Basketball check in: Balancing player development with winning games

Plus: Cal WBB is back! Kinda! But with a new player!

A win to celebrate!

I’ll be honest - earlier this week I was planning out what I wanted to write about in this column, and before the Cal/Colorado game I was planning a column that would have been significantly more dour. But something very specific happened on Saturday that changed my outlook.

That something? Jalen Celestine played 33 minutes, put up 13 points, and played good defense despite being handed tough assignments specifically and playing against an excellent offense generally.

It was a breakthrough game, and one that Cal fans had been starving to see. Not necessarily from Celestine specifically, but from any underclassman. Because prior to Celestine’s recent increase in both quantity and quality of play, this was beginning to feel like something of a lost year of development for Cal’s younger players.

Why? Well, I’m mostly talking about playing time. There are eight underclassmen on Cal’s roster this year, six of which were recruiting and signed entirely by Mark Fox and staff. Of those eight players, exactly one of them would have what I would describe as a significant role in the rotation - or at least, that was the case until very recently.

That player, of course, is Joel Brown. Cal’s lead point guard has improved in almost every facet as a sophomore. Brown is likely never going to be a good volume shooter, but he’s shown the ability to hit 3s when left wide open. More importantly, his assist percentage and 2 point shooting percentage have both improved, meaning that he’s enough of a threat to be a viable offensive player to support his plus defense. While Brown still needs to improve for Cal to more consistently compete in conference play, his sophomore season has been a clear developmental positive.

The problem is that it’s harder to say that about any of Cal’s other young players.

Monty Bowser got some early minutes in non-conference play but has been removed from the rotation in Pac-12 play. For the second year in a row, Dimitrios Klonaras isn’t a part of the rotation either. Kuany Kuany appeared to have carved out a role as a back up wing, but he sat out a couple games in mid-January with an injury and has only played 6 minutes/game since coming back.

On the inside, both Lars Thiemann and DJ Thorpe have actually seen their playing time decrease as sophomores, as Cal has favored smaller lineups that get more shooting out onto the floor. That’s a strategic decision that I can hardly disagree with, but there are perhaps developmental costs to that approach.

Jared Hyder’s year was initially derailed by both a pre-season injury and NCAA stupidity, but he has settled in to the back-up point guard role behind Brown once he was finally granted the eligibility he should have had from the start of the season. He’s at least getting consistent minutes, even if it’s only 16 minutes/game.

That leaves Jalen Celestine, who had barely seen the court until mid-January. Matt Bradley’s 2nd ankle injury all but forced Mark Fox to play Celestine, but the freshman played solidly when given the chance and has earned himself more and more minutes over the last month, culminating in Saturday’s breakout performance against Colorado.

Here’s the tough question, one that I am decidedly not qualified to answer? What is the right balance between playing younger players for development vs. playing the best possible lineup to win a game? How do you balance playing a younger player who maybe isn’t ready vs. giving him off-court time to develop so you don’t damage his confidence?

I don’t think that anybody would argue that Mark Fox should lower the number of minutes that Matt Bradley, Grant Anticevich, and Andre Kelly get. They are Cal’s three best players, and they have invested multiple years into the program when Cal basketball went through its toughest years.

But would it make sense to cut the playing time given to grad transfers Ryan Betley and Makale Foreman in favor of younger players who might benefit from court time?

Mark Fox may have reached that conclusion a few weeks ago, as both players have received more inconsistent playing time of late. Or maybe their minutes have been cut solely because Celestine earned those minutes with his on-court play, and it has more to do with winning games this year than any particular developmental goal.

Either way, Cal badly needs their underclassmen to take big developmental steps forward. After solid improvement as compared to the final year under Wyking Jones, 2020-21 has seen Cal’s rebuilding project at best stuck in neutral. If this team is going to get better, it almost has to be the younger players stepping up. Until last night, Cal fans had seen precious few court minutes from most of Cal’s younger players. Let’s hope that Jalen Celestine’s splash against Colorado is the beginning of a trend rather than a one off - both for him, and for the rest of Cal’s freshmen and sophomores. Optimism for better times in 2021-22 depend on it.

I haven’t written anything about Cal women’s basketball in nearly two months, but there’s a pretty good reason why. Everything I wrote back in late December is still true. An absurdly young team that would have been fun to watch in a rebuilding year was fatally wounded by an absurd rash of injuries to half of the guards on the roster, and any hope of competitive basketball went down the drain. My greater fear is that any hope of useful developmental basketball also went down the drain.

Since then, Cal traded off blowout defeats to really good teams with close-but-no-cigar performances against some of the middle-of-the-road teams, then had the season shut down for two weeks due to COVID protocols, came back for a couple games, then had a road trip to Oregon cancelled due to as-yet-unspecified injuries that meant Cal didn’t have enough players to safely play. All of this just further increased my feeling that, like other teams have done, the Bears may have been better off cancelling their entire season. As of Sunday night there’s been no word on if Cal’s season will resume this Friday against Arizona, but I assume they are planning to resume at some point, since the entire season wasn’t cancelled.

But there is one development worth noting. Last summer, Cal received a commitment from guard Mia Mastrov. At the time it was assumed that she would make her Cal debut in 2021-22, but she managed to wrap up her high school course work early, and with this year not counting against her eligibility and Cal in desperate need of anybody that can play guard, it made all the sense in the world for her to join up and start playing.

And all she did was score 20 points in her Cal debut.

Now, we only have a two game sample in a broken season, so I’m not even going to try to pretend to guess at what kind of player she’ll develop into across her Cal career. But Cal has another guard on the team, and it looks like she can shoot the ball a bit. Two things that Cal needs right now, and more importantly needs next year, when hopefully everybody is healthy and we can try to have a normal, non-hellish season.

Welcome to Berkeley Mia, boy are we glad to have you here!