Point guard must be any team's top athlete
Shaun Livingston is 6-foot-7 and Earl Boykins is 5-foot-5, but, of all the position players in the NBA, the point guards are closest in size to the American norm.
Precisely because there are more of them to chose from, point guards must be better athletes than any of their teammates. And given their considerable on-court responsibilities, point-guards need all the athleticism at their disposal.
Above all, the point guard (or the No. 1 position on the basketball floor), must totally understand and accept his coach's game plan. This means knowing when and how to instigate a fast break (as well as the early-offense options), and when and how to initiate the more deliberate sets.
More than any other player, the No. 1 has to know the duties of every teammate in every play and every option. Plus their specific strengths, flaws, and personal quirks.
Who likes to do what and where does he like to do it? Exactly where does this or that shooter want to receive the catch-and-shoot pass? At his mid-chest, right (or left) shoulder, or hip, or which point between? How far away from his body? How much ball speed and spin can he be counted on to safely receive without compromising his subsequent shot?
Which big men can catch the ball on the run? Which big players can handle bounce passes? Which can catch, take a dribble and then shoot in an up-tempo situation?
Where does a certain pivot man want to receive the ball when being defended by so and so on the right box? What about the left box, or when bulling his way across the lane?
The relationship between a No. 1 and his bigs is critical. Many big men have a tendency to be lazy if they don't get shot opportunities early in ball games, so dropping a dime in their laps ASAP will get them rebounding and defending with all their might.
And so on.
Besides being a talent scout, points must also have a firm conceptual grasp of the totality of the game at hand. Most big men, on the other hand, have only the vaguest notion of which of the opponents' guards are on the court at any given time.
But the point guard must be aware of every matchup, the score, and the clocks. Plus, he must know how many timeouts are available to each team. Even the tendencies of the refs.
Obviously, since the No. 1 is responsible for safely carrying the ball into the attack zone, he must be a superior ball-handler and passer with a well developed off hand.
What's more if he's playing with go-to scorer who's routinely two-timed, the No. 1 must also be an efficient outside shooter.
What other offensive skills must he command?
Moreover, history proves that teams led by shoot-first point guards are more pretenders than contenders. No NBA team has ever won a championship when its No. 1 has led the league in scoring. And only three teams have won titles when their point guard was also their leading scorer Isiah Thomas with Detroit in 1990, Magic Johnson with the Lakers in 1987, and Walt Frazier with New York in 1973.
How does a player defend an NBA point guard?
Point guards are so skilled with the ball that consistently containing them on defense can be close to impossible.
Stealing the ball from a No. 1 is a very risky business because every unsuccessful steal attempt puts the defense at a 4-on-5 disadvantage and usually results in an easy score and/or a highly avoidable foul being pinned on a rotating helper usually a big man.
In that case, the best that can be hoped for is that a defender is able to turn his man and force him to play with his back to the basket whenever possible. Why? Passes can't be made if the ball-handler has his back to the action.
Defenders can also try to force opposing points to help spots, play them soft if they're better drivers than shooters, and play them tight if the reverse is true. The idea behind consistently pressuring a No. 1 in the backcourt is to wear him down. And since a tired body usually means a tired mind, the hope is that a weary point will make physical and mental errors at the end of a game.
Certain points can be roughed up at every opportunity T. J. Ford is a prime example.
Others can be used on defense Steve Nash.
But however it might be accomplished, giving the head of the team a headache always pays benefits sooner or later.
Besides pressuring the ball, defensive specialists at the No. 1 slot must also be efficient double-teamers and passing-lane poachers. They also must show quick hands when helping on ball penetration in the lane.
Defensive-minded points usually can't fulfill the numerous offensive requirements at a satisfactory level so they are relegated to short rotations. The best defenders (at point guard) are Lindsey Hunter, Anthony Johnson, Royal Ivey, Darrell Armstrong, Earl Watson, and Kevin Ollie.
For all these reasons, the point position is the most complex, and is therefore the most difficult for young players to master. That's why a young, versatile, intelligent, talented, unselfish No. 1 (the likes of Chris Paul, Kirk Hinrich, and Tony Parker) is so valuable.
If there's one ultimate yardstick to measure the worth of a point guard it's this: Do his teammates perform at a higher level when he's in the game or on the bench?
Charley Rosen, former CBA coach, author of 12 books about hoops, the current one being A pivotal season How the 1971-72 L.A.
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