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Combo Guard Conundrum

Thu, 06/03/2010 - 12:53am

Every Little League baseball team has that kid. The one who plays shortstop when he's not pitching, hits third in the order and never has to bunt.

Every youth soccer club has that one midfielder who can go coast to coast, pulling off a slide tackle at one end and scoring a goal on the other. In football, he's the star quarterback who comes up with the game-clinching interception playing safety.

It's basketball, though, where that super-talented athlete can really shine. Where he can grab a rebound or block a shot as a power forward, then deftly cross over the opposing team's best defender, slip into the post and embarrass whichever rival is foolish enough to step in front of him in the lane.

At the lower levels, basketball is a team sport dominated by individuals. Al Jefferson averaged 42.6 points, 18 rebounds and 7 blocks per game as a seniior at Prentiss High School in Mississippi before making his leap to the NBA. Sebastian Telfair put up 27.2 points, 7.4 assists and 3.5 steals per contest in his full four years at Brooklyn's distinguished Lincoln High School.

The rule in basketball will always be to live and die with your best player. That explains the fervent hunt for LeBron James this offseason. But the problem is, not everyone can be James. Most players talented enough to reach the NBA can't even be Jefferson.

Eric BledsoeEric BledsoeEach year, as the NBA Draft rolls around, combo guards cause the most dissention among analysts. Is he a point guard? Is he big enough to play shooting guard full time? Is he too ball reliant? Can he shoot? Is he so talented that it doesn't matter?

It's easy to be caught up in the streak scoring Jordan Crawford displayed in his epic college finale in the Sweet 16 against Kansas State. Watch a Terrico White highlight reel, and you'll be swept off your feet by a player with astounding athleticism and a natural feel for the game. At times, against top-caliber Big East competition, Dominique Jones was simply unstoppable.

In a draft for one-on-one players, these guys would be top-10 picks. In the real world, there's only one basketball on the court at a time, and there's five guys on every team who want it.

We value “true” point guards because they make life easier for teammates. Playing with Steve Nash is a guaranteed way for a scorer to double his contract. Chris Paul turned a bunch of bums into a playoff team in back-to-back years, and when he went down this season, the Hornets melted again. Rajon Rondo lifted the Celtics make the Finals by filling up the box score without worrying about the “FGA” line. Derek Fisher helped his Lakers team simply by doing whatever was asked.

Not one of the four teams that made the conference finals started what we consider a “combo guard.” And that's where things get sticky for some very talented young men.

Elite NBA teams have no room for ball-dominant combo guards, with one distinct exception. Because stars need the ball, and because teams function best with true point guards handling distribution, combo guards are left out in the cold unless they can play at a superstar level, a la Dwyane Wade or Allen Iverson.

It takes a major adjustment period for a player whose skill set best fits as a combo guard to adapt to success at the NBA level. For years, players like Jason Terry and Jamal Crawford – talented as each is – struggled to find their niche as winners.

Inherently, the good-but-not-great combo guard is a contradiction. It's a player who requires the ball to be effective yet isn't good enough for a starring role on a decent team. With the idea that basketball requires teams to either spread the ball out – not the skill of a combo guard, or he'd be a point guard – or allow an elite star to dominate while others find their roles around him, combo guards are often pegged as losing players, a tag that floated with Crawford for years.

Here is a chart of the top combo guards in the NBA, in terms of minutes per game, as well as their points per game, assists per game and usage rates (a statistic used to measure the percentage of possessions a player is directly involved in):

Monta Ellis - 41.4 – 25.5 – 5.3 - 27.0

OJ Mayo - 38.0 – 17.5 – 3.0 - 19.8

Tyreke Evans - 37.2 – 20.1 – 5.8 - 25.4

Dwyane Wade - 36.3 – 26.6 – 6.5 - 28.0

Stephen Curry - 36.2 – 17.5 – 5.9 - 20.9

Rodney Stuckey - 34.2 – 16.6 – 4.8 - 25.9

Kirk Hinrich - 33.5 – 10.9 – 4.5 - 16.5

Jason Terry - 33.0 – 16.6 – 3.8 - 21.6

George Hill - 29.2 – 12.4 – 2.9 - 18.1

Jonny Flynn - 28.9 – 13.5 – 4.4 – 23.5

The list of 10 features six players whose teams missed the playoffs. Only Wade started more than 53 games for a playoff team.

