November Isn’t March, But Two Young Point Guards Show Why Early Season Success Matters

All stats are updated through the games of November 27. For up-to-the-minute coverage of this week’s college basketball action, visit us on Twitter and follow @PalestraBack.

The college basketball season just barely sprouted from the ground, so it can be hard to draw big picture conclusions. Most teams have played only a handful of games against a wide range of competition. Even games matching equal teams, like those in Maui and the other marquee November events, provide only a glimpse into the futures of the two teams. Gonzaga beat Duke, without one of its best players healthy, yet you’d be crazy to declare the Zags cleary better than the Blue Devils or even to favor them in a potential March rematch.

Young players are still developing, learning how their programs operate, and finding ways to contribute. Older players who have returned are growing into new roles and phasing in new skills they worked on this summer. No team is a sure thing or a known quantity.

Adopting that mindset changes how we watch games early in the season. Sure, we can still eat up great gameplay, root for our favorite teams, and savor the overtimes and buzzer-beaters. None of that should cloud how we think about the outcomes of every game we choose to watch. I found myself binging basketball in the last week and trying to find the players and plays that could shed some light on bigger picture takeaways.

Two guys stood out in particular as a perfect yin and yang of what to key on during non-conference play. Both are point guards but they play very different styles for very different teams. Devon Dotson has stepped in as the staring point guard for highly ranked Kansas as just a freshman and Ja Morant is doing absolutely everything as the point guard at Murray State. Both teams have high expectations, relative to their respective programs, and each will rely on their young point guard to drive much of their success.

We’ll start by looking at Dotson, who is not necessarily as under the radar as you might guess, seeing as he starts for a top five team who already has two top ten wins this year. But Dotson is not Kansas’ best player. That would be Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson. Dotson is also not the Jayhawks most exciting player or even their best freshman. That would be senior guard Lagerald Vick and swingman Quentin Grimes, respectively.

Dotson is, however, a steadying presence for Kansas. Even as a freshman, he’s used a high basketball IQ and an understanding of his skills and his role to drive much of what Bill Self wants to see from his offense. Kansas has a handful of very good players, including those I listed above, yet none are truly elite scorers. Many are capable of scoring effectively, but not in isolation on the post or the wing. Bill Self’s offensive playbook this year will be a bit more complex than ball screens and step back jump shots.

Devon Dotson, even as a freshman, is key to putting his scoring teammates in a position to find an open shot. As the ball moves within the Jayhawk offense, Dotson looks for a chance to use his lightning-quick feet and excellent court vision to find a scoring chance.

Here he uses a quick baseline move to collapse the defense, creating a chance to dump off to a diving Udoka Azubuike.

In the halfcourt, his ability to penetrate into a gap makes him a danger for any defense. What makes Dotson truly valuable is how he keeps his eyes up and active when driving. As a freshman, he’s already making passes that few upperclassmen are able to see. Here he jets by three Tennessee defenders before dishing to a wide open KJ Lawson for a three.

Dotson’s speed helps in the halfcourt, yet it makes him terrifying in transition. In the clip below, he makes a similar pass for a corner three. The pass is open because of how aggressively he slices to the rim and sucks every single Volunteer defender into his orbit.

Even in 2018, smart guards like Dotson know that a kick-out for a three is great, but a dunk from your big man is the highest percentage look in the game. As he glides down the court in this clip, he finds Azubuike near the rim, never telegraphing where the ball will go. He waits until the defense drifts toward him before tossing the alley-oop.

Defenses do jump towards Dotson, because he’s capable of scoring himself. He’s averaging 14.2 points per 36 minutes, thanks to his attacking nature. The freshman has taken more than half of his field goal attempts at the rim and is converting 70 percent of those tries. For a 6-foot-2 guard with feathery quick feet, that makes Dotson a real weapon. In transition here, he waits for the defense to jump towards him and open a passing lane, then finishes at the rim when the Volunteers never close in.

