With Mitch McGary, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson all sidelined by injury, the spotlight in Saturday's Michigan vs. Michigan State game turned to the perimeter, where two of the top shooting guards in the country in Nik Stauskas and Gary Harris faced off.
After a freshman year where he mostly spotted up off the ball, Stauskas came into the season with the reputation of a shooting specialist. And while he has proven he is far more than that, there is no questioning just how good a shooter he is.
If you give Stauskas even an inch of space, it's pretty much over. He shoots 46 percent from three-point land while attempting six a game; that's a Kyle Korver/JJ Redick-esque combination of efficiency and volume. Harris isn't quite on that level, but he is still 35 percent from deep on seven attempts a game. These are two guys who understand that shooting is a crucial part of the job description for a shooting guard.
What makes Stauskas special is his ability to shoot off the dribble. He's got great ball-handling ability and he is 6'6 and 205 pounds with a 6'7 wingspan, which is nice size for shooting over defenders. He's a threat to rise and fire from any part of the floor.
Harris is playing great defense there, but it doesn't even matter. Stauskas rises and shoots over the top of him like he isn't even there.
That's the one knock on Harris when it comes to his reputation as a perimeter defender. It's hard to lock up a guy unless you are taller and/or longer than him. Harris is 6'5 and 200 pounds with a 6'7 wingspan, which is the same size as Stauskas. That's good for shooting, where smaller arms cause a more natural motion, but it's a tad short for defending some of the bigger shooting guards in the NBA like DeMar DeRozan and Klay Thompson. Even Bradley Beal, who was seen as too short by many coming out of school, has a wingspan a full inch longer than Harris.
Where Harris excels is at off-the-ball defense and pressing up on his man in order to force turnovers. He averages 2.2 steals a game, many like this.
The way Harris excels in press coverage reminds me a lot of Victor Oladipo, who is of similar size and is most valuable when he can pressure the primary ball handler.
But Harris could be an even better prospect than last year's No. 2 pick. It's worth pointing out that, as a sophomore, Harris is averaging 19 points a game for a Top 5 team, while Oladipo averaged 10 points a game for Indiana. Harris also averages five free throw attempts a game this season, more than Oladipo ever averaged at Bloomington. The threat of his shot opens up the drive and not many college teams have a big man who can prevent Harris from finishing at the rim.
The biggest difference between Stauskas and Harris is their ability to create shots for their teammates. Stauskas is the de facto point guard for Michigan, as he has the ball in his hands for most of the game. This is an excellent example of him running the pick-and-roll. Watch how he manipulates the second line of the defense.
This lead-ahead pass on the fast break looks simple, but it really isn't.
If Stauskas throws the pass directly at Derrick Walton, Harris gets his hand on it. If he leads Walton too far, Harris can track it down. Instead, Stauskas throws the ball five feet in front of Walton so he can catch the pass directly in stride and beat Harris down the floor. He has to fit it through a rapidly-closing 2-foot window in less than half a second.
You can see how Stauskas averages 3.8 assists on 1.5 turnovers a game, a very impressive number for a shooting guard. Stauskas is an elite shooter and an elite passer at his position, and we haven't even gotten into his supposed "deceptive athleticism" that isn't really deceptive because he'll dunk the ball on your head. Just for variety's sake, here's Stauskas icing the game at Wisconsin with a step-back 3.
That is ridiculous.
Harris, on the other hand, isn't nearly as natural a playmaker. He has the capability to run the pick and roll, but he doesn't seem nearly as comfortable as a drive-and-kick guy. He is averaging 2.8 assists on 1.9 turnovers this season.
This is the kind of play Harris is going to have to make for Michigan State to win the Big Ten. Keith Appling may be a senior point guard, but I would not trust him if I was a Spartans fan, as his decision-making ability in crunch-time is questionable at best.
That was the biggest difference in Michigan's ability to pull out the win in East Lansing on Saturday. Stauskas was getting buckets (19 points) and getting everyone else involved (four assists) while Harris was mostly just getting buckets (27 points and two assists). They are both excellent prospects, but when it comes to draft time, I will take the guard whose a great playmaker and a decent defender over one whose a great defender and a decent playmaker.
Games of the Week:
Michigan State at Iowa, Tuesday
The Spartans better hope Adreian Payne is back for this one, because Iowa is quietly putting together an excellent season. These aren't your father's Hawkeyes; they will get into you, turn you over and dunk on you. Fran McCaffery is one of my early picks for national coach of the year. Watch out for Roy Devyn Marble, a 6'6 senior guard who could sneak into late first-round pick discussions.
Kentucky at Missouri, Saturday
This is the game Jordan Clarkson, Earnest Ross and Jabari Brown have circled on their calendars all season. They are all transfers who have paid their dues; big, experienced guards with the athleticism to run and jump with Kentucky. They are looking at the Harrison Twins and James Young like 50 Cent in "How To Rob." Missouri only gets John Calipari's bunch once this season, so if those three want to get big-time money playing basketball, it's now or never.
Duke at Syracuse, Saturday
This is a game where you will see the Tyler Ennis Experience in full effect. Ennis is what people mean when they talk about someone being a "true point guard." He may be a freshman, but he controls pace like a 10-year NBA veteran. He keeps his head, he never picks up his dribble and he doesn't turn it over.
Don't worry so much about what Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood do. With the exception of international play, they will never see anything like Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone again in their career.