I got a phone call from Dave Telep a few weeks ago. I don't know exactly what sparked it, but I'm guessing it was either some really excellent point guard play or some really horrific point guard play at the Charlotte Hoops Challenge. He had this to say: "The point guard position at the college level is so bad right now that, if you can run a team, I'm done caring about whether you can do anything else."
It took no time at all to jump from there to a discussion of North Carolina's Kendall Marshall. And that's when I had an epiphany.
This July at Basketball Prospectus, I ranked my top 100 projected players for the 2012 season. Marshall clocked in at No. 70, and, while I understood then that I was valuing him lower than most, I didn't understand just how enamored of the young man the rest of the country really was. He started popping up, regularly, on preseason All-America teams. I was confused.
Marshall's a great passer, but his other skills leave a lot to be desired. He turns the ball over a lot more than the media hype would have you believe. His shooting is subpar, and so is his defense. The Saturday night that I got the call from Telep, Marshall was regularly smoked off the dribble by UNLV's Oscar Bellfield and Anthony Marshall, who then dumped off passes to teammates for layups when the help defense arrived.
If Kendall Marshall played for UNC-Greensboro instead of UNC-Chapel Hill, he would not be an All-American candidate.
And that's when the epiphany came. I was evaluating players in terms of "How many wins would this player add to a randomly assembled team of college players?" while everyone else was evaluating players in terms of "How many wins will this player add to his team?"
This also explains how I left Ohio State's Aaron Craft off the top 100 list entirely.
In a way that simply isn't true of the other positions on the basketball court, point guard is about fit. Big men can, for the most part, be treated like baseball players. If Player A is a better scorer and rebounder than Player B, almost every single possible team will be better off with Player A offensively, regardless of either player's style or other skills. Their interactions with the other players are of lesser importance, in the same way that it's very difficult for two baseball teams to emerge from an exchange of first basemen better in the short run.
But this isn't true with point guards. The way that a player interacts with his teammates is crucial, and most players aren't capable of changing their style to fit the team. While there's a reasonably constant value for wings and big men regardless of their surrounding talent, different types of teammates can cause different types of point guards to be more or less effective.
Let's use a couple examples to further explore this Grand Unified Point Guard Theory.
Kendall Marshall, North Carolina
Here's the short version of what I'm talking about. Trade Kendall Marshall for Maryland's Terrell Stoglin or Pittsburgh's Ashton Gibbs. In either trade, both teams would be worse. Maryland and Pitt need their point guards to score because their other players can't create their own shots. Without Stoglin, Maryland would have tons of trouble scoring, even with Marshall zipping passes around -- their top scoring option would probably be freshman Nick Faust, who's been a fine player thus far but not capable of carrying an ACC offense. At Pitt, Nasir Robinson and Tray Woodall have been extraordinarily efficient thus far, but it's unlikely that would still be true if defenses could focus on them rather than Gibbs. And on a team like North Carolina, Marshall is the perfect point guard, just putting Harrison Barnes, John Henson, and Tyler Zeller in the best position to succeed. A guard whose value is more predicated on getting his own shot would destroy that balance.
Aaron Craft, Ohio State
Craft is the thematic cousin but skill-opposite version of Marshall. While Marshall brings electric passing to the table and takes a lot away in terms of turnovers, shooting, and defense, Craft is a rock. He doesn't eat up too many possessions, but he makes the shots he takes. He gets to the free throw line, and he's kept his turnovers in check this year while increasing his assist rate. He's an elite perimeter defender, the only major-conference freshman guard to make a conference All-Defense team in 2011. Craft is Marshall's thematic cousin because his ability to simply run an offense gives him immense value on a team with talent like Ohio State. If he played for Boston College, it probably wouldn't be enough to push them to tenth place in the ACC. But he's immensely valuable to the Buckeyes, drawing the best possible performances out of Jared Sullinger, William Buford, and Deshaun Thomas.
Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin
Although he's struggled early in the season, Taylor's really too good to be discussed in this way because he doesn't have weaknesses to discuss. He's a top-notch shooter, passer, and defender who never turns the ball over. The only thing he doesn't do really well is finish in the lane. Taylor would be a very effective 2-guard or an extremely steady pure point if that's what Wisconsin needed from him. Without teammates who excel at creating their own shots, though, Taylor lives inside Bo Ryan's system as both primary scorer and primary facilitator. There aren't many guys who could do that effectively.
Seth Curry, Duke
Talking to Telep about Craft and Marshall led me to understand why they were valued so highly by others, but it was our discussion of Curry that showed me that point guard valuation was so fluid. Duke barely even has a point guard, and that's been more or less true (sans eleven games of Kyrie Irving) for two full years now. It's only because of the level of basketball IQ that surrounds Curry that the Blue Devil offense works. In a way that is rarely true, the point guard for Duke is often whoever happens to have the ball. If you swapped Curry out for Florida's Erving Walker, the Gators wouldn't have nearly as much firepower, and Walker's shoot-first mentality would clash with the Blue Devil offense. If you swapped Curry out for Marshall, Duke's scoring balance would be thrown into disarray -- the Plumlees, Andre Dawkins, Austin Rivers, and Ryan Kelly would all be forced to do more than they're capable of. And Curry's inability to make the brilliant pass or run a perfect fast break would hurt the Tar Heels, as well. When you talk about point guards, offensively, you have to talk about fit. Curry and Duke fit.
Drew Cannon is a college student and a regular contributor to Basketball Prospectus. Follow him on Twitter at @DrewCannon1.
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Drew Cannon is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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