Too often a players collegiate achievements are crowded with doubters insisting, “He’ll never be anything in the NBA.” Specifically this argument crops up when my friends and I discuss the Marquette back court. I would refer to them as “The Big Three”, but I’m tired of everyone being “The Big Three”. “The Tantalizing Trio”, “The Triple Threats”, or if you include Hayward “Hawk, Block, and Two Smoking Barrels” would all be better. Anything is better than “The Big Three”. What happened to clever nicknames? Phi Slamma Jamma, Run-TMC, or The Fab Five? All were better nicknames, but now every time there are three good players its “The Big Three”. Anyway that foolishness is beside the point. The point is that during arguments about these gentlemen, they are eventually written off as great college players who, aside from McNeal, have little pro hope. I’ll be the first to admit, I have doubted them for a long time and neglected to spend the time and effort analyzing their prospects. But let us really break this down and compare these guys to some pros and see if they have a shot.
We’ll start with James. Dominic James burst on the scene as a freshman averaging 15 points, 4.5 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and a few seasons worth of highlight dunks and blocks. He had picked up where Dwyane Wade had left off a few seasons before. Marquette was desperate for another star after a few less than stellar seasons wrought with injury and little at guard after Travis Diener. After a sophomore season that was not quite as stellar as his entry into the college world (To be frank, he didn’t see a shot he didn’t like all season. I think once the ball came to him on the bench and he threw up an airball), James declared for the NBA Draft. After going through the pre draft camps and workouts James quickly found that his lack of jumpshot and shaky point guard skills were not going to get him any higher than the second round, if that. He quickly withdrew his name and is now playing in his senior season. James has seemed a new man this year, working relentlessly on the defensive end, and doing more to get his fellow guards involved, while at least appearing to try and dribble less. Despite his athletic ability, one of the drawbacks on James is his diminutive stature. Listed at a mere 5-11, James would likely struggle to guard a lot of bigger guards in the NBA. However it seems that it has always been those point guard skills that have been holding him back in the eyes of scouts. If he keeps developing those this season, he seems a lock for a second round pick. For fun, lets look at players 6 foot or less in the NBA this season.
NBA Players 6 Foot or Under
If James is able to turn around his jumpshooting and free throw woes, while maintaining his explosion and defensive effort, there is no reason he shouldn’t be able to carve out a Chucky Atkinsesque niche on a team. At the very least, if Dee Brown is able to keep grasping onto 10 day contracts, one has to think James could do the same.
Few players have made greater one year strides in Marquette history as Wes Matthews. After being the forgotten man to an extent the past three years, Matthews has taken over the show this year averaging a robust 18.9 points per game. His new found assertiveness can be seen especially at the stripe where he has had at least 5 free throws in every game except 3 this year. Most impressive about Matthews is his shooting percentage, which has skyrocketed almost 10% this season. Perhaps it is a coincidence, perhaps not, but since Tom Crean has left Marquette, Matthews game has gone to another level. Could it be because the new coach is a little less about himself? Who knows, but if I had to guess I’d say Crean lived in a house with lots of mirrors and Buzz might not even own a home. Personally, I’d rather play for the second guy. With the way he is shooting threes this year, combined with his overall improvements on the offensive end, Matthews has certainly thrown his name into the draft discussion. He will at least garner looks in the second round, perhaps carving out a Charlie Bell type role after a few years. Players who play as smart as him and are as smooth offensively and work that hard defensively usually find a way to stick around.
Now onto the crown jewel of the Marquette backcourt, Jerel McNeal. McNeal has been a terror on the defensive end since he entered college. Playing the passing lanes to perfection and locking up anyone he was assigned to. I doubted McNeal earlier in the year and was treated to this quote by a friend of mine:
In Sports Illustrated, when referring to Jerel McNeal, Connecticut point guard A.J. Price, “He never gambles. He only goes for a steal when he’s sure he can get it.”
McNeal is not just a defender in name only, he gets after it. When watching the second half of the West Virginia game the other day my dad treated me to a bit of wisdom himself. “I figured it out, I know who he reminds me of, Sidney Moncrief!” Naturally I doubted him without ever having seen a minute of Moncrief play and proceeded to look up Moncrief on basketballreference.com. Moncrief has almost exactly the same measurements as McNeal. I attempted to verify the comparison on youtube and found this Moncrief Interview. The few highlights they have on there do a pretty good job of proving his point. McNeal seems hellbent on proving himself as a future pro this season. He has taken more threes than free throws, as if to say, “HEY GUYS I’VE BEEN WORKING ON THIS, I CAN SHOOT NOW!!!” I’ll give him credit though, he has been hitting at a much more regular clip than any of his firs three seasons. The deciding factore in getting a guy from that first round bubble into a secure pick is usually tournament play. If “McSteal” is able to get Marquette deep into the tournament, I think he has a great shot of securing a round one pick and working his way into a NBA rotation. Taking a page from the book of the recent great guard groups of Illinois and Villanova, it looks like the Marquette backcourt will not let their stars burn out in college.