Underclassmen thriving at the point in college basketball

North Carolina’s Cole Anthony (2) handles the ball during an NCAA college basketball game against Elon Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

NEW YORK — Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton knows well the challenges that face young point guards in college basketball.

The best ones are often so in sync with their coaches that they know exactly the right call without hearing it from the sideline.

Building that connection takes time for young players as they adapt their own games to the college level, though Haliburton, Kansas’ Devon Dotson, Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans and Arizona’s Nico Mannion (along with North Carolina’s Cole Anthony, currently sidelined by injury) are among a strong crop of underclassmen growing up quickly at the point as conference races heat up.

“You’re going to make mistakes. … That’s just how it goes,” said Haliburton, who has blossomed as a sophomore into a high NBA prospect. “Growth is not linear. It goes a lot of different ways, up-down, up-down — it’s just how life goes, in anything in life, if you want to be great. So you’ve got to learn to deal with disappointment and learn to deal with mistakes and just move on from them.”

This bunch seems to be managing that part just fine.

Six sophomores entered the week in the top 10 nationally in assists, led by Sacred Heart’s Cameron Parker (third at 8.7 per game) after he set an NCAA single-game record with 24 assists in December. Parker is joined by Ohio’s Jason Preston (7.9), Haliburton (7.7), Hagans (7.3), Minnesota’s Marcus Carr (7.2) and Duke’s Tre Jones (7.1).

Freshmen Mannion and Anthony also have had fast starts and are considered lottery prospects if they enter the NBA draft after the season.

Tar Heels coach Roy Williams emphasizes mentality in teaching young point guards more than honing a crossover dribble or pull-up jumper.

“You have to be on top of your game mentally at every second,” Williams said, “because you’re involved in calling the defense, you’re involved in calling the offense. You’ve got to know where everybody is supposed to be, get them in the right spot, try to understand who’s in foul trouble on the other team.

“The enormity of how difficult a task it is for a guy coming in is the most overwhelming thing in the world. So hopefully they get a little bit of it, a little bit of it, a little bit of it. And their physical ability, physical talent, is the easy part.”

Williams’ Tar Heels are eager for Anthony’s return from a December knee surgery expected to sideline him into the second half of January. They have leaned heavily on Anthony as the nation’s second-leading freshman scorer (19.2) while lacking consistent secondary scorers.

“I’m still trying to learn what he wants,” Anthony said before the injury. “He’s asking a lot but it’s what I signed up for. I’m a point guard. I asked for this.”

Kansas coach Bill Self is pushing for more from Dotson, who has become the third-ranked Jayhawks’ top scorer (18.8) by playing faster and showing stronger leadership.

“I get frustrated with him sometimes because I think he can be such a much better passer, but he can guard his man, he’s fast, he controls the game,” Self said. “He just has to get a little bit better passing the ball and taking care of the basketball.”

At Kentucky, John Calipari is no stranger to tutoring young point guards with his program’s constant roster turnover of NBA talent. He said Hagans is “doing some good stuff,” but he wants another mental step.

“He’s not playing great yet because … the discipline defensively and offensively puts us in bad positions when he breaks it off,” Calipari said. “He’s just got to be more disciplined for 40 minutes.”

Virginia coach Tony Bennett called 5-foot-9 sophomore Kihei Clark (9.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists) a “warrior” but wants fewer turnovers.

“Sometimes I forget he’s in a brand new role for him and he’s still in his second year,” Bennett said. “I’m asking an awful lot of him because he has to do a lot defensively and offensively, but I’m going to hold him to high account. I hold all my point guards into that.”

As for Iowa State’s Haliburton, he said it took time to adjust while “playing growing men at times.” But after playing last summer for the USA Basketball Under-19 World Cup gold-medal winner, the lean 6-5, 175-pound sophomore is averaging 17.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.6 steals with a confident style.

Now considered a possible NBA lottery prospect, Haliburton has a simple answer on how challenging it is for young point guards in college basketball.

“As difficult as you make it, to be honest,” he said. “You’ve just got to have a bond with your teammates and with your coaches. You’ve got to be willing to make relationships. If you watch me play, I don’t shut up. That’s what I’ve got to do. My guys have got to hear my voice. I instill confidence in them and they instill confidence in me.”