Ranking college basketball's top 9 point guards: UNC's Joel Berry among the best
College basketball isn't won and lost by the point guard, but having a great one makes it easier to win
Last season brought an onslaught of extremely talented freshman point guards. Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith Jr. and De'Aaron Fox could ultimately wind up representing one of the strongest draft classes of frosh PGs in league history. Or ... one will wind up being an All-Star, two will bounce around the league for 6-10, and the remaining one is out of the league by 2021. We'll see. Regardless, all four of those guys made college basketball very interesting.
It might have you thinking that this year's troupe of floor generals in inferior. From an NBA perspective, sure. But at the college level, we are not thin on high-quality point guards. I count at least 15 that will be really good, with nine of them having elite potential. The fun of this is knowing all too well that there's someone I've left off this list that's going to have me regretting it by the start of league play, but that's the fun of the preseason projections.
For me, and to help you prep for the intriguing-as-hell season coming forth, these are the nine points guards who stand out above the 342 other guys starting at the 1 in D-I. This is not a list about projecting NBA value or how good they'll be as pros. This is purely a projection on how good and valuable they will be as college point guards to their teams this season and this season only.
1. Jalen Brunson | Jr. | Villanova
- 2016-17 statistics: 14.7 ppg, 4.1 apg, 2.6 rpg, 125.7 ORtg
Brunson is probably going to be a statbuster this season, now that he's set up to star with a cast of really good players around him. Josh Hart, a senior last season, was in contention for National Player of the Year most of 2016-17. Now Brunson, who was the team's second best player, will step in and probably fill that role. He's the most reliable all-around point guard on offense in college basketball, in my humble opinion, and his moment to rise to national stardom has come. Villanova sets up, again, as the favorite in the Big East.
Brunson has already earned the respect of many coaches in the sport; in our annual survey series, Jay Wright was hoping he'd be when he recruited him. Now we get to see the next great Villanova star -- who already has a national championship ring -- blossom into a national household name.. He's heady, steady, always in control and almost never takes a bad shot. That's an often underrated quality in a point guard. It's not just about the passes you make and the shots you take, but about the ones that don't surface and wind up as turnovers or easy rebound opportunities for the defense. Brunson has grown into the player
2. Joel Berry II | Sr. | North Carolina
- 2016-17 statistics: 14.7 ppg, 3.6 apg, 3.1 rpg, 38.3% 3-pt
Berry guided UNC to a national championship, making him a prime candidate for preseason First Team All-America consideration. He also upped his hype potential by releasing this before-and-after photo over the summer. Berry upgraded his diet, got really lean yet stayed at the same weight (190 pounds) en route to an 8-pack.
UNC lost a lot to NBA Draft early entry and graduation, but the reason the Tar Heels still have Final Four hopes that are legitimate is because of Berry, the latest really, really good veteran point guard to come through Chapel Hill. Expect his averages to spike this season, in part out of necessity but also because he's a fully grown man with a fully grown man's game to go with it.
3. Jaylen Adams | Sr. | St. Bonaventure
- 2016-17 statistics: 20.6 ppg, 6.5 apg, 3.7 rpg, 2.1 spg, 35.4% assist rate
NBA potential for this stud of a 1 who doesn't get seen as much as he should due to the conference he's been triumphing in the past two seasons. Adams tested NBA waters but opted to return, and in doing so, locked up the preseason POY award in the Atlantic 10. Bonaventure won 20 games last season. It should hit that mark again due to a solid core returning around Adams.
The only reason he's listed as "low" as fourth is due to his lack of more consistent exposure to top-50 programs. Brunson and Berry have proven their ability plenty to validate a higher ranking. Adams might well be taken ahead of all of them in June, though. He's a savvy point guard with equal ability in the open floor, using screen-and-rolls or creating one-on-one. There is a smoothness to his style that makes him an irresistible watch at the college level. The 2018 NCAA Tournament would be bettered by having Adams in it.
4. Devonte' Graham | Sr. | Kansas
- 2016-17 statistics: 13.4 ppg, 4.1 apg, 3.1 rpg, 1.5 spg, 50.4% 2-pt
Graham is going to have a role unlike all other point guards listed here. Kansas is going to deploy a four-guard attack, but none of the other three guards (Malik Newman, Lagerald Vick, Svy Mykahiliuk) are exception ball-handlers or visionaries within an offense. Graham got to this point by sharing point guard duties in the past, most successfully with Frank Mason -- who was the 2016-17 National Player of the Year.
Graham can't be reasonably expected to follow up Mason's campaign with a similar one, but he's still a no-doubt-about-it candidate for top-five point guard in college basketball. He'll be given the keys, have a lot of scorers around him, and he'll also get his shots as well. Kansas sets up yet again as the favorite in the Big 12. Senior guards have fared well under Self. Graham's already a relatively well known name in the sport, but this is the year he can become a star. The big question is if he's able to add a true slasher dimension to his game. That's the one thing Mason was so much better at than Graham the past two seasons.
