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Commentary Bob Lutz: VanVleet ready to handle Wichita State’s point guard duties

  • Published Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, at 10:35 p.m.

Gregg Marshall has had a pretty good run of point guards at Wichita State. But he didn’t have any of them for long.

Clevin Hannah and Joe Ragland, the Shockers’ point guards from 2008-09 through 2011-12, were junior college transfers.

Malcolm Armstead, the point guard on Wichita State’s Final Four team last season, was a transfer from Oregon who was limited to just one season with WSU.

Now Fred VanVleet is the guy and he helps Marshall sleep better at night.

“Hey, I’d love to have Malcolm back, Joe Ragland back, Cleven Hannah back,” Marshall said after WSU’s 73-29 exhibition win over Oklahoma Baptist on Saturday night at Koch Arena. “But Fred VanVleet is pretty darn good, too, and I’ve got him for three more years. I think Fred will write his own chapter.”

Teams that lose players like Armstead, who is playing basketball professionally overseas, often struggle to find someone who can step in.

Not the Shockers.

Armstead took VanVleet under his wing last season and by the end the understudy was playing important and quality minutes in key spots.

Now it’s VanVleet’s team and this is something he’s lived for, in a basketball sense.

“Leadership comes natural to me,” VanVleet said. “I’ve always been like that, ever since I was a lot younger. I think growing up and playing with a lot of older guys helped me mature faster.”

VanVleet isn’t the fastest or the quickest point guard. He’s not a dead-eye shooter. He doesn’t play with great flair or pizazz.

He’s just steady. He makes the right decisions. He shoots well enough and has a sixth sense about knowing where openings, and open teammates, are.

And his experience with Armstead as a tutor can’t be overemphasized.

“I’ve said it many times, that I wouldn’t be the person or the player that I am today if it wasn’t for Malcolm,” VanVleet, a 5-foot-11 sophomore from Chicago, said. “I learned from his mistakes as well as his accomplishments. I learned more about the value of a good point guard. I learned that a point guard can lead a team to a Final Four and I think last year the best point guards in America were the four in the Final Four.”

That’s high praise, considering the other point guards were Michigan’s Trey Burke, Louisville’s Peyton Siva and Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams.

But VanVleet isn’t prone to hyperbole. And he studies college basketball closely. So his praise for Armstead is more analytical than emotional.

“Yeah, those are some pretty good point guards but Malcolm was right up there with them, especially in the NCAA Tournament,” VanVleet said. “He was able to go head-to-head with any of them.”

Now it’s VanVleet’s turn. And when he’s catching a breather or in foul trouble, he’ll turn the team over to another sophomore, Ron Baker.

Shocker fans probably think of Baker more as a shooting guard or even small forward. The coaching staff and his teammates regard Baker as a complete player, capable of filling numerous roles.

“He’s just a natural basketball player,” VanVleet said of Baker, who had some point-guard numbers in his 18 minutes Saturday, including four assists, four steals and only one turnover.

But Baker can rebound, score and defend, too.

“He can play any position,” VanVleet said.

Junior Tekele Cotton might also get some minutes at the point. And because freshman point guard D.J. Bowles won’t play for the Shockers because of a heart condition, freshman Ria’n Holland, most comfortable as a shooting guard, is getting some work at the point.

The Shockers have a lot of options. But VanVleet is the guy. There’s no doubt about that.

“I think there will probably be some people who are doubters and who are skeptical,” VanVleet said.

If so, I haven’t met them. VanVleet creates a sense of calm when he’s on the floor. The Shockers are in good hands. And as the season unfolds, VanVleet will be more and more comfortable taking on even more responsibility.

“In our locker room and in our circles, I think people have confidence in me,” VanVleet said. “But if you get down to the nitty gritty, there are obviously a lot of things I need to work on. I’m not perfect. I have to continue to get better defensively and shooting the basketball.”

VanVleet played in all 39 of WSU’s games last season and finished second on the team in assists despite playing only 16.2 minutes per game. He shot well from the three-point line and made his free throws.

He showed promise. This season, he’ll show a lot more.

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @boblutz.

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