But the list is also an eclectic mix. For one, it includes three rookies with substantial usage rates: Evans, Curry and Flynn. Each is a completely different type of combo guard with an entirely different future ahead of them. Ellis, Mayo, Stuckey and Hill are all also under the age of 25, leaving Wade, Hinrich and Terry as the only veterans of the group. They're also three of the four players whose teams made the playoffs.

The youth of the list is unsurprising. Because combo guards – even unsuccessful ones – are generally among the league's most talented players, they tend to get the opportunity to prove themselves early in their careers. Many fail.

The key is to establish a role, which can be difficult for a position defined by its lack of definition. Combo guards are amorphous, capable of handling the ball, pulling up for shots or dishing off to teammates. Typically, a player falls into the role because he lacks a signature strength, never quite fitting into a mold in the way J.J. Redick is a natural shooter.

Chauncey Billups was a combo guard, but trained himself to become a premier “true” point guard after years of misuse. Ben Gordon was a combo guard, but learned the role of spot-up shooter. Hinrich found his niche as a defensive presence, proving his value despite not quite fitting in offensively in any single capacity. Terry and Crawford turned around their careers by embracing bench roles and becoming energetic scoring threats.

Every combo guard in this draft – and the list extends from Eric Bledsoe to Willie Warren, with plenty in between – must prove they can find their role in the NBA. While John Wall has star written all over him, no other guard in this class has that luxury.

The transition for a player like James Anderson is easier than it will be for Avery Bradley, a Big 12 rival. Anderson's role as a true shooting guard – with all the size and shooting skills prerequisite for the job – is clear and well defined.

Teams drafting combo guards understand the risk they are taking. Assuming Greivis Vasquez can transition his sublime passing into being a true NBA point guard is to also assume that he'll keep pace with faster players and limit the mistakes he was so prone to while trying to do everything at Maryland.

Bledsoe has the body and athleticism of a star point guard, but playing off ball last season at Kentucky has many wondering if he's a complete package at the position.

More complex are cases such as Jones, the South Florida scoring sensation who doesn't quite measure up to the shooting guard position he seems best fit for. Can he still display that knack for finding baskets with bigger players draped on him, and how will he react to being moved off ball after dominating possessions in college?

Ability is not enough. Ellis has proven to be an elite scorer, yet his sieve-like defense and inability to involve his teammates have left Golden State wondering if it can win with him as the front man. For an answer, the Warriors need only ask New York how building around Crawford worked out.

But there is good reason teams often reach on combo guards. These are players with vast abilities, and with the proper coaching, many have developed into very good role players. For every Tony Delk, there's a Bobby Jackson waiting to win Sixth Man of the Year.

And for every five Delks and five Jacksons, there might be a Dwyane Wade, a player good enough to continue his role as “that kid” all the way into the big leagues.

yellowdunker
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Once again they didnt even

Once again they didnt even mention Sherron Collins he's a scoring Gaurd that sometime played off the ball to get a needed bucket he played aside of Chalmers,Robinson,and Taylor I think he's gonna have it the worst trying to make a transition to a full time PG at 5''11' 217 conditioning, shooting and screen and roll is the most things he should be working on he just gotta make the pass but to be at this point of his career he would make a terrific third string PG and down the line a back up but i dont really seeing him becoming a starter......

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don't quite agree

...with your list of combo guards, but for many, it's because they've adapted their games.

kirk hinrich is a pure point guard, he's just too good a ballplayer not to be playing for chicago even with d-rose in town, so they use him as a 2, a spot up shooter alongside rose creating their offense. hinrich's great defense allows him to not be a liability at the 2 spot.

curry, flynn and stuckey have all developed their games to the point where i would call them point guards, competent point guards. curry especially has matured into a guy who can quite easily be one of the top 5-10 lead guards in the league if he carries on developing.

wade, mayo and terry have all developed into shooting guards- wade and mayo because, although undersized for the 2, their athleticism allows them to easily guard that spot, and terry because he can be such an impact off the bench offensively- though i admit he is pretty comfortable playing the point also.

it seems to me that the success of guard lineups is all situational. if you have a point guard who can effortlessly create their own offense, that puts far less pressure on your 2-guard to do so, so they can earn money standing on 3 point line and making shots (rondo-allen, williams-matthews, nash-richardson for instance). this also works in reverse, the 2 guard creating, the 1 guard making shots (fisher-bryant, bibby-johnson, ginobili-hill). if you have a small 2-guard, you better have a point guard who can guard the 2-spot or you have problems- monta ellis is merely an undersized 2-guard, and unless you put him with a point guard who can guard the 2 spot successfully, he isn't ever going to win anything except for as a 6th man.

in the modern game, there's a million ways to play both guard spots, as long as they fit into the rest of the team, especially their backcourt partner.

Lodzio20
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...

I don't think Bledose is really Combo Guard...he can shoot but that not mean he is combo!!!in High School he averages over 11 apg...in Kentucky he play at SG beacuse of John Wall!!
Bledsoe will be very, very good PG in NBA!

Adi Joseph
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yellowdunker, I think you're

Thanks for reading. I'll take this one person at a time.

yellowdunker, I think you're right in that Collins would make a third-string point guard. He's not in the same class as any of the players I mentioned, all of whom are potential first-round picks.

morestealsthanscores, Hinrich is clearly not a pure point guard. He plays significantly better paired with Rose (or Duhon, when the Bulls had him) than he does at the point, and even so, his offensive role is in flux at all times.

Curry and Flynn are both developing players. They were rookies last year. I do believe both could develop into point guards, but for now, neither has the passing acumen to be called such.

Stuckey, on the other hand, is blatantly not a true point guard. His inability to spread the ball really hurt the Pistons, who are at a crossroads. I don't see him ever playing point for a playoff team, and yet he's the best they've got and, barring some surprise, looks to be the best they'll have next year as well.

Wade -- while an absolute stud -- still fits into the combo guard role. He's ball-reliant and a playmaker, but at the same time not capable of running the point for an entire game. He's the best kind of combo guard, in the Iverson mold but bigger.

Mayo could develop into a Ben Gordon-style shooting guard, but for now still seems most comfortable creating his own shots. He needs to adapt to playing off ball better, but part of that could be finding a better point guard than Mike Conley to play next to.

Terry, as you explained, is a pure combo guard who has made enough adjustments that he can fit in.

Which brings me to your bigger point: Guard rotations are, indeed decided by who a player will play next to. But I do think if you looked at the NBA playoffs this year, you'd find overwhelmingly that successful teams don't rely on combo guards in starting capacity. Therefore, it's crucial for such players -- and this draft is loaded with them -- to prove their value and flexibility.

Finally, Lodzio20, there were already questions about Bledsoe's point guard abilities before he went to Kentucky. He's more of a scoring point, similar in that regard to Flynn. He'll have to spread the ball more in the pros. Can he do it? Sure, but with effort.

shipargos
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Adi

An scoring point is not a combo guard nessesarily

Adi Joseph
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You're right, and Bledsoe is

You're right, and Bledsoe is not a prototypical combo guard, a la Jones or White. But questions remain, and I don't think it's unfair to lump him into this category.

Hoop Guru
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Top 35 "guards"

Some are points, some are combos, some are shooters, some can even play the 3. You could probably shuffle around some players 6-12 & after 20. Depends on who you like & what type of a "guard" you are looking for.

1. J. Wall
2. E. Turner
3. X. Henry
4. A. Bradley
5. J. Anderson
6. E. Bledsoe
7. L. Stephenson
8. D. Jones
9. T. White
10. A. Johnson
11. E. Williams
12. W.Warren
13. J. Crawford
14. G. Vasquez
15. D. Hobson
16. A. Shved
17. S. Collins
18. M. Torance
19. J. Scheyer
20. M. Bouldin
21. S. Landesberg
22. R. Thompson
23. D. Clemente
24. M. Harris
25. K. Palmer
26. T. Mason-Griffin
27. T. Robertson
28. J. Randle
29. E. Ubiles
30. J. Dyson
31. A. Rautins
32. A. Coleman
33. JP Prince
34. P. Christopher
35. S. Reynolds

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Scottie Reynolds

Scottie Reynolds fits the combo guard mold and is a proven winner on the collegiate level. I havent heard his name once during this whole draft process probably because he wont be drafted. While thats not really surprising what would be surprising to me is if this guy aint in the league anyway next year. I watched Scottie play for four years at 'Nova and he defines the word baller. He's smart, strong, and savvy. Them 3 S's usually always get you in the league when you have them in the abundant amounts he has em. If he aint in the league next year its almost guaranteed he will be in the Europe somewhere collecting MVP trophies in a few years because the kid was meant to ball and win while doing so.

Adi, the only thing i disagree with you on is that Steph Curry is a true point guard in the Steve Nash mold, while he of course doesn't have nash's floor vision on passing ability he does own better court vision and passing then most combo guards and without a doubt in my mind owns the best passing ability of last years draft class (those who are playing in the league Rubio is a passing God who cant shoot)

Additionally in this faster paced NBA it's much easier for talents combo guards with innate passing ability to make the transition to the point because it's not longer about who can run the half court offense as much as its about who can start the break and toss and olley. Look at the success Rose had in his rookie year. Look at the almost overnight transformation Westbrook went through from being a pure combo guard to an elite true point. And this past year look at the quick progression Philly's own Jrue Holiday went through from playing off the ball at UCLA to becoming the Sixers new franchise point. And that brings me to my final point, Ty Lawson is an undersized combo guard. Undersized in hes way too small to guard two's but his skill set screams off ball scorer.

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Stephen Curry

Stephen Curry is considered a combo b/c of his great scorig ability. Being a Golden State fan, I know he is an excellent passer, who is unselfish to a fault. He has Steve Nash or Chaucney Billups minus the Defense potential. I think he will be a huge NBA successs. Also I do consider D-fisher a combo, as he is not a passer, and is used primarily for defense and shooting. They have Kobe our Lamar playing distributor. I think combos can be huge asset as role players; obviously Jason Terry is a gigantic loser, look at his finals performance.... ewwww, and how his team and he suck always come playoff time. But look at Del Curry, BJ Armstrong and Steve Kerr. Look at Tony Parker, he is way more of a scorer than distributor. I just don't fully agree with this article. But Kirk Hinrich is a combo, he played 2 in college, next that miles kid

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smurly, I'd point out that

smurly, I'd point out that Curry was a clear wing, and Armstrong and Kerr were spot-up shooters. This article defines combo guards as players who rely on ball-dominance to be effective. I would argue Kerr and Armstrong were really undersized shooting guards who, because they played next to Michael Jordan, were able to fill in a point guard role.

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E.B.

eric bledsue is a top 5 guard in this draft. because he played off the ball there considering him as a 2 but he pretty much does everything that John Wall doeshe's just a little shorter..

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westbrook

you left russell westbrook off your list. when he was coming into the league everybody considered him a combo.

Adi Joseph
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I think Westbrook's deft play

I think Westbrook's deft play at point guard this year proved he clearly fits that position. He averaged eight assists a game as the only capable lead guard on a playoff team.

smurfy
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So Adi

So Adi, do you think there is a difference between scoring point guards? And if so can scoring PG's be effective on the NBA level? I mean Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry were both wings in college, but they seem to be very efficient and non-ball dominant. I mean Curry has to play next to Ellis, and Westbrook next to Durant, and they have shown they don't need to dominate the ball to be effective. Curry is an extremely effective spot-shooter, and both can move well without the ball in my opinion.

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Brandon Jennings and Tyreke Evans

I think these guys are great scoring point guards as well, who if utilized properly with the right pieces around them, can develop in to wonderful players.

morestealsthanscores
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Definition of Combo-Guard

Adi: great to see you replying so quick and interacting with your readers!

Kirk Hinrich is never going to play the 1 with Derrick Rose around, and i can understand why you note that he played better with Rose or Duhon. But that's because Rose and Duhon get into the lane and create their own offense, whereas Kirk Hinrich is better as a spot up shooter. However, to me, that doesn't stop him being a pure point guard, as i'll explain later. a point to note is that Hinrich played his best basketball in 06-07 with Thabo Sefalosha and Ben Gordon splitting minutes at the 2. whilst there were no amazingly creative offensive players on that team (Gordon took the role as their closer), in the half court they played a lot of innovative drive and kick stuff that really set them apart.

I can agree with you on Stuckey- I said 'competent' but his natural position is still the 2, which is where I think he will end up playing, and I concede that Flynn is still developing. But in Curry's second half of the season, he developed into a pure point guard, even though he came into the league with a lot of doubts. Curry and Westbrook, despite coming into the league as combo guards, will be all-star point guards in no more than 3 years.

Realistically, I'm not entirely convinced at that definition of combo-guard. Dwayne Wade for instance, is ball reliant, but that's because he creates off the dribble and isn't a great shooter, similarly to Mayo. It seems that some of your combo guards are just 2 guards that can't play the role traditionally because they can't come off a screen and nail the open shot, Ray Allen style.

To me, the issue is that these players, by way of being athletic players, that prefer to create off the dribble rather than curl off a screen and shoot the ball, are far closer to 2 guards unless they have the set of skills required to play the 1, which is far more rare. I have no problem playing Wade or Mayo at the 2, let them get out in transition, and take the ball as early or late in the shot clock as they like. Exactly as Cleveland run with LeBron in his point-forward role.

To me, being a point guard is about leadership, controlling the tempo, and decision-making in both transition and in the half-court.

You're absolutely right that great teams don't tend to have combo guards in a starting capacity, and I think that's for a pretty simple reason- that combo guard, tweener, whatever you want to call it, is widely seen as a weakness rather than a strength. By definition, a combo guard is naturally undersized for the 2 (as I said earlier, I still class Mayo and Wade as 2-guards- their need for the ball is just a different way to play the 2) and lacks the PG skills to play the 1. The PG skills stated above are what, to me, makes Kirk Hinrich a pure 1, despite the fact that he isn't a naturally creative player- he reminds me a lot of Derek Fisher's style of play at the point- not too forced, not too high tempo, makes the open shots, controls the game and plays great defense.

Ultimately, the other thing that the lack of combo-guards in the NBA Finals shows is the value of a pure point guard in the modern game. No one has made the NBA Finals in the last 10 years without a pure PG- Philly were probably the last lot- instead, it's been players like Rondo, Fisher, Nelson, Parker, Mo Williams, Jason Williams, Harris, Kidd, Billups playing the 1- leading their squads and making them fulfil their potential.

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Bledsoe is the next Crawford

He is not a point, he can handle the ball and pass, but is not a point because he cant make "THE PASS" on the move.

To be a "true" PG you have to be able to run a pick and roll. Bledsoe will play PG but will never be one. Evan Turner and Vaquez are th other type of combo gaurds they can pass out of the pick and roll but can not consistently hit the set 3 as a SG can.

D-wade and Mayo are not a combo gaurds and neither are players like Lance Stephenson and Dominic Jones, they are Iso(lation) SG, they are like LeBrons in a SGs body, you give them the ball when you need points. These are the guys that have great scoring carreers and win 1 or 2 titles or develope into shooters(ala KOBE) and win multipul.

Levy2725
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Eric Bledsoe

I know I have put these links up in comments before, but Bledsoe's don't indicate that he can play point in the NBA in any way. Other point guards who played off the ball in college because of more established teammates, like Jrue Holiday and Russell Westbrook, had WAY better passing numbers than Bledsoe in essentially the same role. Steph Curry, Nate Robinson, Jeff Teague and Rodney Stuckey are all guys who played off the ball in college and still had passing numbers which blow Bledsoe out of the water. (I am talking about A/TO Ratio, Pure Point Rating, Assists per 40, Assist per Possession, etc.) I see his ceiling as Leandro Barbosa or Bobby Jackson. Believe it or not I actually mean that as a compliment. From my perspective he is best suited as an off the bench, energy and scoring provider. Below are the links I was talking about:

http://ilevy.wordpress.com/2010/04/13/unicorns-dragons-mermaids-and-eric...

http://ilevy.wordpress.com/2010/04/19/and-other-mythical-beasts/

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