T yrone Wallace is accompanied into Haas Pavilion’s press conference room. Nobody would’ve been surprised to see him strut in after running USC off the court to complete Cal’s first undefeated season at home in 56 years. But the senior guard is too humble, too focused on the big picture for that. His jaunt down the catwalk is more of a glide draped by an aura of swag.
He sits all of his 205-pound, 6-feet-5-inch frame down onto the normal-sized chair that looks all-too-small for him. It took a buzzer-beating three by Tyrone to beat USC last season but with a star-studded cast, Cal routed the ill-prepared Trojan team.
He’s immediately bombarded by questions.
“There were a lot of emotions out there,” Tyrone says. “I was really excited to come to the game. Four years have flown by for me. I think we ended it the right way, 18-0 at home. I had the best teammates and coaches in the world, and so for us to come out and play the way we did, stay focused and stay dialed in to get the win, I think it was big.”
Tyrone stuffed the stat sheet that night, recording a 12-point, five-rebound, six-assist line. He’s an enigma. He’s a point guard but doesn’t fit the typical profile. His lanky frame looks even lankier because of his 6-feet-9.5-inch wingspan. He has an awkward build for a guard, almost like Gumby, but he can ball with the best the NCAA has to offer. He’s proved it on the Cal men’s basketball team for four seasons, and next year, he figures to take his talents to the NBA.
“That statline right there will have Tyrone playing at the professional level for a long time,” says Cal men’s basketball head coach Cuonzo Martin. “That is it. With certain guys around him, he has the ability to do that. Ten rebounds, six or seven assists, 10 to 15 points. That’s the line right there.”
The correlation between height and success is unclear. There have been taller point guards, such as Nick Calathes and Toure’ Murry, who have failed to play any meaningful minutes, and there have been some, such as Jason Kidd and Shaun Livingston, who have played integral roles on championship teams. Like these players, Tyrone towers over his point guard peers at the college level, and that doesn’t figure to change anytime soon. The average height for an NBA point guard is 6-feet-2.1-inches. This would rank Tyrone in the 90th percentile.
“Whenever there’s one person guarding me, there should be help ‘cause I don’t believe one person alone can stop me from getting into the lane with my size,” Tyrone says.
It’s unknown whether Tyrone’s unique build will do him any good, but it makes him different, and that may just be enough. In the 2016 NBA, where “different” is readily embraced by innovative teams willing to experiment with mismatched lineups, “different” is synonymous with versatile, and versatility is all the rage right now. The last two NBA drafts featured the 6-feet-6-inch Dante Exum and the 6-feet-5-inch D’Angelo Russell, both point guards, chosen with top-five picks primarily because of their unusual size and the hope that they can capitalize on that height to create mismatches.
“As far as film, I look at similar players that are big guards,” Tyrone says. “I study Jrue Holiday, Reggie Jackson, and I love watching Russell Westbrook film — generally just larger guards. I think the games changed in this new era of point guards where they can score a lot more.”
The extent to just how different Tyrone is was on full display in his junior season. He averaged 17.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and four assists per game, successfully making the transition from off-guard in former Cal head coach Mike Montgomery’s system to point guard in Martin’s. Shrouded in mystery and potential, Tyrone was projected as a late first or early second round pick at the end of last season. If he signed onto a team as the 30th pick, which was a real possibility at the time, he would have made close to a million dollars this year alone.
Very few prospects are lucky enough to hear their name called in the first round on draft night after playing four years of college ball. And of the players who are lucky enough to hear their names called in the second, even fewer will be signed onto their teams on guaranteed contracts. Most will never see more than a couple minutes of game time in their short-lived NBA careers, doomed to wander Developmental League purgatory or sign overseas.
Tyrone knows all of this. He’s aware of exactly how much work is necessary and how tough, how seemingly impossible it is to make it in the league. It’s been his dream since he was in kindergarten. But he has priorities and promises to fulfill. Ones that needed him to put off his NBA dreams for a year and may even diminished them.
Before his grandfather, Charles Johnson, died this past August, Tyrone promised that he would graduate and earn his degree.
“His grandfather was very proud of him,” says Sharon Johnson, Tyrone’s grandmother. “He wanted to see him get his education. Tyrone was very proud of his grandfather, and he loved him dearly.”
