Caleb Wood (above) has settled in as a 3-point specialist in his second and final year at Penn. (Photo: Tommy Smith/CoBL
Zach Drapkin (@ZachDrapkin)
Caleb Wood had a hard time finding his spot at Penn last season.
Fresh off a monster year at Lassen (Cali.) CC, his second junior college, Wood transferred in as a junior and played reasonably well to start the season.
Penn head coach Steve Donahue first had Wood at starting point guard, where he spent four games and averaged 29.5 mpg, rattling off three double-digit scoring performances, including a 25-point burst against Central Connecticut State.
Wood also turned the ball over 17 times during those four games, though, and was benched for Darnell Foreman for the team’s fifth game, against Villanova.
After Wood had four giveaways in 23 minutes off the bench against Villanova, leading the Quakers in that category by a long shot, Donahue moved him off the ball into a pure scoring role.
That had its challenges, too. Wood’s turnovers went down, but so did his scoring. He started on-and-off for the Quakers as the ‘2’ guard, playing fewer minutes than he had at the point, but that wasn’t the right fit either. The shots just weren’t falling.
“We probably put him in a role that wasn’t made for him, nor was he ready from junior college coming into this league, playing this kind of competition,” Donahue said. “I thought he got overwhelmed at times.”
In a 77-74 win over La Salle on January 25, Wood played 25 minutes and put up nine points as a starter. The next game, against Harvard on February 3, he saw 18 minutes of action and scored seven.
When Penn dipped to 0-5 in Ivy League play the next night, against Dartmouth, Wood played just five minutes. After that game, he took the court in just two of the Quakers’ final ten contests, playing a single minute in each of his two appearances.
He had gone from one of the team’s top scoring options to an afterthought over the course of just one season.
“Last season was a little bit rough for me,” Wood said. “Especially towards the end.”
So he worked on his game. Over the offseason, he got stronger, both mentally and physically, doing what he could to polish off his skills prior to his senior season.
Clearly, it paid off.
Through just three games, it’s crystal-clear that Wood has found his niche on this Penn team. It’s not as a starter or as a flashy, heavy-possession player, but rather as a 3-point marksman just making smart basketball plays.
In the season opener against Fairfield, a game which saw the Quakers go 9-for-39 from long range, Wood kept his composure and went 3-for-4 on three-point attempts in 11 minutes. During Monday’s double overtime loss to La Salle, he knocked down 3-of-5 threes in 11 minutes.
“Caleb’s had a great 6-8 months off. He’s gotten stronger, he grew from last year, he’s confident, he’s been a great practice player, and that’s why you’re seeing him on the floor now,” Donahue said. “He tightened up all the looseness in his game from last year, the non-confidence with the dribble, getting in tight spots, giving up on possessions. I think he’s much more understanding of what it takes to be successful now.”
“To his credit, he learned from that experience and now you can see he’s much stronger, he’s more confident, he’s more understanding of what we expect,” Donahue added.
On Wednesday night against Navy, Wood kicked it up a notch.
Still coming off the bench and still playing primarily as a catch-and-shoot wing, Wood and Ryan Betley led Penn with 13 points apiece as the Quakers crushed the Midshipmen, 66-45.
Penn blew Navy out of the water in the first half, 43-16, in large part thanks to Wood, who scored 11 points in the half, making sure to get in his usual trio of three pointers with a 3-for-4 showing in the first period and a 3-for-6 mark for the night.
Overall, Wood shot 5-for-8 from the floor and rounded off his stat sheet with two rebounds, two assists, and no turnovers, this time in 20 minutes of action.
It was nothing special, just good basketball, which is exactly what Donahue was looking for.
“Tonight’s a big night in that he made shots but he also had two assists and no turnovers,” Donahue said. “He really made some really great plays out there that involved just moving the ball, which he didn’t do last year, he wasn’t as confident.”
Wood played an integral role in the offense, keeping the defense honest and spreading the floor with the threat of his surefire three-point stroke, which he often pump-faked in instances where he didn’t pull the trigger.
He was one of a number of Quakers who kept the ball moving fluidly on the offensive end, so even though he accounted for two of Penn’s 16 assists, he contributed a number of hockey assists that didn’t find their way into a box score.
“We [couldn’t] let him shoot threes. That’s what he does,” Navy head coach Ed DeChellis said after the game. “So that was a problem.”
“He’s got a gravity pull,” Donahue said. “He spaces people out, they know they’ve got to guard him. With his size, he can get a shot off and then when he has to, he can make good basketball plays. He makes things look easy.”
The extra spacing most definitely helped out the rest of the team, which finally got into an offensive rhythm after a pair of brutal shooting performances.
In the first half of Wednesday night’s game, Penn shot 55.2 percent from the field and 50 percent from three.
“Our first two games, we kind of struggled to find our rhythm,” Wood said. “This game, I think everyone found their role and we’re starting to find an identity for ourselves on offense.”
Penn plays a total of nine games in November, second-most in the country, so Donahue will have plenty of time to take a look at the many faces on this year’s 21-deep roster and craft his gameplan for the Ivy League.
So far, Wood is making a strong case to keep his minutes this time around.
“I knew he was a really good player,” Donahue said. “As we build this, I’m just trying to be open-minded...trying to figure out how we’re going to be a really good team so we can compete for a championship. I think we’re still evolving into that, and this was a good step tonight.”