By Al Featherston
Let's get right to the point â¦ in basketball, there is no such thing.
We only talk about point guards because we like to bring order out of the chaos that is the universe, so we give arbitrary names to unarbitrary things. It's much like the Welsh villagers in the film "The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain", who find that their beloved mountain is going to be recorded as a hill because it is 14 feet short of the height required for a mountain.
So would Seth Curry be any more a point guard and any less a combo guard if he were to add an assist a game? Or if he loses an assist a game, does he become a shooting guard?
Who came up with these designations anyway?
In football, there are real positions. Sure, there are blurred lines between tailbacks, halfbacks, running backs, fullbacks, blocking backs and slot backs. Try deciding who is a guard and who is a tackle on an unbalanced line. Defensively, there's often confusion about linebackers and/or safeties or sometimes between outside linebackers and defensive ends.
But there are also strict rules about certain positions - only six players (those that don't lineup in the interior line) are eligible to receive passes. Only the quarterback - the player who takes the snap from center - is legally eligible to ground the ball without penalty (if he's outside the pocket and throws it past the line of scrimmage). Only the QB can spike the ball to kill the clock.
There are no rules in basketball that differentiate between guards, forwards and centers. There is no rule that says a 6-foot-10, 260-pound "center" can's bring the ball up and initiate a team's offense. There's no rule that says a 5-foot-9, 160-pound "guard" can't post up his defender or lead his team in rebounding.
In my youth, we didn't have point guards or combo guards or power forwards or wings â¦ we had a center, two forwards and two guards. And even that was arbitrary. In 1958, when an unheralded Duke team won the ACC regular season, the Blue Devils relied on a lineup that included 6-5 Jim Newcombe, 6-5 Paul Schmidt, 6-2 Bucky Allen, 6-0 Bob Vernon and 5-11 Bobby Joe Harris. Who was the center on that team?
When Lou Pucillo won the ACC MVP award in 1959, nobody called the 5-9 senior a "point guard" - he was just a guard. Every once in a while, you'd hear a coach talk about "a lead guard"; usually describing the guy who had his ball in the hands most often. Buzzy Harrison, who started at guard on three of Vic Bubas' best teams, was sometimes called a lead guard, but in those years, the offense ran through Art Heyman and while we don't have assist totals for those years, the bullish forward almost certainly led the team in assists. I've heard Steve Vacendak described in retrospect as the point guard on Bubas' great '66 team. Nobody called him that at the time - Vacendak was a great leader, but he played as much forward as guard in his first two years at Duke and the ball was usually in Bob Verga's hands (and nobody would confuse that J.J. Redick forerunner as a point guard).
I first heard the term point guard used in the late 1960s, when Dean Smith began to win and draw attention to his system at North Carolina. I guess in hindsight, Larry Brown was a prototype point guard, but what I remember most is a photograph of Smith's 1965-66 freshman team. The five starters are not wearing their usual numbers in the picture. Instead, they are numbered 1 (Dick Grubar), 2 (Gerald Tuttle), 3 (Joe Brown), 4 (Bill Bunting), 5 (Rusty Clark) to illustrate the numbering system that Smith invented.
Does that make Dick Grubar the first point guard?
By the early part of the next decade, everybody was talking about point guards. We entered a golden age in the ACC with guys like Skip Brown at Wake Forest, Gary Melchionni at Duke, Monte Towe at N.C. State, Skip Wise at Clemson, George Karl of UNC and the two great ones - John Lucas of Maryland and Phil Ford of North Carolina.
Nowadays, it's a given that you have to have a great point guard. It's become like the quarterback position in football - it's extremely difficult to win a title without a great one.
Or is it?
WINNING WITHOUT A POINT
Since Roy Williams has been at North Carolina, his coaching tenure has been defined by his point guards. When he's had a great one, he's won big. When he's had a less-than-great one, his teams have been good, but not championship caliber.
He won national titles with Ray Felton and Ty Lawson. He made a second-round exit with Bobby Fraser at point and wound up in the NIT in the year Larry Drew II was handed the keys to Roy's offense.
