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Tyrone Wallace looks to lead Cal’s resurgence

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The point guard position has changed in recent years, evolving as basketball has become a more free-flowing, position-less game built around spacing and perimeter ability.

Look at the best of the best in the NBA: For every Chris Paul, there is a Russell Westbrook, or John Wall, or (healthy?) Derrick Rose. And that’s impacted what NBA front offices look for in a point guard.

Tyus Jones slipped to the end of the first round in June’s NBA Draft, with “new era” point guards such as D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay and Cameron Payne all getting snagged in the lottery.

That’s why, even with his shooting percentages and turnover numbers, Providence’s Kris Dunn is held in such high esteem by NBA types. Another player in that mold is California senior point guard Tyrone Wallace, who ranks among the best point guards in the country. But unlike Dunn, Wallace spent his first two seasons in college playing off the ball as Justin Cobbs ran the show for Mike Montgomery’s teams.

That’s what makes Wallace’s first season as a full-time point guard at the college level all the more impressive.

Averaging 17.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game, Wallace ranked in the top five in the Pac-12 in each of those categories. As a result he was not only a first team all-Pac-12 selection but a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award as well.

“The thing about his being a slasher is that it was the position he (played) in the previous system, and that’s how they felt he fit into their program,” California head coach Cuonzo Martin said when asked of Wallace’s transition. “For us, he could already handle the ball so it’s not like we had to teach him how to dribble. He had the handle and he could make plays off the dribble, that was his biggest strength.”

“Now, the game has changed from a ‘traditional’ point guard in the last 15-20 years to a guy who can make plays, get to the rim, defend, score the ball, post up,” Martin noted. “So there’s a variety of things in being a point guard, it’s not the traditional point that you’re used to seeing. He fit that mold very well as far as attacking and making plays, and I thought his biggest adjustment was facilitating and getting guys involved within the offense.

“I think the thing he had to continue to learn was the ability to run the point at this level,” Martin continued. “Because it’s one thing to score, but now you have to facilitate and get other guys involved; you have to have eyes in the back of your head.”

It isn’t as if Wallace entered the 2014-15 without any experience in that kind of role. At the high school level Wallace was a standout at Bakersfield HS, setting a school record for career points and leaving ranked the 13th-best point guard in the Class of 2011 by Rivals.com. Wallace’s athleticism, versatility and motor were some of the things that set him apart from the competition in high school.

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“When he came in as a freshman he was really long and skinny, but he was very competitive,” Wallace’s high school coach, Greg Burt, noted. “He had a motor that just wouldn’t quit. He didn’t play varsity as a freshman, but his JV team went undefeated that year. He just never quit. He played offense, defense, he rebounded. He could do it all. He was just so competitive, and with the motor he has he’d outwork people.”

Wallace’s versatility allowed him to fill multiple roles on both his high school and grassroots teams, so the adjustment process wasn’t as difficult as it can be for a player making the move from a wing position to the point. And according to him, the process of improving his ability to play on the ball began back in middle school and he continues to see the benefits of learning multiple roles.

“It prepared me for any situation on the court,” Wallace said. “Whether I’m on the ball or off of it I can stay on the floor (and have an impact). I don’t have a set position that I have to play, and so I think that helped my skill set. Coach Burt prepared me well for college basketball, and now that I’m here I’ve constantly gotten better thanks to Coach Martin and the previous coaching staff.”

Wallace’s versatility has been a factor throughout his first three years at Cal, but there’s also the leadership that will be critical for the Golden Bears this season. And while Wallace is the type of leader who more often than not sets the tone through actions as opposed to words, his behaviors have made him someone worth following according to his high school coach.

“Tyrone never really been a vocal leader, and I know that’s something he’s really worked hard on in college,” Burt said. “But the one thing that he had was character. We like to say that ‘character wins,’ and he was an outstanding student, never had to worry about him missing class, he always did his homework and he never missed practice.

“He was just a guy that you could depend on every single day, and he was going to have a good attitude. He was more of a ‘leader by example’ kind of guy, but it was a great example.”

Leadership was also something Wallace, who had the option of turning pro but decided to return to Berkeley for his senior season, has focused on during the offseason.

