Jan. 21, 2002
By David Song
BERKELEY - The game of basketball has a cute nickname for teammates that are vertically gifted. Tim Duncan and David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs were labeled the twin towers. Former Stanford big men Jason and Jarron Collins were sometimes referred to by the same moniker, and this season, California's frontline of Solomon Hughes and Jamal Sampson have drawn that nickname for their intimidating presence inside.
But what do you call a pair of 5-10 teammates on the court together. Sounds like the start of a joke, doesn't it?
Try telling Stanford that. They weren't laughing after A.J. Diggs and fellow point guard Shantay Legans pestered the Cardinal backcourt both individually, and in tandem en route to a 68-54 victory Jan. 6 that ended a 10-game skid to the Cardinal.
The emergence of Diggs has given head coach Ben Braun another solid option in the backcourt, with the speed and craftiness of this sophomore from Long Beach.
"The game changes when A.J. gets in the game," says Braun. "There is an identity and a definite feel on the defensive end that we like and the other team doesn't."
That statement couldn't have been more evident than against Harvard Dec. 28 in the Golden Bear Classic when Diggs tallied six steals in just 11 minutes of play. He makes the most of his opportunity as demonstrated by his 18 steals this season (as of Jan. 9), which is good for second on the team, in just 13.3 minutes per contest. In the victory over Stanford, Diggs and Legans were responsible for forcing a combined six turnovers by the Cardinal's three point guards.
For most players, it takes time to get into a groove coming off the bench, but for Diggs, he can't afford to waste the precious time he has on the floor. It's imperative that he to come out of the gates quickly and make an immediate contribution to the squad.
The moment he enters the game, Diggs usually gets into a low, crouching stance on defense, and claps his hands repeatedly to pump himself up. On offense, he directs traffic like a fourth-year veteran. Diggs fits right into the flow of the game and even as a walk-on coming off the bench, he overflows with confidence.
"It just comes from the inside," says Diggs, explaining that self-confidence. "You have to have confidence being my height. With a lot of taller people on the court - everyone has 7-footers, 6-8, 6-7 - everybody's going to be taller than me, so you just have to have that heart to go out there and know that you can play with those taller players and that you can have an affect on the game one way or another."
Offensively, Diggs has come a long way from his first collegiate game last season. Although the statistics might not reveal an apparent change, the expectations of the coaching staff and the offensively capabilities he knows he possesses are different in 2001-02.
"I'd say I've taken my opportunities to shoot this year - if I'm open, I'll shoot - just like last year in a sense, but I just have more confidence in my shot this season," says Diggs.
"We have such great scorers on our team. Joe (Shipp), Brian (Wethers), Ryan (Forehan-Kelly), Jamal (Sampson) and Solomon (Hughes), are all scorers. There really isn't a big need for me to score that much, but just to distribute the ball to people at the right positions."
The biggest asset that Diggs does bring, however, is the defense that Braun speaks so highly of.
"I've always been a defensive-minded player," claims Diggs. "That's just something that I pride myself in - is to stop my man - to try to get steals and stuff like that. I just step it up a notch and the rest of the team steps it up a notch - I try to take it to the next level."
And his defensive prowess is giving Diggs an opportunity to play more, even alongside another small, but feisty guard in Legans. Although the first question that comes up is whether the duo can hold up against taller guards in the Pac-10, they proved against Stanford that bigger wing players wouldn't disrupt a Bears defense with two under-six-feet guards.
"I think the more success we have playing together, the more opportunities there's going to be we'll for us to play together," says Diggs, who recognizes Braun's effort to award him with more playing time. "If we're not clicking together on the court, we're not playing well together. Then the coaches will try and go another way with bigger wings. But if we play as well as we did against Stanford, I think that's a good combination we have for the future."
The combination could prove to come in handy during Pac-10 play when Cal encounters small and quick guards like USC's Brandon Granville or Arizona's preseason All-American Jason Gardner. Whether or not the double point-guard combo remains intact, Cal fans can rest assured that the Bears now have two proven floor generals that are virtually interchangeable.
Legans is well into his third season as Cal's starting point guard, but the emergence of Diggs gives the Bears an added bonus in the backcourt. And the more he plays, the more he believes in himself.
"When I play somebody now," says Diggs, "you can see the confidence by the way I walk out on the court."