The 12 attributes of elite point guards
Great point guard play is easy to recognize, but can be difficult to define. You can talk about John Stockton, Magic Johnson and Chris Paul, and everyone would agree they’re all great point guards. However, if you asked coaches what they want most in a point guard, you would get a variety answers.
In reflecting on what we want here at Lynden High School (Washington), I have come up with specific qualities I hope to foster in our point guard. The first three are essential, the next four are necessary and the last five are important. In other words, I really want all these qualities, but feel we must have the first few.
1. A desire to win.
The point guard must radiate a competitive toughness and a find-a-way-to-get-the-job-done mindset. They are unconcerned about glory stats and only focused on things that impact the final score. This mindset can become contagious and should be contagious. I think of a guy like former Duke point guard Steve Wojokowski, who had average ability but a great will to win that carried over to his teammates.
2. Focus on others.
I don’t believe the point guard necessarily has to be a team leader, but they cannot be a selfish, high-maintenance athlete or it will be a long season for everyone. Not only does a teammate-first mindset breed good team chemistry, but athletes who are like this tend to be emotionally consistent and balanced.
The opposite also is true. If your point guard is a “me first” type of player, it will be hard for your team to reach its potential and you will not sleep very well.
This has little to do with how much a point guard scores. There are many high-scoring combo guards today at all levels. Teammates know the difference between a point guard who is a capable scorer taking quality shots and one that heaves shots and wants to lead the team in the box score.
3. Ball-handling skills.
The point guard is under control and sees the nine other players with soft vision because he or she can handle the ball. They can effectively dribble, pass, pivot and fake while getting the team into its offense.
This player cannot be bullied due to lack of skill. If they can’t dribble well, other teams can make you change everything you do. If you cut off a snake’s head, its body helplessly flails around. We don’t want our offense to look like that.
4. Value every possession.
A quality point guard hates turnovers and poor shots, and they model that in their play. They understand that a careless turnover is a felony, and that poor shot selection can become plague-like. These things start with the point guard, and they must take responsibility for that. They never want the team to look like noon ball at the local YMCA.
5. Team coordinator.
An effective point guard can communicate calls and changes, making sure that every player on the court understands what is happening. They can reload the offense if a fast break or a set play breaks down. They also know the optimal tempo for the team’s offense and defense and how to keep and change momentum. Point guards must play the game as if they were sitting in the stands, seeing the big picture of what must be done.
6. Make teammates better.
The point guard must set up players with easy shots that suit their skills. The point guard’s passes are on time and on target, and their soft vision helps find open players at just the right time. They must be consistent and purposeful, thus helping teammates improve their play over time.
When there’s no rhyme or reason to what a point guard does, teammates tend to be unsure what to do, so they stand around and watch. Point guards should be deceptive to opponents, but predictable to their teammates.
7. Understand the situation.
The point guard can transfer concepts from practice and timeouts, but can also read situations and make adjustments on the fly. They know who and what gives your team the best chance to succeed in certain situations.
8. Directs the fast break.
They must get open and available quickly for the outlet pass, advance the ball quickly from foul line to foul line and reward players who sprint ahead. The point guard makes good reads for the pass, the type of pass and to whom and when to pull it back out. They keep an eye out for a secondary opening. They also convey a “we’re coming at you” mentality.
9. Penetrate gaps and make reads.
The point guard puts pressure on the defense, creates layups, fouls, offensive rebounding opportunities and short pull-ups.
10. Shoots a high percentage.
The point guard is a good finisher in the key, is a capable 3-point shooter when left open, and is a great free-throw shooter.
11. Various gears and speeds.
The point guard must be shifty, in that they can change speed and direction. They are in great shape, and both teams sense they are strong and fit — especially in the fourth quarter.
12. A defensive bulldog.
I put this last only because we often have another player guard the point. What’s essential is that they make defense a priority and help set the tone for their teammates on how hard we play.
We share this list with our point guards and each season my hope is that our point guard strives to become more like the person described here.
Help from the coach
As far as specific things we coaches can do to help point guards reach their full potential, here are some tips.
• Find them early. The younger you identify a potential point guard, the better. Ask yourself, “Can I develop the most essential point guard qualities in this player?” If not, move them to a different position, even if they are 5-foot-6 and quick).
Some athletes are so far away that Coach K could not turn them into solid point guards. There have been a few players that I wrongly tried to mold into point guards and coaching those teams was like driving on ice. We were going somewhere, but I never knew where and turning the wheel didn’t seem to have any bearing on the direction.
• Build strong relationships. If we want them to be a coaching extension on the court we need to get to know them and for them to know us. We need to buy into them as people and not just basketball players. This builds trust.
The leading scorer doesn’t need us as much, and they will get 12 to 15 shots per game. But the point guard has a special task: to think the game, look after the team and work hard to make others better. It’s a selfless task, which requires a close working relationship with the coach.
• Ask a lot of why? and how? questions. We want all players to have a high basketball I.Q., but especially the point guards. So we want them to develop the habit to ask why so they get in the habit of trying to understand the reasoning behind what we do.
“Why do we want to get Matt more touches? How do we change momentum on the road? Why did we change from man defense to zone in the third quarter?” These are all things you want your point guard to ask.
• Give off-the-court assignments. If you are like me, you think about your team all the time. I want our point guard to be more like that. Our post player, whose favorite activity is catching crawfish in the local creek, starts thinking about basketball some 20 minutes into practice. So I am going to — for lack of a better word — “assign” my point guard certain things. Here are a few thoughts.
The offseason: Twelve minutes of daily focused ball handling. Complete with a calendar made by the coach. Give it to the coach on day one of practice. We have 75 days from the start of school until the first day of practice. Twelve minutes x 75 days is 900 minutes for skill development.
In season: Articles about what is important to us coaches, film clips of great point guard play and handouts. Like the previous list, this can help educate our point guards.
• Ask the point guard for input. This will foster ownership and critical thinking, and sometimes these players have good perspective on things we don’t see.
• Develop the little things at practice. One of those is being a vocal communicator. We will occasionally play music and force our point guard to communicate loudly or with hand signals. They also should make good decisions in transition. We create varied fast break scenarios with an emphasis on reading whether it is a primary or secondary break and what read to make.
Knowing their teammates’ strengths and weaknesses is another important aspect. We expect them to know the personnel, and we want them to value the ball. We record turnovers and shooting percentage at practice in order to raise the level of concern and awareness.
Make sure to use break down drills, and consider conditions that you could simulate (draw and kick or dish, getting open in the full or half court, getting through gaps in a zone, etc.) and create your own drills.
Finally, don’t forget about daily skill work. Some seasons our point guard may take five shots a game, but they may also take 300 dribbles a game, so we are going to dedicate more time for ball handling and passing skill development with our point guards. This means we will have to take some time away from other important areas, but we feel it is worth it since our team’s performance begins with our point guards.