Two seasons ago, Richard Pitino was asked late during Amir Coffey’s freshman year with the Gophers if he ever saw his budding star playing point guard.
Pitino didn’t answer with a simple: yes or no. He used coach’s speak about Coffey already facilitating in their offense and it was just “semantics” about what position he played. That seemed like a way of saying he didn’t know.
Things have changed since.
Coffey, now a 6-foot-8 junior guard, is older and wiser within the Gophers system. He’s the team’s best passer. He’s also entering a situation this season where Pitino lacks point guard depth after losing three-year starter Nate Mason to graduation.
So that’s why if you checked out the box score of Saturday’s scrimmage win against Creighton, Coffey was the starting point guard. He finished with 14 points, four assists, four rebounds and three turnovers in 25 minutes.
Will Coffey be the U’s point guard in the season opener Nov. 6 against Nebraska Omaha? Maybe or maybe not, but one thing seems clearer by the day: He’ll have the ball a lot more this year.
“Amir, if he wants to be an NBA player, now it comes down to his skill level, where he can dribble, pass, shoot and make decisions,” Pitino said. “He can do that. I believe he’ll play in the NBA at some point. I love his mentality right now. He’s competing. He has that look of a guy who wants to take the next step as a basketball player.”
From all accounts of practice, Coffey’s making strides as a floor leader and primary ball handler. Bringing the ball up under pressure and orchestrating the offense are things he’ll need to pick up with more opportunities in actual game action.
The last time Coffey played even some “point-forward” was during a standout career at Hopkins High. Royals coach Ken Novak Jr. says Coffey’s vision and passing ability are his biggest strengths.
“We wanted him to get the ball and good things would take place,” Novak said. “The biggest problem with Amir is what I saw last year is there were too many times when he doesn’t have the ball. It’s not so much whether he brings it up, but it’s so he has the ball and can make decisions. Amir makes great decisions. He’s a phenomenal passer. As a matter of fact, I think his passing ability is his best strength. He’s got vision of a great point guard. He’s got size, but it’s a matter of just giving him the ball in positions where he can make decisions and put pressure on the defense.”
In early October, Pitino said Coffey was working a lot at point guard. The Gophers are also giving senior Dupree McBrayer and sophomore Isaiah Washington reps there as well. Sophomore Marcus Carr is probably the best pure point guard on the roster, having started for Pittsburgh and shined in ACC play last year. Carr, though, is still waiting for the NCAA to make a decision on a waiver to play this season.
On Saturday against Creighton, Coffey got into foul trouble early with two fouls, but he still finished with seven points, three assists and one turnover in 11 first-half minutes. Washington came off the bench to score all nine of his points in the first half on 3-for-5 shooting, including 2-for-2 on threes in 15 minutes.
Moving forward it will be interesting to see if the Gophers play Washington more at shooting guard since he seems much more adept at scoring than facilitating. Among Minnesota’s rotation guys last season, Washington led the team with 17.4 field goal attempts per 40 minutes. That was ahead of the team’s leading scores, Jordan Murphy (15.1 attempts) and Mason (16.2 attempts). Coffey was fourth at 12.9 attempts, up from just 10.6 his freshman year.
Coffey was more aggressive last season, but was he used enough in the offense when healthy (missed 14 games with shoulder injury)? His percentage of possessions used was 22.3, fourth in the rotation behind Murphy (27.1), Washington (27.0) and Mason (24.3), according to Ken Pomeroy’s advanced stats. Yet Synergy Sports data revealed Coffey led the Gophers with 1.004 PPP (Points Per Possession) rate, ranked 81 percent nationally. Mason’s PPP was .961 for 71 percent. Rates for McBrayer .843 and Washington .79 were average and below average on a national scale.
With the Gophers needing a spark wherever they can find it on the perimeter to replace Mason this season, positions like PG, SG and SF might just blend together. Pitino will look at different players at different spots in different lineups to see what works best.
In the end, whether Coffey's a point guard or point forward probably doesn't matter. If he has the ball more stats prove it should make Minnesota more efficient offensively.