With new talent around him, could this be Cal wing Jabari Bird's year to shine?

For two years, Jabari Bird has had to shoulder the weight of the Cal basketball program, and five-star expectations. This year, things are different. This year, Bird might finally take flight.

On Monday night, California will begin its season – unofficially, against Carroll College -- with highly-touted newcomers in the lineup. It will be ranked in the top 25 when the season finally – officially – tips off in four days against Rice.  There are a lot of expectations. Head coach Cuonzo Martin says that, because of playing on Team USA and in the McDonald’s All-American game, his two prized freshmen – Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown – are used to it.

Rabb and Brown said that the only ranking that matters to them is Berkeley being ranked the No. 1 public school in the country.

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1607295-graduation-rate-im... Fine sentiments, indeed, but this isn’t the first time a star freshman has entered to the strings of vast promise.

“I was in their shoes a few years ago, so I know what they’re going through,” says junior wing Jabari Bird, “but as far as them handling the situation, they’ve been great with it, on their own. If they ever need anything, I’m always open to listen, and give advice.”

And he’s got plenty of life experience to go off of.

Bird, too, was a McDonald’s All-American. At Richmond (Calif.) Salesian, his Pride went 100-8 in his three varsity seasons. He was a two-time Bay Area News Group East Bay Player of the Year. He was a consensus five-star. Scout ranked him the sixth-best small forward in the 2013 class.

“Jabari Bird's career at Cal kind of got off to a slow start considering the expectations he entered college with,” says Scout.com National Basketball Analyst Josh Gershon. “When you have a shooter with Bird's size and athleticism, you have a significant upside and he didn't show it at first.”

Bird, in his first exhibition, scored 20 points, wowing the Haas Pavilion crowd. This was the five-star they’d been waiting for since Shareef Abdur-Raheem. This was the scorer. This, the son of another former Cal basketball player, would elevate the Bears.

Over his first six games, he averaged 14.3 points, 1.5 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game. But, after a 16-point, three-rebound effort against Nevada, Bird shot just 4-for-11 with 10 points, two turnovers, no assists and one rebound over his next two games against Fresno State and Creighton. Against the Blue Jays, he turned his ankle with 5:02 left in the first half, and Creighton went on a 10-1 run to end the stanza.

The Bears left Omaha licking their wounds after a 68-54 loss, but then went on to win six straight, as Bird missed the next four with a sprained ankle.

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1605628-blue-and-gold-scri... In his third game coming back, against UCLA on the road, he went off for 12 points over 7:26 in the second half, but then tiring, as the Bears fell three points short with a 17-4 run, only to see the Bruins cruise away with a 76-64 win. He had missed three weeks, and, he said at the time, he “definitely” ran out of gas, and “didn’t have the energy.”

With the UCLA loss, Cal would go on to lose eight of its final 13 games. After he returned, Bird would score in double digits in six out of 19 games.

The Bears lost in the NIT semifinals to SMU, where Bird went 8-of-13 from the field, scoring 20 points, hitting 3-of-6 from three-point range and swiping two steals. That followed up a 7-of-8, 19-point, eight-rebound performance against Arkansas. Was this the real Jabari Bird? 

“Last game of my freshman year, it was a memory,” he says. “That’s all it is right now: A memory.”

As a sophomore, Bird had a new look to go with his new head coach, Martin.

Bird looked to have taken that last stretch and run with it, averaging 11.7 points over his first six games (scoring in double digits in four of six), along with 2.5 assists and 2.8 rebdounds. The Bears earned a win over then-No. 23 Syracuse in Madison Square Garden as part of the 2K Classic.

Then, on Nov. 30, on the road against Fresno State, Bird, late in the game, came down funny on his foot. It was a stress fracture. It wasn’t revealed until Dec. 23. Bird missed 10 games.

When he got back, he wasn’t the same. He shot 4-for-11 in his first four games, scoring just 13 points, and being held scoreless twice.

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1599829-60-second-report-t... “I think, my two cents, and Jabari hadn’t said this before, but it’s also the expectation of being Jabari Bird, and whatever that meant,” says Martin. “Now, if it’s not 25 points, it’s, ‘Did you play well?’ My gauge is, playing on both ends of the floor, being a complete basketball player, and that’s if he scores 15 points, 20 points, five points, how was your overall game? That’s the most important thing, to be his gauge, not necessarily worrying about how many shots or how many points.”

Bird eventually found a handle, averaging 12.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game the rest of the season, but, those aren’t the numbers of a five-star prospect. They’re solid, certainly, but not game-changing.

“I thought he made a big jump forward as a sophomore, although injuries probably prevented him from showing fully what he was capable of,” Gershon says.

