Since Gilbert Arenas was suspended by the NBA, the Washington Wizards have been forced into a point guard by commitee situation with Randy Foye, Earl Boykins and Mike James. Foye is a self-professed combo guard, but prior to Arenas’ absence he primarily played the shooting guard position. Boykins, although almost always the smaller player on the court, is primarily a shooter (and a streaky one at that), who scores in bunches. He can handle the ball, he can bring it up the court, but he struggles in certain offensive sets. James is also a combo guard who can run the point, but prefers to shoot the ball on his own.
To his credit, Foye has played well as of late (18 points and five assists over the last 10 games), Boykins continues to provide his customary late game spark, and James finally got out of head coach Flip Saunders’ dog house this past Sunday against the Clippers.
Still, none of these guards would be considered a pure point guard (although Foye may make me eat words very soon).
So when the Washington Wizards took on the Miami Heat last Friday night, I took a cursory glance at the roster and saw that Rafer Alston was now on their squad. Alston began his second stint with the Heat (he also played with them during the 2003-2004 season) on January 7th of this year, and he was quickly inserted into the starting lineup over Mario Chalmers.
Since Alston is a traditional point guard who has been around the league (this is his sixth team) and is fresh off an NBA Finals appearance with the Orlando Magic, I thought I’d ask him about some of the nuances of playing point guard, the adjustments from college to the professional ranks, and how he dealt with Mario Chalmers.
Rashad Mobley: Last week when Portland was in town, I got a chance to ask Nate McMillan about Jerryd Bayless, and he mentioned that as a young player, he was struggling to learn how to play point guard. And then on this Wizards squad, we have Randy Foye now running the point, after mostly playing the “2” guard all year. Which do you think is the bigger adjustment?
Rafer Alston: They both have major adjustments. GM’s and coaches need to understand when you draft these guys, it needs to be explained that the pro game has different rules as far as playing the point. There’s recognizing illegal defense, the way you can guard a guy, then how you get into sets, how you set people up, feed the hot guy and all that. So it’s definitey an adjustment, but these guys are so talented, I think they can do it. You know Gilbert wasn’t a point guard in college, he was primary a shooter, but he was able to play the point here in Washington.
RM: Well depending on who you talk to, Gilbert didn’t do all that well running the team at the point…
RA: But Flip [Saunders] and Eddie Jordan started him there, and they had confidence in him, so he must have been doing something right, otherwise they ‘d have brought a pure point guard like me in here.
RA: No, definitely. There are some people who can convert and there are some people who struggle with it. I remember when Damon Bailey was drafted. He was a shooting guard in college, but in the pros he was a guard who couldn’t handle the ball. He had to learn how to play the point, but it was tough. Guys can definitely do it, but these guards have to put their mind to it and keep working at it.
RM: So what was your biggest adjustment or challenge at the point guard position coming out of Fresno State?
RA: Me? Man, I had no adjustments whatsoever, I’m a natural point guard, baby! My biggest thing was getting stronger, understanding the pro sets, and getting into the sets quicker becuase of the shot clock difference from college to the pros. So as a point guard, I had to do that and be more demanding of my teammates too. In college, everybody knows the plays and sets, but in the pros, you’d be surprised. Not everyone knows what they’re doing, so its my job to push them along.
RM: So why do you think you’ve bounced around the league so much?
RA: Well, as my career moves along, I think I’ve always gone to teams that really need point guard help. In other years, I was pretty much stationary. I spent three years in Milwaukee, then I bounced around two years (two stints in Toronto and one in Miami), then three and a half years in Houston. I think now in my career, I go to teams who really need help. I was in Orlando when they didn’t have a point guard after Jameer got hurt, and I was able to help them get to the Finals. And then I came here when they needed help, depth and some overall assistance with their young guards.
RM: How long does it usually take for you to adjust to a new team?
RA: For me it happens rather quickly, but I think for guys that come in different positions, it takes them longer. For me, I’m coming into my natural position and I basically know this offense.
RM: You basically came in and took Mario’s [Chalmers] job, so what did you say to him when you got here?
RA: I just told him he needed to get back to being the old Mario, the Kansas Mario, NCAA title game Mario, you know? He needs to work on getting that confidence. He’s trying to be something he’s not right now. He needs to play within himself, learn the extra nuances of the pro game and be the next Aaron Brooks, who struggled at first too.
RM: But you realize that if Mario succeeds at getting back to who he is, you could be back on the bench or maybe shipped to yet another team, what happens then?
RA: Hey, if that’s the case so be it. I won’t stop teaching him to be a point guard and a better ball player. And I definitely won’t stop playing hard. There’s always room for an experienced point guard in this league, I’ll be just fine baby.