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The Triangle’s Offense: Neighboring point Guards Cole Anthony, Tre Jones and Markell Johnson emerge as premier draft prospects

Cole Anthony is here, but he isn’t alone. After sending 13 players to the 2019 NBA Draft, including 10 first round picks, which tied a record the league set just two years prior (2017), the ACC doesn’t have quite the same pool of future NBA talent for the 2019-20 season. That’s just a fact. It’s more than just the absence of multiple obvious one-and-done lottery picks, too. There’s also a dearth of draft-able senior prospects — think Cameron Johnson or Terance Mann.

However, the conference is still rather loaded when it comes to future NBA talent — especially at the point guard position.

There are a handful of ACC point guards that will get at least a shot of playing in the NBA; multiple players from that group also project as high draft picks. And while the league’s NBA-level point guard talent is spread throughout most of the footprint — from Trent Forrest of Florida State, up to Pittsburgh’s Xavier Johnson — there’s a strong concentration of it in North Carolina’s Triangle region. Once again, Tobacco Road is at the center of basketball things.

This could also prove to be a unique situation for Triangle-area point guards, too. Sure, in the past Duke, UNC and NC State have housed excellent point guards. However, this level of simultaneous talent is a little more rare.

 

The Names To Know

For starters, at North Carolina, the Tar Heels will feature wunderkind Cole Anthony, who projects, currently, as the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. A few miles north and to the east, Tre Jones is back for his sophomore season at Duke. Jones likely could have landed at the back end of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but decided to return for the Blue Devils. With some refinements to his game, Jones could play himself into the lottery range for the 2020 draft.

It’s neat: two of the top 20 (or so) prospects for next year’s draft are point guards that will play college basketball this season about 10 miles apart from one another — Anthony and Jones. But don’t forget about NC State’s Markell Johnson, who tested the NBA Draft waters this offseason before electing to return for his senior season.

 

Recent Triangle Point Guards

Going back over the last decade of ACC hoops, there haven’t been too many seasons when all three Triangle teams could claim a serious NBA prospect at point guard. During the 2016-17 season, NC State had Dennis Smith Jr., a blue-chip one-and-done freshman drafted in the lottery by the Dallas Mavericks (No. 9 overall). At the same time, UNC had Joel Berry. Berry went undrafted in 2018; he spent time with the Lakers in the offseason, and then played 21 games for the South Bay Lakers of the G-League.

Over in Durham, Duke split time with Frank Jackson and Grayson Allen running the offense. Both Jackson — No. 31 overall in 2017 — and Allen — No. 21 overall in 2018 — were drafted into the NBA. Before being traded to Memphis this offseason, Allen, however, struggled (No. 109 among shooting guards in RPM) with Utah last season. (Although he’s looked better in the 2019 preseason: 62.1 eFG%)

Jackson missed all of the 2017-18 season (foot injury) before playing in 61 games (16 starts) for the tank-tastic New Orleans Pelicans. (It did land them Zion Williamson, though). Now Jackson, in the final year of his rookie contract, must contend for playing time in a reworked and crowded backcourt.

During the 2015-16 season, North Carolina had Berry and Marcus Paige, who went undrafted in 2016. He played in 92 G-League games across two seasons, while also seeing spot duty in five games for the Charlotte Hornets during the 2017-18 season. NC State was led by Cat Barber that year. Barber went undrafted in 2016, too, but has played in 111 G-League games (15.7 points per game) across three seasons. Duke’s point guard that year was Derryck Thornton, now a graduate transfer at Boston College. Most of that team’s play-making duties were split by Allen and Brandon Ingram, though.

 

More To The Point

The 2011-12 season is the last time all three Triangle teams featured a point guard that would go on to play at least 100 NBA games. Kendall Marshall ran the show for UNC that year; he drafted 13th overall in 2012 and played in 160 NBA games (57 starts). Unfortunately for Marshall — now the director of recruiting at UNC — injuries cut his career short.

At NC State, the Wolfpack had sophomore Lorenzo Brown at point. After leaving college in 2013, Brown was selected by Minnesota with the 52nd pick in the NBA Draft. Over the last six years, Brown has put together a fabulous G-League career; a two-time All-Star, Brown was named the G-League MVP in 2018 while with the Raptors 905.

