Cal Women's Basketball Conversations: A belated season preview
With Pac-12 play approaching, Terence and Nick take a look at Cal's new roster and rotation.
Note to readers - this is something we did on the old site to preview a season of the Men's Basketball Team, and something that Reef and Nick did for WBB - more of an informal look at the team, address some of the things we're looking forward to, some of our concerns, and any cool things coming up.
After 3 rough seasons (Coach Smith is 24–48 in her first three seasons as the Cal Women's Basketball Coach), but with a lot of promising recruits, it's starting to look like this season may be a turning point in Coach Smith's coaching program, as well as starting to get some of the 5 star talent starting to produce some results on the court. We lost quite a bit of talent to transfer last season, but we also brought in some very promising players who have already started contribute. Since I didn't get to see the team that much last season - maybe you guys can talk about what we saw at the end of last season and some of the players we lost - and then we can talk about expectations for the team, the returning players and the changes we've made for this season.
Yeah, let’s start with a quick recap of roster moves:
Cal lost the following four players: Dalayah Daniels (transfer to Washington), Fatou Samb (transfer to Rice), Cailyn Crocker (transfer to Colorado State), Jazlyn Green (retirement from basketball?)
Cal added the following four players: Peanut Tuitele (transfer from Colorado), Kemery Martin (transfer from Utah), Claudia Langarita (transfer from USF) and Amaya Bonner (#51 overall recruit out of Bishop O'Dowd)
All four departures were part of Cal's on-court rotation last year, though Daniels and Green were bigger in terms of offensive impact. Daniels is the biggest loss - the former 5 star recruit struggled to live up to her recruiting hype but had appeared to start delivering on her potential late in the season last year. Green was Cal's 2nd best scoring guard after Curry, and replacing her shooting won't be trivial. Crocker struggled with her shot and Samb struggled with turnovers and defense, and I'd guess that they have transferred to spots that are better fits for them.
Cal's transfers in were largely focused on high floor players who are ready to contribute immediately. Tuitele and Martin were both key rotation players on above average Pac-12 teams, and adding them onto the team means you immediately have two players that you know can play at a solid Pac-12 level on both ends of the court. Langarita, meanwhile, was a solid contributor in her true freshman season at USF and slides into the post rotation reasonably smoothly.
In sum, I think Cal has traded the potentially high (but as-yet-unrealized) ceiling of Daniels in favor of a bunch of solid all-around contributors, plus the exciting potential of Amaya Bonner. But the question for this season is how Charmin Smith and company get the new pieces to fit into a rotation that might now be 11 players deep. Because in addition to Cal's four newcomers, you also have Karisma Ortiz and Jadyn Bush returning from injuries that cut short their 2022 seasons, to say nothing of established returners Jayda Curry, Leilani McIntosh, Evelien Schipholt, Michelle Onyiah, and Mia Mastrov.
Terence, I know you've been impressed with what you've seen of Tuitele and Martin so far - what are your impressions of their skillset a few games into the season?
Peanut is exactly who every successful basketball team needs. She's a smart positional defender, she's tough as nails, she can score inside and can make an occasional 3 pointer (through 7 games, she's shooting .500 from the field, and .500 from 3, on 6 attempts). When the opposition has a scoring post, she takes the defensive assignment, and that's with a returning All-Pac 12 Defensive Big in Evelien Lutje Schipholt returning. She's a strong rebounder and moves the ball well on offense. Just fills every extra need a team needs.
Kemery Martin (Mar-tiné) our transfer from Utah has one of the most aesthetically perfect jump shots I've ever seen. Seriously, click through that hyperlink and look at it - Rob and I talk about it almost every game. Put it in the Louvre. She's a game defender, and has size to guard bigger guards that our very small back court of McIntosh and Curry have trouble with - she's not quite the every game scorer, but when she has it going (19 vs Idaho, 18 vs Montana) she really opens up the court for our post-centric offense. plus driving lanes for the guards.
It's obvious we're going as far as Curry/McIntosh//Lutje Schipholt take us - what would you say their individual strengths and weaknesses are? And then we can look at the rest of the roster.
Would it be lazy to say that the strength for all three is offense, and the weakness for all three is defense? Yes, that would in fact be very lazy.
We obviously have to start with Cal's star, Jayda Curry, who led the Pac-12 in scoring as a freshman. She's Cal's best shooter and the only player on the roster who can regularly create her own shot, though last year she was occasionally prone to taking too many bad shots. I think, based on the evidence so far this year, that was more a factor of a lack of other scoring options. But she is secure with the ball, does an excellent job setting up her teammates as a shooting guard, rebounds well for her size/position, and has the potential to grow into a conference player-of-the-year level star.
McIntosh is Cal's iron woman who has started every game in her 3+ years on campus and played crazy minutes at times due to a complete lack of other healthy guards. She's a good distributor and shooter, and she is Cal's main defensive disruptor, leading the team in steals. She makes up for her lack of size with speed and instinct, and if Curry isn't Cal's most important player then it is certainly McIntosh. She’s a good shooter, to the extent that I occasionally get frustrated when she unselfishly passes up open looks.