“I’m transitioning into being more vocal,” Wallace said. “That’s one thing Coach and me talked about, and that’s something I’ve been working on this offseason. Whether it’s been in weight training or workouts, just being that vocal leader on the court because when it comes down to it I have to be able to do that.”

Cuonzo Martin and Tyrone Wallace at media day, AP Photo
Cuonzo Martin and Tyrone Wallace at media day, AP Photo

Wallace’s leadership, whether it’s vocal or through actions, will be critical for the Golden Bears this season. While he won’t be the only experienced returnee in the rotation — guards Jordan Mathews, Sam Singer and Jabari Bird are all juniors and sophomores Kameron Rooks (coming off of a torn ACL) and Kingsley Okoroh return in the front court — Wallace runs the show for a revamped roster that faces raised expectations.

California put together one of the nation’s top recruiting classes in the spring. Power forward and top ten prospect Ivan Rabb committed in April and top three recruit Jaylen Brown followed suit a month later. And with Georgetown transfer Stephen Domingo available after sitting out last season, many expect this group to not only contend in the Pac-12 but nationally as well.

But it’s important to note that there are strides to be made, especially on the offensive end of the floor.

California won ten of their first 11 games last season before hosting eventual national runner-up Wisconsin in a game that presented the home team with another opportunity to make a statement nationally. Cal’s 68-56 loss to the Badgers began a stretch in which they dropped eight of nine games, with offensive struggles being the biggest issue. Just twice during that period did Cal manage to score 60 points or shoot better than 40 percent from the field, turning a team with NCAA tournament aspirations into one fighting to remain above .500.

In conference games only, Oregon State (55.5 ppg) scored fewer points per game than Cal (65.2 ppg), which ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in free throw percentage and ninth in both overall field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage.

Given those stats, it’s no surprise that Wallace was asked to carry the burden of both primary provider and primary scorer last season. This time around, Wallace won’t have as much of a load to carry from a scoring standpoint.

At least that’s the plan.

But does that mean Wallace turns back the clock and becomes a “traditional” point guard who looks at scoring as a last resort? No, and frankly that drastic of a move would be to the detriment of both Wallace individually and the Golden Bears collectively.

Martin wants his point guard to continue to be the attack-minded decision maker who is hailed as one of the nation’s best. What helped in this process was the team’s summer trip to Australia, which gave the coaches a good look at their personnel in a competitive setting and provided to players with valuable on-court time to establish chemistry within the flow of a game.

That’s something that cannot always be replicated in the few hours during summer school that coaches get to work with players or in pickup games.

“You don’t want to change [what he did last year]. You want him to keep being aggressive,” Martin said. “When you add Ivan and Jaylen Brown, and also Stephen Domingo, I don’t think it changes what Tyrone does for our team. He still has to facilitate, still has to score, make plays, defend, rebound.

“Now he doesn’t have to carry such a load offensively, and that was really a need for us,” Martin continued. “We need him to score in situations and force the action, but now he doesn’t have to do that as much. But he still has to be aggressive.”

And that aggression isn’t just about Wallace’s numbers. It’s also about setting the example for his teammates, especially the soon-to-be stars that have yet to experience college basketball. The lone player on the roster to have experienced a win in the NCAA tournament, Wallace is now being asked to lead a team viewed as being capable of playing deep into March.

Actions are both great and necessary, but there will be times when Cal looks to Wallace to provide the words needed to reach their goals. Whether or not Wallace can rise to that particular challenge will determine just how far the Golden Bears go, and it’s a responsibility he embraces.

“I definitely think it’s necessary,” Wallace said when asked about his increased vocal leadership. “With so little time to practice, when we’re playing in games it’s important that I be vocal because it’s my fourth year and I’ve been through it before. Just to get guys in right spots, get their heads up, whatever it may be, just to constantly be talking and vocal with my teammates to help them.”

After going 7-11 in conference play a season ago, California enters this season with lofty expectations. And while this group doesn’t lack for the tangibles needed to reach their goals, the intangibles picked up by Wallace throughout his basketball career could determine just how far the Golden Bears go.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.