Jabari Bird is Leading Cal’s Resurgence

Posted by Mike Lemaire on March 1st, 2016

After thumping UCLA last week, Cal forward Jabari Bird told reporters that the primary reason for the Bears’ recent success was that they were “coming together as a team.” It is a nice sentiment but it isn’t why the Bears are winning. What Bird is too humble to admit is that Cal is winning because he was one of the Pac-12’s best players in February. His 12-point, five-rebound effort against USC over the weekend came in the wake of 20 points — including 5-of-8 threes — against UCLA, and and that wasn’t even his best performance of the last two weeks. His contribution against the Bruins was the third game in two weeks in which he has scored more than 20 points and made at least four 3-pointers, and it illustrates why the Bears have now won seven games in a row.

Cal forward Jabari Bird Is Helping His Team Finally Live Up To the Preseason Hype

Cal forward Jabari Bird Is Helping His Team Finally Live Up To All of the Preseason Hype. (AP)

Bird is averaging 15.3 points per game and is shooting 58 percent from both the floor and downtown during the streak. If you toss out a dud performance at Washington, he is averaging better than 18.0 points per game and is shooting better than 60 percent from the field. That is twice his season scoring average and the 22 threes he has made during the streak is more than twice as many as he made in the nine previous conference games. If that wasn’t enough perspective, the number of career games in which Bird has made at least four threes has doubled (from three to six) and the number of games in which he has made at least five threes has tripled (from one to three) in the past two weeks. Consequently, his shooting percentage from downtown has risen by seven percent (from 33% to 40%), and he has seemingly overnight gone from being one of the most disappointing players in the Pac-12 to perhaps its most important, at least relative to his team’s success.

The Bears are 15-2 in games where Bird scores at least 10 points but the correlation between Bird and Cal both playing well is much more nuanced than that. The Bears, perhaps more than any other team in the NCAA Tournament conversation, rely on ball-dominant slashers to create their offense. Jaylen Brown and Tyrone Wallace are similar players in that no one uses a larger percentage of the team’s possessions than either of these guys (and they are usually on the floor at the same time). Neither is a good shooter, but their exceptional athleticism makes them uniquely qualified to score off the drive. The result has been a lot of defensive sagging off Brown and Wallace, and therefore more open three-point looks for Bird and senior Jordan Mathews.

Now that Bird is playing with incredible confidence, opponents are forced to pick their poison. UCLA chose to focus on stopping Wallace and Brown’s drives, so Bird made them pay from long distance. USC chose to respect Bird’s hot hand, which opened up plenty of space for Brown (18 points) and Wallace (12 points) to attack, and for Ivan Rabb (18 points) to operate in the low post. Cuonzo Martin has established a strong defensive identity, but his offense spent much of the season one-dimensional in large part because Bird was not a consistent deep threat. Over the last seven games, the Bears are shooting 42 percent from downtown, above its season average of 37 percent and a sign of better understanding of roles.

It is also worth pointing out that Bird, long before Brown and Rabb’s arrivals, was once upon a time the five-star talent and McDonald’s All-American who was expected to take California to new heights. Injuries unfortunately derailed his first two seasons in Berkeley and his flashes of brilliance were therefore short-lived. But according to Martin, Bird, one of the most upbeat and energetic players he has ever coached, has finally broken out.

There are other reasons that Cal is surging too, of course. Things are “slowing down” for Brown; Kameron Rooks is becoming more useful by the game; and the already-strong defense has been particularly stingy over the past month. But this team of Bears is at its scariest when it makes triples and that has become Bird’s forte. If he keeps shooting accurately and keeps the lane open for Cal’s elite slashers, he may well become the former five-star recruit who deserves the most credit for this team’s ultimate NCAA Tournament success.

mlemaire (324 Posts)

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