Lutje Schipholt is Cal's go-to interior scorer and best rebounder, particularly on the offensive glass. She's not physically dominant but crafty, active, and disruptive. That's reflected in good ways (as mentioned rebounding, solid steal/block rates) and in bad ways (nearly 5 fouls/40 across most of her Cal career).
All three are capable offensive players who are solid finishers and know their role. All three have had major minutes for a Cal team that has yet to play good team defense. I don't think that fact has anything to do with the individual abilities or efforts of the players themselves (though all three are undersized for their position at the Pac-12 level) but more to do with Cal's inability to play cohesive team defense.
Have you seen enough of Cal's other potential rotation players (Harvard transfer Jadyn Bush, Texas transfer Karisma Ortiz, Mia Mastrov, Michelle Onyiah, and Amaya Bonner) to start forming opinions on what they bring to the court?
I will note that for two of the big 3 (Lei and Evelien), they’re pretty good individual defenders (and why that hasn’t translated into better team defense we can dig into when we talk about the team as a whole.
For the other rotation players – is it weird to note that we might have too many rotation players - it’s something you talked about above too. Sometimes not getting consistent minutes, especially for players who came from programs where they were getting regular playing time or players who have played big minutes for Cal in previous seasons may see their minutes diminish?
For our other rotation players - the deepness of the team ties in to my impressions of them so far - all of them seem to be rotation level players who could rise to key players in any given game. Jadyn Bush seems to be a less physical version of Peanut who can score and make the secondary pass that makes the offense run, she seems to really know what she’s doing on defense and rebounds well for her size, but she’s also coming off a knee injury that kept her out an entire season at Harvard and then the Covid season - but then she also had a big game against Arkansas Pine-Bluff going 6-6 from the field, whereas in other games she’s played single digits in terms of minutes off the bench.
Mia Mastrov has added elements to her game which I really like - previously just a shooter, she can now use her dribble to free herself up for shots. If not for Martin, she would have the prettiest jump shot on the team - however, for a designated shooter off the bench, she’s hasn’t shot that well this season(21%/25%/100%) off very limited shots, and if we’re being honest, not so much in her career either. One interesting wrinkle we saw in the St. Mary’s game, is at the end of the game, with Curry in foul trouble, Coach Smith used Mia as the defensive sub when playing offense/defense at the end of the game. Let’s be clear - I love Mia and everything she brings to the program, but no one has mistaken her for a defensive stopper. She’s bigger than Curry and while no one can fault her effort, she’s not the quickest laterally.
Ortiz seems to be another player - and it’s seems really clear that Charmin was recruiting for this type in the transfer portal - someone who is tough and smart and not afraid to get dirty and rebound and set picks and dig the ball out from the floor and leave the scoring to Curry and Lutje Schipholt,
One thing about our bench is that we have a lot of size - Mastrov, Ortiz, Bush are all between 5’11” and 6’1” - women’s basketball being what it is, it’s odd to think about Peanut and Evelien playing big/post and they’re only an inch or two taller.
Which brings us to our last two bench contributors - first, former five-star recruit Michelle Oniyah, who is our best defensive big off the bench and plays that way. A defensive disruptor who can score (5-5 from the floor against Idaho in only 10 minutes) off put backs and deep catches - as the first post off the bench, she should get a lot more opportunity than she did the previous two seasons without Samb and Fatou in front of her. She has the physical tools, so hopefully she’ll get to show it.
Finally, our 4 star recruit, and local basketball hero Amaya Bonner, a 6’ point guard from Bishop O’Dowd. As the East Bay’s premier college program (or what should be - and I think Charmin is doing a lot of really great community outreach) we should be the first and only choice of school for East Bay talent with the requisite grades. If only we could’ve kept Sabrina at home . .. But Bonner. Unfortunately she’s a bit dinged up right now - she was wearing a light plastic ankle brace and in street clothes vs SMU/Arkansas Pine-Bluff last weekend, but she was also pretty active on the sidelines, so I suspect it’s only a minor set-back and she should be playing again soon. It’s too early to know what we have, but she’s a 6’ point guard, and we love big guards. This program rode Milicia Vukodinovic (6’1” Lady Magic) to the 1992 NCAAs and if the flashes that Bonner showed against St. Mary’s stick, we could be in for another show.
So those are mainly our contributing players - it’s a lot. I’ve mentioned that I really like some of the offensive sets and actions that Charmin has installed. A couple of weeks ago, we ran this set that the San Antonio Spurs (it’s called Hammer, and it’s a lot of fun. Manu runs it out of dribble hand-offs, but sideline pick and rolls can also be used) used to run with a sideline pick and roll or dribble hand-off action, on one side, with a back screen for a shooter on the weak side that catches the defender looking - that requires the passer (I *think* it was Jadya) to not only be able to throw a cross court skip pass, but right into the shooter’s pocket (I think it was Martin). Manu Ginobili used to trigger it, Lebron James does it all time, but it’s a difficult play for the passer who needs the vision and the physical strength to throw that pass, and it was just one set out of our offense.
