The Four Generals
For Bobby Hurley and his three talented point guards, working together is mutually beneficial
First-year University at Buffalo basketball coach Bobby Hurley (holding basketball), a college basketball legend at point guard who played at Duke, has three talented floor generals on his UB roster – freshman Shannon Evans (left), senior Jarod Oldham (center) and sophomore Jarryn Skeete (right). Brian Keschinger, The Spectrum
Not all sports clichÃ©s are true. Ever heard this one? "The point guard must be the most unselfish player on his team."
See, with unselfishness comes meekness, and the greatest floor generals are far from meek. Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul? Those guys are confident.
Quite contrary to the clichÃ©, the point guard must be the most brazen player on his team. He does not deny his own scoring numbers and get others involved because he is unselfish. He does it because he has figured out the truth that at a certain level, anyone can make an open layup or jumper; not anyone can call the right offense, engage multiple defenders and get his teammate an open shot - and a smart shot.
A point guard needs to understand that a good shot for one teammate could be a terrible shot for another, and that the way he calls an offense and creates off the dribble influences who gets what shot. He needs to know his teammates so well he adjusts every idiosyncrasy of his game to their tendencies. He needs to want the rock in his hands, period.
And to do this, he cannot be unselfish. He must, above all, have an unwavering belief in himself.
Confidence is the most defining characteristic of the University at Buffalo's three point guards. When the athletic department inked coach Bobby Hurley in March 2013, it added one of the most legendary collegiate point guards of all time - the once-undersized Duke star who was defined by an unwavering belief in himself.
Hurley does not need to teach confidence to UB's three floor generals; they've got that down. What he is trying to teach them, however, is what is necessary to become a champion.
"Leadership is important, in terms of taking command of the team, how much you're looked upon as the glue that holds everything together," Hurley said. "I always played with a lot of fire and a lot of intensity, and I would expect that from my point guard: You've got to be the heart and soul of your team. At the same time, you've got to play with composure and poise."
Fire and intensity, composure and poise: It's a torturous balance, and truly mastering it requires a learned professor.
Past the midway point of the season, Bobby Hurley's Class of Point Guard Study is in full swing. Each of his three pupils has made strides.
Though Hurley inherited a talented bevy of point guards, it's not their aptitude on the court that makes them fascinating. It's the life experience they brought into this season.
Andre Jones, a star guard at Winthrop University, would often return to his high school's gym in the offseason. There was always this short, skinny kid in the gym. "I really look up to you," the wide-eyed 11-year-old would constantly tell Jones.
Jones came home from college one summer and couldn't believe what he discovered: Back in that gym, the boy was now dunking with ease. He had grown a few inches, and his game had developed exponentially.
Man, this kid reminds me of a miniature me when I was in high school, Jones thought. He remembered how he looked up to older guys when he was a young player and how they were a little too cool to hang out with a kid, how they had gotten caught up in basketball's perpetual curse - thinking you're bigger than the game - and dismissed their young fan.
Jones made a resolution when he saw Shannon Evans that summer day: He was going to set an example for this young man.
In Evans' eyes, Jones could do no wrong. He was the pride and joy of Suffolk, Va., their hometown. Both players brag about the area. Jones calls it "a basketball Mecca" and estimates 10-12 Suffolk natives in the past five years have gone on to start at a Division I school.
There are only three high schools in that region, but it has produced players like Jones (who is in his first year playing for the Erie Bay Hawks of the NBA Development League), Marquette's Davante Gardner and former Cincinnati standout JaQuon Parker. Evans was always the youngest in their pickup games.
"Where I'm from, there were a lot of ballers coming up, a lot of good players coming up," Evans said. "So we had the competition. We had to work hard. If you didn't work hard, you didn't get exposed."
Jones was a perfect role model for Evans. Jones had accomplished things Evans dreamed of - he had come up in Suffolk, earned a scholarship to a Division I school, made it to an NCAA Tournament and started since his freshman year (Jones would lead the Eagles in scoring with 16.0 points per game his senior year, 2011-12).
