Cal men’s basketball fans won’t soon forget the sight of former shooting guard Allen Crabbe catching a Justin Cobbs pass, taking two dribbles to his left and rising up for a picture-perfect jump shot at the top of the 3-point arc. If all goes according to head coach Mike Montgomery’s plan, the nostalgia will be short-lived.
Jabari Bird, the highly touted freshman from Salesian High School in Richmond, will soon be taking Crabbe’s starting position. Montgomery, for his part, is not without reservations.
“Everybody expects so much, and you feel for the kid a little bit because he’s just a young pup who has to figure out like the other freshmen,” Montgomery said. “We can get him shots if he can figure out the offense. He’s a talented player, but there’s gonna be growing pains.”
Those curious about Bird will see him in official action for the first time in the Bears’ season opener against Coppin State at 9 p.m. on Friday at Haas Pavilion.
Bird may command most of this season’s lofty expectations, but the onus of Cal’s destiny lies on the upperclassmen. Crabbe currently occupies a roster spot on the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers, but seniors Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon return to anchor a squad picked to finish fifth in the conference by Pac-12 writers.
Cobbs, who averaged 15.1 points and 4.8 assists per game last season, assumes the de facto star role in Crabbe’s absence. The point guard slumped at the start of last season but emerged during the Pac-12 stretch as a reliable shotmaker in the closing minutes of games. For the Cal offense to thrive, the senior must improve his 3-point shooting: Cobbs shot just 33 percent from deep last season.
The question of 3-point shooting plagues the entire Bears offense. Even with the help of Crabbe’s accurate stroke from deep, Cal still finished 315th in the country in 3-point percentage last season.
There aren’t any likely successors to Crabbe’s 3-point throne. Cobbs is at best a mediocre gunner. Tyrone Wallace, a sophomore, supposedly refined his shot in the offseason, but the lefty combo guard made threes at only a 22 percent clip last year. No other returning Bear shot more than 16 treys. To keep defenses from clogging the paint, Cal must find one or two shooters to stretch the floor and keep opponents honest.
Bird and fellow frosh Jordan Matthews may be the Bears’ designated marksmen. Both enter the program with high marks for their shooting talent. Matthews surprised coaches with standout performances in spring practice, and Montgomery has said the shooting guard will see the court.
Although Bird’s and Matthews’ offensive games are well-refined, their knowledge of Montgomery’s defensive schemes is quite raw. Cal’s primary strength lies in stopping its opponent, which may limit the two up-and-comers’ minutes.
Solomon and David Kravish anchor the paint for the Bears, who ranked sixth in the nation last year in opponents’ field goal percentage on 2-point attempts. Both forwards bulked up in the offseason, theoretically enhancing their effectiveness on the defensive end.
“I ate,” Kravish said. “I’m up to 230 (lbs.). My girlfriend actually got on me about this; it’s not about eating healthy, it’s about eating right. She makes sure I eat my vegetables.”
Cal’s potential as a defensive juggernaut isn’t limited to its interior. Both Wallace and Bird possess long arms and big bodies for their positions. Their length and athleticism figures to frustrate perimeter players all season. Cobbs, who stands six inches shorter than the lanky Bird, lacks Bird’s defensive potential, but Bird has yet to show whether that potential will manifest itself as soon as this year.
That’s the big question for the Bears. If Bird can take off immediately, there’s no limit to how high Cal can soar.