As readers of my blog know, I am pretty passionate about MD basketball, and there have been many significant events over the past couple years: the retirement of Gary Williams, the hiring of Mark Turgeon, the signing of several recruits, the loss of a few others, the transfer of a few players from last year, the Harrison twins decision to go to UK, the decision to join the Big Ten conference, the successful recruitment of key local DMV players, the rapid development of the current team, etc. In light of these significant events, I thought I might start off this year, sharing some of my thoughts on some of these events, and how I see them affecting our program in the future.
I know for casual fans, they’re not sure whether some of these events are good or bad, or if there is any significance to them as well. Also, there is a lot of sentimental value associated with some of them, such as Gary Williams retirement and leaving the ACC, so it’s hard to separate personal feelings from an objective understanding of the events. As a fan who is also emotionally invested, I can appreciate where a lot of people are coming from, and I thought I might help elucidate a few of the important facts, while not completely removing the “fan perspective,” since I’m not a professional journalist.
Before I get into any of the headier, more complex topics, I’ll start out with a brief discussion of Pe’Shon Howard, Maryland Junior Starting PG. (Photo credit: myself)So, in some circles of the internet, notably Testudo Times, there has been some discussion about whether or not Freshman guard and potent offensive threat Seth Allen has shown enough to supplant Howard as the starter at the point guard position. There are a number of factors to consider, including the type of offense we run, the qualities each player brings to the team, the future potential and benefit to future rosters of starting either player, and the opposing lineups, and the argument from an “eye test” perspective is very close. Seth Allen is an intriguing player with incredible athleticism, including a 40″ vertical, and is a threat to take it straight to the basket on every possession. He is also a dangerous shooter from long range, and opens up a lot of opportunities on the court. I saw him play for the first time last spring, and I was immediately sold, I knew he would have a bright future here at MD.
Pe’Shon Howard, on the other hand, is recovering from a broken foot that caused him to miss the first 9 games last season, and a torn ACL in February that caused him to miss the remainder of the season. He showed potential his freshman year, and was pegged to be the starting point guard last season, but when he was actually able to play, he looked a step slower, and seemed to have lost some of his confidence and decision making ability, forcing passes at times and holding the ball too long at others. His shooting was down a significant margin as well, and rather than showing growth between his freshman and sophomore years, he seemed to have regressed.
Entering this season, Pe’Shon had just gotten healthy enough to practice full speed just in time for the beginning of the official practice schedule, and while most presumed he would be healthy enough to play, no one could predict what his game would look like. Would he return to his pre-injury level of play, or would the additional time off only hurt his game, taking away any of the athleticism he demonstrated at times in his freshman season and in the Goodman league the summer following, and causing him to further second guess his play and make him an offensive liability? As fans, we could only hope for the best and trust in Turgeon’s ability to put the best five players on the court to give us the best chance to win. When he came out onto the floor to start the season against the University of Kentucky at the new Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, NY in October, we finally got a chance to evaluate his play.
Suffice to say, the reviews early in the season were mixed. He was shooting the ball poorly, going 1-8 from the field against Kentucky, and hesitating to shoot in the games following. When he did shoot, his shot looked slow and he seemed to lack confidence, never a good thing for a shooter. Additionally, he seemed to have lost a step or two since his injuries, and questions arose as to whether or not he would be able to keep up on either side of the court against high level competition in the ACC and in March. On the plus side, his decision making was as sharp as ever, finding ways to squeeze balls to teammates through some improbably tight windows, and dishing assists at an all-ACC rate. His turnovers were kept to a bare minimum, and he did show some glimpses of why Turgeon trusted him with running the offense. His free throws were another bright spot, bringing consistency to the weakest aspect of MD’s offensive game.
Just in the interest of full disclosure, I have always been enamored with the point guard position, perhaps because it is one spot on the floor where a smarter player can outplay his athletic ability, and with my own lack of athletic ability, I admired those who were able to overcome their own limitations. From the moment I first saw Steve Blake step onto the court as a Terp, I knew he would have a successful NBA career because I believed his skillset transferred best to the professional game. I can’t say that I’m a great talent scout or know a lot about the game, but I happened to be right about that one. I am also a big fan of Pe’Shon Howard, somewhat irrationally so, and I will always argue against any criticism of his play or perceived weaknesses, so when this discussion first came up, I already knew which side of the aisle I was on.
