Cal Basketball: How the Returning `Six Survivors' Can Improve Their Games

Matt Bradley (20) led the Pac-12 in 3-point shooting percentage as a freshman.Photo by Kelley L. Cox, USA Today

Cal's half-dozen veterans must make individual improvement before the Bears can take a step forward as a team

Well, the dust hasn’t exactly settled yet, but we now know which Cal basketball players among the five who entered the NCAA’s transfer portal will be back.

Not guard Darius McNeill (SMU).

Not forward Justice Sueing (Ohio State).

And not center Connor Vanover (Arkansas).

We already have discussed and dissected what their departures mean to the 2019-20 Golden Bears. But they are now gone, so it’s time to look forward.

New coach Mark Fox is left with six returning scholarship players, including just two who were regular starters by the end of last season. The Bears also have three incoming freshman and there is reason to believe Fox and his staff will bring in at least one more player before next season.

For our purposes here, we’re going to look deeper at the six returnees, what they have achieved and, most importantly, how they must improve between now and next fall.

We won’t do the same with the newcomers because they have not yet played in a college basketball game so any analysis would be guesswork.

The six returnees combined to account for just 35 percent of the team’s scoring on a team that went 8-23. Clearly, the status quo is not acceptable.

Fox and his staff had limited opportunities to work out their players in spring practices allowed by the NCAA, and he has given them things to work on.

He has stated the team’s initial goal will be to improve defensively, which any Cal fan could have identified as Job 1, given the Bears were ranked 348th (out of 351) teams nationally in field-goal percentage defense and 346th in rebound margin.

Fox knows all too well that there is a mountain of challenges to address here, many of which won’t be cured until the staff has a recruiting cycle or two under its belt.

(Click here for a Fox video on his rebuilding experience at Georgia.)

In the meantime, here are observations for how the Six Survivors can improve their games before next season:

-- PARIS AUSTIN, senior point guard: Austin started all 29 games he played last season after transferring to Cal from Boise State. He averaged 11.6 points and 4.3 assists and hit the game-winning shot against Cal Poly.

What we saw: Former coach Wyking Jones welcomed Austin’s arrival, saying the Bears would have a pure point guard after combo guard McNeill was forced to play the position the year before. But Austin often called his own number, and that didn’t always serve the Bears well.

What’s next: Austin needs to watch tape of his performance against eventual Pac-12 champion Washington when he took just nine shots but dished nine assists. It was no coincidence the Bears pulled the upset. He needs to shoot better from the perimeter (28% on 3’s) but also make getting other players good shots his top priority.

-- GRANT ANTICEVICH, junior forward: The 6-foot-8, 240-pounder from Sydney, Australia averaged 2.7 points, 2.1 rebounds in 11.7 minutes per game. He started four times, but often was an afterthought on the bench.

What we saw: Anticevich shows flashes that should encourage Cal fans. He is unafraid to go after a loose ball, mix it up with the other guy and do the kind of dirty work every team needs. What he hasn’t shown is any consistency that gives confidence to his coaches.

What’s next: Anticevich needs to get stronger and develop an offensive game in the paint. He attempted 27 shots from beyond the 3-point arc last season but, amazingly, just five throws all season. He will get the chance to compete for a starting job next season, but he must be willing to be more of a factor around the basket.

-- MATT BRADLEY, sophomore shooting guard: Sturdy at 6-4, 220 pounds, Bradley was consistently the best of Cal’s freshmen last season. He was fourth on the team in scoring (10.6) and third in rebounding (3.6), and his 47.2-percent accuracy from 3-point distance was tops in the Pac-12.

What we saw: Bradley had 18 games last season where he made at least 50 percent of his 3-point attempts. That’s impressive. Our concerns are that he perhaps didn’t take enough of them (just 3.4 per game), and he must show counters in his offensive game so that defenses can’t chase him off the 3-point line.

What’s next: Given his size and skills, Bradley appears to be a capable finisher at the rim. And while he shot 86 free throws, his skill set should allow him to get there more often still. Defenses must respect his perimeter shot, so Bradley should be able to attack the basket with a pump fake and drive. Think Klay Thompson, who attempted just 31 free throws as a freshman at Washington State, then shot 351 of them the next two seasons.

-- JACOBI GORDON, sophomore forward: The coaching staff smartly was cautious in its use of Gordon last season, one year after he tore his Achilles tendon as a high school senior. Highly rated as a Texas prep, the 6-foot-7, 215-pounder averaged 2.4 points and 10 minutes over 24 games as a freshman.

What we saw: Gordon never appeared to be fully healthy last season, often held out of games because of soreness in his Achilles. As a result, we saw no evidence of the talent that allowed him to score 20 points per game as a high school junior and earn status as an ESPN Top-100 recruiting prospect before his injury.

What’s next: Gordon’s offseason goal, no doubt, is to regain his full health. Achilles injuries can hinder an athlete’s explosiveness, but if Gordon can rediscover his form after nearly two years, he could provide the Bears a much-needed lift.

-- JUHWAN HARRIS-DYSON, junior shooting guard: Harris-Dyson was among the five players to put his name in the transfer portal, then withdrew it. We’re just guessing there may not have been a long line of high-major suitors.

What we saw: Harris-Dyson is a superb athlete, perhaps the best on the team. He is quick, agile and a spectacular jumper. What he isn’t — not yet, at least — is a skilled basketball player. He averaged just 3.5 points this past season (down from 6.2 as a freshman), in part because his minutes dropped. His value was mostly as a disruptive force on defense.

What’s next: Unless Harris-Dyson wants to become a track and field decathlete (teach him to pole vault and he could be very good), he needs to work hard to improve his offensive skills. He is a shooting guard who is 0 for 21 from the 3-point arc in two seasons. Until defenses have some reason to honor his outside shot, they will merely drop off him whenever he’s on the perimeter, taking away his ability to go by them on the drive.

-- ANDRE KELLY, sophomore center/forward: The 6-foot-8, 260-pounder from Stockton started 18 of the Bears’ first 22 games at the center spot, scoring double figures seven times.

What we saw: Kelly was very good early, aggressive and productive. Through Cal’s first 11 games, he shot 69 percent from the field and averaged 10.7 points. But Kelly appeared to lose his rhythm — and his confidence — after midseason when Vanover began to get more significant minutes. He averaged just 1.6 points on 17-percent shooting over the final 10 games.

What’s next: With Vanover out of the picture, Kelly gets a big second chance here. He is the best-equipped player on the roster to play center, and he should work hard in the offseason to maximize his conditioning and continue to add to his low-post game.

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Jeff Faraudo
Jeff Faraudo


Which is these six players will provide the biggest surprise next season?