“My grandfather was a big basketball fan, but it was about more than that to him,” Tyrone says. “We always talked about life. We talked about everything — more than basketball. I know one thing that was important to him was finishing school and getting a degree. I wanted to pay him back and pay him that respect by getting that degree. With me being so close, it’s not that hard. I just have to stay steady, and I’ll be there.”
Be there he may, but he’ll be a year older if he’s fortunate enough to hear his name called in June. That’s another year wasted slumming it in the collegiate ranks. Another year he could have spent in an NBA program, improving his jump shot or adjusting to the pace of the NBA.
“You always look (at the draft stock) because at the end of the day, you have to make the best decision for yourself,” Tyrone says.
This narrative would have haunted Tyrone until his draft stock free-falled into the Chinese Basketball Association had it not been for the potential of this year’s Cal squad. In April, Oakland’s own Ivan Rabb, a top-five prospect, committed to play for Cal. Jaylen Brown, Scout.com’s No. 4 recruit in the class of 2015, followed just a few weeks later. Add those one-and-done prospects to the core of Tyrone, Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird, and you get the foundation of a squad that can contend for the NCAA title.
“With the better team and the success, you’re like, ‘My draft stock should go up,’ and ultimately, talking with my coaches and family as well as the team, it just seemed like the best decision to come back,” Tyrone says.
And with his return, the Bears nabbed their veteran point guard to complement the incoming freshmen talent. They got their wily leader who could meld the team to be more than the sum of its parts. The squad got off to a sluggish start, but the result was as expected. Cal finished the season ranked third in the Pac-12, winning five more games than the season prior. And with such a balanced pool of elite squads and no clear frontrunner, Cal has all the makings of a dark horse title contender — primed to play deep into March at the NCAA tournament as the No. 4 seed in the South region.
Questions of Tyrone’s shooting, however, remain largely unanswered. And those who have answered them don’t like what they see. After missing five games due to a right wrist injury, the senior guard is only shooting 29.8 percent from three on three attempts per game — an unacceptable figure for an NBA point guard prospect, especially when shooting is a hot commodity.
Still, there remains reason to be optimistic that his shooting can improve. As a freshman, Tyrone shot 29.9 percent on two-point jumpers. The next season, 34.6 percent. The season after that, 37.4 percent. And this season, he nailed 40.3 percent of them through January. Hope lingers that he can develop a consistent shot from range as he fills out his wiry frame.
“My grandfather was a big basketball fan, but it was about more than that to him…I know one thing that was important to him was finishing school and getting a degree. I wanted to pay him back and pay him that respect by getting that degree.” — Tyrone Wallace
The numbers may also belie just how much he’s improved as a shooter. As an off-guard in Montgomery’s motion offense, Tyrone shot 32.1 percent on nearly four threes per game, a noticeable uptick from the 22.4 percent he shot his freshman year. But when he took the point guard mantle his junior year in Martin’s inaugural season, he hit a slightly lower percentage of threes and attempted fewer per game. His three-point percentage has again dropped this season, but this may be attributed to Martin’s spacing-deprived offense.
“(Montgomery and Martin) are two very different coaches with different coaching styles,” Tyrone says. “Mike was more halfcourt offense, not as much run and gun, but he was more about execution in the halfcourt. It was a little slower and the offense and everything was different. Now we run a lot of ball screen-type actions, a little motion and a lot of isolation-type things. But with coach Montgomery, it was generally all motion, pindowns, running off of screens and that type of thing.“
Tyrone’s three-pointer may have suffered under Martin, but he’s largely benefited from the current offensive scheme that employs plenty of pick-and-rolls and isolations. When defenders go over the screen, Tyrone gets a head of steam and drives straight to the rim toward backpedaling defenders. If he notices the defense collapsing to protect the basket, as he usually does, he’ll make the right read nine out of 10 times and kick it out to an open shooter, typically Bird or Mathews.
“(Tyrone’s) another player on the court the other team has to pay attention to,” Bird says. “He can do so many things out there. He can get into the lane, hit the midrange and find other guys for good shots. It makes the game easier when he’s out there.”
And those times he does reach the paint, he employs an arsenal of tricky floaters and teardrops that he can unleash just as well with either hand. If his defender recovers, Tyrone keeps him on his hip and backs him deeper into the paint where he unleashes his signature flip shot from 5 to 8 feet out. These crafty, in-between shots, typically considered low-efficiency attempts, have been proven dependable and are Tyrone’s bread and butter.