He may be a freshman who isn’t attracting much attention from NBA Scouts (he does not appear at all in ESPN’s latest two-round mock draft) and the fourth-leading scorer on his team, yet Devon Dotson will be a major part of college basketball this season. When Kansas faces teams with the kinds of athletes who can bang in the paint with the Jayhawk big men, Dotson is the kind of change of pace that will keep Kansas from settling for contested jump shots. I may just be a basketball nerd who loves a passing point guard, but for a freshman, this kid is already a very good one.

It’s easy to contrast the work of Dotson, as an integral role player for one of America’s top teams, with a player like Ja Morant of Murray State, one of America’s best players on a noteworthy mid-major. While Dotson can help stir the Kansas offense, Morant isĀ relied upon for everything the Racers are looking to accomplish. So far, he’s looked more than capable.

Sophomores from the Ohio Valley Conference aren’t supposed to get drafted in the top ten of the NBA Draft. Then again, most sophomores don’t average 27.8 points, 9.0 assists, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.0 steals. That’s what Temetrius “Ja” Morant (a very fun name to sing) is doing so far this season and it’s exactly why a gaggle of NBA scouts and GM’s were on hand to see him play live this week at Alabama.

They were treated to a gem, as Morant finished with 38 points on 29 field goal attempts and added 9 rebounds and 5 assists. He also showcased a monstrous hammer dunk late in the game.

To date this season, he leads all of Division I in three categories (per KenPom): percentage of minutes played, assist rate, and usage rate. Let’s address each of those separately.

First, Morant has played all but three minutes in Murray State’s three games versus D1 opponents. He’s going to post some bonkers stat lines playing those levels of minutes, especially against lesser competition.

Second, his assist rate is through the roof at 63.7 percent. Nearly two-thirds of the field goals made by his teammates came from an assist by Morant. The next highest rate in the nation is just 47.6 percent. There is the same amount of difference between Morant and 2nd place Marlain Veal of Southeastern Louisiana as there is between Veal and 35th place. It is awfully early to start looking at numbers in a historical context, yet Morant seems poised to make a run at recent records. In the KenPom era (since 2004), just six players have posted an assist rate of 50.0 or higher, with JJ Barea in 2004 setting the high watermark at 54.2 percent. We’ll be keeping an eye on Morant’s efforts to reach those heights.

Lastly, Morant leads the nation in usage rate so far. This has led to the only downfall in his play so far this year. While playing nearly every minute, Morant also has the ball in his hands almost at all times. With that being said, he’s struggled to stay efficient or effective at times. Against Alabama he posted 10 turnovers and is averaging 6.5 cough-ups on the year. While doing everything for Murray State, that’s nearly expected. There’s a ceiling on just how much one single player can do. We saw similar results from Trae Young at Oklahoma last season.

High-usage stars like Morant and intriguing glue guys like Dotson are exactly the types of players that flash early in the season. Yes, Zion Williamson and Rui Hachimura are exciting to watch and talk about. I am certainly intrigued by what we’ve seen from teams like Duke and will be eager to see how their early success translates into conference and tournament play.

Yet for right now, my eyes are more peeled towards the edges: finding players like Dotson who can elevate a good team to greatness or those like Morant, who is taking a program from obscurity to relevancy by himself. When March rolls around, Zion and Duke and the Zags and the people that get talked about on ESPN will still be around and still be at the forefront of everyone’s minds. It’s the players and teams below the surface, like Dotson and Morant, that can shake things up and cause the kinds of chaos and greatness we see every March. Last year, maybe we should have noticed when UMBC’s Jairus Lyles scored 31 points versus Arizona, or when future championship hero Donte DiVencenzo showed himself to be more than just a sixth man by hitting multiple threes in seven of Villanova’s first eleven games last year.

If Murray State disrupts your bracket and sneaks into the Sweet Sixteen or Dotson spurs Kansas to a Final Four run, we will be able to look back to their play in November and see the groundwork that was laid for them to prosper when the late-season spotlight kicked on.

*****

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.

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