Why is this Cal basketball team not quite as fun a watch as previous Mike Montgomery teams? The answer lies in the NBA D-League, and the fascinating story of the still growing Jorge Gutierrez.
Last week, I went searching for Jorge Gutierrez.
It was a D-League game. He was playing on some team called the Canton Charge, battling Santa Cruz on NBATV. The atmosphere was reminiscent of a poorly-attended high school game, with dozens (DOZENS!) of people watching in the stands and scouting on the sidelines. Aside from my deliberate watching, the Canton vs. Santa Cruz viewership probably consisted of six to ten confused channel-surfers who randomly stumbled across this game and mistook it for the last thirty minutes of Coach Carter.
But to me, none of that mattered. I just wanted to check in one of my favorite Bears. I wanted to see what was happening in his post-college journey. Could grown-up Jorge keep on setting new boundaries, making impossibilities possible?
Jorge didn't disappoint. He never disappoints.
Fourteen points, six rebounds, five assists, two steals. His plus/minus was +23, tops for anyone on the floor. And he took over the fourth quarter. Took it over. After Santa Cruz led almost the entire way, Canton obliterated them in the fourth, and a lion's share of the credit belonged to Jorge. And by being outstanding in every facet of the game, he led his team to victory.
Defensively, as always, Jorge carried himself through his effort. He took charges with five fouls and hauled in rebounds when the bigs were preoccupied. In many ways NBDL-Jorge isn't too different from college-Jorge, only now he's proving his capacity to hang with tougher and stiffer competition.
More importantly, there are semblances of a tenacious wing defender emerging, and it's not all just about his hustle and drive. He battled a much taller, larger post player on the low block, refusing to give an inch, extending his arms and keeping his lower body planted so that his opponent had no room to maneuver. At one point, a Santa Cruz wing drove straight on him, but he held his ground. The wing then tried turning and fading away, only to have Jorge swat it back at him. It was as if all of Jorge's hustle and energy had fully synthesized into sound, perfect technique.
But defensive ability isn't surprising with Jorge. It's what he's been known for since the day we first saw him crouch into his opposing stance. In this game, as good as his defensive efforts were, it was his constantly evolving ability to make plays on offense that really drew my attention. He was stroking mid-range jumpers as soon as defenders sagged off of him, swishing a few crucial buckets through. He found ways to thread the ball through traps and roaming hands to maintain movement. He didn't take undue risks and kept his turnovers down. And he laid down some excellent dimes. One play that really stood out was this cross-court transition pass where his shooting guard got ready to find the corner three spot. Jorge put it right on his numbers from cross court in the backcourt.
NBA point guards have trouble with that pass. Jorge never seems to have much trouble learning anything on the court.
It got to the point where Santa Cruz was trying to foul Jorge out. One guy tried to intimidate him-- get in his grill and give him a little hip bump after the play. Younger Jorge might have gone right back at him; present-day Jorge just gave him a "son, please" look and walked away. On a crucial missed free throw late in the game. Jorge barrelled for a rebound and some dude flopped backwards six feet, looking for that elusive final foul. No foul was coming, just more of merciless Jorge.
It's easy to see why Cal isn't the same without him. Jorge set the tenor of every game. He focused the offense. He energized and ramped up the defense. And he always seemed to be on the floor securing basketballs that would be elusive to anyone else. He glued everything together. After his departure, things started slipping.
Our current Bears are trying hard. You can see it with every game. But the hard-nosed tenacity isn't quite there, not without guys like Jorge or Harper Kamp cleaning up or finishing plays. The players that are left try to replicate the effort, but seem to have a bit more trouble raising the level of play when the moment necessitates it. Obviously there are glaring issues-- like the finishing or rebounding abilities of the bigs-- but there's a sense that the energy ebbs from possession to possession now that Jorge isn't there to tighten the grip.
Without him, there's a leadership vacuum. Allen Crabbe continues to play like he's the hero of his own Greek drama. If he gets going, he's tough to stop. But if he hits any sort of obstacle, that's the end of that. Once a team starts taking Crabbe out of the offense, he gets frustrated and it seeps into his body language. At times, the team follows his lead in that regard. They take on the look of a group that'll take years rather than minutes to overcome a marginal deficit.
Justin Cobbs seems to both overestimate and underestimate the things he can do on the court. He believes he can do things that he's not capable of doing, like driving into the lane against three defenders or pulling up straight into a contested jumper. And it's equally frustrating when he tries to sublimate his game and become the point guard he clearly is not. He needs to find that balance of learning to score and distribute. Right now it seems he's only capable of finding one mode and staying there.
So although Crabbe and Cobbs are good players, their ability to bring the guys together is limited because their confidence isn't unshakeable and their effort isn't constant. With Jorge, you always knew he'd raise his game when he needed to, or inspire someone else to do so. It happened almost every night, and when it didn't happen, we got whipped. Now, without him, we seem to get whipped on a regular basis, and it's the same recurring errors that whip us into submission. Unless something changes, the Bears will probably continue to face the impediments caused by a lack of consistent intensity and focus on behalf of key players.
Even with elite players on the court, you knew there was probably a ceiling for the Bears. But Jorge refused to ever acknowledge its existence. He dissolved limitations with his raw, undaunted exertion. Throughout the Canton/Santa Cruz game, the announcers talked about Jorge in the same glowing terms many of their college counterparts had done for four years: "Winning plays." All he does is make winning plays.
Without him, that ceiling seems a lot harder to reach. Not everything feels quite as possible as it used to. The winning plays seem more laborious and less frequent, and the Bears have ended up losing a lot more as a result. That mindset must change if Cal expects to do anything worthwhile with this group of players.
In some ways, I wish Jorge were still here to guide them that next step, to teach them how to strategically channel their effort into the game, to balance their energy and their execution on the court. But in more ways, I wish for him to keep on climbing, and that our Bears can learn from the example he sets-- wherever he is-- to do the same.