Max Zhang, Alex Smith/Frank Gore, Giants Moves
by Glenn Dickey
Jan 06, 2010

MIGHTY MAX: The most interesting story of the Cal basketball season is the progress of center Max Zhang. After his third blocked shot against Stanford last Saturday, TV announcer Dan Belluomini said, “Didn’t Stanford read the scouting report. Don’t they know this guy is 7-3?”

Last year, when Zhang came on the court, the students treated him as a lovable novelty. In truth, that’s all he was, looking pretty much lost on the court.

But, it’s important to remember two things: Zhang has only been playing basketball since he was 15 and the giants take longer to develop.

I was a year ahead of Darrall Imhoff when I was in school at Cal, and when I saw Imhoff as a sophomore, I thought, “This guy will never be a player.”

But, by the next year, Imhoff had developed into an intimidating defensive player in the middle and able to score enough on short jumpers and rebounded shots to be a big factor as the Bears won one NCAA championship and finished runnerup the following year.

Nobody can predict at this point what Zhang will do in his Cal career, but I can tell you that, as a sophomore, he’s ahead of Imhoff at this stage. He’s also five inches taller.

“He’s not a go-to guy in the middle,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said yesterday, “but he’s learning to keep his hands up and his teammates are learning to throw the ball high, where he’s the only one who can get it.”

Zhang is an important component for the Bears, who are a small team otherwise. If he can continue to improve, he can help neutralize the big men Cal will face in conference play.

“The big thing for him is learning,” said Montgomery. “He has to learn not to bring his hands down when he gets the ball, for instance. It has to become automatic for him, which it isn’t yet. But, he’s got two more years here, so we’ve got time to work with him.”

Zhang went home this summer to play for the Chinese national team, but the playing experience no doubt helped him, even if it was an entirely different system. “His statistics were misleading because they just played zone and left him under the basket to swat away shots,” said Montgomery, who generally prefers to play an aggressive man-to-man defense.

If Zwang does develop into a dependable scoring threat in the post, he would be the first in Montgomery’s brief Cal career. Jordan Wilkes had the size, at seven feet, but he was thin and inconsistent. Harper Kemp (who is out for the season) had his moments last season, but he’s undersized for a post player.

Montgomery’s preferred offensive system has always been one which works off the post, but like any great coach, he adapts to his players, so Cal has played a perimeter game, shooting threes with abandon – and usually success. They have multiple options on every play, an 180 degree change from the stagnant offensive schemes of Ben Braun.

There was one moment in Saturday’s game which dramatically showed the difference. Just before the half ended, Montgomery called a time out and I remembered how players would come out after a Braun time out with no idea what to do next. This time, though, Montgomery had outlined a play which got a basket just before the buzzer. That’s coaching.

49ERS FUTURE: The main purpose for the 49ers in the offseason will be to blend the talents of quarterback Alex Smith and running back Frank Gore.

Coach Mike Singletary went into the just-concluded season with the idea of building the offense around Frank Gore. That was never a good idea. It’s important to be able to run the ball, of course, but it’s been a long time since a run-first offense won NFL championships. Rules changes over the years have always favored the offense because league officials want to see more scoring for an obvious reason: Fans like it.

When Singletary changed quarterbacks, the offense changed, so much that the spread/shotgun was utilized often because it’s obviously the system in which Smith is most comfortable.

There’s another reason for using the spread/shotgun: It helps neutralize the blitzes. Defenses are sending more pass rushers, by using linebackers or defensive backs, than offenses can block. Operating out of the regular T, a quarterback is often pressured or sacked before he even has a chance to look for a receiver. If he takes a direct snap, he has more time to find a receiver.

The trick is to find ways to run effectively out of the spread. Offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye might do well to look at collegiate spread offenses for tips.

Another thing Raye needs to look at are the pass routes. Please, no more of those short passes to the sideline on third down when the receiver is smothered instantly, well short of a first down. Bill Walsh popularized the “fun after catch” but those were slant patterns where receivers had running room.

Raye made an excellent point about Smith late in the season, that the quarterback needs to process what’s happened so he’s comfortable with that. Smith made a dramatic improvement between his second and third collegiate seasons when he did that. He seemed to be making progress in his second season, before being de-railed by shoulder injuries. He has the ability to be a topnotch NFL quarterback, and he’s both intelligent and a hard worker. Hopefully, everything will come together for him and the 49ers next season.