5. Landry Shamet | Jr. | Wichita State
- 2016-17 statistics: 11.4 ppg, 3.3 apg, 2.8 rpg, 43.9% 3-pt, 129.6 ORtg
That ORtg, via KenPom.com, is an outstanding number for a guy who was converted -- at 6-foot-5 -- to the point midway through last season. Shamet at No. 5 tells you how strong a year it is for point guards. Not a classically great season in college hoops for points, but still a pretty respectable one. Shamet's question mark comes from his offseason foot surgery. He suffered from a stress fracture, the second one of his career, albeit on the opposite foot from the one that took him out almost two years ago. Shamet told me a couple weeks back he was tracking toward being ready for the season-opener.
If he plays then and is at 100 percent, Wichita State will have a chance at being a top-10 team. (His teammate, Markis McDuffie, is likely out until December with a stress fracture of his own to recover from.) What makes Shamet so intriguing is his height -- he's by far taller than any other point guard listed here. Yet the position comes naturally to him. A big season in 2017-18, coupled with at least a pair of NCAA tourney wins, and his name could join Baker and VanVleet in Wichita State lore.
6. Kyron Cartwright | Sr. | Providence
- 2016-17 statistics: 11.4 ppg, 6.7 apg, 3.5 rpg, 41.9% assist rate, 38.8% 3-pt
Was fourth nationally in assists last season and has helped, in a huge way, Providence maintain its relevance after Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil's departures. The Friars have made the NCAA Tournament four straight seasons, and with Cartwright at the wheel it's almost certainly going to be five straight Dance trips for coach Ed Cooley.
Cooley told me over the summer that Cartwright's going to be the team's most important player, an notable distinction since leading scorer Rodney Bullock is also back. The Friars will have four seniors starting; Cartwright's both the glue and the engine. A fine dark horse pick for Big East player of the year. If he winds up boosting his averages in a major way, PC could flirt with a No. 5 seed come March.
7. Trevon Duval | Fr. | Duke
- 2016-17 statistics: N/A
Though Grayson Allen's antics, team-wide injuries and Mike Krzyzewski's in-season surgery served as the three most discussed reasons for Duke's inconsistencies last season, the truth is the team lacked a point guard to keep the offense consistent. Now it's Duval's job to do so, and you can expect him to thrive, even if he's not a so-called "true" point guard. The top-rated point guard in the Class of 2017, per 247Sports, Duval is an A-level athlete with a straight-faced demeanor and killer instinct.
He'll be able to score, and certainly have his chances to do so. Duval's going to likely be even more dangerous and tougher to contain now that Duke's got Allen, Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter all commanding attention. If his 17-foot jumper shows up with the rest of his game, Duval has a chance to be one of the best freshman point guards Duke's had in the past 15 years. Coach K would be advised to let Duke roll as often as possible in the open court with the ball in Duval's hands.
8. Matt Farrell | Sr. | Notre Dame
- 2016-17 statistics: 14.1 ppg, 5.4 apg, 2.0 rpg, 1.4 spg, 42% 3-pt, 29.4% assist rate
While Bonzie Colson is getting the majority of the pub as Notre Dame's MVP, Farrell could wind up stealing that title from his teammate by the time we get to March. I saw him firsthand in July at the Under Armour All-America camp, where he went up against a number of high-profile returning college players. Farrell looked stronger, quicker and as heady as ever.
He's not necessarily an underrated player, but his defining season is likely coming in 2017-18. The Fighting Irish have averaged 27 wins since Farrell joined the team. He and Colson will have Mike Brey's program flirting with that number again. Look for Farrell to alternate from being a dominant lead guard to a necessary distributor every other possession, practically. It's not out of the question that he averaged 17 and 7. In fact, it's likely.
9. Collin Sexton | Fr. | Alabama
- 2016-17 statistics: N/A
The resurgence of Alabama's basketball program doesn't fall only on the Sexton's shoulders, but if the Crimson Tide are going to play up to the hype this season, Sexton will almost certainly be the biggest reason. He's a flash of an athlete and a really fun player to watch. He'll move with abandon and bring an element of excitement that the program hasn't seen in ages. Sexton was, in the eyes of some, the most talented point guard prospect in the Class of 2017.
Sexton's bread and butter is slicing through defense with his nimble ball-handling and slippery penetration instincts -- and he can break you down from anywhere on the perimeter. Also, will probably be a top-five freshman on defense in the league. He projects as a 2018 lottery pick. The SEC should be improved from a year ago, and it's in part because teams like Alabama have players like Sexton now in the fold.
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Kansas, Duke, Tennessee and Gonzaga are also in the top five