But, during his sophomore season, another thing happened for Bird: Point guard Tyrone Wallace emerged as one of the pre-eminent scorers and playmakers in the Pac-12. There was NBA buzz surrounding the Bears – not for Bird, but for Wallace. Now that Wallace is back, along with the two five-star freshmen, Bird is free to do what Martin has been telling him to do: Just play.

“I think it had a lot to do with the mental part of it,” Bird says of his past two seasons. “I don’t know if I knew at the time, but I kind of used it as an excuse. It messed with my head. I wasn’t as confident on the floor. I wasn’t taking good shots. I wasn’t playing defense, anything. I was out there doing nothing, not helping the team. Hopefully this year, I can stay away from all that and have a healthy year.”

Jordan Mathews – Bird’s recruiting classmate – was one of the sharpest-shooting three-point snipers in the league last season, and this year, has added an inside game and more off-the-dribble moves to his repertoire. The Bears are ranked No. 14 in the preseason coaches’ poll and the Associated Press poll. ESPN has ranked Cal as the No. 12 team in their preseason power rankings. Much of that is due to the emergence of Wallace and Mathews, and the additions of Brown and Rabb. But, as beneficial as those factors have been for the Bears’ public perception, they may play just as big a role in Bird finally being the Bird that Mike Montgomery thought he was getting.

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1544605-california-rising “I don't think fans sometimes realize how much tougher it is as an offensive player that is scouted against and is a focal point of opposing defenses, as has been the case with Bird in the past,” says Gershon. “As talented as Bird is, he may not be a first, second or even third option on offense, which is going to give him a whole lot more good looks at the basket than he would have received without talented teammates like Wallace, Rabb, Brown and Mathews.”

Instead of having just one The Guy, the Bears have turned into a bunch of Guys that opposing teams won’t want to mess with.

“The upside to Cal's 2015-16 team is significant and Bird could play a big role in that,” says Gershon. “Bird, Brown, Mathews, Rabb and Wallace all have All Pac-12 upside and if everyone plays to their potential, this will be the Golden Bears best basketball team in quite some time.”

But, what’s different about Bird, himself, this time around? Well, for one, just looking at his body, he’s added seven pounds of muscle, and he’s changed neutral weight into very good weight. He looks the part, now.

“Bird had very good size at 6-foot-6 and was a plus athlete for a wing. He had to get stronger, but slowly added to his build throughout his career and is now in the best physical condition of his life,” says Gershon.

“I think, just maturity,” Bird says, when asked what’s different about him this year. “I’m older now. I’m not as fragile as I used to be. I’ve ben in the weight room a lot, trying to get stronger. I’m eating better, so I have a healthier diet. I’m just feeling a lot more confidence, being more physical on the court and not worrying about getting hurt … I’m 100 percent healthy, and I’m looking to stay healthy the whole year.

“I just think having health issues, it’s hard missing games, coming back and trying to find a rhythm, but that’s in the past. I’m just looking forward to this year.”

In the Bears’ final Australia game against the Illawarra Hawks this August, Bird went 7-of-12 from the field, pulling down six regounds, swiping three steals, adding one block and scoring 17 points.

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1596637-bttv-real-talk-wit... “Playing with him, he definitely does [look like a different player]," says Mathews. "He seems like he’s more sure of what he wants to do, now, and coming off of injury is always tough. I missed half of a game, and I came back against Stanford, and I didn’t feel the same way, so I can only imagine how he feels after missing 10 games. Now, I just think he’s more comfortable, more at ease, and it’s great to see.

“I think Jabari has come into his own a little bit. He’s always been a really good shooter, a really good scorer, and now, he’s just coming into his own. Everybody comes into their own at a different time, and I’m really happy for him, because he’s a really talented player, and it couldn’t come at a better time for us.”

"Iin his mind, he’s still Jabari Bird," says Martin, "and he should carry that reputation. It’s not a case of, ‘I have these guys, now.’ These so-called elite players, they don’t want it easy. They want the burden on their shoulders. In his mind, he’s just as good as anyone on the team. It’ll be interesting, in late-game situations, because he’s a guy who can make shots, who can make a play. It’s who has the ball in their hands, because he is a guy who can make a big shot, and get a big rebound. He can make free throws. I think right now, he’s playing that way.”

It's been a tough two years for Bird, but now, he's finally ready to take flight.

"I didn’t come here to lose games, to be a part of a team that doesn’t make a Tournament," he says. "Having the class we had coming in this year, and all the attention we’re getting right now, it’s definitely what I dreamed of, coming to Cal, and hopefully, we can build on it.”

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