Kentucky, North Carolina point men growing up fast

North Carolina's Marshall, Kentucky's Teague growing into position as they play

jtipton@herald-leader.comDecember 3, 2011 

Fans of point guard play — like fans of any other basketball position — surely will enjoy watching Saturday's Kentucky-North Carolina game.

Marquis Teague, the latest in the lengthy line of freshman point guards for Kentucky Coach John Calipari, seems to be turning the corner in the transition from do-everything high school superstar to team-oriented college trainee. After 18 turnovers in UK's first four games, he's committed only two in his last 65 minutes.

"He's a freshman," older brother/NBA player Jeff Teague said of the early turnovers. "I was a freshman, and I struggled a couple games early. He'll be fine."

UNC's Kendall Marshall, a relative graybeard as a sophomore, had the luxury of coming off the bench in the first 17 games of his freshman season. From this incubation period, he arrived at mid-season seemingly fully formed as team leader, floor general and any other point guard cliché you want to use. He led the Atlantic Coast Conference in assists (6.2 per game) last season.

Earlier this season, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas called Marshall the best passer in the country.

"He's a real good passer," Teague said of Marshall. "He sees the floor well. He gets his teammates involved. He's very unselfish."

These are all qualities that any point guard should seek to master. Teague's performance against Portland last weekend — eight assists and no turnovers — suggested he's well on the way to being handy with the tools of point guard play.

"I just take it game by game," he said. "I'm determined to show progress each game."

Teague, a McDonald's All-American, readily acknowledges that high school stardom does not automatically translate into the college game.

"College is more team basketball, more help-side defense," he said. "You can't get into the lane.

"In high school, I could get into the lane pretty much whenever I wanted to (and) get to the basket at will. You can't do that in college."

Older brother Jeff, now about to resume his career with the Atlanta Hawks, learned the same lesson as a freshman for Wake Forest.

Through his first six college games, he had more turnovers (26) than assists (15). Maybe worse, he found it difficult to accept coming off the bench.

"I would come in the game and try to impress the coach," Jeff Teague said. "I'd play too fast to try to make things happen."

Except for coming off the bench, Marquis has talked about the same try-too-hard issue.

Beginning with Wake Forest's seventh game, Jeff Teague mostly started the rest of his two-season college career. Interestingly, he had more turnovers (76) than assists (74) as a freshman.

"I was just out there playing," he said. "I didn't understand (the game). In high school, everything came so easy. Now, I was playing against grown men."

Jeff Teague, who bought Marquis the distinctive gray shoes the UK player wears in games, considered transferring to another college team.

"Mom told me to stick it out," he said.

At the time, Marquis, who was in the ninth grade when Jeff was a college freshman in 2007-08, did not understand his brother's difficult adjustment period.

"Now, going through it, I know exactly what he was going through," Marquis said. "It's not as easy as you probably think."

By contrast, Marshall has made the transition at least look easy.

Earlier this season, UNC Coach Roy Williams bestowed the ultimate compliment by agreeing with a reporter's suggestion that Marshall is an example of a "true" point guard.

Williams defined this fuzzy term as "a guy who really looks to run the show, get others involved, get you in your offense."

Scoring, smoring.

Or as Kentucky Coach John Calipari said admiringly, "He's playing to make his team better. That's why he's averaging 11 assists (actually, 10.3)."

Marshall specializes in the long, lead pass in transition: a half-court or longer connection that hits the receiver in stride and somehow barely eludes the immediate attention of retreating defenders.

In the full-court or halfcourt setting, he seems to constantly scan for passing opportunities, and appears happy to merely advance the ball.

"He's not going to blow by you off the dribble," Bilas said, echoing a common critique of Marshall's relative lack of John Wall-like speed. "But, boy, he can really find people and thread a needle. I think he sees the game a pass ahead."

When asked if a coach could instill such a trait in a player, Bilas said, "I tend to think you either have it or you don't. I think it's really hard to teach a player to see the game. You can teach him to make a read: Here's your first read, here's your second. But some guys are instinctive in that regard."

Joe Wootten, who coached Marshall at Bishop O'Connell High in Dumfries, Va., noted how the player came to summer camps when as young as 7 years old. He'd play against boys several years older. Stronger, faster playmates forced Marshall to use his mind to compensate for a physical disadvantage.

"Kendall's a great example of a guy, he's not blessed with great natural speed," Wootten said. "But he's very fast with the ball. That's sometimes overlooked.

"He's also very clever with the ball."

Wootten declined to take credit for Marshall's passing.

"Kendall's always had a natural gift for it," the coach said.

"He always enjoyed passing. He knew that was his strength, and he knew he could carve his own niche that way.

"He does a great job of doing a lot of simple things, not over-passing or trying too much of a fancy pass. He just makes a lot of simple ones that end up looking good."

Marshall doesn't shoot well (32.3 percent). Then again, he doesn't look to shoot. Seven Tar Heels teammates have attempted more shots than Marshall, who leads UNC in minutes played.

To which, Wootten said, "If you're playing cards, you don't throw your queen. You throw your ace."

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