This post is not really about those arguments though, because in my mind it’s already been settled, unless you were already convinced of the opposite, in which case I will probably never convince you otherwise, and Pe’Shon Howard will be the starter barring any unfortunate circumstances for the rest of the season. What I did want to discuss, which I felt was getting lost in the discussion is the actual level of play Pe’Shon Howard is exhibiting. With the anticipated arrival of Roddy Peters next year, a highly touted, highly ranked guard recruit, people are wondering what Pe’Shon’s role will be next year, especially on a team that intends to go deep into the NCAA tournament.
Pe’Shon Howard is actually having one of the best seasons of all time for a Maryland junior true point guard, and his numbers bear this out. On a whim, I compared Pe’Shon’s stats to a few of our past guards’ junior years. Currently, he is averaging 25 min/gm, but he played 30 min against Virginia Tech this past Saturday, and as he sat out much of the second half against our weaker opponents when we were carrying large double-digit leads, he should continue to see about that much time from here on out. If you average out his numbers to date based on that new 30 min/game of playing time you get:
In comparison, Steve Blake his junior year (2001-2002) averaged 32 min/gm and had these numbers:
The reality is that Howard’s numbers may not continue at that rate given increased playing time, especially since the level of competition will be higher than they have been early in the season as Maryland has played one of the softest early season schedules in all of the NBA, but just for the sake of comparison, it is an interesting set of numbers. Pe’Shon Howard should improve his shooting numbers as the law of large numbers comes into play considering how abysmal his shooting was to start the season. His FT% gives you a glimpse of what his shooting ability really is, as there are no high-level free throw shooters in basketball who are also poor shooters from other spots on the floor, as far as I know. (Please educate me if you know of any, as I would be interested to know.) If his numbers do continue at this rate, I think there could be some serious discussion in March as to whether or not Maryland could potential be a final four caliber team, because while MD is a deep team with a regular 10-man rotation, it is not an experienced team, and a veteran floor general leading the team from the point guard position would have an immense effect on the rest of the players on the court. It changes MD’s ability to play in close games, and his free throw shooting ability gives them the ability to close out close games from the charity stripe with their primary ball handler. There is nothing a team wants more than to be able to force teams to foul their best free throw shooter at the end of a hard fought game, and in tight situations there is no one you want handling the ball more than your best ball handler. Having one man play both roles means opposing teams are placed in a difficult spot: you must press him or foul him to prevent the team from running time off the clock, but fouling him is almost like giving MD guaranteed points, and trapping him forces a double team on the best passer in the team who can then find his open teammate for an easy score.
What do I see for Pe’Shon Howard the rest of the season? Here are my predictions, I may be wrong, and people can feel free to bring this back up at the end of the season to torment me, but to be honest, I’m not really gonna make any bold predictions: Pe’Shon Howard will end up averaging closer to 30 min per game as MD has to fight through some close games and run time off the clock at the end of games. If he can handle it from a stamina perspective, he should continue to average around 6 assists per game, but his turnovers may go up a bit and his assist to turnover ratio will probably be around 2.5/1 by the end of the season, still an elite level for a point guard playing significant minutes. I think his rebounding rate might actually improve because there have been a number of balls that have just barely gone past him or been picked off by another MD player before he grabbed it, and in tight games, I anticipate his aggressiveness on both sides of the ball to increase. He should finish the season with around 3.6-3.8 per game. His free throw shooting will continue to hover around 90%, it might dip a bit, but the way he’s looked so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if it went a little higher either; it’s just hard at that level to maintain a % that high as one miss hurts your percentage significantly. His field goal percentage should improve to be above 40% by the end of the season, and his 3pt % should be around 36-38% by the end of the season, which should put him around 3rd or 4th on the team and somewhere in the top 150 in the NCAA. Not bad for a guy with a reputation as being a poor shooter. His points per game should increase from around 4 where it is now to something closer to 7, largely due to his free throw shooting ability and playing in tighter games. If teams start playing off of him because he is struggling shooting, he may get a few games where he scores as many as 15 or so, but I believe he will also have a few games during the season where he really struggles offensively. He doesn’t look for his own shot very often, but if he ever decides to his, scoring could go up even more, but with the number of offensive weapons MD has in its arsenal, I don’t see that as very likely.
