The position-less revolution is upon us. On all levels of basketball, the traditional archetypes are being abandoned as the game continues to evolve and progress. This didn’t happen overnight, of course. In the early 1980’s, a polarizing pair of 6’9” do-it-all forwards named Larry and Earvin entered the league and took American sports by storm. In the 90’s, the skill-intensive development of European talent produced such nimble and versatile giants as Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki. Perhaps the seminal moment of the position-less movement occurred just a few weeks ago when 6’11” human Architeuthis Anthony Davis sank a running, double-clutch, 30-footer at the buzzer to beat the Thunder.
The most bastardized of all positions also happens to be the game’s most sacred, the point guard. In the origins of basketball, the point guard was often the shortest member of the team, chiefly responsible for dribbling the ball up the court, initiating the offense, and distributing to forwards and centers. Such is no longer the case, as many of the NBA’s best point guards are among its most prolific chuckers (Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard), extreme athletes (LeBron James, Eric Bledsoe, John Wall), or both (Russell Westbrook). This summer, Bucks head coach Jason Kidd, no stranger to the point guard position himself , slotted Giannis Antetokounmpo, an amiable 6’12” Greek teenager, at the one spot in a preseason game, much to the giddy delight of basketball nerds everywhere. In this day and age, the traditional “pure” point guard is no longer the aspiration; it’s a euphemism.
Much like football’s maligned “game managers”, the pure or “solid” point guard is looked upon as a guy whose job is just to not fuck up. Though they may be a dying breed at the pro level, a pair of college freshmen are excelling at the helm of Final Four favorites, and doing it just the way Dr. Naismith intended.
My first exposure to Tyus Jones’ steady point-guarding was during the high school all-star game circuit. Reasonable scouts and analysts may scoff at these as meaningless exhibitions, but I don’t see it that way. For many of the top high school prospects, these games represent the first time they are playing with and against other players of their caliber, not to mention the unfamiliar NBA venues and television exposure. Case-in-point, the degree to which LeBron James outclassed his peers (among them Luol Deng, Charlie Villanueva, Brandon Bass) in the 2003 McDonald’s game was an unmistakable sign of what was to come. The Nike Hoop Summit, which pits the top high schoolers in the U.S. against promising teenaged prospects from the rest of the world (several of whom have professional experience overseas), can be especially revealing. In the crux of last year’s Hoop Summit game, Tyus Jones, the Duke-bound PG from Minneapolis “took control of the game, recording 10 points and a steal in the final quarter.” Jones’ late-game virtuosity, as it turns out, was not a fluke. In a crucial road win against then-unbeaten Virginia last month, Jones made a series of terrific plays to will the Blue Devils to victory, including a Lillard-esque dagger that sealed the deal.
Most recently, Jones staged a thrilling comeback nearly by himself, scoring nine straight points for Duke in what would ultimately be a stunning overtime victory over North Carolina. This is not to say that Tyus has some sort of magical “clutch” powers, but rather that he possesses a skill set that makes him an ideal closer of basketball games. He is a sound decision maker, an excellent, low-to-the-ground ball handler, a great passer, a knock-down shooter from the perimeter, and is automatic from the free throw line. Jones’ crunch-time exploits, assist-to-turnover mastery, and heightened performance against top competition is eerily reminiscent of Syracuse PG Tyler Ennis from last season.
Last year I slotted Tyler Ennis at #15 on my big board and projected him out as a Jordan Farmar-level pro. I would imagine that Jones grades out similarly as a smaller, more efficient version.
Even more so than Jones, Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis perfectly embodies the traditionalist idea of a point guard: a miniature, risk-averse distributor who almost never looks to score. Famously a recruiter of “modern” point guards like Dajuan Wagner, Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, and the incumbent Andrew Harrison, John Calipari now has a guy in Ulis who perfectly complements Kentucky’s roster of athletic giants who can’t create their own offense. Observing how much better the young Wildcats looked with Ulis running the point this summer, I posited that he would be a starter come March.
Based on his performance thus far (124.6 ORtg, second best on the team) and Calipari’s choice to start him in the 2H of last week’s tight contest against LSU, it wouldn’t surprise me to see one of the loathsome Harrison brothers banished to Coach Cal’s second “platoon” in favor of the steady and pesky Ulis.
Finding a pro comparison for Ulis is difficult given his aversion to shooting. Unsurprisingly, Layne Vahsro’s draft prospect comparison tool brings back some of the point guard-iest point guards ever for Ulis (Jacque Vaughn, Chris Duhon, Tyus Edney, Bobby Hurley, etc.), but Ulis’ paltry scoring (9.3 PTS/40) and turnover (1.8 TOV/40) rates make even those guys look like Allen Iversons by comparison. It’s very possible that the NBA is not in the 5’9” (on a good day) guard’s future plans, but like Duhon, Edney, and Hurley before him, Ulis could be the key difference maker for a national championship team.