“I think I use my size really well,” Tyrone says. “I’m able to get by defenders, so I don’t think that there’s a lack of explosiveness. Teams tend to collapse anyway as there’s multiple defenders. Whenever I get to the rim, I try to use my size to my advantage, use floaters if bigs are stepping up to help and find ways to finish at the rim.”
And while he’s not the best shooter by any measure, Tyrone has proved that he can stretch the defense in other ways off the ball. When Brown or Rabb see a double team off of a drive or post-up, Tyrone streaks toward the strong side from beyond the arc. Once he catches it, he attacks the defender’s close out, forcing help to dish off to a teammate or finish himself. He’s also proved a crafty cutter, leveraging Brown rim runs and Rabb post-ups to sneak behind the defense for easy bunnies.
This versatility on offense has predictably translated to the other end of the court for Tyrone. He’s not the quickest moving from side-to-side, but he does a good job at getting skinny and fighting through screens, a vital skill for defending point guards. And those times he does get screened off, his length and wingspan give him some buffer time to recover and contest. While he’ll most likely match up against shooting guards in the NBA, his length allows him to defend most wings.
Martin leverages this by having him check opposing point guards but switching on ball reversals and on ball screens when in a pinch. Holes in the Cal defense are difficult to find through these actions, considering the gap in which to attack open floor is so tight and closes so quickly because of the switches. This fast-paced, hectic defense can get chaotic at times and requires constant communication. But the Bears know how stingy they can be on that end when they lock in, and they’ve all bought into the system.
The length and speed of Cal’s perimeter players have given birth to one of the team’s most lethal lineups consisting of Tyrone, Mathews, Bird, Brown and Rabb. This lineup is especially lethal on defense because of its ability to switch every ball screen from the point guard to the power forward. This potency on defense translates to transition opportunities by forcing turnovers through denying post entry as well as penetration. And when they have to slow it down in the halfcourt, the threat of four shooters on the wing keeps defenders at home, increasing spacing and freeing up the lane.
“We get the ball out and we’re running,” Tyrone says. “We can all make plays. It’s essentially four guards and a big in Ivan. All of us can push the ball. We can all make plays and score. I think it’s one of those things where teams can’t help as much off of players to double because they’ll have to pay for it. Somebody will be open and they’ll make a play.”
Tyrone takes it all in after the USC win, the last time he’ll ever play competitive ball at Haas Pavilion. Hell, the NCAAs may be the last time he plays competitive ball, period.
Amid the flood of one-and-done players into the NBA, Tyrone did the hardest thing he’s ever had to do — nothing at all. It’s always been his dream to play professional ball at the highest level, and he had the opportunity to make the jump last year.
But who knows if he would have — if he will — pan out in the NBA. Of the 442 second-round picks taken in the last 15 years, only 25 of them play regular rotational minutes. The odds are surely not in his favor.
Regardless, he knows he made the right decision. He’ll earn his degree in social welfare this May, becoming the first in his family to graduate college. Tyrone has always loved basketball. It was a way for him to escape the pressures of everyday life. He was just having fun with it. But as he got older, it became an avenue to opportunity.
“I’m getting my schooling paid for and how many people can say they’ve had that opportunity,” Tyrone asks. “Not a lot. Without basketball I wouldn’t be at Berkeley. I wouldn’t have the funds to pay for basketball. With this God-given gift, He’s allowed me to come here and be a part of this university and graduate. I’ve had all these new opportunities I wouldn’t have had if I wasn’t playing basketball.”
Whatever happens on draft night come June, Tyrone looks forward to the next chapter of his life — whether it involves basketball or not. To be frank, he was more engaged chatting about one of his social welfare classes where he’s learning about racial disparities in the judicial system perpetuated by its actors.
“For everybody, whatever sport you play, the ball will stop bouncing,” Tyrone says. “Use your sport if you’re able to and take that opportunity seriously. Take that scholarship and use it for something farther down the road. I’ll stop playing basketball sometime, and I’ll have to get a job. I’ll have to do something else.”
The world is his oyster, and he is the pearl inside.
Winston Cho covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho