The difference between a point guard and a shooting guard in college basketball varies from roster to roster and system to system. For every dedicated distributor or spot-up shooter, there are backcourt members who combine scoring and playmaking duties and blur conventional position-to-position distinctions. Doesn’t Yogi Ferrell look to create for himself as well as his Indiana teammates? Isn’t Fred VanVleet just as clutch as a shot-maker for Wichita State as he is steady as a floor leader?
With that in mind, as we did with our preseason look at the best bigs and wings for college basketball in 2014-15, we’re including on our list of the nation's top 20 guards those who have or will play either backcourt position. That list features a reigning NCAA champion, an explosive dunk artist who is merely 6 feet tall, three Wildcats between two teams and a pair of Shockers. (How those players project to the NBA was not a consideration.)
. Ron Baker
SETH DAVIS: Summer School: Gregg Marshall on what it takes to win at Wichita State
During the Huskies’ six-game run to the national championship last spring, Boatright averaged 13.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.8 steals per night. He was often positioned at the top of Connecticut’s formidable half-court defense and was a snarly complement to Shabazz Napier, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Instead of chancing a second-round-or-worse slot in the NBA draft, Boatright returned to assume the Great Connecticut Four-Year Guards mantle that Kemba Walker and Napier wore before him. He’ll have to improve his shooting from last year – just a 39.1 percent raw percentage and 45.0 percent effective field goal rate – but he’ll also have transfer guard Rodney Purvis and incoming five-star freshman Daniel Hamilton to contribute offensively. Mostly, Boatright will be counted on to set the example and set the standard, much like Napier did all the way to a title.
Brogdon averaged 12.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.2 steals for the Cavaliers in 2013-14. He never scored more than 16 points in a single game. That's a fairly modest output, but it was enough to earn All-ACC honors from the league’s coaches. No player in coach Tony Bennett's clock-eating system is likely to produce eye-popping scoring totals, so a player’s value on the defensive end might more accurately define his contributions. And there, Brogdon’s defensive win shares total of 3.0 tied for 11th nationally. Besides leading scorer Joe Harris, Virginia didn’t lose much at all from a 30-win team that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Brogdon might not blow up stat monitors this year, either, but he’ll be indispensable at both ends of the floor for a program positioned for another run.
Here’s a riddle: Can a guard in one of the highest profile college basketball programs in the nation continue to improve and not make a sound? Cook’s scoring leveled off from his sophomore to junior seasons – 11.7 and 11.6 points per night, respectively – but his efficiency went up, as he raised his effective field goal percentage from 49.2 percent to 53.5 percent and cut his turnover percentage from 16.6 to 13.8. Now, Duke brings in a virtual starting five of top-notch freshmen, one of whom, top-10 point guard Tyus Jones, has a built-in rapport with top overall prospect Jahlil Okafor, as the pair were a recruiting package deal. Cook’s numbers aren’t likely to soar in his final season. The raw totals might even dip a bit. But it’s impossible to imagine Mike Krzyzewski not leaning on a four-year player to help lead this team.
. Yogi Ferrell
Indiana rode Ferrell so much last season that it’s a wonder he hasn’t lost an inch or two, slouched permanently by the load he shouldered. He played 87 percent of available minutes in 2013-14. He took 409 shots; no one else on the Hoosiers hoisted even 300. He took 220 three-pointers, which accounted for 43 percent of the team's total. But there’s a bit of irony in this: For Indiana to turn a dismaying 17-15 season into ancient history, it has to rely less on a player who averaged 17.3 points and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. Ferrell’s assist-to-turnover ratio was a middling 1.5-to-1. A Hoosiers team that will rely heavily on perimeter production – there’s no strong post presence after Noah Vonleh left for the NBA, and the top newcomer is prized shooting guard recruit James Blackmon – can’t afford for its most experienced cog to be careless with the ball. Ideally, Blackmon’s proficiency and some improvement from wing Troy Williams can remove the do-everything pressure from Ferrell, and he can settle into playmaking mode. He’s the first Indiana player to record 120 or more assists in his first two seasons since Isiah Thomas.
