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.
Each 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.