Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the greatest point guard of them all?
That’s a popular question in Chapel Hill, where the Tar Heels go through elite point guards like Twitter goes through hashtags. It started with the Dean Smith era and has continued under Roy Williams. In order for the secondary break to be effective, the point guard has to be able to advance the ball from end to end at breakneck speed.
Kendall Marshall is the latest product in the heralded family. He was so good last season that, despite starting less than half of the Tar Heels’ games, he led the ACC in total assists and assists per game. It was Marshall’s brilliance that spurred Carolina’s well-documented run to a regular season conference championship.
Last season was a perfect example of just how important point guard play is at UNC. Larry Drew II did not have the vision or decision-making to generate good offense. He was incapable of playing anywhere near the pace that Williams demands from the position.
Since the mid-1990s, there have been four spectacular point guards to guide the Heels. Ed Cota, Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson, and Marshall.
So the question is, who was the best? Each had his own distinct style, but all ran the Carolina offense with similar success. This is a purely subjective attempt to settle the score, with some commingled numbers to help me out.
We’ll throw Marshall in the mix for comparison’s sake, but he can’t truly enter this conversation unless he puts together another spectacular season this year – which he obviously should.
Career averages: 9.1 points, 7.5 assists, 3.7 rebounds, 1.4 steals.
Court Vision: Spectacular. Cota was a master of working in traffic, finding the tiniest creases in the defense after penetrating the lane. He’s the ACC’s all-time assist leader for a reason. Sure, Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison were rare talents, but if they didn’t have Cota feeding them the rock, neither player’s career would have been quite the same. Rating: 9.5
Efficiency: Of the four guards in question, Cota actually had the highest turnover percentage of anyone, losing the ball on 30 percent of Carolina’s possessions. As you’ll see below, that’s very high. His assist-to-turnover ratio was also a bit steep at 3.4. For as many amazing plays that Cota produced each night, his high-risk, high-reward style sometimes got him into trouble. He did manage to stay out of foul trouble usually, averaging just 1.3 fouls per game. He played more than 33 minutes per game, second most among this group. Rating: 9
Playmaking: This is where Cota is a cut above the rest. Among the four, he has the best highlight reel of all. He had a plethora of behind-the-back, no-look, alley-oop dimes that left coaches, fans and players alike with their jaws on the floor. Rating: 10
Scoring: At Carolina, point guards are not asked to contribute much in the scoring department. Cota wasn’t a great shooter – just 73 percent from the foul line and 45 percent from the field in his career – but he still was able to score nine points per game over the course of his four years. He was not the type of player who could take the ball coast-to-coast, squeeze through the lane and finish at will. He never averaged more than 10.5 points per game in any one season. Rating: 8.5
Defense: Cota was a quality defender with great length for his 6-foot frame. He averaged 1.4 steals per game in his career, and is fifth all-time at Carolina with 192 pilfers. Rating: 9
Winning: While Cota never took home a national title, he was a part of three Final Four squads in 1997, 1998 and 2000. He played in three ACC championship games, winning two of them in 1997-98. The 2000 Final Four run was a miraculous one after finishing just 22-14 in the regular season, losing in the ACC Quarterfinals. Three Final Fours is nothing to sneeze at, but the standard here is championships, so Cota’s resume can’t quite stack up. Rating: 9
Career averages: 12.5 points, 6.9 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 1.9 steals,
Court Vision: Felton played at a frenetic pace but with so much control. He would win a footrace with anyone in America, but he was able to find open Heels in transition as he was leaving defenses in the dust. If there was an open player on the break, Felton was going to get him the ball. If there wasn’t, he was going to blow by his defender and get to the rim. Quite a lethal combination. Rating: 9
Efficiency: Because he constantly played at such a high speed, Felton was prone to turnovers at a higher rate than what coach Williams would have preferred. He averaged 3.6 turnovers per game, highest of anyone on this list. His assist-to-turnover ratio was 1.9, the only mark below 2.0 among this quartet. His 33.9 minutes per game is the highest of the group, barely more than Cota (33.6). Rating: 8.5
Playmaking: He wasn’t particularly flashy, relying on pure athletic advantage over his counterparts rather than fancy ball-handling or nifty passes. He still tossed up plenty of alley-oops to Jawad Williams and Sean May, among others. However, he didn’t provide the same kind of playmaking ability that Cota or Lawson did. Rating: 9
Scoring: Felton couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn his freshman year, and even his sophomore year he struggled with his jump shot. He shot just 39.8 percent from the field as a freshman and only 42 percent as a sophomore. As a junior, his three-point shooting improved dramatically, and he shot 44 percent from beyond the arc. Once he became a threat to score on the perimeter, it took that team’s offense to another level and ultimately helped Carolina win the national title. Rating: 9