. Marcus Foster
In the last 12 games of his freshman season, Foster averaged 19.2 points per night. That included a 34-point detonation against then No. 15-Texas; a 20-point effort against No. 7 Kansas; and a 29-point game, featuring seven three-pointers, in a loss to Baylor. But the Wildcats won just five of those 12 games. Therein lies the challenge for Foster in 2014-15: Ensuring that his individual excellence also elevates the rest of the team. He averaged 15.5 points overall and 16.6 in conference play, but he can be more effective distributing the basketball (just 84 assists against 73 turnovers). He’ll have some help with second-leading scorer Thomas Gipson back, but after that, only forward Wesley Iwundu averaged more than 20 minutes a game last season. Kansas State’s role players will need some help becoming steady contributors. So Foster can become an elite All-Big 12 performer, and possibly more, if he manages to create both for himself and others.
. Aaron Harrison
DAVID GARDNER: John Calipari's latest idea could lead to college basketball pro days
. Andrew Harrison
The vaunted “tweak” that Kentucky coach John Calipari harped on all the way to the NCAA title game basically involved getting Andrew Harrison to become more of a distributor. And in the stretch run Harrison amassed 54 assists in 10 postseason games. (His season average was 4.0 per night.) So he made that leap, and now he’ll be pushed to make another in 2014-15. He’ll be challenged by five-star recruit Tyler Ulis, a natural point guard and playmaker, but also has room to improve on his own. His effective field goal percentage was just 41.7. He can be a better finisher; he took 33.3 percent of his shots at the rim and made just 49.1 percent of those, per hoopmath.com. His win shares total – a measure of how many victories were attributable to his production – was 3.2, just fifth among Wildcats. A dominant point guard would be more prolific in all of those areas. Harrison may see more time on the wing if Ulis proves the best option to run the offense, which would alter Harrison’s job description. Regardless of where Harrison plays, the improvement he showed during last year's NCAA tournament should continue into this season.
. T.J. McConnell
BRIAN HAMILTON: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson looks to polish game with consistent jumper
. Marcus Paige
After starting last season 1-4 in the ACC, the Tar Heels rattled off 12 straight wins. That tribulation and revival should help keep Paige cool during his junior season. At times last year, he was North Carolina’s only reliable offensive playmaker, finishing with team-bests of 17.5 points and 4.2 assists per game. This season should be different, as the Tar Heels add talented freshmen Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson to round out a roster of returnees like Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and J.P. Tokoto. Paige could be better for having less of a load heaped upon him and still levelheaded enough to steer the team through any adversity. Given the explosiveness he displayed in spurts – like the 35-point, seven 3-pointer night in a February win at N.C. State – he probably remains the go-to option when Roy Williams needs one.
. Chasson Randle
The ball came to Randle often during his junior season – he was involved in 26 percent of Stanford’s offensive possessions, according to KenPom.com, tops on the team. He proved worthy of that responsibility by averaging 18.8 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of 54.8. He proved capable of scoring from all over the floor; he hit 68 three-pointers but also took 34.6 percent of his shots at the rim, hitting 58.5 percent of those, per hoopmath.com. It’ll be interesting, though, to see if Stanford needs Randle to create offense for others as much as he does for himself – and whether he can do it. Gone are double-digit scorers Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis. Anthony Brown (14.0 ppg) returns on the wing, but no one on the current roster – including Randle – averaged even 3.0 assists per game last year. Randle posted more turnovers (88) than helpers (77) as a junior. The Cardinal clearly need his scoring to compete in a rugged Pac-12, but they might also need him to better facilitate for others as well.
. Juwan Staten
When Staten passed on the NBA draft, college basketball retained one of its most prolific playmakers. He averaged 18.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game in a breakout junior season for the Mountaineers. The question for Staten this year is whether he can keep up the pace now that he’s lost a pair of talented sidekicks to transfers during the offseason. Eron Harris, who averaged 17.2 points per game and prevented defenses from keying on Staten, left for Michigan State. Third-leading scorer Terry Henderson (11.7 ppg) also departed, landing at N.C. State. The next-best returning scorer for West Virginia is Devin Williams (8.4 ppg), so Staten will have to make things happen for just about everyone – himself included – this winter.
