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Profiles in hope: Justice Sueing

NCAA Basketball: California at San Diego State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

OK. It’s a lost season . . . and perhaps a more painful lost season than many anticipated, even knowing how much turnover would impact the roster. This past weekend was only further confirmation.

Which is to say, I think you can be excused if you’re not paying a ton of attention.

If you’ve only been glancing at the headlines, there’s one key development you need to be aware of, one trend that will matter as Cal attempts to rebuild over the next few years: the emergence of Justice Sueing as an all around talent in Pac-12 play.

As I mentioned in the UCLA recap, the most important change worth noting is that Cal is now a Justice Sueing centered offense - his usage percentage of 25.2% and shots taken percentage of 27.6% in conference play leads the team. This is a significant change from non-conference play, when Don Coleman and Marcus Lee were the focal points of Cal’s offense, and Justice was more of a 3rd banana/role player.

Typically freshmen don’t have that level of responsibility unless they’re one-and-done types. Only 12 Pac-12 players have similar usage levels in conference play. Seven of them are 3rd or 4th year players, two of them are 5 star Arizona recruits, and two others are freshmen (Washington’s Jaylen Nowell and Colorado’s McKinley Wright) struggling in roles they were thrust into due to lack of options:

Any time you’re on a list between Tres Tinkle and Rawle Alkins you’re probably doing something right.

What exactly is Justice doing right? Well, pretty much a little bit of everything. He’s shooting 56% on his 2 point shots in conference play, at a pretty high volume. He’s still hitting 3s at a decent rate. His turnover rate has fallen to an acceptable level, and his rebounding numbers are excellent for a wing. He’s lowered his foul frequency while still managing to grab his fair share of steals.

If you’re more interested in traditional counting stats, Justice’s conference production is even more obvious - 3rd in scoring (18.9 ppg), 6th in rebounds and steals. The point is not that he’s getting these numbers because he’s the only guy who takes shots - he’s doing it efficiently, despite playing on a team that doesn’t exactly pull any defensive attention away from him. If anything, Cal’s struggles as a team make his individual numbers more impressive.

DeAndre Ayton will likely be the Pac-12 POY and is a mortal lock to be the freshman of the year before he gets selected in the first few picks of the NBA draft. But after him the next best freshmen in the Pac-12 this year has either been Justice Sueing or Kris Wilkes (A 5 star top 25 national recruit surrounded by much more talent). Wilkes has been very efficient, but in a smaller role within his team’s offense. Either way, those three are virtually guaranteed to be all conference freshmen picks.

And interestingly, Justice’s level of production as a freshmen is pretty rare at Cal. Jaylen Brown was a high-usage, low-efficiency player in his only year in Berkeley, while Ivan Rabb’s freshman year was low-usage, high-efficiency. Justice (again, in conference play) is doing both.

What if you were to ask me to compare Justice’s full freshman year numbers to another freshman player at Cal who put up similar stats? After a bit of searching, here’s the comparison I’d make:

Obviously it’s not a perfect comparison. Justice probably isn’t as good a shooter as the mystery player, and they’re not identical positionally. But just the thought that those players are statistically comparable should be exciting for Cal fans who will be desperate for any kernel of off-season optimism.

Justice Sueing is the real deal, and his trajectory suggests that he’ll be, at a minimum, a solidly above-average Pac-12 starter. The job of Cal’s coaching staff is to surround him with enough talent and the right system so that what he’s already producing doesn’t go to waste.

Oh, the identity of the mystery player?

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Ryan Anderson. Did you guess right?