The NCAA Tourney, Part Two: In Search of a Floor General
Let’s face it. Despite all of the uber-talented big men in the tournament, March Madness has always been driven by guard play. As we saw in the first weekend of the tournament, the impact of even the best big men can be neutralized with zone defenses and foul trouble. There’s nothing more fun than watching a ball dominant guard catch fire and drag his team to the Sweet Sixteen. These guys thrive on performing on the biggest stage of their careers. An electric performance can skyrocket their draft stock. However, for every Steph Curry, there’s a Jimmer Fredette, so these games should be taken with a grain of salt. Unfortunately, there aren’t any of these players left in the tournament with legitimate lottery aspirations. (Although, I can see Sister Jean of Loyola getting an NBA job at the end of the year). So, let’s take a look at the performances of the top-three point guard prospects in this coming draft.
(Disclaimer: I consider Luka Doncic a potential point guard, and he will be drafted ahead of all of these guys. While they are playing in a fun little tournament against other 18-20 year olds, he’s competing in Europe against grown men trying to put food on their families’ table.)
Trae Young (1 game) – 28 PTS, 50% FG, 33% 3PT, 7 AST, 5 REB, 1 STL, 6 TO
For the first half of the season Trae Young was the darling of the NCAA. He was putting up insane numbers and drawing comparisons to Steph Curry. However, as the tape on him grew, his performance fell off. Teams began to realize he was Oklahoma’s only viable offensive weapon, and they defended him accordingly. His game against Rhode Island was a microcosm of his entire season.
He started the game out hot hitting his first four shots. Rhode Island ramped up the pressure on him, and he was quiet for the middle part of the game. He elected to try and distribute more making some brilliant passes in the face of constant double teams. His team just wasn’t talented enough to deliver as his seven assists could have easily been 10+ if his teammates made open shots. When Rhode Island seemed to take control of the game late, Young willed his team to force overtime with 11 straight points at the end of regulation. Still, some ill-advised shots and untimely turnovers in OT allowed Rhode Island to ultimately prevail.
Young’s draft prospects have taken a hit since the beginning of the year, when he seemed a lock for the top five. The comparisons to Steph Curry were a bit overblown, but I understand the sentiment. He’s a high usage guard with a slick handle, great court vision, and a lightning quick release on his shot. Yet, he turns the ball over a bit too much for my liking and plays little to no defense. He’s a classic ball-watcher which inflates his steals numbers, and Oklahoma would hide him on defense whenever they could. His lack of size and athleticism will cause him to struggle against NBA point guards on both sides of the ball. That being said, shooting and ball handling are at a premium in the NBA which will probably allow him to be the first point guard taken in the draft.
Collin Sexton (2 games) – 21 PTS, 50% FG, 17% 3PT, 4.5 AST, 3.5 REB, 0 STL, 5 TO
Collin Sexton made a late run at Trae Young’s throne as the country’s best point guard with a sensational end to the season. His performance in the SEC tournament single handedly carried Alabama off the bubble into the NCAA tournament. His first two games fittingly display his ceiling and floor as an NBA player. Against Virginia Tech, Sexton struggled in the first half with only three points on four shots. He turned it on in the second half exploding for 22 points. His elite athleticism allows him to get to the basket whenever he wants, and he has enough of a pull up jumper to keep defenses honest. He was also clutch in the last minute of the game hitting seven of eight free throws to seal the victory for Alabama.
The downside to Sexton’s game was exposed by Villanova. He needs the ball in his hands to be effective on offense. Villanova used their length to restrict Sexton’s driving lanes and forced the ball out of his hands. Sexton isn’t a great passer at this point of his career. He only tallied three assists against five turnovers. Also, his three-point shot is below average which makes him ineffective off the ball on offense and allows defenses to go under screens against him in the pick and roll. He still ended up with 17 points, but in a blowout loss those amounted to empty stats.
Sexton’s size and athleticism may make him a more attractive option to some teams as the first point guard off the board. He’s 6’3’’ with a 6’7’’ wingspan which gives him much better defensive potential than Young. He reminds me a lot of De’Aaron Fox (but that might be the hair more than anything). Any team that drafts Sexton will have to be willing to give him the reins to their offense which is a lot to ask of a rookie. Still, Sexton has a swagger and a fiery demeanor that every team wants out of their lead point guard. Those intangibles may be enough to convince a team to take a chance on Sexton over Young.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (3 games) – 20.3 PTS, 49% FG, 50% 3PT, 6 AST, 6.3 REB, 2.3 STL, 3.3 TO
As a Suns fan, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about a guard from Kentucky. Entering the Sweet Sixteen, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (who will be known from here on out as SGA as to avoid CTS) was easily the most impressive point guard of the tournament. SGA was a four-star recruit out of Ontario (unheralded by John Calipari standards) that transformed himself into a lottery pick over the course of the season. For his first two games of the tournament, SGA averaged 23 points on 60% shooting, 6.5 assists, 7 rebounds, and 3.5 steals. He used his long strides and herky-jerky movements to constantly get into the lane either finishing himself or finding open teammates. His lengthy frame allowed him to roam passing lanes while keeping his man in front of him. He seemed poised to lead Kentucky all the way to the Final Four in a busted South bracket.
Then, Kansas State happened. Their physical brand of basketball stopped SGA’s magical run in its tracks. They focused on bodying him up every time he drove the ball and forced him into a 2/10 shooting performance. He still got to the line 12 times, but his wiry, 180-pound frame was worn down throughout the game. This was evident in the last two possessions of the game when he let Kansas State’s Barry Brown drive right past him for a go-ahead layup, and then he missed a potential game-tying three badly as time expired.
SGA’s measurables make him the most intriguing point guard prospect in the draft. He’s 6’6’’ with a 7’0’’ wingspan which will allow him to be a disruptive defender in the NBA capable of guarding multiple positions. As of now, I can see him being a better scoring Rajon Rondo with less court vision. It still remains to be seen if his jump shot is consistent. He hit 40% of his threes this year albeit on less than two attempts per game. His performance in the tournament may not vault him above Young or Sexton, but it certainly has put him in the conversation.