Breaking News: Cal women's basketball was picked 3rd in the Pac-12 by coaches. And I thought I was a homer for thinking about putting them 3rd in my predictions!
Last year's rotation of perimeter players was pretty simple. Eliza Pierre and Layshia Clarendon would share ball-handling duties, playing point guard and shooting guard at various points, and Lindsay Sherbert played the wing, typically setting herself up on the three point line to stretch defenses. Afure Jemerigbe, Rachelle Federico and Mikayla Lyles all saw a varying amount of time off the bench, depending on match-ups and hot streaks, but none of the three ever played point guard, meaning that one of Clarendon or Pierre always had to be on the court.
This year things could potentially look very different. Three different players will likely compete for playing time at point guard. We'll see Layshia Clarendon move into her natural position as a shooting guard. And after having only six healthy guards last year, we now have nine, all of whom have the talent to earn playing time. How the guard rotation develops over the course of the non-conference season will be one of the bigger story lines to watch to start the year.
With a new coach and three new players there are enough unknowns about the guard rotation that I was tempted to change the first section to 'what we (think we) know.' But this is a blog, which means going out on a limb and hoping everybody forgets all the wrong things you say at the beginning of the season. Tally ho!
What we know
Layshia Clarendon will be the focal point of the offense
She was nearly the team’s leading scorer last year, and she’s easily the leading returning scorer with DeNesha Stallworth in Kentucky. Now she’s moving into her natural position, a position she undeniably prefers. Just check out her introduction of freshman point guard Brittany Boyd (Note: all of the player introductions from the team meet-and-greet are on youtube on the CalBearsWBB channel).
I think being on the ball so much took away the chance to get out and run the wings and be that natural scorer and not have to be compounded and mentally tired and physically tired from always having the ball and bringing it up. That’s why I’m excited this year to maybe get some open shots on the wing and not have to work and create a shot so much and so hard all the time.
Admittedly, part of the reason Clarendon is Cal’s leading returning scorer is because she was forced to hold the ball and forced to shoot a ton.
Lindsay Sherbert will start the season starting on the wing
Like most true freshmen thrust into prominent starting roles, Sherbert had an up and down season that saw her explode for 19 or more points a number of times, but held to a basket or two in other games. She’s the best pure shooter on the team, and if her shot was falling and teams weren’t paying attention she could go off (like her 6-8 game from three against Arizona.
With 31 starts and 27 minutes/game already under her belt as a true freshmen, a more consistent impact in each game could easily be in the cards this year. Her role will likely be very similar – stretch the defense with her shooting ability, help out the bigs on the glass – but a full year of experience in that role should be invaluable.
If we need it, our perimeter defense can be stifling
For two reasons. One: Lindsay Gottlieb has some really good defenders at her disposal. Everybody knows about Eliza Pierre, but I think Afure Jemerigbe could be a plus, plus defender and Brittany Boyd is coming in with Jason-Kidd-type steal numbers out of high school. Erika Johnson's length is probably going to give opponents all kinds of headaches. Clarendon and Sherbert are both smart players who might not make the highlight-reel steal but will almost always be in the right place.
Two: Cal has the depth to really press a team intensely if they want. When your only backups are two true freshmen you're probably going to lean on your (relatively) veteran starters for heavy minutes. When you go a solid three deep at every position you can afford to say 'Eliza, we're only going to play you 20 minutes tonight, but in those 20 minutes I want you to make Toni Kokenis's life a living hell.' God, I hope that happens.
What we don’t know
How ready/healthy is Avigiel Cohen?
In an interview as a part of Bear Insider's most excellent 'bear share' feature, Lindsay Gottlieb had this to say:
She's been cleared to play, which is good. But she's another one who has not played for two years, so you have that process of coming back from an injury. You're medically cleared to play, and there's still the mental part of maybe your mind knows what you want to do but your body hasn't done it yet, just the rustiness. And, I reminded her of this, there's an adjustment to college basketball in your first year playing it anyway, even if you're totally healthy. So she's got the adjustment to the American pace, she's got the adjustment off the injury, and it's her first year playing. Yes, she's cleared, and we're excited that she's healthy, but I think the process is longer than just saying she's medically cleared.
Mildly upsetting, but hardly shocking news. (As an aside, I'd love to eventually hear Cohen talk about how the American game and European game differ.) The question is how long will it take Cohen to get comfortable? The non-conference schedule? A full season of practice? Will this just be a year of very limited on-court action as she learns about college ball and re-learns to trust her knees?
Which leads right in to our next question . . .
Who plays point guard?
If we assume that a best-case scenario for Cohen is a gradual growth in minutes and opportunities, that means the opening day starter is either Eliza Pierre or Brittany Boyd, which also means that both will get significant playing time. I have no doubt that Boyd possesses both the skills and confidence to play on both ends of the court from the start, but that doesn't mean Pierre's experience isn't very valuable.
I think there’s a decent amount of overlap in the skill-set of Pierre and Boyd (great defense, speed, pass-first point guards) so there will probably be some solid continuity on offense and defense regardless of which one is playing. In any case, the key ability for both Pierre and Boyd will be entry passes: can they get the ball to Caldwell and company in a good position to score?
What will the rotation behind Clarendon and Sherbert look like?
Mikayla Lyles, Afure Jemerigbe, and Erika Johnson will all presumably be coming off the bench behind Clarendon and Sherbert. But it isn’t necessarily that simple. With three point guards on the roster, might we see Pierre or Cohen occasionally play off the ball? Cohen in particular has the height. There are plenty of players on the roster that could reasonably be asked to play shooting guard. It might be that Coach Gottlieb prefers to have defined roles, in which case all my baseless speculation and guessing is for nothing!
In any case, here’s my best guess as to the likely depth chart:
1a) Eliza Pierre ; 1b) Brittany Boyd ; 3) Avigiel Cohen
1) Layshia Clarendon ; 2) Mikayla Lyles ; 3) Erika Johnson
1) Lindsay Sherbert ; 2) Afure Jemerigbe ; 3) Erika Johnson
Woohoo, a legit 3 deep! With 3rd stringers who would push for starting roles on many Pac-12 teams! It is time for the season to start yet?!