Evans was determined, enthusiastic and confident from a young age. He needed those characteristics to overcome what he lacked in height (the UB roster generously lists him at 6-foot-1). Athleticism can only take you so far in this game. He has ups like Nate Robinson, but he also has an aura reminiscent of Kobe.
Jones said that mentality is something he saw develop in Evans' game during the years the two worked together.
"As a player, he's a killer now," Jones said. "It doesn't matter if he's playing at Buffalo, I don't care if he's playing at Duke - he's going to get into that starting lineup, or he's going to get minutes or be in practice and the coach is going to say, 'Man, I don't have a choice but to play this kid.'"
Evans, a freshman, has come off the bench this year but is averaging 25.6 minutes per game. He has shown flashes of brilliance that have fans believing the UB program will be all right if it's in his hands for the next few years.
After Buffalo's first game of the season, a tough loss at Texas A&M, Hurley told The Buffalo News: "I think a lot of Shannon. I love his fearlessness and how he competes and how hard he plays. He's a freshman and I knew how excited he was to play. He's got so much personality for the game."
Personality for the game: That's an acute way to describe Evans' flair. His personality extends beyond the court. In October, at UB's Fall Fest concert, hip-hop artists A$AP Rocky and A$AP Ferg performed. Near the end of their raucous set, Rocky asked fans to join on stage. Up went about 20 women and, you guessed it, Shannon Evans, who danced and rapped while sporting stunner shades.
He wore those same shades when he was first introduced to the Buffalo fans, at Bulls Madness, UB's preseason pep rally. He wobbled like he was back on stage and delivered a bounce-pass alley-oop from the 200 level in the dunk contest that had Alumni Arena shaking.
Evans has no shortage of moxie. He earned his "Hollywood" nickname his freshman year of high school, when he returned an interception for a touchdown and did a Terrell Owens-esque dance in the end zone. (Evans, a wide receiver and corner, also had Division I offers to play football.)
He lives for the spotlight.
"He has a lot of good people in his corner who are always pushing him and giving him confidence," Jones said. "Nothing wrong with being confident. I don't think he's cocky at all. He's earned that title [of Hollywood]."
Evans says he developed his swagger from the city that made him.
"Just where I'm from, we play with the best," Evans said. "That can carry over to being cocky, but on the court you need that. You need that edge on your shoulder to feel like you're better than your opponent. That's where I'm from. That's how we play."
He learned to play from guys like Jones. Now he wants to pass it on.
"He's looking for that kid who looks up to him now," Jones said. "He wants to be an idol to someone else. So if there's any kid out there who idolizes Shannon 'Hollywood' Evans, reach out to him."
Phil Dixon has been coaching youth basketball in Canada for over 20 years. There have been two players to recently come through his Mississauga Wolverines basketball school who have been eerily similar. They've reminded him of each other in odd ways, both on and off the court.
One is UB sophomore guard Jarryn Skeete. The other is Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins, the NBA Draft prospect who was arguably the highest-touted college basketball recruit in a decade.
"They're usually the best players on their team, but they get their satisfaction when they get the weakest player involved, when they get an assist to the weakest player on the team and get that person to score points," Dixon said.
Don't doubt the comparison; Dixon knows a thing or two about evaluating talent. Some consider him the greatest Canadian high school basketball player ever (even better than Wiggins and Steve Nash). Dixon suffered a nerve injury at the University of Utah that derailed his NBA dreams; he played professionally overseas.
While he was at Utah, though, he met a man who changed his life - the late, revered ball coach Rick Majerus.
"He really mentored me as a youngster, so I want to pass it on to my younger athletes," Dixon said. "I just saw a lot of potential in Jarryn as a youngster and he was such a hard worker."
Skeete was thrown into action as the Bulls' floor general last season when veteran Jarod Oldham suffered a wrist injury in December that sidelined him for the season. The youngster handled it well, averaging 7.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game and earning a spot on the All-MAC Freshman Team.
