In the future, when we look back at Cal basketball from 2015-2017, we will first think of Ivan Rabb. And rightly so. Ivan is a unique player in Cal history for a variety of reasons worth exploring in an article all its own.
But let’s save Ivan for later. For now, I want to focus on two other players, their career arcs, and the underlying challenge of turning Rabb’s supporting cast into a winning team. Let’s talk about Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh, starting with what you probably already know.
Kam came to Berkeley as a 3 star recruit in 2013. As a freshman, Kam was offensively raw and received minimal playing time, then missed his sophomore season with a torn ACL. Kingsley was also a 3 star recruit (albeit a bit lower ranked than Kam) in 2014, and again received minimal playing time in a rebuilding year for the Bears.
That brings us to 2015-16, when Cal suddenly recruiting Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown. With Kingsley still looking raw and Kam coming off a major knee injury and never having been a major contributor, would Cal even use their centers? If you recall, this was a major topic of discussion during the off-season thanks to the roster revamp.
As it turns out, Cal most certainly did use their centers. In Pac-12 play, Kam played 44.4% of available minutes, and Kingsley played 31.8%. About 75% of the time, the Bears had one of their 7 foot rim protectors on the floor. This served two purposes. First, it allowed Ivan to play defense against smaller players, thus maximizing his defensive value and protecting him from foul trouble. Second, both Kam and King are plus defenders in their own right. Combining Kam and King with Ivan, Cal’s defense approached elite status.
There were two downsides to this plan. One downside was that by consistently playing a center, Cal couldn’t stack the court with offensive minded players. The other downside was that Kingsley wasn’t quite as good as Kam on both ends, so when Kam sat, Cal wasn’t quite as efficient. But the pros outweighed the cons, and Cal rode their centers to arguably the best season in modern Cal history.
How, specifically, was Kam better than Kingsley? On offense, Kam was just a bit more polished - better at leveraging his size to grab offensive boards, and less turnover prone. On defense, Kam was again more polished - in the right position for contests and rebounds, a bit less foul prone.
I mention this not to denigrate Kingsley, but to praise him. You might note that I used the past tense in the previous paragraph. That’s because, with another year under his belt, Kingsley is playing basketball at a whole new level. Check out 2017, compared to 2016*:
That’s massive year-over-year improvement. In fact, his 2 point shooting percentage (and by extension, eFG%) is literally the only stat not to improve! A few items worth pointing out:
1. Kingsley has increased his blocked shot rate while, at the same time, cutting his foul rate in half(!!!).
2. His turnover rate and assist rate have both been going in opposite directions.
3. He’s playing a bigger role in the offense in terms of possessions used and shots taken.
4. His rebounding has improved on both ends, to roughly match the level of rebounding that Kam provided last year.
Add it all up and you’ve got a player who has had everything suddenly click all at once. When you’ve got 7 feet of size, strength, and athleticism, sometimes it’s just a matter of getting that ability to the right place on the court. This year, Kingsley has figured out where to be to make plays for the Bears on both ends.
This would have been a wonderful development regardless of circumstances. But as you all know, Kam has been out with a knee injury since the 4th game of the season. When it was announced that Kam would be out for at least a month (it will be 6 weeks if he returns for UCLA on Thursday) I feared that Cal would be screwed on both ends - on offense because Kingsley wouldn’t bring what Kam could bring, and on defense because Kingsley would foul out and not be able to play enough minutes to cover for Kam.
And Kam’s injury HAS been impactful. Kingsley, like pretty much every player in the nation, can’t be expected to play every minute of every game. When he sits, Cal’s defense isn’t the same because Kam isn’t available to switch with him. But Kingsley’s year-over-year improvement has allowed him to more or less match the level of production provided by Kam last year when on the court, while playing way more than any prior season. As bad as it was dealing with Kam’s absence, it could have been much worse.
If 2016-17 Kingsley played the same as 2015-16 Kingsley, Cal might have two more losses. He played a crazy 40 minutes with 9 points, 12 boards, 4 assists, 5 blocks and just 1 turnover in Cal’s OT win over Louisiana Tech. And on Sunday against ASU, with the Sun Devils shooting lights out on jumpers and Ivan mired in 2nd half foul trouble, it was the King who keyed the late run to put the game on ice. Even against a bad defense, does the King do THIS last year?
If Kam never hurts his knee, how different might Cal’s record be? Well, Cal has lost three games without him. All three of those games were close - tense games decided in the final minutes. Perhaps more importantly, all three teams that defeated Cal benefited from stretches of play when Cal didn’t have a center on the court - stretches that a healthy Kam would have likely prevented a basket or two. It’s naive to suggest that Cal would have surely won all three, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that Cal might have picked up an extra win or two.
(Are you listening, selection committee?)
But what I want to focus on is the future. As soon as Kam comes back (there’s muted chatter that he might be back for the L.A. road trip) Cal will have an incredible luxury: Two seven foot, high end rim protectors who make meaningfully positive contributions on offense. When Kingsley comes onto the floor, it won’t be a downgrade from Kam . . . unless Kam has also gotten even better since last year. And presuming Kam comes back for his redshirt senior season, Cal will have both (plus Marcus Lee) next year, which is a tremendous foundation to build a team around.
Cal’s defense is already ranked 6th best in the nation by Kenpom, even accounting for a combined 12 games missed by Ivan and Kam. Having both available could cement Cal’s defense as a top 5 unit without any concurrent drop off on offense.
The only problem? I still have to used the word ‘could.’ Get well soon Kam!
*All stats courtesy of Kenpom.com