Cal Poly

Point guards a key for Cal Poly's basketball team

When Amaurys Fermin landed the fateful jump-stop that led to his torn knee ligament to cap the Cal Poly men’s basketball team’s first week of practice, teammate Chris O’Brien called home to tell his own dad, Tim.

Out for the season, Fermin, a junior college transfer who redshirted last season, had been penciled in as the unquestioned floor leader, one second-year head coach Joe Callero said would be an all-conference performer.

Without him — and without injured sophomore Kyle Odister, a combo guard who made the all-Big West Conference freshman team last season — there was a lot of unforeseen uncertainty at point guard.

“I called my dad the day Amaurys got hurt,” Chris O’Brien said, “and I said this and this happened, and I’m really down. He was down, too, because he knew Amaurys really well.

“But he said, ‘The ball is in good hands.’ ”

When the Mustangs played their Green vs. Gold Scrimmage at Mott Gym on Saturday, the public got its first look at Cal Poly’s caretakers of the point guard position in a simulated game situation.

David Hanson’s Green team got the 41-37 win over Shawn Lewis and the Gold. Lewis, a senior forward, scored a game-high 19 points, including six 3-pointers and grabbed six rebounds. Hanson, a junior forward, poured in 15 points, four 3-pointers and secured four rebounds.

But a lot of the eyes in attendance were on the seven other players who will be making their Mustangs debuts this season, including the two competing at point guard.

O’Brien is a 6-foot-4 San Francisco transfer who was also thrust into the point guard position in high school six years ago, and freshman Jamal Johnson, a San Antonio prep standout has been praised for his college-ready leadership skills.

Callero is a former point guard who led Central Washington to consecutive appearances in the NAIA championship game in the mid-1980s, which makes him scrutinize the position all the more.

“He demands a lot because he’s not the one on the court, we are,” O’Brien said. “We’re him on the floor, and we got to relay what he wants for all five guys through us. He expects more, and you have to deliver when he gives you that opportunity.”

O’Brien and Johnson each quarterbacked one of the scrimmage teams and go into the season competing to start with freshman Maliik Love, who is also fighting for backup minutes at the spot.

The book on O’Brien, who averaged 20.9 minutes per game and 4.1 points as a freshman at San Francisco two years ago, is that he’s more of an off-guard at the collegiate level.

But the former Northwood High standout was a point guard in his final three high school seasons, before he grayshirted, played a season at San Francisco and redshirted at Cal Poly.

Tim O’Brien, who coached Chris at Northwood, converted his son after the school lost an experienced team leader to graduation and watched him average 19.6 points, seven rebounds and six assists as a senior.

“If I didn’t become a point guard in high school, right now I’d be a knockdown shooter or a straight line driver,” Chris O’Brien said, “but now I can post up, play defense, rebound, pass, and I think playing point guard in high school has given me the ability to spread my game.”

Johnson played point guard his entire prep career, including several years leading one of the most accomplished teams in Texas.

Johnson’s Madison High team was 132-19 during his four-year varsity career. Madison made the state championships in each of his first two years and was ranked as high as fifth in the country during a 34-2 season his junior year.

After the four other starters moved on to Division I scholarships as he returned as a senior, Johnson led a young team to a conference championship. He watched his prep career end on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in overtime of the first round of the playoffs last winter.

Callero said he was impressed that Johnson, at 6-0, 175 pounds, was able to immediately assert himself as a confident and vocal leader.

“Being the young point guard on the teams that went to state,” Johnson said, “it was like I had to. It’s kind of like something I’ve always done.”

Coaches like to put O’Brien in situations where he can use his size to create scoring opportunities. They prefer Johnson’s ball-handling under pressure.

No matter which player gets the start in the season opener at Callero’s previous team, Seattle, on Nov. 14, both are likely to see a lot of playing time.

“It’s not like a quarterback where one guy plays and takes all the snaps,” Callero said. “You’re going to see somebody in there for 25 minutes, somebody else in there for 15, and with Chris’ size, he can also play the two or the three for us.”