The new guard

Handful of freshmen expected to run teams' offenses

Acc Men

November 03, 2006|By Heather A. Dinich | Heather A. Dinich,SUN REPORTER

Wake Forest point guard Ishmael Smith was pushing the ball downcourt at a recent practice when, instead of taking it up for an easy layup, he tried to make a backward, show-stopping pass over his head to forward Kevin Swinton, who was trailing.

"He caught it in an awkward position," Smith said. "[Coach Skip Prosser] said, `In my 35 years of coaching, I've never seen that in my life.'"

And as long as Smith is the Demon Deacons' starting point guard, he vowed his coach will never see it again.

Smith, 18, is one of five freshman point guards expected to get significant playing time - if not earn starting roles - in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season. At North Carolina, McDonald's All-American Ty Lawson is likely to inherit the job from sophomore Bobby Frasor, who was only the third Tar Heels point guard to start his entire freshman season, but is more of a natural shooting guard. At Georgia Tech, Javaris Crittenton, who was ranked the No. 1 point guard in the class of 2006 by Rivals.com, is expected to run the offense. And at Maryland, there are high hopes for Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez to steady the position that gave the Terps the most trouble last season.

They are in select company. Only 10 freshman point guards have led ACC teams in the past seven seasons. Some, such as Maryland's Steve Blake and Duke's Jason Williams, had immediate success. Others, such as Clemson's Vernon Hamilton and Virginia's Sean Singletary, struggled.

"The enormity of what they're about to face is beyond their grasp right now," Prosser said. "It's not something we delve into in great detail."

At North Carolina, where the roster is packed with enough talent this season to yield two starting lineups, the message Roy Williams sends to his freshmen is clear: "Do what I say."

"If you do what I say, you've got a much better chance of being successful than you do of just making your own way," he said. "If you don't do what I say, I don't care how good, I don't care how many newspaper articles you have, how much recognition ... I don't care. If you don't do what I say, you are not going to play."

Programs like Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Maryland have little choice.

The Demon Deacons spent last season trying to stitch together the gaping hole left when Chris Paul went to the NBA. Wake Forest senior center Kyle Visser said the Deacons need Smith to come in and play consistently well.

"I think he's going to be a huge key to our success this year," Visser said. "People aren't expecting much out of us. Honestly, I think a lot of the burden lays on his shoulders. He's the quarterback of our team. He's the one who's going to be taking care of that ball. He can do it. If anyone can do it, he can do it."

The expectations are just as high for Crittenton at Georgia Tech. Yellow Jackets senior guard Mario West said the learning curve will be fast for Crittenton.

"It's going to be important that he picks up on a lot of things because he's going to be our starting point guard," West said. "And being a freshman in the ACC, you can have your freshman woes and your ups and downs, but I think he'll handle the pressure very well. We as teammates have to support him and stick by him the whole year and we'll definitely do that."

Even Virginia Tech, which has possibly the most experienced backcourt in the conference, is looking to incorporate freshman Nigel Munson, a four-year starter at DeMatha, into the rotation.

"The heir apparent is Nigel Munson," coach Seth Greenberg said. "He's a guy we need to play quality minutes this year so that he gets the understanding next year it's going to be his team. He has to learn the system.

"The hardest thing for a freshman point guard is that he doesn't just have to learn his position, he's got to learn everyone's position. He's got to have the big picture, and that's a lot of pressure to put on a freshman."

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has had uncanny success with freshman point guards, most notably Chris Duhon, Bobby Hurley, Tommy Amaker, Johnny Dawkins and last season, Greg Paulus. Krzyzewski said when recruiting a point guard, he looks for players with the ability to pressure, pass and shoot, and also to lead.

"A lot of point guards right now are not point guards; they're lead guards," he said. "They have some moxie, some pizazz. Whoever it is for us is going to get a lot of attention. They have to have that a little bit already."

And they have to minimize the freshman mistakes.

"I'm not going to do it again," Smith said of his careless pass. "Coach told me: `Don't take a lot of risks, but take some.'"

heather.dinich@baltsun.com

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