But I get the sense from talking to you that our offense is fine, and it’s our team defense that’s really holding us back. Can you expound on that - and what is our outlook for this Pac-12 season and possible post-season play?
This is where my lack of and Xs and Os background hurts, because it’s hard for me to diagram exactly what goes wrong for Cal on defense. But the numbers themselves are inarguable. Cal has finished last in defensive efficiency two years in a row, and they were 11th the year prior. It’s probably not fair to count the 2020-21 season based on Cal’s injury situation, but the 2021-22 season is fair game.
Why has Cal struggled? Well, what are we trying to do? I think the best teams dictate terms defensively in some fashion. Maybe they’re primarily a player-to-player defense. Maybe zone. Maybe lots of ball pressure and trapping. Maybe you cut off inside scoring and lock down the defensive glass.
One of my criticisms of the later Gottlieb era was that Cal seemed to run a ton of different defensive concepts, even within games. Cal would typically come out in player-to-player, but then transition to a zone. They would occasionally full court press off a free throw, or when trailing, but only briefly. None of these defenses were long term effective. And the sense I had was that defensively, Cal was a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none team on defense.
And that’s kinda what I’m still seeing. Cal still throws out multiple defenses in the same game, but not in a way that gets other teams uncomfortable or off rhythm. When Cal plays a zone, good offenses typically find themselves open threes in the corner. When Cal plays player-to-player, the Bears often struggle to do so without fouling. The press is often effective for a possession or two, but then tends to give up fast break buckets if it’s overused. And transition defense is a frequent issue.
I don’t think it’s an individual player skillset/athleticism issue. Leilani McIntosh is as fast as they come, with great hands. Peanut Tuitele was a key rotation member in an excellent Colorado defense last year. Cal’s not lacking in size or speed at any particular position. There’s just something missing that doesn’t allow them to play cohesive team defense, and I don’t really know how to explain it.
And unfortunately we play in the best conference for women’s basketball in the nation - so there’s very few days off, and while we’re a decent offensive team, we don’t quite have the talent to outscore teams either.
What does Cal need to improve upon defensively? If I had to pick two things, I’d pick out defensive rebounding and three point shooting defense.
Here’s a stat worth monitoring as the season progresses:
Cal 2 point shooting defense, 2021-22: 41.9%, 81st in the country
Cal 3 point shooting defense, 2021-22: 34.9%, 336th in the country
Cal 2 point shooting defense, 2022-23: 38.8%, 37th in the country
Cal 3 point shooting defense, 2022-23: 38.7%, 351st in the country
Some of this is a schedule strength thing - Cal’s 2 point defense in Pac-12 play was not remarkably good last year - but for two years in a row Cal has allowed opponents to hit their 3 point shots at a very high rate.
Cal closes out the non-conference schedule with three more games against smaller schools that should be routine wins . . . before immediately playing Stanford on the road. We’ll find out quickly enough how the Bears stack up within the Pac-12.
If you’re going to come to Berkeley for a sporting event, come see Charmin Smith’s Bears. They play a fun brand of basketball and have some talent, but will also suffer through some growing pains in the toughest women’s basketball conference in the country!
Bonner got hurt in the LMU game. I thought it looked bad, but she was in good spirit the next game against Montana. Sounds like her injury is more short term than long term, because I had thought she might have tore something when she went down at LMU (from my uneducated look but a lack of info despite sitting right behind the Cal bench).
I am hoping for a WNIT berth, but even that requires the Bears to play consistently well to even win a third of the games in a tough Pac-12 conference. On the other hand, I would hope that the lack of postponement this year (how many of them were there last years?) will allow this squad to grow and play more consistently.
First, you buried the lede… you should have led with telling folks to come out to see the women play instead of ending with it. As Charmin keeps saying, bring a friend.
Bonner was in a boot and the next game ‘only’ a brace, so hopefully it’s a minor injury. I’m more concerned about Langarita. She got smacked in the head pretty hard against Ark-PB and hasn’t been seen since she left that game. I suspect concussion protocol. I hope she returns in time to practice and prepare for ‘Furd. It feels like something ‘clicked’ for Claudia after the ND game, and she’s been improving immensely. I hope this doesn’t set her back.
Martin has been a great pickup from the portal. I suspect she is minute-limited due still recovering from prior year injuries. There have been games where she didn’t appear late when we could have used her. The minutes she does play are awesome, though.
Similarly with Bush with regard to minutes. I believe she has various health issues that limit her playing time but she brings an uplifting spirit that put her at the top of the +/- list for a large part of last season. (Bush is also an amazing human being, and I could see her being president some day. 🙂)
Daniels leaving is a loss, but she was really inconsistent. If she was in the zone, she played well and we tended to win. If she was checked out, it hurt us. Her +/- was lower than you might think last season. So, while a loss, I think we picked up some awesome replacements via the portal. (IMO, I’d rather have Martin than Daniels any day.)
My big concern is that we seem to start slowly each game, and it’d be nice if we could figure it out from the get go.
We have a deep rotation, and I have high hopes for what’s possible with this team. They’re way, way more exciting to watch than the men. Attend a game in person and bring a friend.