- C.L. Brown, ESPN Staff Writer
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This week ESPN.com will feature a position-by-position look at players to watch for the 2014-15 season.
Point guard might be the single most important position. The potential for postseason success increases substantially for teams that have an elite point guard.
If you didn’t already know from watching Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier guide the Huskies to their fourth national championship, college basketball remains a guards’ game. Napier followed the blueprint set before him with strong leadership and, when needed, clutch shooting. With the ball in his hands, Napier was in full control of the game’s tempo.
Now everyone wants a Napier; whether in the form of a pure point guard like Arizona’s T.J. McConnell or a scoring point like Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell. Here are the point guards to keep an eye on next season.
Top returnees to watch
Fred VanVleet, Wichita State: He epitomizes the definition of a true point guard. Simply put, he makes everybody better. VanVleet doesn’t overwhelm with speed, but he does with his decision-making, especially when it comes to using ball screens. Opposing coaches leave impressed by his poise because he never seems to force the action and he never appears rattled. The rising junior had 22 games last season in which he didn’t commit more than one turnover. Defensively, VanVleet sets the tone for the Shockers, too, as he led the team with 69 steals.
Marcus Paige, North Carolina: He is one of the nation’s best point guards when it comes to taking over a game scoring. He also might be the nation’s most reluctant leading scorer. Because of P.J. Hairston losing his eligibility, Paige had to be more of a scoring point guard than he was accustomed to being. The newness of Paige’s scoring role meant he generally waited until the second half of games before aggressively looking for his shot. He still managed to lead the Tar Heels with 17.5 points and 4.2 assists as a sophomore last season.
Monte Morris, Iowa State. He didn’t crack the starting lineup until the final 17 games of the season. But when he did, the Cyclones operated at a higher level, as evidenced by their 13-4 mark in that span. Morris led the nation in assist-turnover ratio as a freshman last season. His 4.79 mark smashed the old record of 3.96 set by Utah State’s Tyler Newbold in 2009. Morris played roughly half the season as a backup, but next season he’ll fully inherit the offensive reins from the start.
Kenneth Smith, Louisiana Tech: Folks in Ruston, La., call him “Speedy.” Whatever he’s referred to as, his name belongs in any conversation of elite college point guards. Check the stats. He’ll return next season as the nation’s leader in assists per game with 7.7. (He finished second last season to LIU Brooklyn’s Jason Brickman, who graduated.) Smith also ranked ninth nationally with 2.5 steals per game. The rising senior is joined by three other returning starters and makes the Bulldogs one of those experienced teams the power conferences don’t want to face.
Andrew Harrison, Kentucky: He ranked 241st in assist-turnover ratio last season. He’s not what you would call a pure point guard. But Kentucky doesn’t reach the final game if not for Harrison’s development down the stretch of the season. When he looks to distribute more than he looks for his own shot, the Wildcats are a different team. No one can question his toughness. Harrison endured much criticism last season but didn’t wilt under the pressure. By deciding to put off the NBA and return for his sophomore season, Harrison could again have Kentucky playing for a national title.
Top newcomers to watch
Emmanuel Mudiay, SMU: How good is the Mustangs freshman? Some prognosticators are already predicting 6-foot-5 Mudiay as the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA draft. He has a rare combination of speed, quickness and athleticism for a big guard. A native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mudiay attended high school in Arlington, Texas. He’s unquestionably the biggest recruit of SMU coach Larry Brown’s tenure and arguably program history.
Tyus Jones, Duke: Don’t be surprised if Jones joins all-everything center Jahlil Okafor in the Blue Devils' starting lineup next season. Jones will have tougher competition to beat out than Okafor, with Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon returning, but he has the skills to do it. Jones seems to, almost instinctively, read the court and make solid decisions. He is as polished as they come for freshman point guards.
Romelo Trimble, Maryland. The Seth Allen and Roddy Peters decisions to transfer from Maryland will be softened by the arrival of Trimble. He’s the first McDonald's All American coach Mark Turgeon has signed in his tenure. Trimble is a natural scorer who can play either guard, but having Allen and Peters gone paves the way for him to start from the opening tip.