The Marquette Men’s basketball team could not stop the Lopez twins, particularly in the second half and in overtime, and are thus reduced to spectators for the rest of the tournament, which will conclude April 7th in San Antonio. While this season is over, there is a lot of optimism for 2008-09, when Marquette could have the most explosive three-man backcourt since the 2005-06 Villanova Wildcats. Those Wildcats featured two current NBA players, then-sophomore Kyle Lowry and senior Randy Foye, a third guard in Michael Nardi, gimpy and lanky 6-foot-10-inch center Jason Fraser and a talented but oft-injured 6-foot-7-inch forward in Curtis Sumpter. Marquette may be even more reliant on Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews than that Nova team due to their post-players lack of size and experience. After next season, however, where do these three guards project as NBA prospects?
After having his terrific Big East Freshman of the Year campaign in 2005-06, Dominic James has been somewhat of a disappointment these past two seasons, not showing much progress as a floor-general, despite having the most natural ability of the three. While his drop in assists per game may be due to the emergence of David Cubillan and McNeal as viable initiators, his assist-to-turnover ratio has been within .2 each season. Furthermore, he tends to overdribble far too frequently, which results in an oft-stagnant offense, leading to poor shots as the shot clock winds down and partially contributes to his low fieldgoal percentages. He often is prone to attacking the rim on reckless drives that result in either turnovers or difficult passes.
James’ driving ability, which even at the pro-level should be excellent due to his tremendous quickness, hesitation moves, yo-yo handle, strength and leaping ability, does not get maximized because of his aforementioned poor decision-making. This gets compounded by an extremely streaky outside shot, due to an inconsistent release point and fade, that gets used far too often and extremely poor free throw shooting for a point guard, preventing him from punishing teams for fouling him. It may sound painfully obvious, but a drive’s best friend is a good perimeter jumper. Players at the collegiate level can sag off James, reducing the effectiveness of his agility. NBA players, which are far bigger, stronger and more athletic, would pose an even greater challenge.
Despite this criticism, his natural physical ability, despite his lack of size, puts him easily in the top 1% of all college basketball players, and is greater than just about any other point guard prospect in this year’s draft not named Derrick Rose or Jarryd Bayless. He also is very tough and willing to play through pain. With a good season, in which he shows an improved jumper and decision making, especially in the halfcourt, he could still salvage his draft hopes and become an early second round pick for next season. My prediction is that, regardless of him being drafted, he will play in the NBA as a second or third string point, where, best case scenario, he has the ability to be a lockdown, full-court defender due to his physical prowess for twenty minutes a night.
This past season, and arguably last year as well, the best player of these three has been Jerel McNeal. Of the three, he also is the likeliest to get drafted, probably in the early to mid second round of the 2009 Draft. McNeal, while not as physically gifted as James, is quite the athlete himself and has shown improvement in just about every facet—including a staggering rise in his ast/to ratio—which bodes extremely well for his continued development. He already is an elite defender at the collegiate level and he has the tools to lock up most NBA points as well. His quickness, wingspan, strength, hops and intelligently-used aggression are all at good to elite NBA levels, but what stands out the most is his anticipation of passing lanes and effort, which is excellent. He also plays terrific man-to-man defense, getting his butt down, getting in his stance, shuffling his feet and showing superior fundamentals and effort. His problem, like James, is his lack of certain key offensive abilities. This forces him into the dreaded branding of “tweener”, a player that lacks a true position—although recently, tweener guards such as Monta Ellis, Ben Gordon and Leo Barbosa have had some success. Since the NBA, like all-professional sports, copies trends, this could favor McNeal’s chances of success, at least in getting drafted. Despite this, McNeal should still improve as a point guard, since he lacks the height at 6 feet 3 inches to defend most twos. While he never will be a full-time lead guard, he has the passing ability, both on the perimeter and in drive-and-kick situations, to occasionally initiate the offense. However, his greatest inhibitor to becoming a fulltime point is his loose handle, dribbling far too often away from his body, which results in turnovers while he uses his aggressiveness and athleticism in driving. An improved ball handling ability would also make him an even more lethal penetrator, since he has the quickness, athleticism and strength to be deadly at that even in the NBA. He also could improve greatly on his jumper, which has an inconsistent form, especially from long-range and his free throw shooting.
The least heralded of the three soon-to-be seniors, and the least likely to get drafted, is Wesley Matthews Jr. Unlike James and McNeal, he does not possess elite athleticism. At the NBA level, his athleticism would be a little below average for NBA shooting guards. His height, while not inhibiting by any means, would make him slightly smaller than the typical 6 feet 6 inches and above pure shooting guards that are recently coming into the NBA. Despite this lack of stature, he has an NBA-ready body, with good strength, giving him the ability to finish after contact. His shooting form could improve greatly, as he has a herky-jerky release that includes a bent lower back and little elevation that surprisingly lets him net 30 percent of his threes. This means that he has a good natural shooting touch—which is also seen by his high free-throw percentage—which gives him a very high ceiling when it comes to shooting, if he changes his form. He could do this, and improve on his overall game to get it to NBA-level, such as his ball-handling, if he goes to Europe, plays for a midlevel team his first year, and then jumps to the Euroleague for two or three more seasons. The Euroleague and the highly competitive Spanish, Italian, Greek, Russian and Turkish domestic leagues are excellent for players like Matthews. Current NBA role-players, such as Bruce Bowen, Anthony Parker of Toronto and Charlie Bell, played college basketball and lacked an essential element to their games that would allow them to play in the NBA. They went to Europe and improved on whatever was needed. For this reason, I believe that Matthews has the best chance to become an NBA player, due to his ability to eventually become a decent-size and decently athletic shooting specialist. If this occurs, then he would, of the three, have the best combination of size, athleticism, decision making and perimeter jumper, plus he would actually fit a position, which McNeal and James do not. Essentially, he would be your prototypical two guard and zone breaker off the bench.
Next year, assuming James, Matthews and McNeal are healthy, should be one of tremendous success for Marquette. Beyond that, we could see all three get at least a cup of coffee in the NBA, and at least one develop into an NBA role-player, where it is easier to survive if one has a single great skill—usually either 3-point shot or defense—and compliment that with adequate skills in other areas. My guess is that in five years, Matthews will be the best of the bunch, but McNeal certainly could improve in the structured game of Europe as well, and develop into at least a competent shooter and part-time point, making him a lock-down reserve. McNeal is also the likeliest to play NBA ball immediately after college. Despite having the most natural ability, I do not foresee James as having a long or productive NBA career, and his game wouldn’t transition well to European basketball. He certainly can prove me wrong, though. If he buys into the structure that Europe offers and improves his playmaking abilities and shooting, then he has the highest ceiling of the three.