GIANTS MOVES: Didn’t you just love Mark DeRosa’s comment when he signed with the Giants, that he was tired of being Plan B for other teams? So, another team’s Plan B is the Giants Plan A?

Now, general manager Brian Sabean is saying DeRosa might be the starting left fielder. Is there really a plan here, or is Sabean just throwing darts at the wall?

Re-signing Juan Uribe is a plus. Uribe probably won’t duplicate last season’s hitting stats, which represented pretty much a career year if they were extrapolated over 600 at-bats, but he’s a solid hitter and fielder.

In fact, he should be the starting shortstop, but you can expect to see Edgar Renteria out there again, trying to justify that ridiculous, two-year, $18.5 million contract Sabean gave him last year. Manager Bruce Bochy praised Renteria this week, implying that injuries were the cause of his subpar play. But Renteria was healthy in early season when sportswriters, including me, were saying that he had no fielding range and scouts were saying he was the worst in the league at going to his right. His hitting suffered with his injuries, but even healthy, he wasn’t the hitter he’d been earlier in his career.

Forgotten in all this, by the way, is Emmanuel Burriss, who is much superior in the field. Burriss, who was injured much of last year and relegated to the minors, needs to work on using his speed as a hitter, much as Omar Vizquel did, by bunting and slapping the ball around. By 2011, he should be the starting shortstop and Renteria should be officially retired.

Meanwhile, all is unsettled with the Giants. Uribe is valuable because he can play three infield positions, but if Renteria is still the shortstop and the slimmed down Pablo Sandoval is at third, Uribe will be on the bench – until Renteria and/or Freddy Sanchez goes on the DL.

First base is still a puzzle. Nobody mentions John Bowker any more but he played credibly on defense when he was used there – a Gold Glover compared to the departed Ryan Garko – and could be a good hitter if he learns a little plate discipline.

Sabean’s free-spending ways have limited what he can do in the offseason, so there is no chance he’ll be able to sign the big bat the Giants need behind (or in front of) Sandoval. Nor does he want to trade pitching – a position I agree with – so he can’t do it that way.

When I wrote late last season that the Giants 2009 record would probably be better than their 2010 mark, some Giants fans disagreed, saying that Sabean would have enough payroll flexibility to sign meangful free agents. The only positive change, though, is DeRosa, since Uribe was on the team last year.

Meanwhile, Bengie Molina has moved on. Buster Posey has a bright future but it’s unrealistic to think he’ll put up Molina-type numbers next season. You can expect further offensive decline from Aaron Rowand, another of Sabean’s expensive mistakes.

So, where’s the big improvement? Because of Sabean’s generosity with free agents, the Giants are going to have to rely on their farm system for serious upgrades. The system has certainly produced pitchers – Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, perhaps Madison Bumgarner in 2010 – but not enough position players. So, the Giants will continue to be no closer than their TV sets to the playoffs.

CRUISE: Our Panama Canal cruise was a good one, though it didn’t measure up to either our 2007 cruise through the Eastern Mediterranean, where we saw so many historical sites, or the 2005 Baltic Sea cruise, where we saw Copenhagen, St. Petersburg, Helsinki and Stockholm, among others.

Going through the Canal was very dramatic and has inspired me to look for David McCulloch’s book to learn more. The other stops, in Mexico, Central America and Jamaica weren’t much. We did have one interesting tour to Antigua in Guatemala, a city with some beautiful Spanish architecture, which reminded us of Seville. Unfortunately, the city has been hit so often by earthquakes that the cobblestone streets are so torn up they make Oakland streets seem like driving on glass. There are no stop signs in the city and we joked that they’re not necessary because any car driven over 20 mph would get a broken axle. The city also has terrible poverty, and pedestrians are constantly confronted by begging children. Not pretty.

E-MAILS: When I’m on vacation, I do not follow the sports news. I didn’t know about Cal’s loss until I was reading USA Today on the return flight, nor how the 49ers and Raiders did in their two games. When I turned on my computer, I had nearly 300 e-mails, many of them from teams (I’m on every team e-mail list except the Raiders, who have a very small list because they don’t e-mail any columnists who criticize them) but there were also many from readers. I’m sorry, but I deleted them all. Don’t bother to re-send any asking about the games I’ve mentioned because, since I didn’t see them, I have no opinion on them.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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