During that same window, Brown spent time in the NBA, too. Brown played in 103 NBA games (seven starts), including 26 last season for the Toronto Raptors, the eventual NBA champions. (Brown was released in January and finished the season in China.)

That same year, over at Duke, the Blue Devils featured multiple guards that would go on to become NBA point guards or secondary ball-handlers: Quinn Cook, Seth Curry and Austin Rivers.

Initially undrafted, Cook, the G-League Rookie of the Year in 2016, has now played in 121 NBA games. While backing up Stephen Curry during the 2017-18 season, Cook averaged 9.5 points per game (57.5 eFG%) and won an NBA title with the Golden State Warriors. In July of 2019, Cook signed a two-year deal ($6 million) with the Los Angeles Lakers.

While Seth Curry has spent the majority of his NBA career (192 games) as an off-ball shooter, Curry has run some point, too. As a member of the Dallas Mavericks in the 2016-17 season, over 30 percent of Curry’s field goal attempts were catch-and-shoot 3-pointers.

During the 2018-19 season with the Portland Trail Blazers, while playing next to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, nearly 34 percent of Curry’s field goal attempts were catch-and-shoot triples.

According to Basketball Reference, Curry has logged an estimated 40 percent of his minutes as his team’s nominal point guard. Rivers, who has played in 484 NBA games (33 playoff games), has spent an estimated 25 percent of his on-floor minutes at point guard (3.5 assists per 36 minutes), per Basketball Reference.

Rivers agreed to a two-year deal this summer to re-sign with the Houston Rockets, though it’s unlikely he’ll handle the ball much with James Harden and Russell Westbrook in town. (Harden and Westbrook ranked first and third, respectively, in the NBA last season in terms of time of possession. Harden averaged 5.92 dribbles per touch, too.)

Curry, on the other hand, signed a new contract this summer, too, cashing in for $32 million over four years with the Dallas Mavericks.

Brown will reportedly play in Serbia this season.

 

Before Cole Anthony, Point Guards Going No. 1 Overall

Historically speaking, the top pick in the NBA Draft has been reserved for frontcourt players. You know the names: Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Elton Brand. (Dare I say, Zion Williamson.) The list goes on. However, as the game has, in a sense, downsized in recent years — putting more of a premium on skills (playmaking, shooting, defensive versatility) and speed, as opposed to pure size — there’s been a reflection at the very top of the draft order.

Go back over the last 12 NBA Drafts, and you will find five No. 1 picks that are point guards: Derrick Rose (Memphis, 2008), John Wall (Kentucky, 2010), Kyrie Irving (Duke, 2011), Ben Simmons (LSU, 2016) and Markelle Fultz (Washington, 2017).

(It should also be noted that during the 2010-11 season, Irving was at Duke, Brown was at NC State and Marshall was at UNC — all as freshman. Irving, however, played in just 11 games that season.)

Standing at 6-foot-10, Simmons, 23, is a bit of anomaly — similar to Magic Johnson. Simmons guards basically every position; he spent a lot of time checking noted fun guy Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs this year. But he’s Philadelphia’s primary ball handler and, according to NBA tracking data, Simmons ranked inside the top 10 in both touches per game and time of possession — two categories dominated by guards. In terms of positional estimates, Simmons has spent close to 80 percent of his on-court career as a point guard, per Basketball Reference.

(Going back to when the NBA added a 3-point line in 1979, only 18 times has a player recorded at least 600 assists in a season while attempting fewer than 15 3-pointers. Simmons, who accounts for two of those seasons, is one of only two players to do that — along with Brevin Knight — since the turn of the century. Yeah, the dude is unique.)

 

Cole Anthony, North Carolina

Cole Anthony could very well be the next in this group of recent sub 6-foot-5 primary-initiator guards drafted No. 1 overall. During his senior season at Oak Hill, Anthony essentially averaged a triple-double while shooting close to 37 percent on his 3-point attempts (56 eFG%): 18 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game. At the 2018 FIBA Under-18 Americas Championship, Anthony averaged 14.3 points and 4.2 assists per game. He then scored 18 points in the gold medal game — a win over Canada.

