Cal coach Mike Montgomery, peppered with questions about Jabari Bird, called the Bay Area prospect “probably the most high-profile freshman” he has brought to Berkeley and predicted, “He’s going to be a great player.”
But Montgomery said the job of helping Bird become that player falls to senior point guard Justin Cobbs.
“It’s going to be the responsibility of a guy like Justin to make sure that we take advantage of his abilities,” Montgomery said Thursday at Pac-12 media day in San Francisco.
In other words, as always with Montgomery, he wants his upper classmen to shoulder the pressure and leadership on his team.
The Bears were picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 in a poll of media covering the conference, and Bird’s arrival as a top-25 national recruit from Salesian High certainly is one reason.
But Cal returns four starters from last year’s NCAA tournament team, and Cobbs is the most accomplished of the bunch. He is the Bears’ top returning scorer (15.1 points per game) and was fourth in the Pac-12 in assists (4.8).
Cobbs welcomes a bigger leadership role.
“They know how to play basketball. It’s just teaching them the little things,” Cobbs said. “As young guys, maybe they don’t know how to use a screen or get through a screen.
“But the freshmen are very receptive. Jabari’s very coachable. We don’t have any egos on this team.”
Cobbs attended Deron Williams’ camp in Brooklyn last summer, where he got the chance to play with the likes of Arizona State’s Jahii Carson and get feedback from NBA scouts.
“What I heard from the NBA scouts is just keep working and I’m right on the cusp of being one of the best point guards,” Cobbs said.
He also heard some of the same things Montgomery has been telling him for a couple of years, especially regarding when to share the ball.
“Being a leader you have to be comfortable in your own skin. Not everybody is,” Montgomery said. “Justin wants so badly to be a great player. He’s matured in a lot of ways.
“There are times he tries to do too much. For him, he’s got to make others better. That’s his best opportunity moving ahead.”
Cobbs said the message is getting through.
“It’s funny, being around Coach for so long, you don’t know what you have until you get older,” Cobbs said. “As a senior, you finally understand all the little things he’s been telling you since you were a sophomore.
“I’m like, ‘Why didn’t I listen when I was younger?’ ”
Cobbs said his right foot, which underwent surgery Aug. 19, is about 80 percent healed and that he’s able to go full speed in five-on-five play at practice.
A trim-looking 187 pounds (down from 195 last season), Cobbs said he limits the amount of time he practices, but not the nature of what he’s doing, just to be cautious.
“It’s so early, no point in even taking that risk,” he said.
Junior guard Ricky Kreklow, who missed most of last season because of a recurring foot injury, has had no issues this fall.
“He hasn’t flinched once,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery showed the wisdom of age when asked if he’d react differently than his former player and Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, who recently apprehended a bicycle thief on the Salt Lake City campus.
“If I was built and looked like Krystko, I would probably tackle him, wrestle him to the ground and sit on him, like he did,” Montgomery said of Krystkowiak, a 6-foot-9 former NBA player.
“As it is, I would probably wish him well and hope that computer works for him.”
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