Here’s some not-so-breaking news: the California Golden Bears men’s basketball program is very young. Cal Athletics lists zero seniors on its website, and two of the four juniors are transfers. That includes Paris Austin who starred at Boise State and Jacob Orender who began his career at Lafayette. Another is David Serge who was previously Cal’s student manager for two seasons. That leaves Roman Davis as the lone “conventional” third-year man. With that realization, the sophomores are going to be more important to this squad than they are to most NCAA programs. I decided to explore what we can expect from the second-year players as they head into an uncertain 2018-19 season.
Darius McNeill had a highlight reel all to himself in an overtime win over the Cal State Fullerton Titans. The guard’s 30 points were an eye-popping example of his potential importance to the 2018-19 squad. McNeill was already the fourth highest scorer last season at 11.3 ppg and only Justice Sueing tops him among returning Cal players. He’s also a solid passer with quick hands on defense. What’s more, McNeill grabbed a half dozen rebounds on several occasions last season.
McNeill’s 38.1% from the field is partly a function of his high three-point volume (67-190 on treys = 35.3%) but overall McNeill could use a few more easy hoops especially if his shot isn’t falling from long range. It was still impressive to see him average 2.1 made three-pointers, and indeed McNeill went 6-7 behind the arc against Cal State Northridge. It will be interesting to see how Austin fits into the backcourt rotation alongside McNeill, as Austin is definitely more of a mid-range scorer. Especially because the Bears are without an established sniper from long range, McNeill is very valuable when he gets white hot from distance.
There’s no question that Juhwan Harris-Dyson’s freshman year was marred by illness and, at one point, an ankle sprain. That led to reduced minutes even when Harris-Dyson did return because he needed to return to game shape. The good news is that he’s a prime breakout candidate on a team that will offer him every opportunity to show off his athleticism. The swingman generally took high percentage shots (49.3% from the floor) and showed good defensive skills including an average of 1.1 steals. However, Harris-Dyson needs to cut down on turnovers and ended a dismal 0-13 from downtown for the season. I do expect better free-throw shooting as he gets into more of a season-long rhythm.
The only Cal players who topped Harris-Dyson’s rebound average of 3.4 were true big men, so he can definitely contribute on the glass when head coach Wyking Jones gives him more run. Harris-Dyson also has the makings of a nice playmaker. We will see him setting up incoming freshmen Jacobi Gordon and Matt Bradley on occasion. He’s also a strong finisher at the rim and already has demonstrated his penchant for the highlight reel dunk. Who could forget his driving layup in the closing seconds of Cal’s shocking victory at San Diego State?
For my money, forward Justice Sueing was the most consistent first-year player on the roster, and you could even drop the qualifier. Sueing’s three-point play to put Cal ahead of Stanford by two with 29 seconds left at Maples might have been the play of the season for the program. That came just after his dish to the corner led to a three-pointer for Grant Anticevich. He is a gifted slasher with a heavy dose of finesse as a complement. It’s likely that only the squad’s poor record kept Sueing off the conference’s all-freshman team. I notice something else every time I watch him, whether it’s a deft head fake, shifty spin move, or sweet finger roll.
Sueing and McNeill actually led the team in minutes per game despite their freshman status. Indeed, Jones barely took Sueing off the court down the stretch. It wasn’t all rosy, as anyone who watched his 1-15 shooting performance at Colorado observed. However, Sueing became a go-to guy during crunch time and his 27 point night at Washington was a thing of beauty. In fact, Sueing reached 20 points in a game on five different occasions during an eye-catching freshman campaign.
Sueing’s heavy usage was partly a function of the team’s desperate situation, but he can only answer the bell when his number is called. The wing did so in spades, displaying enough range to keep defenses honest without being afraid to go inside. Sueing is also a crafty defender, ending the year with 48 steals and 15 blocked shots. His final averages: 13.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists. Talk about doing a little of everything. Among Cal freshmen all time, he placed 4th in steals and 5th in points. At Pac-12 Media Day, Sueing expressed his excitement about playing against Yale in Shanghai on November 9. The native of Hawaii plans to soak up the culture, because it’s not every day that he gets to visit the Great Wall of China.
Grant Anticevich showed a bit of scoring touch to go with his size last season, scoring a vital five points in the stunning comeback victory at Maples Pavilion on December 30. He’s listed as 6’8” but the coaching staff should lean on him more given the departures of Kingsley Okoroh and Marcus Lee. Freshman Connor Vanover is the only true center on the roster at 7’3”.
The 6’5” Jules Erving played just one minute last season, grabbing a rebound in an 83-63 win over Northridge on November 23. The son of NBA legend Julius Erving may get a bit more action this coming season. No matter what happens on the court, Dr. J says that his son is enjoying his studies in the business program.
There won’t be many Pac-12 basketball teams who rely this heavily on their sophomores. While it will be very interesting to see how much freshmen like Gordon and Bradley chip in at the outset, The Bench will be cheering for these second-year men to take a step forward from already impressive freshman seasons. If Paris Austin can help make the transition a bit easier for everyone, so much the better.