Their declaration for the NBA draft became a foregone conclusion by the time last season ended, so there was little shock when Washington Huskies star freshmen Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss chose to leave school after one year.
Both used the 2015-16 season as a launching pad toward their NBA careers, developing into first-round picks despite UW’s failure to make the NCAA Tournament. Their ascension was ahead of schedule; both were four-star high-school recruits with bright futures and widely acknowledged potential, but they didn’t fall in the same no-doubt-about-it-one-and-done category as, say, current UW freshman Markelle Fultz.
Or current California sophomore Ivan Rabb, a 6-foot-11 forward from Oakland who made the surprising decision to return to school for another season rather than enter the NBA draft despite projections suggesting he might be a lottery pick.
Rabb is the biggest reason why Cal again looks like a team with postseason potential. The Huskies visit the Golden Bears at 6 p.m. Thursday to begin their first Pac-12 road trip of the season, and they do it with one outstanding freshman (Fultz), a roster full of sophomores who played supporting roles last season and a mediocre record that includes a few embarrassing defeats.
For that reason, it might be tempting for UW fans to daydream about what this roster would look like with 6-foot-5 guard Murray and 6-foot-9 forward Chriss, who instead play for the San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns, respectively.
Before both players impressed scouts with their raw talent last season, the Huskies likely figured they would be on this year’s team to play with Fultz, a legitimate superstar who might be the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft.
In Berkeley, they don’t have to daydream. Sure, Cal lost bruising forward Jaylen Brown, a one-and-done prospect chosen No. 3 overall by the Boston Celtics. But most observers assumed they would lose Rabb, too, and his decision to stay has bolstered a Bears frontcourt that includes 7-footers Kingsley Okoroh and Kameron Rooks. (UW will have to contend with that group without its best shot blocker, senior forward Malik Dime, out four to five weeks with a broken pinky finger on his right hand.)
Rabb, Cal’s leading scorer (15.4 points per game) and the Pac-12’s leading rebounder (10.8), told Sports Illustrated in June that he stayed because “at the end of the day, the NBA isn’t going anywhere. If I’m the guy I’m supposed to be, I should be there next year, as well.”
UW coach Lorenzo Romar says Rabb’s decision has been mutually beneficial for player and program.
“Obviously, it’s helped Cal,” Romar said. “It would be a different team if he weren’t there. But it’s helped Ivan. When you look at him play out there … he’s just a different player than he was last year. He will go into the NBA — if he decides to leave after this year — much more prepared to help a team and handle the NBA now.”
To that point: Chriss has started 31 of 38 games for the Suns this season and is averaging 7.2 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. Murray has appeared in 19 games, averaging only 5.5 minutes per contest, and spent some time in the D-League.
Athletes are wise to seek compensation for their abilities as soon as possible, and Chriss and Murray are both locked in to guaranteed, seven-figure contracts. The tradeoff, though, is struggling through a rookie season in the pros rather than excelling, like Rabb, as a college sophomore.
But that point is moot and the Huskies are what they are, a struggling team searching for its first road victory of the season outside of Seattle. The last time UW played in a true road environment — not counting its victory over Seattle U at KeyArena — was Dec. 7 at No. 5 Gonzaga, a 98-71 loss.
“We took that and learned from it,” UW sophomore guard David Crisp said. “I feel like we’ve gotten better every week.”
The Huskies received something of a confidence boost by beating Oregon State, 87-61, after losing their first two conference games. The Beavers aren’t any good, of course, and there is still reason to think the same of the Huskies. But they might be able to change some minds if they can win at Cal, which ranks eighth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com.
“One of the things we did on the road last time, at Gonzaga, is we just got distracted to a point where we just didn’t execute at all,” Romar said. “With Cal defending the way they do, we’re going to have to avoid that. We’re going to have to really be focused and purposeful in how we’re playing.”
WASHINGTON (8-7, 1-2 PAC-12) AT CALIFORNIA (11-5, 2-2)
6 p.m. Thursday, Haas Pavilion, Berkeley, California
TV: Fox Sports 1. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7-FM.
All-time series: California leads, 83-78.
Statistics for 2016-17:
13 Charlie Moore, G (5-11, fr.): 15.2 ppg, 3.4 apg.
3 Grant Mullins, G (6-3, sr.): 9.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg.
23 Jabari Bird, G (6-6, sr.): 14.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg.
1 Ivan Rabb, F (6-11, 220, so.): 15.4 ppg, 10.8 rpg.
22 Kingsley Okoroh, C (7-0, jr.): 5.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.6 bpg.
20 Markelle Fultz, G (6-4, fr.): 22.1 ppg, 6.4 apg, 5.9 rpg.
1 David Crisp, G (6-0, so.): 14.1 ppg, 2.8 apg.
4 Matisse Thybulle, G (6-5, so.): 9.9 ppg, 2.6 rpg.
33 Sam Timmins, F (6-10, fr.): 3.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg.
15 Noah Dickerson, F (6-8, so.): 11.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg.
Scouting report: After losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season, Cal was picked by media representatives to finish fourth in the Pac-12 standings in 2016-17. The Bears received a pleasant surprise in the spring when star freshman Ivan Rabb chose to return to Cal for his sophomore season, and the 6-11 forward leads the Bears in scoring and leads the league in rebounding. … Cal lost three nonconference games: to San Diego State on a neutral court in Sacramento; to Seton Hall at the Pearl Harbor Invitational in Hawaii; and at home to No. 19 Virginia. The Bears’ two losses in Pac-12 play came at No. 4 UCLA and at home against No. 16 Arizona. Cal’s best win was its most recent, a 74-73 victory at No. 25 USC. … Freshman guard Charlie Moore has stepped into Cal’s No. 2 scorer role, though his per-game average is bolstered by a 38-point performance in an early-season overtime victory over UC Irvine. Senior guard Jabari Bird, a former five-star recruit, gives the Bears a third scorer who averages 14 or more points per game. … Cal’s frontcourt remains imposing, with Rabb joining two 7-footers, Kingsley Okoroh and Kameron Rooks, to form a tough barrier around the rim. Rooks returned to action recently after missing 10 games due to a knee injury. … The Bears rank 10th in the Pac-12 in field-goal percentage (44.1), but they rank eighth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, and they lead the Pac-12 in field-goal percentage defense (38.7). Cal leads the league in defensive rebounding percentage, and Rabb ranks 15th nationally in that category. … UW and Cal met once last season, a 78-75 Golden Bears victory in Seattle. The Huskies have lost five consecutive games to Cal, their last triumph, 62-47, came in Berkeley in January 2013.