. Keifer Sykes
Read More: Oh look a (probably) inaccurate college basketball hate map
. Fred VanVleet
There might not have been a more perfect point guard in college basketball last season. This is not to say VanVleet’s raw production dwarfs everyone else's; his 11.6 points and 5.4 assists per game were fine but not eye-popping. But dive deeper: VanVleet played 1,141 minutes in 36 games and committed 48 turnovers, total. His effective field goal percentage was 55.2 and he shot 83 percent from the free-throw line. He was top-20 nationally in both offensive and defensive win shares – the estimate of how many victories were credited to his efforts at each end – and his total win shares of 7.2 tied for sixth nationally. His team won the first 35 games it played before losing in the NCAA tournament to the national runner-up Kentucky. No one anywhere ran a team better. Now VanVleet is back to do it again, and he has running mate and shooting guard Ron Baker back at his side as well. He might not suddenly become a prolific scorer to help compensate for the 16 points per game lost with Cleanthony Early’s graduation, but he’ll facilitate for everyone else.
After transferring to Utah from the City College of San Francisco, a community college, Wright did not waste his crack at upper-echelon play. There was little that he didn’t do en route to becoming a first-team All-Pac-12 player. Wright averaged 15.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.3 assist, 2.5 steals, 1.3 blocks and shot 56.1 percent from the floor for the Utes, including a deadly 63.3 percent on two-point shot attempts. There weren’t many better defensive players in the country; his defensive win shares total of 3.2 ranked fourth nationally and his total win shares of 7.3 was fifth, ahead of All-America-level performers like Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick and Louisville’s Russ Smith. The Pac-12 isn’t getting any more navigable, but Utah returns its top three scorers: Wright, Jordan Loveridge (14.7 ppg) and Brandon Taylor (10.6 ppg). If role players fill in adequately, the Utes could make a run toward the top of the league standings and Wright could make a push as the best all-around guard in the country.
. James Blackmon Jr.
CHRIS JOHNSON: Evaluating how the top 25 freshmen will fit in with their new teams
. Tyus Jones
Jones starts his career at Duke in an ideal position. He has the ready-made chemistry with Jahlil Okafor, with whom Jones arrived in a recruiting package deal, and who stands a decent chance of being the next freshman All-America for the Blue Devils. And with senior Quinn Cook on the roster, there is no rush for Jones to run the team from the start. But he was a consensus top-10 recruit, so Jones could be in charge sooner than later, especially if that rapport with Okafor shines through.
. D'Angelo Russell
Ohio State will be seeking an identity after Aaron Craft’s graduation, and it will be seeking scoring after LaQuinton Ross left school early for the NBA draft. Russell, a top-20 recruit, might not be in position to provide the identity. But he could find an abundance of scoring opportunities early, as holdovers Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson haven’t demonstrated consistent offensive punch in their careers. Ohio State ranked 128th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency last season, so coach Thad Matta won’t hesitate to play shot-makers when he finds them.
. Tyler Ulis
Ulis is a point guard and only a point guard. He’ll establish the tempo and spread the wealth on offense. It’ll be interesting to see what John Calipari does with him. Is he Andrew Harrison’s backup at the point and a change-of-pace force off the bench? Does Ulis become Kentucky’s orchestrator, playing the role of distributor to all that talent while allowing the 6-foot-6 Harrison to work on the wing with twin brother Aaron? His role could change as the season progresses.
. Isaiah Whitehead
Oh, nothing to see here, just the local kid from Brooklyn who arrives as a five-star, national top-20 recruit bearing the brunt of the responsibility to resuscitate a stalled program that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2006. Whitehead arrives with experienced players like Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina established in the backcourt, so he won’t necessarily have to control everything. Still, Whitehead “makes everyone on the court better,” Pirates coach Kevin Willard told northjersey.com in March. So expect Seton Hall to frequently run its offense through its freshman star.