The Takeover

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Jameer Nelson, Guard / Denver Nuggets - The Players' Tribune

It’s no secret that guards have taken over the NBA. Gone are the days when you had to have a dominant big man to win a championship. The last true center to win Finals MVP was Shaquille O’Neal back in 2002. The last regular season MVP who played center? The Big Diesel, back in the 1999-00 season. In the 15 years since then, the regular season MVP award has gone to a guard 10 times — LeBron James has four since 2009. Even outside of LeBron’s dominance, many other guards have been recipients of the Maurice Podoloff trophy (Steve Nash, Derrick Rose and Steph Curry to name a few).

I obviously have a bias, but I honestly believe the rise of elite guard play is a good thing for both the league and the fans. Guards make the game more exciting. We are the ones taking control of the game, determining the pace and making the most significant decisions on the floor. As a guard, you have to think for yourself as well as the team as a whole. You have to get your teammates to buy into the coach’s system.

Guards have made the NBA game a lot faster. It’s no longer a post-up-first league, where the guard brings the ball down and enters it to the big man the majority of the time. In today’s league, the role of guards as scorers is more important than ever before.

In today’s league, the role of guards as scorers is more important than ever before.

Guards pose scoring threats from every inch past half court — from beyond the three-point perimeter to the basket. James Harden is a great example. He will drain a three in your face from deep and then successfully drive into the paint on the very next trip down the court.

I’d argue that the point guard position has changed the most of any position over recent years. In the past, point guards were expected to act primarily as distributors. Today’s elite point guards are still great passers, but they’re also masters of disrupting the defense with their scoring prowess and aggressiveness.

Guys like Steph Curry, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook have proven that you can be a great scorer and distributor at the same time. In fact, if you’re going to be a great guard nowadays, it’s basically a necessity to have both of those qualities. Look at Russell Westbrook. Some people talk about him being too focused on scoring and taking too many shots, but I disagree. Look at all the triple doubles he had last year — his aggressive play is what allowed him to get 10-plus assists in those games. His ability to attract double-teams makes the game easier on his teammates.

As a high-scoring point guard at St. Joe’s, I often heard similar criticisms. Coming out of college, people told me that because of my size, I had to become a “traditional point guard” in order to last in the NBA. Now, heading into my 12th season, I’m excited to see the way “scoring point guards” are taking over the league.

That being said, it’s crowded for guards these days. My advice for talented young point guards entering the league is: Come prepared. You’re now stepping into a league that’s more of a grind than ever. Not many guards come into the league and take over early on. It took Steph a few years. Look where he is now. You can’t get discouraged.

I left college as National Player of the Year. I obviously wanted to come out and play every minute of every game in the NBA, but in the first six months of my rookie year I only averaged 13 minutes per game. Staying ready and practicing hard was what I focused on in those months. When my opportunity to become a starter came, I was ready and confident in my abilities. I was mature enough to understand that I had to be patient for my moment, and then be ready to seize it.

There are no nights off at the NBA level. You’re going to go out and face someone tough night in and night out. Whether they’re an All-Star or not, you’re still going up against the best basketball players in the world.

It’s also important to study the games of your peers and those who came before you. I always had guards I wanted to play like. The players that had the biggest impact on my understanding of the game, if I had to pick just a couple, were Allen Iverson, Chauncey Billups and Baron Davis.

To me, Iverson was pound-for-pound the best guard of his era. No one competed harder than he did. As a teenager in the Philadelphia area, I watched him night after night. I kept hearing stories of how banged up he would get. People would literally beg him to take a night off, but being who he was and how big his heart was, he still played. Iverson left it all out on the hardwood every time.

To me, Iverson was pound-for-pound the best guard of his era.

Chauncey taught me so much every game I faced him. The leadership he displayed was on another level. He instilled confidence in his teammates and eventually made them champions.

Baron was an opponent, closer to my age, that I enjoyed watching and facing off against. His explosiveness is what I remember the most. I always described him as tricky and bouncy. During his prime, you knew that any night Baron could just do something extremely explosive on the floor. Reverse dunks, crossovers — it seemed like he could do it all. What people don’t realize is how physical he was at his size. He would put you in the torture chamber with his aggressive play.

I’m now entering a veteran position in my career. Spending more than a decade in this league teaches you a lot. With the league shifting as it has, I’ve had to make adjustments to my own game as well. I still have my quickness and my speed, but I’ve learned I have to use both more wisely now. These younger point guards are extremely fast, and really strong and talented. So I have to use my veteran knowledge of the game and my strength to slow guys down.

It’s no doubt a challenge, but I’ve faced those ever since I was known as the undersized guard coming out of St. Joe’s. As I enter my 12th season as a point guard in the NBA, I’m excited about the direction the league is going in.

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