On the 2019 all-star game circuit, Anthony impressed, too. In the McDonald’s All-American Game, Anthony put together a strong performance: 14 points, five rebounds and seven assists. Just like Nassir Little a year ago, Anthony was named the game’s MVP.

After going for 25 points, six rebounds and six assists in the Jordan Brand Classic, Anthony was named co-MVP.

At the Nike Hoop Summit, Anthony went toe-to-toe with another 5-star point guard: Nico Mannion, who will play for Arizona this season and also projects as a top pick. Anthony scored 25 points (8-of-18 FGA) in 29 minutes (+4), to go along with eight rebounds, two assists and eight free throw attempts.

It would be wise to not put too much emphasis on all-star game numbers, especially after what happened with Little last season. Those wide-open events can lead to empty-calorie numbers, which can in turn disrupt expectations. However, what Anthony did in those events went beyond the numbers; he showcased his explosive dribble game and a play-making gene that has scouts drooling.

Playing point guard at North Carolina is one of the game’s prestige positions. It should also prove to be a vehicle for Anthony to display his talents and put up numbers. UNC has eight straight seasons with an assist rate of 55 percent or better. The Heels ranked 14th nationally this season with an assist rate of 60.6 percent, according to KenPom. With Theo Pinson as the offensive engine in the 2017-18 season, UNC posted an assist rate of 61 percent, another top-15 number and its highest since the 2005-06 season.

Over the last 10 seasons, North Carolina has five top-five finishes nationally in terms of average offensive possession length. The 2018-19 squad averaged just 14.6 seconds per offensive possession — good for fifth fastest in the country. Roy Williams, famously, likes to play fast. Well, he’s found his man for this season.

As the leader of North Carolina’s primary and secondary breaks, Anthony will get plenty of opportunities to attack, put pressure on the rim, hunt high-percentage finishes and create for others. Within North Carolina’s half-court motion offense, Anthony will get to move around and work as a cutter and spot-up target. Leaky Black and Christian Keeling are intriguing secondary playmakers, too.

It’s not out of the question to project Anthony as an efficient high-usage, high-assist player. (There’s a good chance he goes north of 25 percent in terms of both usage rate and assist rate.) Since the 2007-08 season, only three UNC players have posted a usage rate of 20 percent and an assist rate of 20 percent in the same season: Ty Lawson (twice), Marcus Paige (twice) and Coby White.

UNC doesn’t run too many spread ball screens in its half-court offense; there are more designed actions and random motion to their sets. But when the Heels let Anthony attack downhill off the pick-and-roll — an important action for the NBA — he will have chances to show scouts what he’s made of there as well.

 

Tre Jones, Duke

One of the toughest players in college basketball, Jones fought through multiple injuries as a freshman, and still put together a very solid season. During the 2018-19 campaign, Jones was one of just five Division I players — along with Virginia’s Ty Jerome and Shamorie Ponds (who Jones terrorized during a February matchup at Cameron Indoor Stadium) — to post an assist rate of 23 percent, a sub-15 percent turnover rate and a steal rate of three percent.

Simply put: Jones is a top-flight defensive prospect. His full-court pressure defense wore some opponents down last season, like Ponds, Jalen Carey of Syracuse and Clemson’s Shelton Mitchell. At various points of those games, Chris Mullin, Jim Boeheim and Brad Brownell had to take the ball out of the hands of their point guards — either sitting them down or having someone else bring the ball up the floor — just to avoid Jones.

Chris Paul, who starred for two seasons at Wake Forest before starting his soon-to-be Hall of Fame career in the NBA, is one of the best point guard prospects of the last 20 years. It would be unfair to compare Jones to Paul; however, there are some similarities in how those two defend on the basketball. Jones gets in a stance and plays with a wide base. He’s a fearless defender, willing to muscle up against bigger matchups on a switch.

He’s laterally quick, moving like a Slinky to stay in front of his man. Jones slides with grace and precision — like Novak Djokovic defending the baseline in tennis. His eyes are glued to the chest of his man and his hands are active. (I watched Jones up close all season. I’ve never seen a one-on-one defender play with more focus than Jones.)

