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Lead Guards

Providence’s 2018-19 season could very well swing on the play of its lead guards.

In an ideal world, sophomore Makai Ashton-Langford will find his footing in his second year on Smith Hill. He will break down defenders at will, score on the tricky scoop shots and floaters that made him so effective at Cushing and Brewster Academy, and defend at a high level.

Ideally, David Duke will live up to the hype. He’ll become one of the best defensive guards in the Big East early in his career, finish and pass effectively with both hands, he’ll help on the glass, knock down open 3s, hit from the free throw line with the consistency he did at Cushing, and prove Big East coaches right after they predicted he would split the Big East Freshman of the Year award.

A return to health would be an ideal start for Maliek White. A leg injury couldn’t have come at a worse time for both White and the Friars last November. A sophomore at the time, White was playing perhaps his most complete game in black and white while his teammates were sleep walking through a close one against Brown. White had never been more aggressive on both sides of the ball, taking nine field goal attempts in 24 minutes, grabbing five boards, and coming up with four steals before going down with a leg injury that kept him sidelined for a month.

Before the injury, White had shown flashes of becoming instant offense off of the Friar bench, making 9-19 from 3-point range through the nine games. White’s injury coincided with Kyron Cartwright’s bum ankle, and while Cartwright returned to lead the Friars to the Big East Championship game in March, White’s production and minutes varied throughout conference play.

No position will swing the season more than lead guard, and none comes with as many questions marks simply because we’ve hardly seen enough of White and Ashton-Langford at Providence, Drew Edwards is more of a defensive stopper, and Duke has yet to play a minute of college ball. But the ceiling is extremely high.

Here’s a breakdown of all four.

Makai Ashton-Langford: He’s been on the Friarbasketball.com radar for quite some time, as my first glimpse came back in December 2014. What stood out when he was that young was Ashton-Langford’s blinding speed with the ball in his hands.

He had perhaps his most effective game last season in the loss at URI (12 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists), thanks in large part to the pace the Rams wanted to play. URI dictated the tempo last December, but it was the type of quick pace in which Ashton-Langford thrives.

The first month of Ashton-Langford’s freshman season was his best. He had 8-3-3 in the home opener against Houston Baptist, flashed against Minnesota, and was at his scoring peak in going 5-5 from the field on a variety of floaters and layups against St. Louis in MSG.

 

An 11 point, seven assist, five rebound night against Brown came the game after his strong URI effort, but his minutes waned as Cartwright returned to health. He played fewer than 10 minutes in 16 of PC’s Big East contests (including the Big East Tournament) and saw DNP-CDs four times from mid-February on.

Ultimately, Ashton-Langford’s style of play and how Providence’s season broke last year paved the way for sporadic minutes for the freshman. A poor non-conference showing had PC fighting uphill all season in trying to reach its fifth straight NCAA tournament. Providence relied heavily on Cartwright, a senior point guard, as they clawed back to the bubble. Both Cartwright and Ashton-Langford are at their best with the ball in their hands, and Ashton-Langford struggled finishing (.379 from the field and 3-25 from 3).

It couldn’t have been the freshman season he expected after committing to Providence in the spring of 2017, but he wasn’t ranked in the top 40 nationally by accident. The accuracy of those rankings have come a long way in the past decade, especially the top 50.

A confident Ashton-Langford not only thrives at a breakneck pace, but as a crafty dribbler who beats defenders with hesitation moves and finishes in a variety of ways from 10 feet and in. We saw examples of both in the video above, and at URI.

Confidence will be key in year two. After a strong start to his freshman campaign, he seemed to have lost a bit of it before showing signs late (11-3-3 in 15 minutes at Xavier and a couple of key plays in the second half of the Big East Semis). If Ashton-Langford is in attack mode during his sophomore season he will live in the paint and return to drawing defenders and finishing from 10 feet in with confidence.

Maliek White: White certainly isn’t without his supporters among the Friar fan base. His shooting numbers spiked from his freshman to sophomore seasons, even if his minutes didn’t. White’s field goal percentage jumped from 38% to 44%, and he made 34% from downtown last year.

An 11 point opener (5-7 from the field) followed by a perfect 4-4 night against St. Louis (including 3-3 from deep) looked like early indications that White could become a swing player off of the bench in his sophomore season — the type of bench spark last year’s team desperately needed.

