The Cal men’s basketball team was flying high. The Bears had just landed a top-100 recruit in Charlie Moore, who figured to add some flair and creativity to the often stagnant offense, while rumors swirled that Kentucky big man Marcus Lee was going to transfer to Cal — which he eventually did.
But then this bomb dropped:
Will always be a Golden Bear at heart! pic.twitter.com/km5ioiPjSC
— Azor Ahai (@JordanMathews22) May 31, 2016
On the surface, losing a player who averaged 13.5 points per game last season isn’t devastating. It’s not ideal of course, but it isn’t that terrible and certainly not on the level of losing Jaylen Brown.
Or is it?
Looking at what Mathews did for Cal proves otherwise.
The game of basketball has evolved to become more three-point centric, and defenses have advanced to a point in which they can completely strangle offenses that don’t have sufficient spacing.
Last year, Mathews’ offensive rating — a measure of how many points a player produces per 100 possessions — was a stellar 119.5, while Brown wasn’t even close, at 98.4. As a point of comparison, Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, the Wooden Award winner, tallied a rating of 123.8. So while Brown’s stats seem to be more impressive than Mathews’ — 1.1 more points and two more rebounds per game — the guard actually had more of a positive impact on the Bears’ offense when he was on the court.
How is this possible? What makes Mathews, a player who, again, scored fewer than 14 points per game, so valuable?
For starters, Mathews knocked down 41.6 percent of his threes last season after making more than 44 percent of his shots from beyond the arc two seasons ago.
“It just stretches your team when you have guys that can make shots,” said Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin.
For a Cal squad that especially struggled to solve zone defenses for much of the season, Mathews proved to be a potential antidote.
“We went to a two-three zone and didn’t recognize (Mathews), and he made us pay. The caliber of shooter that he is and the way that he is playing, he was certainly the difference in the game,” said Arizona head coach Sean Miller after the Bears upset his then-12th-ranked team in January.
If defenders don’t stick to him, they’re toast. So when he’s not hitting or even taking shots, Mathews still has value. His presence opened up driving lanes for Brown and Tyrone Wallace, as defenders didn’t dare leave Mathews unattended, even in the weakside corner.
His shooting was evidently a big piece of opponents’ scouting reports, as defenders stayed on Mathews even with Bears barreling towards the rim.
And Mathews is more than just an impressive spot-up shooter.
According to offensive box plus/minus, Mathews contributed 5.6 points per 100 possessions above what an average player would contribute to an average offense. He often functioned as a secondary or tertiary ball handler for Cal, leveraging his shooting ability to make himself a viable threat on the occasional pick and roll.
Losing a player so valuable could be devastating for the Bears’ offense, especially with Wallace and Brown also leaving. Looking at the returning cast of characters, Cal’s offense will be built around Ivan Rabb, with Jabari Bird as essentially the only viable shooter on the team.
Enter Grant Mullins.
A 6-foot-3 graduate transfer from Columbia, analysts will be rearing at the opportunity to call the sharpshooter “scrappy.” But Mullins, who signed with Cal before Mathews announced his decision to transfer, has the ability to provide far more than that to the Bears.
Mullins mostly functioned as a point guard last season for the Lions, and he showed decent vision with an average of 3.3 assists per game. Mullins’ size makes him an option for Cal at the two as well — Martin said the team could use a lot of two point guard lineups — where Mullins would play alongside someone like Sam Singer or Moore.
No matter what position Mullins ends up playing, one thing is for sure: He’ll bring some much-needed shooting to the floor.
Last season, his pure stroke yielded a stellar 43.9 percent conversion rate from beyond the arc. And he wasn’t afraid to fire up threes, taking an average of 4.5 per game. With these skills in tow, defenders will have to respect Mullins much like they did Mathews last season. This comes in handy all over the floor. If he’s the lead ball handler in a pick-and-roll — a piece the Bears should look to more next season — defenders will have to respect Mullins’ shooting touch rather than going under screens as they could with Singer and Wallace last season.
This can force defenses into a tough decision: Let Mullins’ primary defender try to fight through the screen and potentially give up an open shot, switch and put the whole defense in a bind as guards could be left defending the skilled Rabb in the post, or blitz Mullins, giving Cal a dangerous four-on-three to work with.
Having a player so proficient at knocking down threes be the one to handle the rock already puts the Bears in a strong position, especially with Mullins’ ability to drain treys off the dribble.
As a two-guard, Mullins’ contributions could be even more crucial. While his size does not automatically make him unplayable defensively at the position, Mullins will likely be somewhat of a liability unless he takes some meaningful steps forward. With a defensive box plus/minus of -1.5 per 100 possessions, playing in his more natural point guard role, Mullins certainly has some work to do.
“Hopefully it creates problems for the other team’s defense.” Martin said of the two point guard lineup. “For us, defense is just a matter of doing. Defense is more pride than anything.”
Offensively, however, he should thrive playing off the ball. Having a sharpshooter of Mullins’ caliber on the court opens up a plethora of things for the other offensive players. Rabb can rest assured that there is one less teammate defenses will safely double off. Pick-and-rolls can more comfortably operate with two shooters — Mullins and Bird — pulling their defenders out of the lane. Even offensive rebounds are easier to come by, as Cal’s opponents will simply have further to go to crash the boards.
At Columbia, Mullins already flashed impressive ability at floating into open spaces, especially in the corners.
With one of Singer and Moore, both able passers, also on the floor to find him, this can certainly yield the Bears some important buckets. Additionally, the respect Mullins garners from opponents makes his off-the-dribble game all the more dangerous.
When defenders fly out at Mullins to defend catch-and-shoot plays, he can pump fake, wait for the man guarding him to fly by and get into the lane. This gives him a head start and an opening so he can gain a head of steam — typically a phrase reserved for physical freaks but still appropriate for Mullins — on his way to the rim.
For a defense-oriented coach like Martin, it may seem most appealing to start Mullins primarily as a point guard, to limit his adjustment and add size to the defense. Playing him as a two-guard, however, could truly open up Cal’s most dangerous and spacing-heavy lineups. With Brown gone, the Bears will struggle to have effective small-ball units, but playing Mullins along with Moore and Bird could give Cal’s offense some punch.