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The Case Against Drafting a Point Guard

Apr. 01, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; New Orleans Hornets guard Jarrett Jack (2) drives the ball against the Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash (13) during the first half at the US Airways Center.  Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-US PRESSWIRE.
Apr. 01, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; New Orleans Hornets guard Jarrett Jack (2) drives the ball against the Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash (13) during the first half at the US Airways Center. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-US PRESSWIRE.

Hornets history has been generationally delineated by point guard play. Muggsy Bogues, an NBA icon of the 90's, joined the expansion franchise in Charlotte in 1988 and remained with the team for a decade. The Hornets drafted Baron Davis a year after Muggsy left, and though Davis left under acrimonious circumstances, he developed into a legitimate star at point guard, eclipsing the 20 PER mark in consecutive years and putting together one of the most individually brilliant playoff series of the decade. And of course New Orleans drafted Chris Paul just a few months after Golden State acquired Davis for a half-roll of quarters that the Hornets really needed for laundry.

Other memorable players (Zo, LJ, Rice, Mashburn, West) have come and gone, but lead guard has been the anchor. If you ignore the brief transition periods (D. Wesley from '98-'99, D. Dickau in '04), the Hornets franchise has essentially gone 24 years with just three primary point guards. That's.. remarkable.

The Hornets are in the midst of a third transition period now, Jarrett Jack ostensibly serving the Dickau/Wesley role. But the question now becomes: should the Hornets really be seeking their fourth anchor PG with the 10th pick this June?

On Jarrett Jack

The case for drafting a point guard is not the case against Jarrett Jack; let's make that much clear. They're simply not the same thing.

You can be a fan of Jack's game and still want Damian Lillard or Kendall Marshall in the draft. And you can similarly dislike Jack and also hope New Orleans looks elsewhere with the 10th pick.

MrWayneKeller did a great job explicating Jack's abilities back in April, which I'd highly recommend everyone revisit. Quoth MWK then:

No one's going to argue that Jack's in the top half of his position; however, an argument can be made for him to be a top 20 point guard in the league this season. Considering that the league is filled with great point guards, it's a pretty good spot to be at.

2011-2012 was Jack's first full year as a starter, and it coincided with his best statistical performance as well. He finished in the top half of the league in starting point guard PER, establishing himself as a capable scorer from the position (54% true shooting). The gripes against Jack will be more stylistic than performance-oriented, but even the "he's decent, but he can't run a team" criticisms are probably a tad overblown. Jack finished 17th among point guards in assist percentage. That's a low enough figure to make systemic and stylistic comments more than warranted, but at the same time, it does show that his value as a score-first lead guard doesn't overrate him as much as some assume.

Jarrett Jack is very close to the league average starter as a creator for both himself and his teammates, and while that may generally be read as a pejorative, given the quality of point guard play in the modern NBA, it really shouldn't be.

On the PG Position

This is where the case for Jack begins to diverge from the case against drafting a lead guard. As many have noted over the past several years, the point guard position is absolutely stacked from an offensive perspective.

The same 17.9 PER, for example, that ranks Jack 15th among point guards would slot a similarly producing small forward into the 6th overall spot at his position (James, Durant, Anthony, Pierce, Granger). Going bigger, it would have been good for the 8th overall spot among starting centers a year ago. And it also would have qualified as the 4th highest mark for a shooting guard (Wade, Bryant, Johnson). Essentially, there's much evidence - both statistical and visual - that at the higher levels, it's much easier for a point guard to efficiently contribute to an offense than most other positions*.

*The exception here seems to be the 4, where a 17.9 mark would also land a player right around 15th, or league average for a starter.

It's simply easier for a point guard to get into the lane in the modern game, given the way perimeter contact is officiated and the alarming frequency with which questionable screens are permitted. And as a result, even the best defenders at the position get torched by their opposing numbers every so often.

This has some implications on a potential Lillard or Marshall selection. The abundance of "good" (which we've now seen is essentially the same as "starter average" for the position*) point guards frames the Lillard/Marshall debate in an entirely different light. What analysts would almost universally consider a successful NBA transition for Lillard (I don't think anyone would complain if he developed into an ~17 PER player that hit 37% of his threes with an above average assist rate) will appear distinctly pedestrian due to the way the position has evolved.

Essentially: if you don't get that good point guard now, there are decent odds you can find another one later down the road because there are so many of them. This logic conceivably applies to the uncommon wealth at power forward today, but keep in mind the pricing premium that envelops both big positions. A center or power forward will almost assuredly cost more than a similarly talented point guard counterpart purely due to the large disparity in supply.

On Marshall and Lillard (and Sullinger)

And so we return to the 2012 draft. Both Lillard and Marshall are likely NBA-quality players, but in entirely different ways.

Marshall created primarily through the pass in UNC's offense (11.0 pure point ratio the highest of the last decade) but didn't have the opportunity to show if he could score or not (0.92 pts/possession on 12% usage). Lillard created primarily through the shot in Weber State's offense (1.27 pts/poss on 28.5% usage among the best marks ever) but didn't have the opportunity to show if he could pass or not (0.95 pure point ratio).

At this point, would you peg either player to significantly outperform league average performance at point guard? Speaking purely in terms of probability, it doesn't seem likely. And so I'd contend that you can find a Marshall/Lillard equivalent at some point over the next two years to add to the next Hornets contender. In terms of rarity, neither stand out despite projecting as good players.

Staying with that same idea, it might also seem wise to add a rarer skill-set. If Anthony Davis is who we think he is, the 10th pick of the 2012 draft will hopefully be the highest selection New Orleans makes in many years to come. Wouldn't that emphasize the value of picking up an uncommonly skilled player now at an extremely cheap price and paying fair value for the more common skill (point guard) at some point down the road instead of overpaying when the same, more unique player we passed on in 2012 hits the market?

I really don't mean those as rhetorical questions, either. I'd honestly love to see Lillard or Marshall on this team, but I'm just not sold on it making sense in the long term.

As far as what those rarer skills are? For now, I'd pinpoint low-post scoring and, specifically, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger. Legitimate back-to-basket players are hard to find in the NBA, and it'd be an ability that would mesh and contrast extremely well with Anthony Davis' flying-death-machine style of offense.

Due to his below the rim style, I don't think Sullinger will ever become a legitimate star in the league. But I do feel we have enough evidence to project him as a capable go-to in the post. Statistically, he was a monster: 27% usage, 118 ORtg, 12% OREB, 24% DREB, 8.1 FTA/40, 31 PER, 40% three point shooter. He's bigger than people think, and for all the talk about his subpar defense, he was one of the primary bigs on the 2nd most efficient defense in college basketball. Doesn't that sound like a skillset that would be a lot more expensive on the open market in, say, 2014, than the high production standard that has grown into the rule and not the exception at point guard?

So the Lillard/Marshall vs. Sullinger/Henson/Rivers (someone sell me on him without using "big shot taker" or "coach's son", please) debate may well come down to deciding factors entirely out of Lillard's and Marshall's control. And as far as Jarrett Jack goes, he's surely earned himself at least one more full year as a starting point guard regardless of how the draft plays out.