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Thursday, February 21, 2013
Why are point guards passed over?

By Michael Rothstein
ESPN.com

In the midst of his senior year, with his team making a run at an undefeated season and Saint Joseph's receiving unprecedented media exposure because of it, Jameer Nelson became a sensation.

Jameer Nelson
Saint Joseph's Jameer Nelson is a rare recent example of a point guard named player of the year.

For a few months in 2003-04 in the decidedly professional sports town of Philadelphia, a college of fewer than 10,000 students and its charismatic point guard grabbed the attention of the city -- and the nation.

Fans and students followed Nelson to classes and movie theaters. A plainclothes security officer named Dan protected and shuttled him around off the court.

"We hired team security, said it was team security," Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "Basically, it was for him."

His play, combined with the added attention, led to Nelson's becoming the consensus player of the year in college basketball. Nine seasons later, he is still the last pure point guard to win at least one of the four major player of the year awards.

Since the Wooden Award began in the 1976-77 season, only five pure point guards have nabbed one of the four major trophies. Marquette's Butch Lee and North Carolina's Phil Ford split the awards in 1977-78. Duke's Jay Williams was the consensus winner in 2001-02; Texas' T.J. Ford split the award with a non-point guard -- Xavier's David West -- in 2002-03; and Nelson won the next season.

BYU's Jimmer Fredette was the consensus player of the year two seasons ago. Although Fredette was the primary ball handler for the Cougars, the nation's leading scorer in 2010-11 was more of a combo guard than a pure point guard.

That's it. No Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Mateen Cleaves or Bobby Hurley in the bunch. Two players this season, Michigan's Trey Burke and Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, are trying to become No. 6, or, depending how you classify Fredette, No. 7.

At a position often considered the most important in college basketball, one compared to a quarterback in football, why hasn't there been more of a point guard push to be player of the year?

"It may have to do with, we say it doesn't matter but scoring tends to matter a lot when awards come into it," said Phil Ford, the Wooden and Robertson winner in 1978. "I wouldn't call myself a scoring guard. I was a point guard that did score. I enjoyed an assist as much as I enjoyed a basket.

Trey Burke
Michigan's Trey Burke is having a season worthy of consideration for national honors.

"That may have something to do with it."

It might have a lot to do with it. Four winners and two others who came close all mentioned scoring as a catalyst. History backs it. Since 2000, eight seasons had the player of the year in the top 25 in points per game at the end of the regular season, when ballots for some of the major awards are due.

For many seasons, this has put the point guard -- viewed as a facilitator and distributor -- at a disadvantage.

"A lot of people put so much stock in scoring that a point guard that really controls the game and keeps his teammates in the right positions, runs his team, can be appreciated but not necessarily heralded when votes are being counted," said Texas assistant Russell Springmann, who coached T.J. Ford and D.J. Augustin. "For us, with T.J. and D.J., those guys were tremendous leaders.

"I'd be curious to know how people evaluate it in how they make their votes."

In a random sampling of voters in the ESPN.com Player of the Year straw poll -- which comprises voters for the four major awards -- criteria varied. Some took the MVP principle, looking at what a team might accomplish if the candidate were removed from it. Others looked for "greatness on great teams." Yet others looked at winning and making plays in the final minutes of games.

Then there's scoring, catching the eye of observers before any other statistic. Other than scoring, the main statistic for elite point guards is assists, where a point guard needs the help of his teammates. A point guard can make pass after pass, but if teammates miss, it is for naught on the scoreboard and statistically.

"Up until recently, you were trying to get guys involved," Nelson said. "The point guard has evolved into a scorer now. I still scored the ball, but I also got guys involved. We had so many guys that could score that year, it made it easy. Made it easy for guys to get open, made it easy for guys to get open shots."

The NBA now favors a more wide open, guard-oriented game in lieu of prior generations with dominant centers. So an elite point guard has become a premium in the pro game and could send point guards from college to the pros earlier. Combine that with players overall departing college earlier than two generations ago and it leaves an elite talent pool that remains young yearly.

Although NBA potential doesn't necessarily matter in a player of the year race, being an elite player does.

Butch Lee
Butch Lee, who starred at Marquette, says top guards aren't in college for very long.

"The problem is now a player like that is not going to stay around that many years," Lee said. "Back when I was playing, a lot of guys played four years, three or four years. Now guys like Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, that type of player who can run a team and score baskets is a hot commodity.

"Those guys don't stay in school long enough to have a chance to win that award."

This season's contenders fit the mold. Burke, Miami's Shane Larkin and Syracuse's Michael Carter-Williams are sophomores. Smart is a freshman. All could be lottery picks when they leave school.

So how does a point guard break through to win one of these awards? There are a combination of factors.

Winning is huge. If a point guard is not on a highly, highly successful team, he likely has no shot. Since 1976-77, the teams the players of the year were on averaged 29.8 wins and 4.6 losses, including postseason play. Every POY winner since 1976-77 has reached the NCAA tournament. With point guards, the three winners in the seeding era all were No. 1 seeds. In 1977-78, Marquette finished 24-4 and North Carolina 23-8.

Dominance is important. More than at any other position, a point guard needs to show his ability to score, distribute, defend and lead.

"He has to make it look so easy for himself and for his teammates," T.J. Ford said. "He pretty much has to be unguardable, but he has to be able to create a persona that draws people to him at the end of the day."

Then there is exposure, which can come with increased television time or gaudy statistics. Martelli said exposure aided Nelson's win. This is a fine balance because by nature a point guard has to be unselfish and deflect to others.

In doing so, if a point guard does enough, he can put himself in the limelight -- mostly thanks to winning and dominance.

"In order to get the attention of someone who doesn't watch you, day in, day out, watch the nuances of your game, I'm sure you have to put numbers up to have people kind of study and understand your game," Martelli said. "That's a major, major change from the guys who really created the position."