Now, with Oldham back, Skeete, 6-foot-3, 175, is playing the 2 and putting up similar numbers. He is still adapting, as the team is leaning on him more heavily to create his own shot. Jan. 11, Skeete scored 19 points and fueled the Bulls' second-half surge to defeat Eastern Michigan.
No matter the position, the pressure is no big deal for Skeete. That's because he competed at such a high level for Dixon.
When he was 16, their Wolverines team won their championship against a team filled with blue-chip recruits.
"They had six, seven, eight top players, and they would double team and triple team [Skeete], and I mean, he was just doing his thing," Dixon said. "He's an amazing player, and I just think the sky is the limit."
Skeete has also earned praise from his current coach.
"I think he has got a great mind for the game," Hurley said. "I think he plays at a real good pace where he's never really out of control when he's playing, and he's got good size. His shot is a real weapon for him; he's shooting the ball very well. On a team that has good inside play, you need players that can make shots. He's doing that. And he sees the floor well."
Vision: That's Skeete's strongest skill. Vision is hard to notice and perhaps impossible to coach, but it is as valuable as any tangible talent in basketball, particularly for a PG.
Skeete has had a vision for his future for a long time: playing in the NBA. In an attempt tomake it there, he hasn't taken a traditional path. He worried about not being discovered coming out of Canada - though Dixon thought that was unnecessary - and attended prep school in the States to get noticed by scouts. At 17 years old, he moved to Chicago, then Utah, then Maine.
He had to figure out how to drive in America. He didn't have a clue how to decipher the Fahrenheit temperature scale. Again, however, the pressure of moving all over a new country by himself was no problem for Skeete.
"Jarryn is a good kid," Dixon said. "He's not a kid that will deviate from his agenda. He's focused on his school and his basketball. So he's not going to get caught up with friends and clubs and drugs and that stuff. He comes from a very good family. His mom and dad did a hell of a job raising him."
Skeete is proud of his home country. He loves his Canadian flag, and he wore red spandex under his shorts every game until the uniform police at UB nixed that ritual.
Skeete is part of a new generation of Canadian players - including Wiggins, Syracuse freshman Tyler Ennis and 2013 No. 1 NBA Draft Pick Anthony Bennett - who are making their country known as a force for the game of basketball.
Before this generation, Dixon was a trailblazer for Canadian ball. He sees Skeete one day making a similar impact with his career.
"He's just scratching the surface," Dixon said. "I don't want to put too much pressure, but I'll say it right now: he's going to break all kinds of records. I think he's going to be a very special athlete. I hope he will stay [at UB] four years."
Jarod Oldham exploded off the ground.
Oldham leapt for a rebound during a December 2012 practice, his ups leaving a yard between his Nikes and the hardwood. When another player undercut him and Oldham came down with a thud, it began one of the most arduous times in his life: the journey back to the game he loves. He had broken his left wrist. His junior season was over.
"Oh my gosh. It was traumatizing, it really was," recalls Clara Oldham, Oldham's mother. "A lot of it he tried to mask and act like he was OK, but knowing him the way that I do, not being able to be on the court was the most difficult thing he ever had to endure."
Imagine losing the one you love the most in life, and then having a front-row seat to watch 11 of your closest friends fall more madly enamored with each of theirs.
"I would say throughout my life, that would probably be one of the hardest things I've had to deal with just because I love basketball so much," Oldham said. "I was close enough to the game, but I was just that far away not to be able to help physically."
The situation stung. And as it often does, a bad situation got even worse before it got better. Reggie Witherspoon, Oldham's coach of three years, was fired.
"That hurt everybody," said Jimi Oldham, Oldham's father.
With a shattered wrist and downtrodden spirit, Oldham did everything he could to get back on the court, to return to his love. That meant four surgeries and endless rehab.
Eventually, his wrist was rebuilt, but he would never be the same player. He was smarter. More thankful. Had perspective.
