Benefits of small ball

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In his first exhibition game of the season, Cal men’s basketball head coach Cuonzo Martin trotted out a starting lineup of Tyrone Wallace and Jordan Mathews in the backcourt and Jabari Bird, Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb in the frontcourt. The second-year coach went small, albeit against a much smaller team, playing five-star recruits, Brown and Rabb, at the four and five together.

Allowing Brown to play power forward, and more significantly Rabb to play center, gives Cal an injection of much needed versatility. Moving up a position accentuates the duo’s individual talents in the context of the team dynamic and roster construction.

The beauty of Rabb’s 6-foot-11-inch, 220-pound frame is that it gives the Bears the option of playing small or big. When it plays small like it did against Carroll College, Cal starts a potent lineup of four premier perimeter players, each with their own offensive talents, and an inside presence that can score in the post or step out to 15-feet. This maximizes Brown’s drive-and-kick ability as it gives him multiple outlet choices when the defense collapses to protect the basket. Opposing defenses are left with the choice of helping on Brown, where he would then pass out to open teammates spotting up behind the three-point line, or staying at home on shooters, allowing him better looks at the rim. Brown will have to get better at kicking out to shooters on the wings and in the corners, as he finished with zero assists against Carroll on Monday, but there’s no reason he shouldn’t develop this skill as the season progresses.

On the other side of the ball, the Bears can minimize points scored against them by running a fast, scrambling defense. Postups may appear like high percentage shots as they are closer to the basket, but feeding post players is a challenge in and of itself, especially against Cal’s perimeter defenders. Martin should invite opposing teams to lob entry passes over the long arms of Cal’s wing players, leading to turnovers and transition opportunities.

A problem that presented itself against the Saints, however, is Cal’s miscues concerning on-ball screens. The Bears gave up 21 points to Carroll’s power forward, Oliver Carr, on miscommunications switching screens when both defenders converged onto the attacking guard, giving Carr open midrange jumpers. Rabb also displayed the lateral quickness necessary to stay in front of opposing guards when switches were successfully communicated.

Cal’s most visible asset on defense is its multitude of capable perimeter defenders. Apart from Brown, who can stay in front of anyone when locked in, the Bears boast plenty of defensive depth on the wing in Wallace, Bird, Stephen Domingo and Roger Moute a Bidias — all players who will most likely be a part of Martin’s rotation come conference play. Although they were playing a much lower level of competition against the Saints on Monday night, Cal’s wing players proved capable of deflecting passes and navigating through screens to stay in front of their man. Domingo was especially impressive as he was able to stretch the floor on offense and defend opposing power forwards on defense with his broad-shouldered frame.

There is no telling what Martin’s starting lineup will be when conference play rolls around. But Kameron Rooks’s occasional hooks from the left block and Kingsley Okoroh’s intermittent defense don’t offset the injection of offense the Bears get when they play Rabb at center and surround him with four shooters.

Contact Winston Cho at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho