What makes a good point guard?

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 7, 2012 - 12:01 PM

The Twin Cities has four outstanding ones at four different levels - Ricky Rubio of the Wolves, Lindsay Whalen of the Lynx, Rachel Banham of the Gophers and Tyus Jones of Apple Valley.

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From left, point guards Tyus Jones of Apple Valley High School, Lindsay Whalen of the Lynx, Rachel Banham of the Gophers and Wolves rookie Ricky Rubio.

Photo: BRENT SCHOONOVER, Special to the Star Tribune

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Terry Porter’s NBA career lasted 17 seasons, 1,274 games and 35,354 minutes played. He’s seen a lot. 

He knows what it takes to play point guard. The leadership and unselfishness that’s required, the ability to control the flow of a game, the pressure of being a coach on the floor. Sometimes look to score too, if that’s what the team needs.

Point guard is a position — the “1” in basketball parlance — but really it’s an identity. 

“You have to be a leader,” said Porter, a two-time NBA All-Star and current Timberwolves assistant coach. “You can’t worry about yourself. You’ve got to have a pretty good feel for your personnel. Then, you have to be vocal at times. You’ve got to be willing to take some grief. I got yelled at by guys on my team for not passing it to them and things of that nature. You just have to say, 'Hey, I didn’t want it to be a turnover.’ That falls on your shoulders because if you make a turnover, coach is yelling at you. He’s not yelling at the other player.”

That’s part of the job description, too. Like a quarterback in football, the lion’s share of responsibility rests on the point guard’s shoulders.

“You have to know everybody’s position,” Porter said. “You also have to know everybody’s weaknesses and strengths because you’re delivering the ball to them. The point guard is setting everybody up. He’s got time and score and tempo, how the matchups are, who he wants to try and attack. There’s a lot on his shoulders in terms of how the game is being played.”

The Twin Cities features four point guards who play the position at a high level. Ricky Rubio has made the Wolves relevant again and is a top contender for NBA Rookie of the Year; Lindsay Whalen is a WNBA All-Star and champion; the Gophers’ Rachel Banham is one of the best freshmen in college basketball; and Apple Valley’s Tyus Jones is rated the top sophomore point guard in the nation.

Those four share their insights into the position, their styles of play and who influenced them growing up.

Lead by example

A point guard must be equipped to handle different situations and direct everything on the court. Rubio described the mentality of a point guard in one word. "Winner," he said.

Rubio: "Not only say, 'I'm a winner, I want to win, I hate losing.' You have to do all the stuff when you're not 100 percent, tired, in the last quarter. You have to be there for your team. He has to show everybody that he's not selfish. He has to show his teammates that he has trust in them and try and put all the guys in the right spot."

Banham: "You really have to be smart. Not smart like a genius. But smart on the court. You really need to know the game. Studying it, watching other games, watching other point guards. It also requires a certain amount of toughness. It takes a lot. You have to lead four other girls on the court. You have to control that and you have to be able to set up plays and handle the defense. It takes a lot of mental toughness. You have to be confident. You can't be scared."

Jones: "You have to stay calm, you've got to be poised. If the point guard is hectic and running all over the place, going 100 miles per hour all the time and isn't controlling the game and is just letting everything go up-and-down, then that's how the team is going to play. You have to be confident and believe in yourself that you can do it. You can't ever second-guess yourself. That's when mistakes happen and turnovers happen. Confidence is a big thing. You have to be confident when you're shooting, playing defense, going against other guys."

Whalen: "You have to be a leader. Having that leadership ability and quality to realize what a team needs on any given night. Some nights you need to score, some nights you need to get everybody involved. You kind of have to have a feel for the game like that. You have to be very consistent."

Share the ball

Asked to describe an ideal trait in a point guard, Whalen chose "unselfish." The others agreed.

Rubio: "If I don't want to share the ball, I would be a tennis player or something like that, you know [laughing]. When you're in a team game with five players playing at the same time, you have to share the ball. What comes around, goes around. If you share the ball, your teammates are going to share the ball and everybody is going to be happy and everything is going to be easy."

Whalen: "You have to be willing to make the extra pass all the time. But you have to somehow figure out a good middle ground where you're aggressive. You're not just only looking to pass. If you do that, you're never going to be a threat to shoot. You have to find a happy medium. You have to be able to take the shot when it's there but also always be able to make that extra pass."

Banham: "You have to be able to find your teammates and make them better before yourself. Being able to see everything around you. You really have to know what's going on with every single player, not just yourself."

Jones: "The point guard is kind of like the coach on the floor, so they've got to be able to control the game and control the tempo. And just be able to make the right decisions, whether it be to set up teammates or make a certain play call. That all ties into controlling the game and running the show."

Handle the rock

Ball-handling is an essential fundamental in basketball. Can't play point guard if you can't dribble, right? The ability to beat defenders with dribble penetration has become an integral part of basketball.

Banham: She spent hours working on dribbling as a kid in her family's kitchen and basement. "I worked on it all the time," she said. "My mom and dad would be like, 'Stop!' It was so loud and probably not good for the floor. I don't work on it as much now because I'm more in the rhythm of it. It's not as hard for me. But before practice and games, I like to have the ball in my hands so you get a good feel for it. Sometimes basketballs are kind of different. I like to get a good dribble in to feel comfortable with it."

Whalen: She honed her ball handling in AAU and pickup games growing up. "You go against a player that guards you really hard and they pick your pocket a couple of times, you learn fast how to control the ball," she said. "That's the biggest thing. It's like, 'OK, I can't do that. I better work on this.' Ball-handling is something you always work on because it's a fundamental part of the game. I still work on using my left hand and finishing with my left hand because I'm righthanded, so you're so used to doing everything that direction. You really have to create a way to make defenses have to guard your left hand as well."

Rubio: On his first day in Minnesota after the NBA lockout, Rubio warmed up for an individual workout by dribbling a ball with each hand up and down the court. That's called two-ball dribbling, a popular drill among players at every level. Rubio stressed the importance of working on ball handling from an early age. "I was with a ball all the time," he said. "All day long."

See the floor

Point guards often are recognized and praised for their ability to "see the floor." Sounds self-explanatory, but the best point guards are able to see, anticipate and react while also dealing with defensive pressure.

Whalen: "You're just trying to see the next play as it's happening. Reading where the help is coming from if you're coming off a pick-and-roll. Where the next pass is going to be. Reading help-side, reading where your teammates are on the floor and if they're in a good position. Getting rid of the ball as quickly as possible before the defense can rotate."

Banham: "For me, when I'm on the floor, I can see where people are at, where they're going to be. You have to know where they're at right now, where the defense is going to go. If you've been a point guard since you were young, I think you get used to that. Growing up and seeing it and playing with totally different people. As you play with people more, you start to anticipate where they're going and what the defense is going to do."

Jones: "It means to make the right play, the right pass. If your teammates are cutting and you can hit them for a basket, that's what seeing the floor is. In the game you kind of get a flow going and you kind of know what's going to happen. I can see if my guy is getting played this way, he's going to make a back- door cut. If we're running this play, he's going to peel off here."

Rubio: "You have to see weak-side, strong-side and take the easy pass, the easy play. Sometimes you anticipate, but you have to take care of the ball. You have to see everybody. There's always an option to score, but you have to find the best one. And the easiest one, too."

Different styles, different strengths

The position has evolved over the years. Point guards now come in different shapes, sizes and skill sets. Not everyone operates with a pass-first mentality, although Rubio certainly is making that approach chic again.

Banham: "I'm definitely more of a scorer. I'm a passer, too. I love to pass. But I think my role lately has been more a scoring point guard. In high school I was both because I had to. That was my role. My coach was like, 'You need to take it in and score.' He would get so mad at me sometimes when I passed the ball. Now that's really been instilled in me. I know when to pass, but I know when I need to score."

Jones: "I'm definitely a pass-first point guard because I have no problem making a pass instead of shooting. A lot of point guards nowadays are scoring-type point guards and look to score first before they pass. This is how I play: If the guy to my left is open, I'm going to set him up so he can hit the shot. That's just how I play the game. I look to set up teammates."

Whalen: "The biggest thing I've been able to do throughout my career is really get to the basket and finish well. That usually draws the defense. If I can get into the lane and get some finishes early, that means everyone has to help and the [kickouts] will be there. Or if you drive in and kick it out first, the drives will be there later. I've worked hard in developing my mid-range game and my three-point game. But something that's always been pretty natural to me is getting to the basket."

Rubio: "I try to be a real point guard. The guy who helps the team win. I try to always be in the best spot and make my teammates better."

Coach on the floor

Sounds clichéd, but it's true. Point guards are an extension of the coach. They call plays, set up the defense and provide teammates vocal encouragement or a tongue-lashing, if needed.

Rubio: "It's hard sometimes. You have to tell your teammates where they have to go because you are the one who calls the play. You have to have confidence in that call. The point guard has to be the guy the coach trusts. The point guard runs the play. He has to trust in you."

Jones: "You need to be a leader. You've got to lead by example, be vocal. You're the coach on the court. The point guard has the ball in his hands the most so they have to be smart with it."

Banham: "Even in high school I felt like I was a complete extension of the coach. Even now with Coach Pam [Borton], she always says, 'You need to be a leader. If you don't like the play I'm calling, you call your own play.' It's kind of awkward. But she says, 'If you don't like it and you see something different, you have to be able to call it out yourself.' I think that's another way of being a coach."

Whalen: "I've always had a really good relationship with my coaches. That was one of the strong points of our team this year. Me and Coach [Cheryl] Reeve just had a good connection. I would ask, 'What do you think we should do here? What do we need to do in this certain situation?' She was always talking to me. We had conversations throughout the whole game every game. It always really helped me. If you're in constant communication, it makes everything that much easier."

Positive influences

Everyone had a favorite player growing up. Who didn't pretend to be a certain player as you shot jumpers in the driveway or at the gym?

Rubio: "I always tried to watch the best. Magic Johnson. Steve Nash is great."

Jones: "Definitely Chris Paul. He just makes the right play, takes what the defense gives him. As a passer, Rajon Rondo. He's a phenomenal passer. Now that Rubio is in Minnesota, I watch him every chance I get to see how he sets up the offense and how he makes passes and makes the easy play."

Banham: "Lindsay Whalen, of course. I always watch Lindsay. That's obvious. Who didn't? But I watch some NBA players like Chris Paul and Derrick Rose. Just seeing them and their movements. And Ricky Rubio. His passes are ridiculous. I did a bounce pass the other day and I was like, 'Yes, that's him.' "

Whalen: Her parents bought her a movie about Pistol Pete Maravich when she was in second grade. "The one where he spins the ball for an hour," she said. "I've seen that movie so many times." Other influences were Nash, former Phoenix Suns guard Kevin Johnson, Stephon Marbury when he played for the Wolves, and Sue Bird. "There is so much talent at that position right now, it's crazy," she said. "Derrick Rose and [Russell] Westbrook and Rubio and Deron Williams and Chris Paul. It's unbelievable how that position has just become such an important position."

Bounce or skip pass

Jones: "Bounce pass. I regularly throw more bounce passes to my teammates."

Rubio: "Depends on the play. But maybe bounce pass."

Whalen: "Skip pass. A lot of times I feel like I can get the ball there so much quicker. If the help-side has really rotated, I can just get it there to the shooter as fast as possible. But the bounce pass is great. Watching Rubio, I have to work on that. I'm like, 'Wow, I can really use that a lot more.' No one really uses it the way he does. Just watching some of his games, I'm like, 'I think I can try to do some of those.' "

Banham: "I think the skip pass because it is faster and gets to the player better. But the bounce pass is a close second because it is slick and is hard to defend."

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