End of guards, forwards and centers
Versatile players on the rise, which has led to elimination of traditional positions
For years, they've tried to find a box for him. But they've all felt as snug as a shrunken sweater to Marcus Smart.
Smart prefers -- needs -- more freedom than any position truly allots.
The freedom to be a point guard, if that's what you must call him. The freedom to roll off picks and slash. The freedom to freestyle on fast breaks. The freedom to put his back to the basket and exploit smaller guards in the lane.
"It's kind of weird when people say I'm a point guard," the Oklahoma State star said. "And then they say I'm a shooting guard. Then they say I'm a 3, I'm an undersized small forward. … It's just crazy to hear them say that to me because if you really knew, you really couldn't classify me. They've tried and tried. They still can't come up with a position for me."
The 6-foot-4 standout will be the starting point guard on every reasonable preseason All-American list this year. But his own coach agrees that "point guard" fails to capture Smart's full capabilities.
"I think he's a guy NBA scouts look at and say, 'Wow, he is a 6-4, 215-pound point guard who physically can do it but also, he can play a 2, he can play a 3, because of his skill level," Oklahoma State's Travis Ford said.
Smart represents a new breed of college basketball players who reject labels. They can shoot, slash to the hoop, handle the ball, run the offense, play in the post and rebound all on the same possession. It's all evidence that the traditional setup that once featured two guards, two forwards and a center is disappearing as players mimic do-it-all NBA stars such as LeBron James. He can do everything, so why should they limit themselves if they want to play at the next level, too?
"In order to play at that level, you either have to do one thing exceptionally well or you have to be a versatile player," Iowa State coach and former NBA sharpshooter Fred Hoiberg said. "There's not a ton of specialists at that level anymore."
With that theme in mind, 7-footers take 3-pointers. Kids who would have probably played power forward 20 years ago dribble the ball up the floor. Shooting guards prefer to be called combo guards. Small forwards? Good luck identifying one who is not as comfortable on the perimeter as he is on the inside. And the paint has become a part-time home for many big men.
"I think the culture of basketball is changing," said Kyle Anderson, UCLA's 6-foot-8 point guard.
In the past, coaches would rebut the adaptability enjoyed by so many in the game today. But even old-school leaders embrace it because they're using the diversity to win.
The high level of on-floor versatility is not just changing college basketball. It has already changed it.
Traditional lineups -- point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center -- seem more outdated every year.
"I don't use those terms anywhere near as much," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said.
Added UCLA coach Steve Alford: "I've always tried to stay away from labeling kids because I think sometimes it can handicap them because you never know how they're going to develop."
Greg McDermott just laughs at the idea.
He has coached his son, Doug, throughout his entire career. He knows the NBA prospect's game as well as anyone. But he's not sure that he really has a position.
"It's very difficult to say," he said. "We use him on the perimeter. We slash him into the post. He's doing some things off the dribble. I just think Doug is a good basketball player. I'm not sure that there is a position that should be attached to him. "
Doug McDermott is a 6-foot-8 athlete who averaged 23.2 PPG and 7.7 RPG last year. His father recently dubbed a couple of Kevin McHale tapes for him because he wants him to be a better player inside this season. The pro scouts like him in part because he hit 49 percent of his 3-pointers in 2012-13.
What position is that?
"There's no real specific label on what position I am, especially with the kind of style we play," he said. "We just put a bunch of shooters out there and we're kind of interchangeable. And I think that's just the way the game is moving. There's really no specific label on these guys. Guys are just more skilled and can play multiple positions."
There are clearly fewer restrictions now. Smaller players aren't necessarily guards. And bigger players aren't always handcuffed to the post.
Isaiah Austin is proof of that. He's 7-feet tall. Yet, he's most content when he's floating in Baylor's offense. He shot 90 3-pointers last season. On the AAU circuit, he played point guard. And in Scott Drew's scheme, he's allowed to push the ball down the court in specific situations.
"I can dribble the ball, I can bring the ball up court, I can shoot long 3s, I can hit the fade-away, I can shoot the hook with both hands on the block," Austin said. "I just want to show people that basketball is changing. It's changing a lot."
This evolution didn't unfold in a vacuum.
The NBA has certainly affected its little brother in dramatic ways.
Magic Johnson, one of the pioneers of this movement, played multiple roles for the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s, including a memorable stint at center in the 1980 NBA Finals.
"It goes back to Magic when Magic was a point guard for the Lakers and they needed him to play the 5-spot in a crucial game and he was able to do it," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "So Magic was probably the guy who started it in terms of versatility."
In the 1990s, Kevin Garnett redefined what a 6-foot-11 forward could do on a basketball court. Years later, the influx of European hybrid forwards fueled the rise of the "pick-and-pop," as foreign big men frequently roamed the perimeter.
LeBron James, however, has been the most significant catalyst in this avalanche of change. He's built like an all-pro defensive end but moves like a point guard. He plays all five positions.
As the icon of a generation, his success is inspiration for college players who ignore classifications.
"He has started that [evolution] by him being 6-8, 250 and being able to play point guard, a 2, 3 and being able to guard every position on the floor because he's so strong and athletic," Iowa State combo forward Georges Niang said.
Added Wisconsin's Sam Dekker: "It influences us a lot because you get to see that the best players in the world are the ones that can do everything."
There are, however, drawbacks to the NBA's effect on the college game.
Fewer true centers exist now. Elite, exclusive low-post players are rare at the collegiate level.
Plus, players might have more skills but they're not necessarily more skilled. Overall, Division I players haven't made significant strides from the free throw line or the field in the past 20 years. Per NCAA trend stats, they made 38.4 percent of their 3s when the 3-point line was introduced in 1987. Division I competitors recorded a 34 percent clip from beyond the arc overall last year. And teams are scoring at rates that haven't been this low in decades.
Those numbers don't tell the full story. But they do suggest that this new era of versatility hasn't sparked an uptick in efficiency.
"There's good and bad about young kids looking at that because I understand young kids wanting to look at that and be versatile, but the LeBron Jameses of the world don't come through very often," Alford said. "He is a very special player in that regard. … That's a unique situation."
College coaches, however, want players to do more.
In the past, size often trumped skills with regard to positions. That's no longer the case for many coaches.
They use the versatility within their rosters to operate more effectively. There are more options with substitutions because players can play multiple roles. And offensive sets have additional avenues because there are more ballhandlers on the floor.
"I think it makes it tough to guard in transition when multiple guys bring the ball up," Baylor coach Scott Drew said.
Coaches and players agree that this new wave of multi-talented athletes is not some fad for college basketball.
The descriptors that made sense years ago feel inadequate today. Point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards and centers -- in some cases -- have been replaced by young men who simply call themselves players.
"I can bring the ball up for us," Austin said, "if that's what we need."
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