Young teams are exciting in theory, but to succeed at the college level, those teams need an older presence, someone who has been around the block and can be a force of calm amid the madness. For Cal, redshirt junior Paris Austin has been that veteran.
In his first season playing for Cal, Austin has been thrust into the role of grizzled veteran. That’s a first for Oakland’s own, as this season marks the only time he’s had to assume such responsibility at the collegiate level.
At Boise State, Austin was surrounded by upperclassmen. Even last season as he was redshirting after transferring to Cal, the younger players could fall back on seniors Marcus Lee, Kingsley Okoroh and Nick Hamilton.
Two seasons and some change into his college career, Austin has logged more minutes than Juhwan Harris-Dyson, Andre Kelly, Matt Bradley, Connor Vanover, Jacobi Gordon and Roman Davis combined. Cal’s inexperience and youth were the primary concern coming into this season. Whether or not Cal can dig its way out of the abyss of the Pac-12 relies on…
1. Whether Paris Austin can lead the charge. Through four games, Austin has been better than advertised, averaging career highs in points, assists, steals, blocks per game and true shooting percentage.
Be it with his midrange game or layups, Austin has excelled thus far from inside the arc, knocking down 2-pointers at a clip of 55 percent.
Austin has still succeeded thus far despite having yet to address the most glaring part of his game: 3-point shooting. The point guard assertively steps into long twos, but will only shoot 3-pointers when the shot clock is running down.
Here, the defender sags off Austin and he only shoots because the shot clock is going to expire.
As the season rolls along, teams are going to sag off, go under screens and dare him to shoot. Another player who could stand to take more 3-pointers is…
2. Freshman Andre Kelly, who has yet to take a single shot from deep this season, albeit by no fault of his own.
Many announcers see Kelly as the steal of his incoming class because of his diverse skill set, but through four games, he’s been restricted to the confines of a traditional big man.
That’s not horrible, per se — he’s currently averaging 10.3 points and 6.0 rebounds per game on 66.7 percent shooting — but his full game hasn’t been utilized, with most of his points coming in the paint or at the line.
He’s easily been the most impressive freshman of his incoming class thus far, and he could turn even more heads if granted the opportunity to flash his full game. Part of allowing Kelly and company to expand their horizons requires…
3. Head coach Wyking Jones to unleash the young Bears in transition. Despite their youth and athleticism, they’ve been reluctant to run the fast break.
After a defensive rebound is secured, the rebounder will more than likely toss the ball to the primary ballhandler, who will leisurely take the ball up the court and initiate the next offensive set.
Cal’s hesitancy to run is clear in the numbers. So far, the team has run 68.1 possessions per 40 minutes, according to kenpom.com.
That’s nearly identical to last year’s figure of 68.7 possessions, but the big difference is that much of college basketball is speeding things up. Despite playing at nearly the same speed, Cal currently ranks 266th in adjusted tempo this season as opposed to 154th last season.
Playing at such a slow tempo would be fine if Cal operated its sets well. But for the Bears, playing slower has resulted in…
4. An inefficient offense, one that ranks as the worst in the Pac-12. Through four games, Cal is currently ranked 185th in offensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com.
The Bears are scoring more points on a higher shooting percentage, but they’re taking nearly nine fewer shots per game compared to last season.
Cal’s offensive sets have been rather uninspiring, devoid of consistent motion and often consisting of players standing around.
Aside from the very guardable “hero ball,” the Bears run a lot of dribble handoffs, and there are a lot of instances in which only two of three players are moving at a time.
There are way too many possessions in which the shot clock runs down to its final seconds and someone, typically Austin, is forced to create a shot. Someone who could really benefit from more off-ball movement is…
5. Darius McNeill, who has had the opportunity to play off the ball thanks to the addition of Austin.
Without the ball constantly in his hands, McNeill hasn’t been the same featured part of the offense, but he’s played well in his reduced role thus far.
After a forgettable season opener against Yale, McNeill has looked the part of one of the Pac-12’s better marksmen. Excluding the first game of the season, McNeill is averaging 14.7 points per game while hitting 52.4 percent of his 3-pointers.
Against Shamorie Ponds and St. John’s, McNeill nailed five 3-pointers and was one of the reasons Cal contested in that game to begin.
McNeill’s stellar run in Brooklyn ended with him being named to the Legends Classic All-Tournament Team. McNeill wasn’t the only Bear who turned some heads at the Barclays Center, as fellow Texan…
6. Freshman Jacobi Gordon made his biggest impact in the box score yet against Temple. A year removed from suffering a torn Achilles, Gordon has been eased into the rotation, playing 30 minutes in the first three games of the season.
Against Temple, Gordon received a healthy helping of minutes and showed glimmers of his potential. In 28 minutes, the forward posted 8 points and six rebounds, and he knocked down a pair of 3-pointers.
It’s a one-game sample size, but if healthy, Gordon can provide production in two areas the Bears desperately need filling: 3-point shooting and rebounding. Most of Gordon’s production in the early going will come off the bench, and he’ll likely be called upon to lead the second unit until…
7. Sophomore Juhwan Harris-Dyson can find his footing on offense. Harris-Dyson has played limited minutes since returning, and there have been instances when it’s easy to forget he’s on the floor.
In 38 combined minutes, he has more personal fouls (10) than points and shot attempts combined (8). He has yet to attempt a free throw or 3-pointer.
Harris-Dyson won’t be the player to lead an offense, but as the opponents become more familiar with Cal’s tactics, he’ll need to be far more assertive rather than merely the fifth body on the floor. While Harris-Dyson has been rather silent, it’s impossible to miss…
8. Freshman Connor Vanover, the 7’3” center who has caught the eye of every announcer this season when he steps on the floor. Vanover’s minutes have been limited thus far, but every time he comes off the bench, he’s been good for a couple buckets.
His 4.5 points per game don’t scream Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year, but through four games, he leads all reserves in the scoring department. That comes despite only playing 10.0 minutes per game.
Again, note the small sample size, but by offensive and defensive rating, some of Cal’s best play has come with Vanover on the floor.
He provides spacing, giving slashers room to operate, and his frame can present problems down in the paint. Someone who can benefit from that spacing is…
9. Justice Sueing, who hasn’t played up to par four games into the season. There have been many instances in which he bumrushes his way into the paint without much of a plan, putting himself in difficult situations that leave him praying for the foul.
He’s currently shooting 33.3 percent from the field, a 10 percent drop-off from his mark of 43.4 percent last season. Sueing has also been called for some avoidable turnovers, including a pair of travels against Yale.
If Cal wants to make any sort of improvement from last season, it’ll need Sueing to break out of his funk, just like it’ll need…
10. Paris Austin to continue being a leader as the season rolls along.
In less than a week’s time, Cal will travel to St. Mary’s for its first road game in Moraga since 1988. For many of the youngsters, their first true road game at the collegiate level couldn’t come at a worse place.
While McKeon Pavilion isn’t the biggest gym in the land — it’s capable of holding only 3,500 people — that place can get loud in a hurry.
The St. Mary’s team and crowd understand that in the West Coast Conference, it’s not just about the wins, but how those wins come. Meaning that on Saturday, the Gaels won’t just be trying to beat the Bears — they’ll try to destroy them.
The crowd will be like nothing most of Cal’s team has experienced before. Things could get very ugly, very fast.
It’s going to be on Austin, both on Saturday and for the rest of the season, to be the one who can cut through the noise and lead Cal toward the light.