Jones is a constant threat to poke the ball away (2.2 steals per 40 minutes) at a moment’s notice with his super quick hands.

How are you supposed to get by this guy without turning the ball over?

The defensive acumen of Jones extends beyond his man-to-man capabilities. He’s also a disruptive help defender. When the ball enters the post, he looks to dig down and swipe for steals, while never totally losing touch with his own man.

He’s a pest in passing lanes, too. Jones times his jumps and utilizes his long-ish wingspan. As soon as he’s stolen the ball, Jones looks to attack in the other direction. His hit-ahead passes and lobs are works of art.

The biggest knock on Jones is an obvious one: he struggles shooting the basketball. Jones posted a lowly true shooting rate of 48.5 percent last season. According to Synergy Sports, Jones shot just 27.4 percent (41.1 eFG%) on catch-and-shoot attempts as a freshman. (He does, however, have a pretty good floater in his arsenal.)

Jones is also a fairly solid finisher at the rim, too. According to Synergy, Jones shot 57 percent at the rim in the half court. Assuming Duke runs more pick-and-roll ball screens for Jones this season, he should have the ability to attack gaps and get to the hoop. (Just 2 FTA per 40 minutes last season)

Next to Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, Jones had to play off the ball a lot last season, which wasn’t a strength of his. Jones would bring the ball up over half court, call something out, then pass to either Williamson or Barrett, and depart to the near corner. Once he was there, teams could sag or play way off of him — in order to clog up the paint. Watch Virginia Tech — an aggressive help defense under Buzz Williams — completely ignore Jones on a baseline cut.

In the NCAA Tournament, Central Florida took this concept to another level — matching up the 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall on Jones. However, instead of sticking to Jones, Fall played centerfield and protected the rim. Dipping into Steve Kerr’s 2015 playbook, this was a designed effort from Johnny Dawkins to deter Zion and Barrett at the rim. (Williamson and Barrett combined to shoot 10-of-17 at the rim. Zion had just one dunk in this game.)

That won’t be the case this year, though. Jones will have the ball in his hands far more frequently now, which could be a boon for the Blue Devils. At the least, teams won’t be able to sag off Jones, who averaged 6.2 assists per 40 minutes last season.

Jones is better known for his superb transition passes; however, he has the ability to facilitate in the half court as well. Zion’s gravity is gone, but this year’s team should have better spacing; freshman stretch-4 Matthew Hurt feels like a logical pick-and-pop partner. (During the 2018-19 season, Duke scored a measly 0.82 points per spot-up possession, according to Synergy, which No. 334 in Division I basketball.)

It seems likely, too, that Duke will run motion and floppy sets, which will allow Jones to flourish as a floor general — picking and choosing his spots, connecting with his teammates for rhythm looks.

Before he arrived at Duke, Jones was a special offensive player as a lead dog — capable of raising the floor of whatever offense he was orchestrating through savvy decision-making. His 2017 Nike EYBL resume speaks for itself: 19.3 points, 8.3 assists and only 1.8 turnovers per game. Jones led his team to a share of the regular season title and was named Nike EYBL Offensive Player of the Year.

There’s a chance for Jones to have a monster season in Durham. If he stays healthy, Jones will make a run at ACC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year — similar to De’Andre Hunter at Virginia a season ago.

(Speaking of Hunter, we just saw the 6-foot-7 UVA product play his way to becoming a lottery selection as a sophomore; the same goes for P.J. Washington at Kentucky. Both Hunter and Washington could’ve left for the draft in 2018; however, they elected to return to college for another season. These are all different prospects, but perhaps Jones can do something similar.)

 

Markell Johnson, NC State

It’s been an interesting career for Johnson through three full seasons at NC State. Johnson arrived in Raleigh in the same 2016 recruiting class as one-and-done point guard Dennis Smith Jr. When DSJ and Johnson played together in limited minutes that year, including the team’s win at Duke, Johnson was simply turned into a secondary options.

And while Johnson was initially a Mark Gottfried, he’s has blossomed under Kevin Keatts.

