” Martin said. “The thing I said to him was, ‘You have to do what’s best for you, first and foremost. Don’t consume yourself with what the team is about. It’s about what’s best for Tyrone Wallace.’”
Over the next three weeks, Wallace, Martin and the rest of the staff, gathered information about the decision, and during that three-week span, Rabb committed, and made no secret about wanting Wallace to be his point guard.
“I don’t think it played a really large part; I’m happy that Ivan’s coming, and that I get to play with him, but I had to just make the best decision for me,” Wallace said. “I think that coming back and playing with him and the rest of my teammates was the best decision.”
The senior-to-be barely hid his excitement as he walked into the team meeting room, a wide grin spreading across his cheeks. He seemed relieved, elated.
“I’m very excited about this,” he said. “I get another year. I get to play my last year, graduate, get another year to play with my teammates, and after next year, there’s no speculation.”