For Caleb Martin, the magic number is 30.
That’s not his target for points scored per game. That’s his target for paint touches. And if he hits that mark for paint touches, odds are pretty good he’s going to approach the 30-point mark, too.
While Martin didn’t get off to a poor start this season, it wasn’t up to his standard. It was frustrating enough the fifth-year senior said this of his play in mid-December.
“I suck right now,” Martin said after a win over South Dakota State. “Suck. Suck. Suck. I have to get a lot better."
And when his efficiency numbers continued to lag behind last season, Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman and staff gave Martin a new goal. Get the ball into the paint 30 times per game and good things will happen.
In the last three games, Martin has averaged 24.7 points per game while upping his field-goal percent to 51.2 percent. He’s also hit 50 percent of his threes. In the last two games, Martin has scored 56 points, his most in back-to-back contests in his college career. So, it should come as no surprise Martin’s 30-paint-touch goal also started two games ago.
“I really think the goal with the 30 touches in the paint has really helped me a lot,” said Martin, the reigning Mountain West player of the year. “It’s put a ‘not settling’ mentality on me, so I’m in attack mode and looking at people’s feet and working on getting by them because I know I can get by people but sometimes I just settle. This goal I have is really forcing me to go get contact, seek contact, go get toward the rim and just not settle. It’s making me more of a complete player for sure.”
After a 20-point first half against Air Force on Jan. 19 – the lowest scoring half in Musselman’s four seasons – the Wolf Pack has averaged 46.7 points in its last seven halves, fulfilling more of the potential everybody expected out of this top-10 team. And the biggest reason for that offensive improvement is the play of Martin, who is playing like the preseason All-American he was voted to be before the season began.
Instead of being a low-efficiency scorer like he was earlier this season, Martin is attacking the rim with menace. Martin’s 19 free throws over the last two games are nearly equal to the 20 free throws he attempted in the seven games prior to that. In Saturday’s win over Boise State, Martin had 32 paint touches.
“He’s so effective getting in the lane and finishing in transition,” Musselman said. “Those are the things we need him to do, and we’re starting to figure out when we stand behind the 3-point line and pass it around that’s not our most effective way of playing. Our most effective way is playing through a post-up and they double team and we kick it out for three or we dribble penetrate and kick it out for a three.”
Martin’s twin brother, Cody, has been thrilled with Caleb’s recent play. Prior to the last two games, Martin had a stretch of five games in which he took 60 3-pointers to just 16 shots inside the arc. Martin is still taking his share of 3-point attempts, but those shots have been higher quality as he's mixed in more rim attacks.
“At the beginning of the season, he was making himself kind of one-dimensional where he was settling for a lot for threes,” Cody Martin said. “He’s still going to take threes. That’s his game. He’s going to take tough shots. But he’s kind of integrating his all-around game instead of just relying on his 3-point shot.”
The Martins are inseparable and can be each other’s toughest critic. Cody’s message to Caleb during his efficiency struggles earlier this year was simple: Don’t let the opposition’s defense have it easy.
“Just stop settling,” Cody said of his advice to Caleb. “To be honest, he does bail a lot of defensive players out when he starts settling. He’s too good of a player in a variety of areas, whether it’s getting downhill, whether it’s getting to the paint, whether it’s getting to his mid-range, he has a lot of stuff to his game and when he settles for that 3-point shot he doesn’t do himself any justice. I think that takes away a lot from his game and showing ultimately what we can do.
"For me personally, I tell him just to play his game and get out of his head and he was settling way too much. He’s going to take threes, but the degree of difficulty of his shots wasn't the same as last year. He was making them 10 times harder this year for whatever reason. I think he was just over-thinking for the most part.”
Martin's not doing that anymore. He’s attacking. In Nevada’s first 18 games, Martin shot 39.3 percent from the field, including 31.9 percent from three. He’s raised those numbers to 51.2 and 50 percent, respectively, over the last three games. And there’s reason to believe it’s not simply a hot shooting streak. Martin has been receptive to his new goal of 30 paint touches, and it’s transformed his game.
“You can’t really fight the facts or the stats that the coaches bring up to us,” Martin said. “We’re so much more efficient when we get to the ball to the paint, whether we get the ball to the paint and then get to a 3-pointer off a kick-out or we get to the paint and get a lob or an and-one or get to the free throw line. You can’t fight the stats on that. They provide those stats every game, every practice, every half, every timeout. They’re keeping the pressure on us and giving us challenges to get to the paint, so we’re accepting those challenges.”
Martin, who averages 19 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists, estimated he was averaging around 12 paint touches prior to the new goal of 30. His improved offense of late pairs nicely with his improved defense from the start of the season. A defensive liability at times last season, Martin has been Nevada’s best perimeter defender this year. Teams are averaging nine fewer points per 100 possessions Martin is on the court this season compared to last year. He’s also first on Nevada in advanced metrics like PER, win shares and box score plus-minus.
Over the last two weeks, Martin is playing like an All-American. After Saturday's Boise State win, Martin said he feels like he’s playing the best all-around basketball of his career. His play is giving Wolf Pack fans hope their team can make a Final Four run come March. And that improved play has come directly after that 20-point half against Air Force 17 days ago.
“The first half of the Air Force game was embarrassing – for us individually and as a team,” Caleb Martin said. “We’re much better than a 20-point half. We’ve got too many weapons for all of us collectively to have 20 points in a half. It was one of those things where we had to stop playing around, stop being content, stop being satisfied with scraping by with wins. We have to prove to people we are a top-10 team.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.