Defense: By the end of his career, Felton was a lockdown defender. His 72 steals in 2004-05 are the eighth-highest single-season mark in school history. He averaged two steals per game in his career, most among this group. Rating: 9.5
Winning: Felton was part of the crew that resurrected the legacy at North Carolina. He came to Chapel Hill as part of a recruiting class that included Sean May and Rashad McCants. As freshmen, they were tasked with rebounding from the worst season in school history as the Heels finished 8-20. If it weren’t for Sean May’s foot injury in 2002-03, Felton would have played in three NCAA Tournaments. He wrapped up his career by leading Carolina to its first national title since 1993, and the first of coach Williams’ career. Rating: 9.5
Career averages: 13.1 points, 5.8 assists, 2.9 rebounds, 1.8 steals
Court Vision: Lawson was tremendous in the open floor, but he was not quite as savvy of a distributor as the other three guys in the group. Despite being a part of the highest scoring teams in Carolina history, his assist numbers were not as high as Cota’s or Felton’s. Rating: 8.5
Efficiency: He took excellent care of the basketball, turning it over just barely more than twice per game in his career. That’s a remarkable feat considering his 22 percent usage rate, highest in the group. Rating: 9.5
Playmaking: I’ve never seen a player at Lawson’s size get into the lane and finish around the bigs like Lawson could. He could skim the baseline and finish off the drive with a slick reverse lay-up. Lawson was so strong that, along with his quickness, he overpowered defenders at will. Rating: 9.5
Scoring: Lawson is easily the most prolific scorer in this group. He averaged 19.4 points per 40 minutes (Felton had the next highest mark at 14.7), and also led the group with 13.1 points per game. He was the only one of the four to shoot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc in his career, shot 51 percent from the field (next highest: 45.2) and was also the best free throw shooter in the group at 78 percent. This may be the one category where there is the biggest separation between one player and the other three. There’s no debate that Lawson was the most dominant scorer. Rating: 9.5
Defense: Who could forget when Lawson set the NCAA tournament record with eight steals against Michigan State in the 2009 title game? Nobody was beating Lawson off the dribble. He’s eighth all-time at Carolina with 184 steals. Had he stayed four years, he could have challenged Derrick Phelps’ school record of 247. Rating: 9
Winning: He came very close to making three straight Final Fours if it weren’t for Roy Hibbert and Georgetown in 2007. Nevertheless, Lawson capped his career with a title a la Felton. He made it further in his first two years than Felton did, too, which gives Lawson the nod. Rating: 10
Career averages: 6.2 points, 6.2 assists, 2.9 rebounds, 1.8 steals
Court Vision: It’s unmatched. Marshall finds the smallest windows – even those that don’t appear to exist – and fires the ball through them to set up an easy score. Whether it’s a full-court bounce pass or a diagonal one handed strike through the lane, Marshall never misses an open teammate. In fact, often times Marshall’s passes make his teammates open. He knows exactly where to put the ball, something that’s basically impossible to teach. Rating: 10
Efficiency: Marshall struggled to learn early in the season (prior to becoming the starter, mostly) that some of the passes he made in high school weren’t going to make it in college, thus inflating his turnover numbers slightly. Once he learned what worked and what didn’t, he was extremely efficient. His 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio is the second best among the group, behind only Lawson (2.8). Rating: 9.5
Playmaking: Marshall’s highlight reel is already strong. His quick-flick dimes, alley-oops and – did I mention full-court bounce passes? – make poetry on hardwood Just when we thought he was just a maestro of the dish, he pulls out this little number against the Dukies. Rating: 9
Scoring: He’s a great spot-up shooter. Count on him to nail an open-trey off a kick-out when the defense collapses on one of the Heels’ 18 NBA forwards. He’s a better all-around shooter than people give him credit for, but this is a part of his game that needs to take off this season. He averaged 6.2 points per game (10.1 per 40 minutes), and that figure needs to come up to around 10 for him to really be considered the best all-around point guard that Carolina has had. Rating: 8
Defense: Alas, the biggest chink in Marshall’s armor. It’s no secret he’s not as fleet a foot as Lawson, Felton or Cota. His lack of lateral quickness makes him vulnerable against the speedier point guards. He does make up for that with a long frame, but he’s taken a lot of heat for his defensive struggles. Often times last season, Williams cross-matched his backcourt on defense to let the more athletic Dexter Strickland take on opposing ball-handlers. Rating: 8
Winning: He’s 17-3 as the starting point guard. The effect Marshall had on last year’s team after replacing Larry Drew II was nothing short of stunning. Because of Marshall, the same team that was blown out by lowly Georgia Tech turned its season around and came within a possession or two of the Final Four, not to mention a regular season conference title. Sure, this year’s Heels’ squad is loaded, but it’s because of Marshall that they are favored over fellow elites Kentucky, Ohio State and Connecticut. Rating: 9.5
So based on these entirely subjective – and anything but all-encompassing – ratings, the best point guard of the last 15 years at Carolina is…Ty Lawson. Even I don’t know that I’m right. You be the judge.
1. Lawson (9.3)
2. Cota (9.2)
3. Felton (9.1)