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Friday Food for Thought: A different point guard debate.

Could a top tier point guard really be second best?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-North Carolina vs Texas A&M Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Friday Food For Thought, the weekend conversation starter. Each week, this article presents a topic for debate. Whether in the comments section, on the golf course, or around the weekend game table, the goal is to provide enough background that either side could be a winner. In order to facilitate the discourse, a suggested beverage pairing is also be included. So speak up, mix it up, and drink up.

The Issue: My colleague Jake Lawrence wrote an excellent article last week evaluating Joel Berry’s place among Roy Williams’ Point Guards. Jake’s ultimate conclusion was that Berry should be ranked third (behind Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton). Not willing to let such a worthy discussion end so easily, a different question seems relevant; was Joel Berry II the best point guard on the 2017-2018 team?

1. Point

In terms of a “point guard” as listed in the program and announced during introductions, Berry was unquestionably the best. Returning for his senior year as the reigning Final Four Most Outstanding Player and a preseason Wooden Award candidate, Berry was poised for a tremendous final season. He did not disappoint. After missing the first game against Northern Iowa with an injury, Berry went on to start the remainder of the team’s 36 games.

In his senior year, Berry averaged 33.1 minutes and 17.1 points per game. Both of these led the team. He finished with 116 assists to only 68 turnovers for a good ratio of 1.7. He was nearly 90% from the free throw line and grabbed 3.5 rebounds per game. Although his three point shooting percentage declined from earlier in his career (35.4% as a freshman, 37.6% as a sophomore, 38.3% as a junior and 34.4% as a senior), he shot very well with more attempts against the most difficult schedule in the country.

Amazingly, despite his fearless ability to drive to the rim and absorb contact, Berry only shot 121 free throws on the season. An argument could be made that but for a less physically imposing presence, this number would have been significantly higher on the year as officials just did not have a lot of sympathy for him.

In addition to his numbers, Berry was an excellent defender. The knock here would be that his defensive performances, particularly on-ball pressure and perimeter shooting coverage, were uneven at times. Given that toward the end of the season the only true point guard replacement from the bench was an injured Seventh Woods, it is easy to understand why Berry would be careful not to give up cheap fouls.

Carolina fans will remember Berry’s steely-eyed stare as a symbol of his leadership and competitive rage. He was a calm shooter when needed and a lightning bolt with the ball when the opportunity presented itself. Berry has been one of the best point guards to don the Carolina uniform and will be greatly missed.

2. Counterpoint

Joel Berry II was a great player. He was absolutely one of, if not the best, players on the 2017-2018 team. The issue presented today, however, seems deeper. College basketball is constantly changing. The days of having a point guard, a shooting guard, a small forward, a big/power forward, and a center on the court are long gone.

Perhaps this evolution started with the concept of a “wing,” which is a hybrid between a forward and a guard, or with the label “guard” instead of point and shooting. For Roy Williams, moving players out of position at North Carolina may have started in the 2012-2013 season with the mid-season switch to the small lineup. Starting two guards (Marcus Paige and Dexter Strickland), two wings (Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston) and a forward/center (James Michael McAdoo) was a true departure from tradition. The concept has reappeared with Brice Johnson, Tony Bradley, and now Luke Maye in the middle.

This trend of transformation has not just applied to big men. Marcus Paige, who finished 5th on Jake’s list, did not even start at “point guard” his senior year. He moved off the ball to allow for greater scoring opportunities and to get Berry on the floor. For Roy Williams, talent and skill-set are simply more determinate of one’s actual position than traditional notions of size. Regardless of title, the concept of a point guard is the person who handles the ball, gets teammates involved, and generates the offensive flow.

In the 2017-18 season, the best distributor of the ball and facilitator of the North Carolina offense was Theo Pinson. By the end of the season, the façade of positional fixation had largely disappeared as Berry all but openly moved to the two-guard (similar to Paige two years before) while Pinson initiated the offense.

On the season, Pinson finished with a whopping 187 assists; over 60% more than Berry. Pinson’s assist to turnover ratio was also higher at 2.1. He could take over a game with his driving and finishing at the rim, mid-game, and passing, as he showed in the ACC Tournament. He did this while playing nearly 4 minutes less per game than Berry.

Pinson was also more effective at getting his teammates involved in the offense. He assisted on 27.2% of teammate field goals while on the floor versus 17.1% for Berry. Pinson had an offensive rating of 116.0, which nearly 2 points higher than Berry’s.

Now of course, a lot of Pinson’s assists and production were due to Berry’s perimeter prowess and spacing. Again, there is no question that Berry was an outstanding player. By the end of the season, however, the best “point guard” was Theo Pinson. Roy Williams was consistently moving Pinson into more ball handling responsibility including most end of clock situations. Pinson’s point-forward position put him into favorable matchups and created defensive dilemmas for the opponents. His professional basketball future will turn on his ability to continue to enhance this skillset.

Theo Pinson is a point guard in the modern definition of the term, and in my opinion, he was the best that UNC had this year.

Drink Pairing

In need of encouragement to debate – Taking a little break from the hard stuff, this is an opportunity to move to a frosty draft. My current favorite is Hardywood Pils, a German-style pilsner brewed by Richmond, Virginia-based Hardywood Park Craft Brewery. A couple of nearby establishments have picked it up on draft and it is delicious.

Can debate without assistance – Since we are moving fully in to golf season, the Arnold Palmer seems appropriate. Half unsweet iced tea and half lemonade. A legendary mix.