UNC's 2010-11 season turned on a dime when freshman Kendall Marshall stepped in to replace Drew. The Tar Heels, a mediocre 12-5 at the time of the switch (coming off a 20-point loss to Georgia Tech), promptly won 17 of their next 19 games (losing two of three to Duke in that stretch) before falling to Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
UNC is picked at the nation's preseason No. 1 team this season with Marshall back to run the show. I think that is the right call - but should anything happen to Marshall, God help the Tar Heels. He's that important to them.
A year ago, Duke had an even better point guard than Marshall. Kyrie Irving was easily Duke's most talented point guard since Jason Williams. Last spring he became the first ACC point guard taken No. 1 in the NBA draft since John Lucas in 1976.
When Irving was in the lineup early last season, the Blue Devils were the best team in college basketball. But eight games into the season - after he had already outplayed such standouts as Michigan State's Kalin Lucas, Kansas State's Jacob Pullen and Butler's Shelvin Mack - Irving went down with a bum big toe.
And Duke collapsed â¦
Well, not quite. All the villagers got together and carried loads of dirt from their garden to pile on top of their hill and turned it into a mountain â¦ oh wait, wrong reference. No, Coach K made "combo guard" Nolan Smith into his point guard and proceeded to go 22-4 without Irving, winning a third straight ACC championship and finishing No. 3 in the final AP poll.
It wasn't an easy transition.
In Smith's first game at the point, he went 0-for-8 from the floor, but had 10 assists and just two turnovers. The next time out, he shot better (8-of-13) but had just five assists and four turnovers. Eventually, Smith was able to balance his two responsibilities - he was the team's top scorer as well as its playmaker - well enough to earn ACC player of the year honors.
Nolan Smith's experience illustrates something important - we talk about positions when we should talk about roles.
Think about it for a second. In an ideal universe, what do you want your fictional point guard to do? Allow me to suggest:
(1) Manage the team on the floor. Slow it down when it's going too fast. Speed it up when it needs some energy. Be aware of the shot clock and the game situation. Be a coach on the floor.
(2) Create offense. That means to get the ball to the team's scorers in places where they can score. Assists are a good measure of this ability, but not perfect - a great pass that leads to a foul doesn't count as an assist. And a great pass that leads to a missed shot doesn't count either. Still, those things even out. Assists matter.
(3) Protect the ball. Some turnovers are inevitable, especially if the point guard is trying to create offense - that sometimes requires a risky pass. That's why it's important to keep the unforced turnovers to a minimum.
(4) Pressure the opposing point guard. At some schools, this doesn't matter - UNC hasn't asked Kendall Marshall to play a big role on defense. But everything starts at Duke with defense and Coach K wants his point guard to start his defense by putting pressure on the opposing playmaker.
(5) Score. Yeah, you can't get by with a point guard who doesn't look for the basket, but it sure helps if the playmaker is also a shotmaker. It's vital that he is a good free throw shooter because you want the ball in his hands late in close games. Just remember the problems Wake Forest had with Ish Smith, a superb jet of a point guard who hit less than 50 percent of his free throws for his career.
Does that sound like the full package?
Okay, here's the thing Coach K realizes that so many fans don't seem to understand - it's possible to split these roles up and not demand that one player do them all. He's had teams where Danny Ferry (was he a power forward?) and Grant Hill (a small forward?) were the key offensive creators. In 1988, Krzyzewski often asked 6-5 "wing" Billy King to apply the ball pressure.
When Coach K moved Jon Scheyer to the point midway through the 2008-09 season, he knew Scheyer had many of the attributes we've listed for our perfect point guard. He was a mature, experienced player who became an excellent game manager. He protected the ball very well (Scheyer's assist-to-turnover ratio is the second best in Duke history). He scored effectively and while he wasn't a brilliant creator, he did that important chore fairly well (just under five assists a game). He was a great free throw shooter.
