LAS VEGAS – This just in. Justin Cobbs is pretty good at basketball. And he didn’t just get good at basketball this season.
Cal’s senior point guard has received a lot of recognition for his play this season, and rightly so. Cobbs ranks in the top-10 in the Pac-12 in assists, scoring and free throw percentage, and Monday was named to the All-Pac-12 First Team. He also is a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given annually to the nation’s top point guard.
But the Los Angeles native didn’t just start producing this season. As a junior, he finished in the top-10 in the Pac-12 in the same categories as this season and was named to the All-Pac-12 Second Team. He ranked third in the conference in assists as a sophomore, when he was All-Pac-12 honorable mention.
But the real recognition for Cobbs didn’t start pouring in earnestly until this season. Much of that is because in each of the past two seasons, Cobbs was overshadowed a bit by Pac-12 Players of the Year Jorge Gutierrez and Allen Crabbe. But there’s no denying the fact that Cobbs has made a major impact on Cal’s program since transferring from Minnesota after his freshman season.
“Last year, they both were putting up numbers – it wasn’t just Allen,” Cal forward Richard Solomon said. “I feel like it was both of them fairly equal. He knew this year coming in it was going to be primarily his team. He was going to have to take on that leadership role and help us be that leading scorer. Just being vocal, being a floor leader, helping the younger guys, picking everybody up a little bit – I think he was aware of the task at hand.”
And Cobbs certainly has been up to the task. His 5.8 assists per game average ranks second in the Pac-12. He’s 10th in scoring at 15.6 points per game.
But the contributions he’s made to the Bears this season have been so much more than that. Cobbs has had to navigate a ship that has negotiated some uneven waters at times, with all eyes on him to make the right play and do the right thing.
“Being a leader just comes with encouraging the freshmen, just being a coach on the floor, encouraging everybody when times get tough,” Cobbs said. “We can always persevere and get better through any situation.”
There was one particular situation that Cobbs persevered through just fine, thank you. With time running down and the game tied against No. 1 Arizona on Feb. 1 at Haas Pavilion, Cobbs took matters into his own hands. He went around a screen from Solomon, rushed toward the left baseline and rose up for a step-back jumper over Wildcats 7-0 center Kaleb Tarczewski. The ball went through, setting off a surreal scene with the crowd rushing the court twice and Cobbs walking off as the Bears’ conquering hero.
“The Arizona shot was one of the biggest shots in my career,” said Cobbs, who also hit a game-winner last season at No. 23 Oregon . “We ran a pick and roll and I decided to get to the basket. Tarczewski moved his feet well and I was able to get a step-back jumper, and it went down for me. That was one of the biggest shots I’ve hit in my career.”
The shot helped hand Arizona its first loss of the season, making Cobbs a national story in the days immediately afterward.
“I heard from a lot of people, people you hadn’t heard from in awhile,” Cobbs said. “Of course, your family, your close friends, things like that. I’ve heard from a lot of people. But I just take it as a memory. I’ll always remember what it was. But I just want to finish off the season strong.”
In addition to his other tasks this season, Cobbs has had the season-long challenge of balancing exploiting his own significant scoring ability with getting his teammates involved and spearheading an effective offense.
“The balance is pretty tough – understanding when to score and when to shoot,” Cobbs said. “I think this year it’s been a great job of finding guys and getting guys good shots when they are open, and giving them confidence that it’s a good shot for them. I just feel like scoring has always been an ability of mine. It’s always been easy for me to get a shot off but it’s more important for the team to do well more than myself.”