Cal brought in a four player freshman recruiting class this season, and fans weren't really sure what to expect. One of the freshmen was an international prospect; another flew well under the recruiting radar. How much of an opportunity would they get to provide an immediate impact?
As it turns out, quite a bit. Due to a variety of circumstances that don't need to be rehashed now, three of our newest Bears are playing huge minutes in what has roughly been an eight player rotation. With conference play just a few weeks away, now is as good a time as any to check in on their progress.
Hind Ben Abdelkader has probably been the most pleasant surprise. When you bring in a freshman guard, there are two offensive skills that I love to see: The ability to shoot the ball, and the ability to not turn the ball over. So far, Hind has done both.
After nine games, HBA has played 185 minutes with just 13 turnovers, which is about a turnover every 14 minutes of floor time. Considering that she spends plenty of time handling the ball and has even played a little point guard, her ability to take care of the ball has been a major plus.
As for shooting - her 36.8% mark from behind arc would have made her the best three point shooter on the team last year. Small sample caveats apply of course, but these numbers are certainly in line with what she put up in Belgium last year. The Golden Deer can shoot the ball. She hasn't taken as many shots inside the arc, and that aspect of her game will likely develop, but if she can just sit behind the arc and force defenses to account for her she'll make Reshanda Gray's life much more pleasant.
Mercedes Jefflo has lived up to her scouting report as an excellent defensive player. Trying to suss out individually impacts on defense is always really difficult, but let's just look at one simple stat:
Defensive points/possession, 2012-13: .816 (76th in the nation)
Defensive points/possession, 2013-14: .786 (28th in the nation)
I'm certainly not trying to say that Cal's defense this year is better because of Mercedes Jefflo. Still - all three players Cal lost to graduation last year were at least solid defenders. Additionally, Cal is without their best defensive rebounder in Gennifer Brandon. I simply didn't expect Cal's defense to be this good, this early in the season, and it's the defense that has bailed out occasional ice cold shooting.
Of the freshmen, Jefflo is certainly the best perimeter defender and perhaps the best defender overall. She's already averaging nearly two steals a game in only 22 minutes of floor time, and I expect that she will be a regular contender for conference all-defense team honors like Eliza Pierre. Meanwhile, though her offensive game is certainly rough, she's shown a decent three point shot that projects to be at least average. She's not just a defensive wonder.
Courtney Range dazzled with both potential and actual production. Firstly, she's currently the best rebounder on the team, and she's rebounding at a rate that would have felt right at home on last year's monster rebounding team. She might not have quite the same insane explosive athleticism than Gen Brandon has, but she has the same nose for the ball. 9.7 rebounds/game is legit.
I think Range has also been playing well defensively, particularly since she has been asked to play out of position. For all of the height Cal has had, they've never been much to block shots, but Range has shown a decent instinct for it.
The question is when Range will start hitting shots, because that's about the only thing that is missing. She can run the court, she can post up, she takes care of the ball, she's a good passer for somebody her size . . . but she's shooting 30.8% from the floor. So many times she's blown by a defender in a way that makes you go wow and missed the shot. They'll start falling more and more, and it might be the biggest missing ingredient for Cal right now. The Bears play good defense, they rebound well, they limit their own turnovers . . . they just need to hit shots. It'll come.
At the moment, KC Waters (and transfers Brittany Shine and Kyra Dunn) haven't seen enough court time for meaningful evaluations. We'll circle back on that later this year. Over the next few weeks it will be time to wrap up Cal's non-conference schedule and look ahead to the best part of the season: Pac-12 play!