In 2012, a landmark moment in sports media took place.
On the ESPN show First Take, noted hot take artist Skip Bayless was on a standard issue rant about Russell Westbrook.
(Skip likes to call him Russell “Westbrick” because of his perceived lack of shooting ability. That’s the same level of creativity as the friend who says “Whole Foods…more like whole paycheck.”)
Anyway, Skip was facing off with NBA and Fab Five alum Jalen Rose. Skip contended that Westbrook wasn’t a “real point guard” because he shoots too much.
As anyone with a brain would do, Jalen responded by explaining to Bayless that the position next to your name in the program doesn’t strictly define you as a player.
“Just because you’re a power forward doesn’t mean you’re physical. Just because you’re a shooting guard doesn’t mean you can jack up threes.”
And with that, I thought Jalen ended this particularly useless debate show talking point.
(Sidenote: This is the famous debate where Jalen called Skip “Water Pistol Pete Jr.”)
Fast forward to 2023 and corners of the Illini fanbase melting down over Ty Rodgers nominally stepping in as the starting point guard.
“He’s NoT a PooiinT Gurd U Klown. He iz 2 big an he kant shoot da ball,” they said. “He didn’t play da point b4 so he kan’t play it rite now.”
Really? You mean the same guy who nominally led Team USA to a FIBA U18 championship as the starting point guard? You’re telling me that guy hasn’t played the position?
Do you even read, bro?
Don’t be the fanbase that makes Skip Bayless arguments.
So, how is it going? Let’s take a look at how we got here, first.
Jayden Epps is not walking through that door. He’s currently averaging 19 points and 5 assists on 41% shooting from downtown for Georgetown.
Skyy Clark isn’t walking through that door. He’s averaging 16 PPG for a moribund Louisville program. He’s also been inefficient, averaging more turnovers than assists.
RayJ Dennis isn’t walking through that door either. He’s lighting it up down in Waco, shooting 44% from behind the arc and dishing out 6.6 assists per game.
Illinois either lost or lost out on all three of these guards within the last year. Brad Underwood hasn’t shown an ability to recruit, sign, and retain talented lead guards. The stories of Andre Curbelo, Mark Smith, and the players mentioned above loom large in his lexicon.
(I suppose being able to recruit and sign high-end point guards is a step forward from the last coach. But my colleague Brandt Dolce always warns me about defaulting to the previous guy argument.)
So far this season, Ty Rodgers has amassed a fairly pedestrian stat line. He is averaging 6 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists. That gives him a PER of 12.8 for the season.
On a positive note, his year-over-year free throw percentage has improved by almost 20% in a decidedly small sample size.
He’s not wowing with his numbers. And furthermore, his 2 assists come with 1.6 turnovers per game. Obviously, the turnovers have to come down for Ty to secure a future as “the guy” after Shannon, Hawkins, and Domask leave.
So why is he not hurting the team more?
Well, remember that thing I said earlier about nominal positions? Yeah, this is a classic example of that.
Illinois’ coaches have set Ty up to succeed and do the things he does well on both ends of the floor.
Ty is surrounded by shooters who can knock down open shots.
Those same shooters are almost all secondary or primary facilitators. In other words, the roster takes the pressure off of Ty by having the skills Ty needs to develop to be a truly lethal two-way menace in the Big Ten.
Experienced players like Coleman Hawkins, Terrence Shannon Jr., Justin Harmon, Quincy Guerrier, and Marcus Domask bring more than just years of experience. They bring a versatility and diversity of talent that makes up for where Ty is still developing.
This brings me to the most important point of this analysis: Ty is definitely still developing. He is not a static character. His current game will continue to evolve, so discounting him because he’s not a “traditional” point guard is premature at best.
As the practice reps with an experienced core increase, so should Ty’s ability to handle the ball and make key decisions in big moments. Early in the season, Underwood deferred to Harmon in those moments. But Ty’s size and length defensively create matchup nightmares for opposing guards trying to close games.
That’s where the improved foul shooting could make a huge difference. If you don’t have to sub Ty out in offense-defense substitution patterns late in games, Ty’s impact will be felt more forcefully.
No, he’s not a deadeye shooter. No, he hasn’t distributed the ball at the same clip as RayJ Dennis. But his frenetic defensive presence and high basketball IQ have helped the Illini to an excellent start.