FLIPPING THE SWITCHIt often happens in the freshman year... an 18-year old looks tentative, unsure of how to proceed with the ball in his hands. The game he dominated just a year ago now seems so much faster, a frenetic series of starts and stops. The freshman makes bad decisions - he forces the issue when discretion is called for, and then retreats into a shell as offensive opportunities pass him by. He looks uncertain.
This was a fair description of Patrick Christopher for his first twenty-five games at Cal. Christopher looked like he had all the athletic tools to compete at this level. But he looked truly lost on the court, and his decisions were rarely the right ones. Too often Chris drifted back into a passive role on offense, despite starting at the three spot for most of this year. His freshman year was a disappointment, despite the flashes of potential he would show once or maybe twice a game.
And then the switch flipped, about the same time as Chris started to struggle with a groin injury. The player who sparked Cal's upset of Oregon was confident on both ends of the court; against Oregon State on Saturday, he was as good as any Cal player this year. It's not just the numbers - 24 and 11 - but the way his decision-making has improved. Because of this sudden emergence, Cal can win games like Saturday's, in which Anderson and Ubaka can't find their shots.
His emergence has immediate implications - like Cal perhaps making the NIT - but I would guess that most Cal fans are already thinking about the potential of next year's team. If Christopher has indeed turned a corner, then the Bears will return another player who can create his own offense. Theo Robertson will likely slide back down to his natural position of small forward next year. Assuming that Hardin returns (not a sure thing) and Anderson plays the four, Jamal Boykin could also get minutes at the three. Does Christopher move down to the two guard and compete with Omar Wilkes, or does he get caught in a very busy front court rotation?
All good questions - and good problems to have going into '07-'08. For now we'll just be pleased that another freshman has stepped up to shoulder some of the offensive load for Cal. On to the Arizona schools - sweep and we're in the NIT. Split, and all bets are off.