"I think when he got hurt and it didn't go the way they thought it was going to go, it seems to me that he grew up then," Jimi said.
Before the injury, Oldham had cemented himself as the Bulls' No. 2 offensive threat behind Javon McCrea. Oldham's sophomore year, his first as the starting point guard, he led the MAC in assist-to-turnover ratio. The young gun became the reliable game manager in 2011-12, which was a special year for UB hoops.
The senior class that year held the team together. This season, Oldham is doing the same thing.
One thing that has not changed over time is Oldham's strongest attribute: his defense. Hurley called Oldham the "best defender [he has] ever coached." Think of him like a spider. The 6-foot-3 point guard has a combination of quickness and length that has been driving opponents insane since his arrival. If you have the ball, you don't want Oldham in a stance staring at you, because there's a good chance you'll end up looking foolish.
"There's no one that I've been around that pressures the ball as well as Jarod, that I've seen in college basketball and had a chance to work with, and that does wonders for your team - for your whole defense," Hurley said Jan. 19 after a win over Kent State.
Scoring has always been secondary for Oldham. It's always been about defense and dishing to teammates. He has played point guard his whole life, just like Jimi, who was also a tall, thin terror in his heyday.
Jimi used to watch Hurley's college games. He remembers thinking, Boy, that fella can go.
Basketball is on often in the Oldham household. The family simply loves the game. They call Clara, Oldham's mother, his greatest critic. He says no matter how big the crowd is, he can always hear his mom shouting.
"I always saw that he had the potential to be better than what he thought himself, so I said it was my job to constantly critique but encourage all at the same time," Clara said.
She made sure he was constantly working on his game when he was growing up. She found gyms and parks in his area so he always had a place to play. She made him run, too. What kid wants to run?
"All of the stuff she knew I didn't like to do, she would push me even harder to do it, just because she knew I didn't like to do it," Oldham said. "It made me better."
He grew up becoming a basketball player. Last year, he became a man. Though Oldham couldn't see it at the time, his trial has benefited this year's team.
"I knew it had to be rough," Jimi said of Oldham's injury. "But I liked the way he handled himself. He kept his head up. He would always tell me he's got to do this to support his team, and he was right there."
After a tough 4-4 start to the season, things have gotten better for the men's basketball team, which is now 11-7 (5-3 Mid-American Conference). Hurley's three point guards have been as big a reason for that as anyone.
Evans has gotten more aggressive. Skeete's shot is looking smoother as he adjusts to playing the 2. Oldham is playing within himself.
"Obviously I was real anxious after my injury just to get back on the court," Oldham said. "I was just playing too fast, and now I've got my rhythm back."
Most importantly, they have been assertive leaders on the court. That's something Hurley demands from the men who will run his offense.
Remember what he said he expects: Fire and intensity, composure and poise. They're coming along with striking that balance. Their ability to find it will play a big role in deciding the fate of this season.
Hurley's development as a coach is equally important. Things are different in the Buffalo basketball program now. That's not to say they're better or worse. It's too early for that assessment. After all, the program was a formidable MAC contender for years under Witherspoon. Things are just ... different.
"A complete change in culture and atmosphere," Skeete said. "The whole team has been different. Not to knock the old coach, but I feel like we work harder now ... They expect more from us. They're harder on us because they know what we can do."
Skeete was concerned when Witherspoon was fired, and understandably so. Dixon says he was "in limbo." Skeete had emerged as an essential cog in UB's system, and now Spoon was gone.
Would he get starter's minutes? Would his new coach have the same faith in him?
Playing for Hurley has worked out better than he could have imagined.
"It's been a dream come true basically, because what else could you ask for?" Skeete said. "He's won two championships, he played in the NBA and he's my position, so if I want to make it there, why not learn from him?"
Dixon knew Skeete had a rare opportunity when UB Athletic Director Danny White hired Hurley. In 1991, Team USA defeated Team Canada in the World University Games in Sheffield, England. Hurley started at the point for the United States, and Dixon was Canada's starting shooting guard.
"I told him that he's playing for a great coach," Dixon said. "I said, 'Listen to him, listen to every word he has to tell you.' His pedigree alone, I said, 'His dad is a coach, he comes from a basketball family, he's a point guard.' I said, 'You don't understand what's happened to you right now. It's a blessing.'"
So much changed in March.
After the firing, Evans decommitted. He wanted to play for Spoon and for assistant Turner Battle, with whom he had developed a close relationship over years of recruiting.
The basketball program had lost its highest-ranked recruit. Then UB hired Hurley.
"My family, we're big Duke fans," Evans said. "My dad loved Duke. My dad was watching Coach Hurley when he played. That was his favorite player. So when Coach Hurley got the job, that made me reconsider because he's a real good point guard coach and I'm a point guard."
There is an undeniable basketball romance between the young coach-guard tandem. Less than an hour after the Bulls defeated Robert Morris Nov. 26, Evans tweeted: "Nothing better then seeing a smile on Bhurl face." Hurley responded: "Happy to see you play well & deliver a clutch 3pt shot. Great work!!"
As their relationship has progressed, so too has Evans' game.
"At first, I was kinda shocked, like I've gotta be correct, everything's gotta be perfect," Evans said of playing for Hurley. "But then he told me just play freely, just do what you do. He kind of gave me a green light to let me play, and it's amazing."
Hurley praised Evans during the offseason, before the freshman ever stepped out on the court in front of UB fans, saying the guard's intensity was an immense addition to the squad.
"I always wanted to feel like I was being empowered by my coaches," Hurley said at Big Four Media Day in October. "I'm going to try and convey that confidence to my guards, to play the way I talk about Shannon Evans - that fearless quality - and just play relentless and really just let it all hang out there."
Like Evans, Hurley was known for his intensity as a player. As Evans sees it, that quality has not diminished in his coach, who is now 42. Imagine what it's like practicing with Bobby Hurley as your head coach. Actually, you might not want to imagine what that would be like.
"It's a lot of running, I'll tell you that, and it's real physical," Evans said. "He doesn't call fouls, so we're in there bleeding and everything and getting hurt, so it's real physical."
When Oldham was recovering from his injury, it helped having a new mentor who understood what it's like being away from the game you love.
"We discussed when I first got here just the frustrations of making small, incremental progress," said Hurley, whose NBA career was halted by a serious car accident injury that kept him out a year. "He's done great. In July, he was a different guy already, just the cobwebs came off his game."
A different guy in many ways.
"He made his mind up he was going to be there for his team, and I can't put it into words, but he stuck it out," Jimi, Oldham's father, said. "It was very emotional for him. He couldn't physically play, but he wanted to do something to make sure the team stayed together."
For Oldham, this season has been radically different from last year. Not only is he back on the court playing the game he loves, but he has vigor for the game he's never felt before.
"He's so excited," said Clara, his mother. "It's like every day is something new that [Oldham] can get from [Hurley]. So he's really enjoying the fact that they speak the same language."
Speak the same language: Point guards understand each other. Oldham - whose Twitter bio is, "Jarod Oldham, Point Guard in all facets of life" - tells his dad, "I could just listen to [Hurley] all day."
And could you blame him? It's hard to describe how much of a legend Hurley truly is, and here he is, in Alumni on a daily basis, UB's men's basketball coach.
I set out to write this article about the three young men battling for the reins to his offense in his first year as a head coach. What I quickly discovered, however, is that as much as they each love playing the point, not one of them cares where he plays as long as he is on the court.
So much of their lives has prepared them to be basketball players. Each of the three athletes has an unwavering belief in himself, and each wants the rock in his hands, period. But as long as they are learning from Bobby Hurley, getting burn and competing for a MAC title, they're content with any spot on the court.
Perhaps that is, after all, a little bit unselfish.
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