The immediate horizon appears gloomy for the Cal basketball program. The Bears were just 3-17 in Pac-12 play this season and their best player, junior guard Matt Bradley, has put his name into the transfer portal.
The X-factor moving forward is a three-player recruiting class that doesn’t have national acclaim but can make a difference next season, according to coach Mark Fox.
The Bears will add shooting guard Masalis Roberson of Oakland, power forward Obinna Anwanyu of San Diego and small forward Sam Alajiki, originally from Dundalk, Ireland, but now living in Newark, N.J.
“Their level of length, athleticism, explosiveness and skill that they have, it’s the most talented group that we’ve brought in here,” Fox told me. “So I think the level of athleticism right out of the gate and size for those three guys is going to be an advantage and give them a chance to compete right away.”
Certainly the Bears will welcome any reinforcements that might bolster their prospects. But the three young players will arrive in Berkeley this summer having experienced compromised high school senior seasons.
None of them had traditional winter basketball seasons due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Roberson and his Bishop O’Dowd High team begin practice Friday and are scheduled to play their first game April 29 at Berkeley High, according to coach Lou Richie. Their schedule will feature 12 to 17 games, exclusively against Bay Area teams, and remains very fluid.
Anwanyu and Cathedral Catholic will play a schedule of 15 to 18 games against schools from within San Diego County or adjoining counties, said coach Will Cunningham. They play their opener on Friday.
Alajiki and St. Benedict Prep in Newark, N.J., have played a reduced, in-state schedule.
Just as important as games this spring, Fox said, is the opportunity for those players to have access to normal offseason workouts. A year ago at this time, pretty much everything and everyone was shut down.
“For them, and for everyone on our team, they have to have an offseason,” Fox said. “The magic is in the work and we didn’t have an offseason last year. As we plan, we have to plan for a post-pandemic world and hope that happens soon because every player, they need an offseason.”
Here’s an update on the three Cal signees:
MARSALIS ROBERSON: Roberson, who will join ex-O’Dowd standout Monty Bowser on the Cal roster next season, has grown to 6-6, 190, his coach confirmed.
When basketball was shut down and school became a remote online experience, Roberson went to live with an uncle in Sacramento in order to be able to safely train on a daily basis..
“I hadn’t seen Marsalis since March 11 of last year until he came into the gym (two weeks ago). He was here at 6 in the morning,” Richie said of Roberson returning to the East Bay.
That first day back, Richie said, Roberson completed an intense 90-minute workout with sophomore teammate Jalen Lewis, an elite prospect in the class of 2023.
“It was pretty awesome,” Richie said. “It was very powerful to see his growth. The biggest shortcoming of Marsalis not having the senior season was allowing him to be the leader he has become.”
Roberson has responded well to the changes he was forced to make to deal with the pandemic. “He’s adjusted, pivoted and he’s in a good place emotionally and mentally,” Richie said.
Early on in his recruitment, Roberson was intent on improving his academics to the point where Stanford would be involved. That happened, but Roberson chose Cal instead. “He decided it was the right place for him,” his coach said.
Citing Roberson’s work ethic, Richie said he has no shortcomings. “He’s going to be an incredible asset to the (Cal) team, the campus and the Bay Area community.”
OBINNA ANYANWU: A 6-7, 215-pounder, Anyanwu averaged a double-double last season and scored 18 points in Cathedral Catholic’s 59-51 win over Torrey Pines in the CIF San Diego Section championship game.
Cunningham, his coach, said Anyanwu plays all over the court for the high school team but will fit in well at Cal as a small forward.
“He does a little bit of everything,” Cunningham said. “He’s really good from 17 feet in, but he's been working on his 3-point shot. He attacks the basket real well. He’s an active leaper, quick off his feet. A solid defender, really good on the break.”
Cunningham thinks it’s not an altogether bad thing that players have been off their feet some this year. He believes it will allow their bodies to rest and heal and limit the mileage on their legs.
He described Anyanwu as “a good kid, a good teammate.” Said he works hard and is more a leader by example than with his voice.
“I would expect him to go (to Cal) and compete to play, be in the top seven,” Cunningham said when asked what Anyanwu might provide as a freshman. “Hopefully he’ll be able to give coach Fox four years and move on from there.”
SAM ALAJIKI: Alajiki is perhaps the most intriguing of the three, having been born and raised in Dundalk, Ireland before moving to England at the age of 11. He came to the U.S. a year-and-a-half ago, spent the 2019-20 school year at Beckley Prep in Mount Hope, West Virginia, then moved on to St. Benedict Prep, which has produced NBA players including J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson.
In a British-based “Hoopsfix” podcast interview conducted in February, Alajiki explained that his St. Benedict’s team was restricted to playing in-state games in a season that would run through March.
He reported he now weights 240 pounds and Fox said he has a 40-inch vertical leap. Alajiki said his top four schools were Cal, Stanford, Georgetown and Notre Dame, and that choosing Berkeley in November — even without being able to visit the campus — was not difficult.
“I knew what I wanted ever since I started playing seriously,” he said. “Cal was everything I wanted. High academics. I’m going to play at a high-major (in the) Pac-12. I’m going to play against everyone. It wasn’t hard for me.
“Coach Fox was always straight-forward with me. He told me exactly what he wanted. I said, `Yeah, I can do that.' I’m confident in myself. I’m sure I’ll see the floor.”
Alajiki has confidence he can shoot, attack the basket and defend all five positions.
“I want to be a pro as soon as possible,” he said, explaining that he is undaunted by the challenge of playing in the Pac-12. “I think there’s beauty in the struggle. You can still play a big, big role at a high-major school. You just have to be good. I’m ready to do whatever it takes to get that role.”
Cover photo of Cal coach Mark Fox by Jeffrey Swinger, USA Today
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo