Among the Elite

Among the Elite

Jabari Bird is fresh off of a weekend in Washington, D.C., trying to guard Kevin Durant at the Oklahoma City Thunder star's Skills Academy, and he talks about that experience as well as meshing with the new Cal coaching staff.

California wing Jabari Bird has always been more humble than his skills and prowess indicate. His freshman season with the Bears made him even more so. Nothing could have humbled the former five-star recruit out of Richmond (Calif.) Salesian, though, than trying to defend NBA All-Star Kevin Durant last weekend in Washington D.C.

"I tried to guard him. I wasn't too successful. He's almost seven feet tall, and it's hard to contest his shot when he wants to get it up," Bird says. "I might have nicked his elbow. I don't think he was too frustrated by that."

How did Cal's sophomore-to-be come to go face-up against the Oklahoma City Thunder star? He was one of the top 15 collegiate wings in the nation invited to be a part of the Durant Skills Academy, held at Sidwell Friends School in the nation's capital, the same school which the two Obama daughters attend.

Bird first found out that he was invited to the prestigious camp about a week before it was held, and made it out to D.C. on a red-eye flight the morning that Sandy Barbour announced her transition out of the Athletic Director role.

"The flight wasn't too bad; I slept through the whole flight going there, but the hard part was having only an hour to rest in my room before the camp started, and then start playing games," says Bird, who played in one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three and five-on-five games with the other collegiate players in attendance, against Durant and several of his buddies, upon occasion.

Bird played with former AAU teammate Stanley Johnson, as well as Arizona's Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Anthony Brown from Stanford and Michael Qualls from Arkansas.

"It means a lot to me," Bird says of being tapped to attend the camp. "I don't think I performed as well as I could as a freshman, so for me to even be put in that category means a lot going into my sophomore year."

You won't find anyone who's much harder on Bird than he is on himself. Last season, Bird played in 31 games, starting 12, averaging 20.0 minutes per contest while shooting 42.5% from the field and 32.3% from three-point range. He averaged 2.0 rebounds and 8.3 points per game, far below what he had expected of himself.

"It's just a preseason title," Bird says of being named to the camp roster. "I've got to go out there my sophomore year and show that I earned that title, to prove that I'm worthy.

"Anything that people say about me, isn't anything new. It's nothing I haven't said to myself a thousand times already. I'm motivated as it is, because we didn't make it to the (NCAA) Tournament, and we didn't do as well as we should have, last year. That's motivation by itself, let alone the talk about me not performing as well as I should have."

Bird took a lot away from the camp, but along with a renewed confidence, he also saw just how far he has to go.

"I definitely learned a lot, playing against some of the top wings in college basketball," Bird says. "I took a lot away from the camp. I went away from the camp really confident with where I stand, right now, and also, I've got to continue to get better. I should never be satisfied with where I'm at."

The new Bears coaching staff isn't satisfied, either, and the offseason workouts have proven that out.

"I've gotten a ton of confidence from that," Bird says. "This whole summer so far has been a whole new experience for me and the team. We're really getting after it right now. We should definitely see some improvement with our play on the court."

The new way of doing business in Haas Pavilion includes the coaching staff coming in and working out with the players during early-morning weight lifting sessions.

"I like it," Bird says. "If the coaches want to get up early and lift with us, that should motivate us to get up early and lift, too. They're in there with us, working out. It's pretty fun to have your coach right next to you getting reps in with you."

There's no word on how much new head coach Cuonzo Martin can bench ("He usually works out in the afternoon," Bird says), but he does make it into the early morning sessions to help motivate the players.

"I like them a lot," Bird says of the new staff. "They're a really good group of guys, and they're what we needed. They're disciplining us for everything we do. They're making us accountable for everything. I think we -- and this staff -- will grow a lot this year. We're definitely making improvements."

While the team hasn't really gotten into the nuts and bolts of the offense, Bird has taken a look at what Martin and his staff did last year in a Sweet 16 run with Tennessee.

"I saw him coach at Tennessee, and I really like their style of play," Bird says. "I think I'll do well under him."

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