But Scheyer had one important flaw - he was not very good at applying ball pressure. He was a good defender off the ball, good in the passing lanes, but he was not quick enough to defend strong ballhanders.
K's solution was simple (and brilliant) - at the same time he moved Scheyer to the point, he plucked freshman Elliott Williams off the end of the bench and asked him to become Duke's on-the-ball defender, The young guard was still awkward at the offensive end, but he became a defensive demon.
A year later, after Williams bolted for Memphis, K returned Nolan Smith to the starting lineup and made him the team's primary on-the-ball defender. That worked well enough that Duke cut down the nets in Indianapolis. People talk about Scheyer as the point guard of that team, but in truth he was four-fifths of the point guard.
BUILDING A POINT GUARD
Duke hasn't had a "true" point guard since Chris Duhon hit that midcourt shot at the buzzer of the NCAA semifinal loss to UConn to end his college career - with the exception of the handful of games Kyrie Irving played last season.
For the most part, Coach K has tried a wide variety of players in the role - Sean Dockery played it in 2005 until he was hurt, then Daniel Ewing took over. Greg Paulus inherited the position as a freshman and even led the ACC in assists that year, but with the graduation of Redick and Shelden Williams, he didn't have all that instant offense to pass to and his assist totals stagnated, while his shooting skills improved.
By 2008-09 K was ready to give sophomore Nolan Smith the job, but he struggled so much at midseason, that the Duke coach turned to the Jon Scheyer Solution and that pretty much brings us up to last year when we had the Irving/Smith handoff.
Now Duke is looking for a point guard again.
It's a hot topic on the DBR message boards, where posters are arguing the relative merits of junior Seth Curry (Coach K's preseason choice), sophomore Tyler Thornton and freshman Quinn Cook.
It's an interesting debate to follow. I'll be interested to see how it plays out on the court.
One thing to keep in mind -- history shows that K is extremely flexible with different kinds of points or combos.
His first great team had a great defender/very good distributor/so-so scorer in Amaker. He won his first two national championships with one of the greatest pure points in college basketball history -- Hurley was a GREAT distributor, a great on-the-ball defender and evolved into a good scorer. Coach K's second national title run came with TWO point guards sharing the backcourt -- Williams was a scoring point, but he also has the second-highest assist per game average in Duke history; Duhon was more of a classic point -- a better on-the-ball defender, a very good distributor and a fair scorer. K won his fourth national title without a true point guard -- with two combo guards sharing the backcourt.
Seth Curry is usually described as a combo guard.
A year ago, he had 74 assists and 35 turnovers - very similar to what Scheyer had in his sophomore year (the season before he moved to the point). Like Scheyer, he protects the ball. He's a comparable scorer and an excellent free throw shooter. He's not much of a creator (just 12 assists in Duke's first four games).
Part of that may be his struggle to balance his playmaking and his scoring responsibilities. It's one of the toughest things for a "scoring point" to do. Remember how Nolan struggled with that in the first games after replacing Irving? There are only a handful of guys - John Lucas, Kenny Anderson, Jason Williams, Kyrie Irving - who have been able to do that instinctively.
But Curry's biggest challenge is to become a better game manager.
So far this season, the Blue Devils have not been very good in end-of-game or end-of-clock situations. Not all of that is Curry's fault, but if he's going to become the team's point guard, he needs to assert his leadership in such situations. That doesn't mean he has to score or even initiate every play late in the game, but he needs to understand game situations better than he's demonstrated early.
There's another problem.
While Curry is getting better, he's not great at pressuring the balls. He's like Scheyer in that he's better off-the-ball. He's got quick hands (his steal rate is excellent) and he's good in the passing lane. But he's too often beat off the dribble - a no-no for a Coach K point guard.
The obvious answer is to take Curry off the ball and ask somebody else to apply the ball pressure. So far this season, Tyler Thornton has gotten that call.
The only problem is that K would like to use Curry-Andre Dawkins-Austin Rivers as a trio on the perimeter and so far none of the three has demonstrated the on-the-ball defensive excellence that Krzyzewski's defense demands.
