If you were so inclined to play a game of word association with Robert Morris basketball any time over the last four years, Velton Jones' name was bound to come up at some point. It had to, right?
An instant contributor as a redshirt freshman in 2009, Jones was arguably the Colonials' best player over each of the last three seasons and, furthermore, his toughness, tenacity and attitude embodied a coach and a program at large. In all, he was a pretty important piece in Robert Morris' success.
Like all college basketball players -- even Carl Krauser -- Jones had an expiration date, having exhausted his eligibilty and graduated. His absence leaves a void at a position that is perhaps the most important in the game. The point guard is the player who controls the game, who has the ball in his hands more than any other player. If a team has an ineffective point guard, it's more than likely that they'll have a less-than-potent offense.
For these reasons, among others, few Robert Morris players will be watched more closely next season than Anthony Myers-Pate, who has been the team's primary backup at the position for the last couple of seasons. Naturally, this kind of change brought about by such a noticeable absence brings about a slew of questions, most of which are bound by a common thread -- how is this guy going to replace his predecessor, if at all?
(Photo: Associated Press)
In Myers-Pate's case, the answer is a pretty simple one -- he's not going to. This isn't a harsh knock on him, but the simple fact is that he isn't the same type of player as Jones -- statistically and in other facets -- and at this late stage in his career, it's likely not to change too drastically, even though it's fair to expect some level of improvement with more minutes and time to develop.
While it's unreasonable to assume Myers-Pate can fill right in for Jones, it doesn't mean that hope is lost for the Colonials at that position. In fact, there's a precedent for this sort of drastic change.
In 2008, Robert Morris lost guard Tony Lee to graduation. Much like Jones, Lee is arguably one of the greatest players in the history of the program, as (like Jones) he is among the top-10 Colonials players in career points and in the top five in career assists. To get a sense of their shared qualities, here is a comparison of their statistics during their respective senior seasons:
|Pts. per game||Ast. per game||% of possessions used||% of shots taken||Ast. rate||Fouls drawn/40 min.|
|Tony Lee, 2008||13.6||6.4||29.5||23.7||43.5||4.7|
|Velton Jones, 2013||10.6||5.1||28.5||25.1||43.8||5.3|
(Here's a primer I did on advanced statistics a few months ago to help readers follow along.)
It's a story of pretty remarkable statistical similarities. Even beyond their individual stats, it's telling how big of a gap there was between themselves and their closest teammate in percentage of possessions used. For Lee, it was A.J. Jackson at 23.8 percent (a 5.7 percent difference) and for Jones, it was Russell Johnson at 23.2 percent (a 5.2 percent difference).
Unless you're Carmelo Anthony running iso sets every other possession, the starting point guard is always going to be the player that has the ball in his hands the most; that's just the way most offenses work. But what's resounding with these two instances is just how disproportionately the ball was with one player, making that person extraordinarily important to the team's success.
What happened with Robert Morris the year after Lee departed is a model for what can, and will likely, happen at Robert Morris this season. Here's a look at how some of the team's players did in some of those categories in the 2008-09 season:
|Ast. per game||% possessions||Ast. rate||Fouls drawn/40 min.|
Compared to the previous season, players handled the ball at a more even rate, as two players had the ball on more than a quarter of the team's possessions, compared to the one from the previous season. How did that work out for the Colonials offense? It averaged 1.03 points per possession, the exact same mark it averaged the year before, as RMU made it back to the NCAA tournament.
I would expect Myers-Pate to start the year running the point -- something he may well do for the rest of the season -- and while it's very likely he could be the person who ends up using the highest percentage of RMU's possessions, he'll have a more diminished role than Jones did in 2012-13. The likely candidates to help him in that role? Possibly Lucky Jones and Karvel Anderson, but more than likely, the team will rely on some newcomers. There are freshmen Kavon Stewart and Britton Lee, both guards, and junior college transfer Desjuan Newton has drawn some rave reviews, but many of those center around his athleticism and not necessarily his ball-handling. The freshmen are the two to watch, at least as far as I see it.
Are the 2008 and 2013 situations completely identical? There's a bit of an apples-and-oranges quality to it, as RMU had much more returning backcourt talent, whereas the team this upcoming season comes in as more of a question mark with so many newcomers.
Nonetheless, though, it's a model for what we could possibly see. Life after Velton Jones was an inevitability for Robert Morris and it's something the coaching staff has had to plan for throughout the last year (and Ryan Peters of the always-excellent Big Apple Buckets examined heading into last season).
Is Anthony Myers-Pate, as the team's lone returning traditional point guard, going to be Velton Jones? No, but that doesn't mean that he and this team won't be able to excel. It will take some work and there's no question that there are a number of variables and uncertainties at play, but there is a blueprint for success in a situation like this. It's just a matter of seeing if history can repeat itself.