From a physical perspective, he is already starting to look quicker both offensively and defensively since the start of the season, and that is probably due to a combination of continuing to recover from injury and gaining more confidence in his lower body as well. As anyone who has ever recovered from a major injury knows, it takes a little while before you really trust your body again. Also, his new focus this past off-season has been on lightening the load on his legs by reducing some of the bulk in his upper body, while it was mostly lean muscle, the reduced mass seems to have been a positive change for him. He has shown glimpses of his potential athleticism throughout his career, and he can contort his body and hang in the air in impressive fashion at times. His teammates need to remember to keep moving and staying active and alert on offense, especially when Howard drives, as he has shown a penchant for making last second no-look dishes to open shooters on the wings, trailing players on the break, or big men clearing out space in the paint if he sees the players closing in on him as he nears the basket. He has looked very nice driving to the basket the past few games, finishing on fast breaks and drawing fouls, and he may end up as our best on-ball defender by the end of the season, showing the ability to stifle and confuse lesser guards, and slowing (as much as anyone can) Erick Green this past Saturday.
His shooting stroke has also remained consistent. Unlike Nick Faust, who struggled last season shooting and retooled his stroke in the offseason, something he seems to still be working on, Howard’s shooting stroke has looked consistent this season, despite his struggles. He has never been a quick shooter, and his seems to take just a hair too long bringing the ball up to a shooting position and releasing the ball, which will limit some of his opportunities, but the consistency of his stroke suggests that he can trust his muscle memory and be much more consistent than he has been. Pure shooters like Aronhalt are “unconscious” in that they shoot the ball exactly the same way with seemingly no memory of whether they made or missed their last shot, while still retaining the ability to “get hot” and hit multiple long jumpers in a row. Aronhalt also has a very quick release and gets the ball from his shooting pocket to the release point smoothly and effortlessly. While Pe’Shon is an adept decision maker, that ability hurts him a bit as a shooter, as he is often making reads of the defense, like a QB before the snap, when he should just be squaring up and releasing the open jumper. In Division I college basketball, those open opportunities don’t last long, and players quickly close out the space between him and the defender, taking away the open shot. As he as not yet demonstrated a real willingness to drive consistently to the basket, preferring to stay within the context of Turgeon’s offense, defenders can close out the space without too much fear of him driving past them, but we’ll see how long that lasts. I believe he is more of an offensive threat than he has yet demonstrated, and as the season progresses we will see to what extent he is able to improve upon the weaker points in his game.
Ultimately, I’d rather see him throw more assists, than take shots, but as long as the team is playing unselfishly, and he is not forcing opportunities, there should still be a few chances each game for him to get his points. I could be wrong, and I could be misreading Turgeon, but I don’t think there is any real fear of him losing his job, and if he does continue to grow as a basketball player and as a leader on this team, MD will be a viable threat in the post-season and Pe’Shon Howard may end up with one of the best seasons for a MD point guard in recent history. He won’t be the best point guard in the ACC with Erick Green of Virginia Tech playing at a completely out of this world level as the best player by far on a shallower team compared to MD, but I would be disappointed if he isn’t recognized at the end of the season as one of the top guards in the ACC. Considering Duke and UNC are still around, it’s highly unlikely that he will get any official recognition though.
This is a long post, but it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Hardly anyone will make it this far, but I felt that if I was going to present an argument for the level of Howard’s play this season, I should put it all in one place and give just due to both sides of the argument. I didn’t point out any flaws in Allen’s game because that was not my intention in this post, and while he does have some areas to work on, he is a freshman, so some erratic play is warranted, and he is a very different type of guard than the more cerebral Howard, so it is actually difficult to compare the two. They actually complement each other quite well on the floor. These are just my personal thoughts, and I have no formal basketball training beyond playing lots of NBA Jam and NBA Hangtime growing up. I wish team fire was a real thing.