MANHATTAN — Ask a point guard to describe his playing style and he is likely to answer in one of two ways. Either he’s a pass-first player that helps teammates by racking up assists or he’s a shoot-first player who opens up the floor by scoring.
Rarely can point guards do both. Two that can, though, will go toe-to-toe on Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum when Kansas State plays host to Baylor.
K-State’s Angel Rodriguez, a 5-foot-11 sophomore, averages 10.2 points and sports the Big 12’s best assists-to-turnover ratio at 2.33. He is quick, agile and unafraid to drive into the lane and shoot over bigger defenders when his teammates are guarded.
Jackson, a 5-foot-10 senior and former junior-college transfer, leads the Big 12 in both scoring (18.9 points) and assists (6.17). He is one of the fastest players in college basketball and keeps defenders guessing by blowing by them for layups one possession and pulling up for three-pointers and lob passes the next.
Rodriguez and Jackson are different players, but they share one unmistakable trait: aggressiveness.
“They both have that low center of gravity,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “They can get in the paint, they can create havoc, they can make some tough shots and both of them can cause a lot of problems on the defensive end.”
So how did Rodriguez and Jackson become multi-threat point guards?
For Rodriguez, his playing style stems from a position change. Growing up in Puerto Rico, he played on the same team as Carmelo Betancourt, a pass-first guard who now plays for Akron. There was no need for Rodriguez to run the offense. Instead, he played shooting guard and created his own shot when he held the ball.
Then he moved to Florida to pursue a college basketball career and his coaches asked him to play point guard. His passes went up, but everything else stayed the same.
“I was a scorer, so I had to change my mentality a little bit in the U.S. and run the point,” Rodriguez said. “But I will always have that aggressiveness in me.”
Jackson has always been a point guard, but it wasn’t until he injured his elbow and was unable to shoot during his freshman season at the College of Southern Idaho that he truly learned how to pass. The injury required surgery, and as it healed he worked on dribbling through traffic inside and kicking the ball out to open teammates.
When he returned to full strength and started shooting again, he was suddenly a complete player.
“I was just about scoring in high school, then I had to get my elbow reconstructed and it helped me a lot,” Jackson said in a phone interview. “I started passing and scoring and was doing a lot of both. It was a blessing in disguise. My court vision got a lot better and I started to get the ball to my teammates where I could help them score. It continues to help me today.”
Perfecting both skills allowed him to succeed against taller players. He always had the speed to zoom by them, but now he could shoot, pass or drive to the basket on any given play. He tries to keep defenses guessing by taking shots early into possessions instead of always calling out designed plays and making behind-the-back passes when no one expects it. He even dunks when he’s in transition. Yes, Jackson is a skilled dunker.
He thinks his playing style mirrors his personality.
“I don’t really compare myself to nobody in college,” Jackson said. “(Rodriguez) is a tough player, hard-nosed, and he gets after you on defense. He has improved a lot from last year and is a big part of their time, but I don’t look at other college players that way. I try to model my game after Chris Paul and other NBA guys like Kemba Walker and Damian Lillard.”
Weber has never coached against Jackson, but could tell he was going to be a difficult matchup when he was named Big 12 preseason player of the year. His concerns grew this week during the scouting process.
“We are watching clips of him and he’s like the Road Runner in the old cartoons,” Weber said. “You know, meep, meep, and everyone is turning their heads and he’s gone. He beat five Oklahoma State guys twice for layups and those guys are just looking at him. We aren’t going to be able to stop him with just our guards. We’ve got to be there ready to help and at least slow him down.
“How many guards are the leaders in assists and points at the same time? Usually it’s one or the other … He definitely is a game-changer.”
Jackson was a thorn in K-State’s side last season. In three meetings, he averaged more than 11 points, eight assists and four rebounds with Baylor defeating K-State at Bramlage Coliseum and in the Big 12 Tournament.
But the Wildcats won 57-56 at the Ferrell Center behind their own point guard. Rodriguez did it all that night, finishing with three rebounds, six assists and leading all scorers with 15 points.
In this series, point-guard play is paramount.
“They are both hard to stay in front of,” said K-State guard Martavious Irving. “Pierre has extraordinary speed and extraordinary change in direction. He does both very well, plus he’s a great shooter. That’s something else you’ve got to think about. That combination of speed and skill makes him a good player.
“Angel uses his savvy and strength to control the game, especially assisting people. He doesn’t have that drop-dead speed you see from Pierre, but he has good shiftiness that makes him hard to guard. They don’t play alike, to be honest, but they are both aggressive point guards that help their teams in a lot of different ways.”