The leg injury forced him to miss 10 games, including the first six Big East contests. Providence started 4-2 in conference play with a shortened rotation.

White struggled to find his shot in the seven games following his return before an 11 point (3-5 from 3) effort at Butler kicked off a four game stretch in which he scored 37 points on 5-12 from deep. A 15 point outing at Xavier closed out the four game spurt, but also marked the end of any significant offensive production the rest of the way.

White saw five minutes or fewer in the Big East semis, the final, and the NCAA tournament loss to Texas A&M after a surprise start in the Big East quarterfinals versus Creighton.

Despite the inexperience of Ashton-Langford and Duke, fitting White into the role of a playmaker feels like a bit of a square peg, especially on a team in search of perimeter shooting. Let him hunt his shot and shoot his way into rhythm for the first time in his college career and see if the result is a much-needed backcourt sniper.

White has a good midrange pull-up, has shown an ability to finish difficult layups, and has the potential to turn the tide of a handful of games when firing away from deep.

David Duke: We’ll have more on Duke prior to Tuesday’s opener against Siena, but from a pure skillset standpoint Duke will very much be in the mix for heavy minutes at lead guard this season. You’ve read (and most likely seen) all about his athleticism at this point. Providence may never again have a point guard who plays as high above the rim or throws down with such force on dunks.

This is a freak of an athlete not only from a running and jumping perspective, but in hand-eye coordination as well. Duke also uses both hands very effectively. He throws deep passes and pretty drop-offs with his left hand, and finishes with his left quite often.

My question for the first month of the season is how quickly Ed Cooley wants to throw the freshman to the wolves. In his first season at Cushing, Duke proved that he could play capably off of the ball, as fellow high major guard Wabissa Bede ran the show for most of the season. Providence fans will remember Pete Gillen using two pure point guards together (God Shammgod and Corey Wright) with great success during the Elite Eight run in 1997. Will Cooley do the same with Duke and Ashton-Langford 20 years later?

Duke will allow Cooley to go big — really big — when he’s at the 1. There’s length up and down this roster and perhaps no Friar figures to be as much of a physical/athletic mismatch at his position as Duke.

One advantage Duke may have over the other point guards on this roster? Free throw shooting. Ashton-Langford struggled at the line a season ago, and for a good shooter White shot 61% last year and 56% the season prior. Duke’s ability to finish at the free throw line and defend will likely keep him on the floor in the closing minutes of most games.

Drew Edwards: Injuries have plagued the fourth year Friar during his tenure at Providence. Edwards played just 86 minutes during his sophomore season due to a knee injury, following a freshman year in which he was on the floor at critical junctions.

Much was made of Cooley putting the ball in his hands to inbound the ball during the buzzer beating win over USC in the ’16 tournament (Edwards was a freshman), but Edwards was also on the floor during the closing minutes and made a critical jumper to keep the Friars close.

 

During last year’s Big East Championship, Providence had the ball in a tie game with 45 seconds remaining in regulation. With everything on the line Cooley went with a lineup of Cartwright, Jalen Lindsey, Rodney Bullock, Alpha Diallo, and Edwards.

Edwards played the final 12 minutes of regulation and the overtime session in the Big East Championship game. He was on the floor when PC was down 12 with 12 minutes left (most likely to slow Villanova’s dribble penetrators) and stayed on the court as Providence took the lead five minutes later. That lead came after Edwards scored off of an offensive rebound, a layup, and a free throw (Edwards shot 19-23 at the stripe a season ago).

He later drew a critical charge on Jalen Brunson at a huge moment — when PC trailed by four with just over five minutes left. Eric Paschall stuffed Bullock at the rim, blowing the roof off of the Garden, and the Friars were on the ropes until Edwards helped slow the momentum with the charge on the other end.

With a minute left in a tie game, Edwards stripped Brunson at the top of the key. That play led to the Diallo layup that gave Providence a two point lead with 40 seconds left. He remained on the floor through the end of regulation and all of overtime.

While Edwards figures to play mainly off of the ball offensively this season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him matched up with point guards defensively in the way he was against Villanova in the finals. He’s experienced, and if last March was any indication, Cooley trusts him in critical moments.

Edwards’ subtle, winning plays against Villanova are worth another look. He not only kept dribblers in front of him, but threw a couple of great box outs at Paschall and Omari Spellman

 

Twitter: @Kevin_Farrahar

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