Curry is the closest of those three to being that type of defender. But right now, Thornton is valuable because he can do it better than anyone on the team. If Curry can't make the defensive jump, then Thornton needs to play more - although that doesn't mean that Curry sits, only that he gives up that part of his point guard role.
It's possible that he could surrender another facet of the point guard role to freshman Austin Rivers.
Back in 1988 and 1989, Duke had an accomplished playmaker in Quin Snyder (who led the team in assists both years with right around six assists a game). But in crunch time, the offense often ran through Danny Ferry, a 6-10 scoring machine who also averaged over three assists a game. In 1994, the top playmaker on the team was not either starting guard -- Jeff Capel or Chris Collins -- but was forward Grant Hill.
I think we're seeing signs that Krzyzewski is testing Rivers in a similar role. Think back to the end of the first half of the Davidson game, when K spread the floor, put the ball in Rivers' hands and let him create. Okay, he didn't work - but only because he had a miscommunication with Ryan Kelly (who was expecting the lob, not the bounce pass he got).
We've seen that set on several occasions so far. Rivers had six assists in the Presbyterian game and while he had just two in the Davidson game, he had half-a-dozen more than could have been assists if his targets had hit the shots he got them.
That's not to suggest that K will take the ball out of Curry's hands as a playmaker - only that we'll see more shared playmaking responsibility than when we had Hurley or Duhon at the point.
It's not impossible that K will use a three-headed monster in the point guard role - Curry as the main guy, but often handing off his defensive responsibilities to Thornton and his playmaking role to Rivers.
Unless, of course, Quinn Cook forces his way onto the stage.
Cook looked like one of the great point guard prospects in recent years as a junior at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md. He was the best of a great bunch of DC area guards, including seniors Kendall Marshall and Tyler Thornton. But a knee injury slowed him half a step as a senior at Oak Hill Academy. He was still very good, but no longer the transcendent talent that he appeared to be.
His story could be compared to two other former Blue Devils. As a prep junior, Chris Carrawell was regarded as a top 10 national talent. But a pair of shoulder injuries ruined his senior season and by the time he arrived at Duke, he was regarded as damaged goods, barely a top 50 prospect. Shavlik Randolph's fall was not quite so drastic, but a foot injury in the summer before his senior year dropped him from the consensus No. 1 player in his class to a second-10 prospect.
Of course, we know that Carrawell recovered to become ACC player of the year and a consensus first-team All-American as a senior at Duke. Randolph was a solid contributor in three seasons with the Blue Devil, but plagued by illness and more injuries, he never became a star.
Which path will Cook follow?
He's reportedly healthy again after sitting out Duke's summer tour. He looks quick and strong on the court. He shows flashes of defensive prowess on the ball and he seems to be an instinctive playmaker (although he only has two assists in his first 40 minutes officially, he had five assists in 11 minutes in the exhibition against Bellarmine and three assists in 13 minutes against Shaw). He's shot the ball well (3-of-5 from 3-point range and 8-of-9 from the foul line).
So far, so good - although it's much too early to draw any firm conclusions.
But Cook appears to be the best single combination of skills that we see in a point guard. The hardest thing to measure is his game management. That's tough for a freshman to do, especially when he's usually playing alongside Curry or Thornton in the backcourt.
I know some message board posters are screaming for Cook to start. I understand that sentiment - he fits our vision of what a point guard should be. We don't know if he's really all that yet, but his potential is tantalizing.
It's going to be interesting to watch how Krzyzewski juggles the position in the next few weeks as he uses the exhibition season to develop his team. He's already got his post rotation worked out pretty well. He's still got to decide what use (if any) he's going to get from Michael Gbinje and Alex Murphy on the ring. He's still got to fit Austin Rivers' multiple, but rough skills into the Duke team framework.
But most of all, he's got to figure who is going to run his team on the floor and how it's going to be run. The end result may not resemble our ideal vision of a fictional point guard, but history suggests that Coach K will gerrymander something that works.
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