I don’t mean to melt your brain right out of the gate, but a reader pointed something out to me a month ago, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Now, I can’t help but share that observation with the world. Try to think of the best point guard in college basketball heading into this season. No, seriously. Take as much time as you need to come up with a name.
Got it? Cool.
Let me guess: You came up with Carsen Edwards? That would make sense given that the Purdue junior averaged 18.5 points per game and shot 40.6 percent from 3-point range last season and is probably the best player, at any position, returning to college basketball in 2018-19. Edwards was so good for the Boilermakers last season that he was named third-team AP All-American and presented with the Jerry West Award, an honor given annually to the nation’s best … shooting guard.
Edwards is going to play the point for Purdue this season and will likely play it very well. But seeing as the reigning shooting guard of the year has yet to start a game at the point, I would argue that he doesn’t qualify as an answer to our original question. (And if you want to argue that he does qualify, think about it this way: What does it say when the best point guard in college basketball has never even started a game at that position?) So with that in mind, what’s your new answer? Can you think of one? What if I make things harder and stipulate that you can’t pick a freshman?
If you’re stumped, don’t feel bad. All signs indicate that point guard play going into this college basketball season is as questionable as it’s ever been.
That’s not to say there aren’t any talented point guards returning to college basketball. There definitely are, including Tremont Waters, Shamorie Ponds, Ky Bowman, Markus Howard, Cassius Winston, Jaylen Hands, Ja Morant, and Lindell Wigginton. Of the names you just read, though, Winston is the only player I’m certain will be on a top-20 team (Michigan State) when the AP preseason poll comes out. (Admit it: If you had to name the schools that each of those guys plays for, you’d have no idea what to guess for at least two of them.) It also seems notable that the five best programs in college basketball—Duke, Kentucky, Villanova, North Carolina, and Kansas—will all likely start freshman point guards in the 2019 NCAA tournament, and none of those freshmen are billed as obvious future first-round NBA draft picks. In fact, the consensus from early mock drafts is that 2019 could bring the first draft in the one-and-done era in which an NCAA point guard isn’t selected with one of the top 10 picks.
College basketball’s new point guard reality sinks in even more when comparing this season’s iffy situation to the absurd crop of point guards the NCAA featured last season. In 2017-18, there were four All-American-type point guards from the Big 12 alone (Trae Young, Devonte’ Graham, Jevon Carter, and Keenan Evans), and that’s to say nothing of eventual lottery picks Collin Sexton and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or household names such as Jalen Brunson, Joel Berry II, and Andrew Dakich. Meanwhile, a point guard has been named National Player of the Year and/or Final Four Most Outstanding Player in each of the past six seasons (and seven of the past eight seasons). And 11 of the past 14 national champions have seen their starting point guard go on to play in the NBA, with the only exceptions being 2007-08 Kansas (Mario Chalmers is a natural point guard but played off the ball for the Jayhawks), 2009-10 Duke (the same situation as with Chalmers, only with Nolan Smith filling that role), and 2016-17 North Carolina (Berry was just waived by the Lakers on Monday).
So what does all of this mean? Is there some sort of point guard epidemic that we should be worried about? Did the backlash to the backlash to the backlash to Young’s freshman hype cycle scare prospects away from the position for good? Are point guards going extinct??? Of course not. You’d have to be out of your skull to treat one season as a trend, especially when that season hasn’t even happened. For all we know, point guards will return to being college basketball’s driving force during the 2019-20 campaign. Or maybe point guard play across the country this season will turn out to be great, and we’ll look back and realize that any preseason doubts had more to do with a lack of established names rather than a lack of top-tier talent.
The more likely scenario, however, is that college basketball will feel different this season, and whether those differences are good or bad depends on perspective. Even though the NBA’s shift to positionless basketball happened in the snap of a finger, it’s important to remember that major stylistic changes at the college level typically happen at a glacial pace. This recent Villanova run is the closest thing the sport has had to a modern NBA offense, yet it’s not a coincidence that the Wildcats won two national titles in three years while having two traditional upperclassman rocks at point guard (Brunson and Ryan Arcidiacono). It’s not a coincidence that John Calipari loves freshman point guard Ashton Hagans and, in a turn of events so rare that it borders on miraculous, also loves his young Kentucky team heading into this season. And it’s not a coincidence that Duke had absolutely stacked teams but lacked a reliable point guard in the past three seasons and fell short of expectations in each one. Basketball has evolved in a million different ways through the years, but one constant has remained: Point guard is the most important position for any given college program. That’s why I wouldn’t blame anyone for voicing concerns about the quality of play in college basketball entering this season.
An optimist would note here that college basketball appears to have a ton—and I mean a TON—of talented wings this season. (And some of them don’t even play for Duke!) While the roles a point guard is traditionally responsible for—organizing the offense and defense, dictating the pace, getting the ball to the right teammate at the right time—can never be shortchanged, there’s no rule that the smallest guy on the floor has to fill them. (There ain’t no rule says a dog can’t play basketball, either.) With college wings and bigs more skilled and versatile than ever, it stands to reason that guys who play other positions can work together to satisfy a team’s point guard responsibilities.
Still, having one guy who can reliably handle all of the point guard duties remains the best and most efficient way of fielding a lineup. As much as it might make sense on paper to create a point guard timeshare among a group of talented wings, history has shown (and by history I mean whatever the hell Duke has been trying these past three seasons) that experiment is bound to fail. And that’s why this college basketball season is going to be so interesting. Plenty of Final Four contenders will, against their better judgment, try to mask their point guard problems by asking other players to do things that they aren’t entirely comfortable doing.
There will be trial and error that results in electric fast breaks, boneheaded turnovers, last-second heroics, and sloppy end-of-clock iso plays. We’ll see overcoaching in the form of guys staring at the bench to receive instruction while bringing the ball up the floor. We’ll see undercoaching in the vein of Roy Williams’s patented “dadgummit—I’m subbing you all out” move, in which he decides that instead of directly addressing his team’s problems, he’d rather just throw his walk-ons onto the court during the first half of a pivotal ACC game. We’ll see teams burn three timeouts in the first half, players get in foul trouble because they can’t keep smaller players in front of them, and coaches passive-aggressively talk about their shitty point guards in postgame press conferences. (Or, in Jim Boeheim’s case, talk even more passive-aggressively.) Through it all, there will inevitably come a time when a handful of point guards on highly ranked teams emerge from the pack with their solid play, revealing who the true title contenders are.
In the meantime, the nation turns its eyes to West Lafayette, Indiana, where an entire sport’s point guard hopes rest on the shoulders of one junior shooting guard. In response, Edwards has one message.