The Cal men’s basketball team is approaching the final days of a historically bad season. And after a historically bad season, there’s nowhere to go but up.
While this season may have been bleak for many different reasons, better days are on the horizon, and not simply because of the dreadful nature of this season. With a young core set of players to return and a promising group of incomers, there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
No conversation regarding the future of Cal can rightfully be held without discussing the freshman trio of Justice Sueing, Darius McNeill and Juhwan Harris-Dyson. In a season filled with misery, these three have proven that they have the potential to serve as this program’s foundation to building success in the coming years.
In the weeks following his awe-inspiring performance down on The Farm where he helped the Bears mount a 17-point comeback, Sueing has emerged as the star and primary scoring option of this ballclub, putting up big numbers, night in, night out.
Over 15 games against Pac-12 opponents, Sueing is averaging a team-high 16.1 points per game with a couple of 20-point performances sprinkled throughout conference play.
Sueing’s ceiling on the offensive end of the floor, however, depends on his propensity to knock down the 3-point shot.
Although he was a bit more reluctant to expand his range in the beginning of the season, Sueing has nearly doubled the amount of 3-pointers he takes per game since the halfway point of the season.
This increase in volume has been met with a noticeable decrease in efficiency, but he’s currently riding an nine-game streak in which he’s made at least one 3-pointer per game.
Barring a drastic change, Sueing will most likely finish the season with a 3-point percentage in the low 30s, a solid foundation to which he can build heading into the second season of the Wyking Jones era.
Speaking of the long ball, no one has knocked down that shot better than McNeill, who’s currently draining them at a clip of 34.9 percent on the season.
Much like the Bears as a unit, however, McNeill’s shooting has been a bit of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation. In McNeill’s first 14 games of the season, he splashed home 46.3 percent of his three balls, but in the latter 14 games, he’s only connected on 27 percent.
This duality of performances raises the question of which version of McNeill will Cal get next season. Will it be the one who can post an efficient double figures in scoring? Or the one who has one of the worst field goal percentages since Pac-12 play began?
Of the three, Harris-Dyson was the highest-rated prospect coming out of high school, but while Sueing and McNeill became full-time starters after one and two games, respectively, Harris-Dyson’s timeline was skewed.
Because of an illness, Harris-Dyson missed the first two games of the season and dropped from 200 to 180 pounds. With the drastic drop in weight, Harris-Dyson was forced to adapt to the college game while trying to regain his health.
Harris-Dyson has taken full advantage of becoming a full-time starter, producing more on both ends of the floor. On defense specifically, Harris-Dyson has been everything as advertised, posting the best defensive box plus/minus among guards.
Of course, Cal will need much more than just these three if they want to escape the basement of the Pac-12, as seniors Marcus Lee, Kingsley Okoroh and Nick Hamilton — three of the seven players who play more than 10 minutes per game — will graduate.
For a top-heavy team such as Cal, losing these three has the potential to spell doom for next year’s squad. Luckily for the Bears, they’ll welcome just the talent they need to put this season behind them.
The incoming group of Bears begins not with a freshman, but with Paris Austin, who will be a redshirt junior next season after transferring to Cal from Boise State.
Austin, who played at Bishop O’Dowd with Ivan Rabb, blossomed in his sophomore season with the Broncos.
Given more than double the playing time in his second go-around at Boise State, Austin played his way to an All-Mountain West honorable mention, averaging 12.3 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.
Despite standing at six feet flat, Austin has excelled as a slasher, utilizing his combination of quickness and craftiness to get to the bucket. Among all guards in the Mountain West Conference, Austin had the second-highest 2-point percentage as a sophomore, with a mark of 53 percent.
With Austin, Cal is also getting a pass-first point guard, one who’s comfortable initiating the offense. Jones would run with McNeill at point, but the freshman guard was at his best when he was off the ball and wouldn’t have to create his own shot.
As a redshirt, Austin has also had an entire season to work on his 3-point shot, an area of his game which remains a work in progress. In his two seasons with Boise State, he attempted less than one shot from deep per game and only connected on 23.2 percent of those shots.
Aside from Austin, Cal will be welcoming a trio of dynamic freshman next season in Matt Bradley, Jacobi Gordon and Andre Kelly, the first two being four-star prospects and Kelly being a three-star, according to 247Sports. Of the three, Bradley is ranked the highest, falling at No. 106 among top basketball recruits for the class of 2018.
Additionally, the question of Jordan Brown, a five-star prospect currently ranked the No. 1 prospect in California, according to ESPN. Brown is currently fielding offers from other national powerhouses, including UCLA, Arizona, Oregon, Kentucky, Kansas and Stanford.
The competition for Brown will be fierce, but the 6’10” power forward alongside Cal’s current and incoming core could potentially skyrocket Cal to the upper echelon of the Pac-12.