Teams should draft point guards early

Originally Published: May 4, 2005
By Doug Gottlieb | Special to ESPN.com

With the NBA draft rapidly approaching, I have an easy tip for Atlanta, Charlotte, Utah, Portland, New Orleans and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Draft a great college point guard.

I know, I sound like Dick Vitale passionately pleading the case for teams to look at the college players, but in this case, he's right on. College guards translate to wins in the NBA, and pure point guards are the best way to fix a team. In recent years, NBA teams that added a pure point guard improved at a greater rate than clubs that made alternative changes (outside of maybe Miami's grabbing Shaq, but there's another reason there, too).

Sure, the NFL draft has a cult following more fitting a Lollapalooza concert, but the NBA draft is a much greater test of a team's ability to judge talent on three vastly different levels of play.

Teams must judge high school, college and international competition to find a player whose skills will develop on the NBA stage. Within these complex analyses lies one overwhelming truth  when in doubt, draft the best point guard available.

The NBA is full of 6-foot-9 athletes who can run and jump, yet more often than not, their teams never win. A point guard has more value today, largely because of both zone defenses (against which penetration and shooting is valued) and how tightly officiated the regular season has been (also valuing penetration). With a point guard in the mix, mediocre teams become playoff teams, and playoff teams become champions.

The Phoenix Suns are a prime example. Last year, many NBA analysts pegged Amare Stoudemire as a great athlete and dunker without much "game." Joe Johnson never truly lived up to the hype that followed him from college. Shawn Marion was seen as an amazing athlete whose funny-looking shot limited his effectiveness. Quentin Richardson was an amazing yet streaky shooter with the Clippers, NBA lottery regulars. Coach Mike D'Antoni was in desperate need of a guy to set the table for his team or he could be out of a job.

From the day Steve Nash became a Sun, Stoudamire suddenly became the most dominant, young big man in the game, Johnson became a dynamic scoring guard (his 3-point shooting is up 17 percent from last year), Marion averaged nearly 20 points and 12 rebounds all while shooting an unbelievable percentage from the field, and Richardson is once again dominant, but now takes better, more timely shots. D'Antoni now coaches the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

The Milwaukee Bucks, though, might be a better team to study. Last year, they made the playoffs behind Michael Redd, Desmond Mason and a combination of two point guards: Damon Jones and T.J. Ford. While they re-signed Redd over the offseason and Mason has had his best offensive season as a pro, this year's Bucks ended with a dreadful record.

With Jones gone (now incredibly valuable to the Heat) and Ford hampered by a spinal cord injury, the Bucks were left with Mo Williams and Erick Strickland, and while both are serviceable backups, neither created the open looks that Ford specialized in or stretched the defense like Jones could.

What is the secret to Miami's explosion this year? Sure, Shaq is a big reason for the Heat's success, but so are Dwyane Wade and Jones. The Heat got rid of many pieces to last year's puzzle, but upgraded their backcourt with Wade's improvement and the addition of Jones.

Look around the NBA. The Pistons go as Chauncey Billups goes. The Luke Ridnour-Antonio Daniels tandem works well in Seattle. How much better was Golden State at the end of the year with Baron Davis at the helm? Is it me or is Tony Parker the best 22-year-old we never talk about? Why has Houston struggled at times this year despite having two of the top players in the game? Not having a true point guard makes Tracy McGrady handle the ball way too much. The Nets? Very little without Jason Kidd.

Now imagine the Atlanta Hawks's actually considering drafting anyone other than Chris Paul or Deron Williams. Yes, Andrew Bogut is an intriguing big man with solid skill to go along with soft hands and a massive yet agile frame. Sure, Marvin Williams has the look of a young colt whose inside/outside game combined with his dynamic athleticism might dominate NBA games in the future. But if these teams really want to win, they will look only for the point guard who fits their team best.

Now I can hear a cynic saying that Portland already has Sebastian Telfair, whom I never would have taken out of high school, but with two years under Rick Pitino I would have gobbled up in a heartbeat. Fine, keep Telfair, take Deron Williams and play them together. The Bulls have made it work with Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon, neither a pure point.

I am not blind to the fact that after Paul and Deron Williams, Marvin Williams and Bogut should be taken before anyone else is considered. After that, though, there are several guards such as Jarrett Jack (assuming he stays in the draft) and Raymond Felton (how valuable was he to UNC?) who would still be on the board after the top four are taken.

There are also substantial point guard values in the second round this year. Guys such as Travis Diener, John Gilchrist, Salim Stoudamire, Carl Krauser (if he stays in the draft), Nate Robinson and Filiberto Rivera all have a tremendous shot at making the league, which ordinarily is below a 50-50 proposition as a second-rounder.

While not every point guard will pan out, it is easier to measure them against each other because they rarely switch positions (the true points, that is) and there is higher quality in guards than in big men at the Division I level. This class has four clear first-round possibilities and all will improve the teams that draft them.

Doug Gottlieb is an analyst for ESPN and the co-host of GameNight on ESPN Radio.

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