Keatts is hard on his point guards, but the marriage between the two has been rather productive on the floor. On offense, Keatts prefers to keep things simple — spreading the floor and running spread pick-and-roll, with a variety of actions and angles to trigger things.

(This is a pretty amazing chart — apologies to Kevin Durant — and it shows just how much teams under Keatts utilize ball screens on offense. Keatts is even ahead of the wonky Dan D’Antoni, who has turned Marshall into one of the preeminent pick-and-roll offenses in college hoops.)

Johnson, for his part, has become a solid offensive engine. In the 2017-18 season, Johnson was a little turnover-prone (4.4 turnover per 40 minutes), but he showed his mettle as a pick-and-roll decision-maker.

That year, Johnson handed out 10.1 assists per 40 minutes and ranked fifth nationally with a 40.5 percent assist rate, per KenPom. NC State scored 311 points on 291 pick-and-roll possessions when Johnson was a passer, according to Synergy Sports. (1.07 points per possession, 55.4 eFG%). These are big numbers.

Without Omer Yurtseven as his pick-and-roll batterymate in the 2018-19 season, Johnson took on more responsibility as a shot-creator. During his sophomore season, Johnson would look to attack the rim after a switch; if he found a big man guarding him, Johnson would look for the blow-by drive, something he did multiple time to Luke Maye in NC State’s 2018 win in Chapel Hill.

As a junior, though, Johnson displayed more shot-making craft. In October this year, at ACC Operation Basketball, Johnson told ACCSports.com the point guard he studies the most is Chris Paul. Watching him snake ball screens — dribbling back across the direction of the screen — it makes perfect sense, too. That’s a vintage CP3 move.

According to Synergy, Johnson shot 46.5 percent (55.1 eFG%) out of the pick-and-roll as a junior. He became an efficient scorer from all three levels (58 FG% at the rim) of the half court, too.

At times, Johnson can be a little sticky with the basketball. When he gets the ball at the top of the key, Johnson will stop for a second to survey. From that point, he’ll show off the handles some, then make his move. A major aspect of that, though, is the offense he plays in. Johnson still handed out 6.7 assists per 40 minutes last season.

“The next step for me is to make the right reads,” Johnson told ACCSports.com at ACC Operation Basketball. “I just want to be as poised as I can coming off the screens — really making the best reads, rather than trying to score.”

Johnson cut his turnovers some as a junior (3.4 per 40 minutes). That may have been aided by his increased shooting volume; however, there’s still work to be done there.

Shot creation is a valuable skill for prospect evaluation: Johnson scored 1.09 points per possession (54.7 eFG%) on off-dribble jump shots this season, per Synergy. That ranked second in the ACC — ahead of several NBA first round picks: R.J. Barrett, Coby White, Cam Reddish, Ty Jerome and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

Johnson also made big gains in his catch-and-shoot abilities. According to Synergy, Johnson increased his volume (68 FGA) and efficiency on catch-and-shoots: 67.6 effective shooting rate, a jump of 10 percent from his sophomore season.

Even without the help of a ball screen, Johnson could still get to where he wanted on the floor and score. Johnson scored 1.07 points per possession (55.2 eFG%) in isolation. He was the only player last season to rank inside the top five of the ACC in both catch-and-shoot and isolation efficiency.

He loves that little hesitation move, especially when he can hit it before a crossover dribble. And while Johnson isn’t the bulkiest of guards, he’s rather explosive (14 dunks). He’s a solid finisher at the rim — 58 FG% in the half court — who plays with some craft. Johnson can absorb contact, hang and finish. He has a reliable left hand around the basket, too.

Next to Anthony and Jones, Johnson is obviously a lesser NBA prospect. There’s far less certainty that he will get a shot in the world’s top league. However, as Johnson stated, he’s ready for the opportunity to compete with guys like Anthony and Jones: “It’s great for me to get a chance to go up against some of the guys that these recruiters marked as better than me. It’s great for me to go up against them — to really test and see where I’m at.”

With his NBA-level athleticism and shot-creation abilities, a case can be made for Johnson as a prospect. NBA teams love running pick-and-roll concepts in the half court, too. Johnson has shown — with a lot of reps — that he’s proficient in that area.

 

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