Inside the dark, daunting art of the NBA's toughest position

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ON THE SUNDAY of Thanksgiving weekend, LA Clippers head coach Doc Rivers used his team's halftime locker room meeting for one intended purpose.

"He just challenged me," Clippers rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said.

The Clippers found themselves down 15 points to the Portland Trail Blazers. On the video screen inside the visitors locker room: a single possession that occurred in real time just a few minutes earlier. In the sequence, Blazers guard Damian Lillard stood along the left sideline, guarded by Gilgeous-Alexander.

"Dame just threw him like a piece of trash, and it was obvious," said Clippers assistant Sam Cassell, who works most closely with the rookie on the dark arts of being an NBA point guard. "It was a clip of Dame taking Shai and just tossing him out of the way and coming off the pin-down, getting the ball and making the jumper."

"There were no other clips, no defensive schemes," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "Nothing else."

Rivers, an NBA rookie point guard 35 years earlier, had watched Lillard and CJ McCollum manhandle Gilgeous-Alexander all over the court in the first half -- effortlessly running him off screens and carving out space with a bump and a stride, occasionally looking around for help after a blow-by. Rivers had enough for an entire sizzle reel, but Gilgeous-Alexander didn't need to watch a full-length feature so much as hear a message.

"He needed to know you have to stand up for yourself," Rivers says. "'You're looking for help?! Help your f---ing self! That's what we need you to do -- help your f---ing self.' I said it 50 times. 'Help yourself! Don't look at me! Go stand up for yourself.'"

And so he did. Lillard and McCollum weren't fully taken out of their respective rhythms, but there was Gilgeous-Alexander in the third quarter, chest-to-chest with McCollum on a cut, intercepting the ball when it was lobbed McCollum's way. The Clippers erased the double-digit deficit and escaped Portland with a win.

After the game, Gilgeous-Alexander considered Rivers' riot act at halftime and put a new item on his professional to-do list.

"I want to have a game where I make no defensive mistakes," Gilgeous-Alexander said.

Both Cassell and Rivers admired the rookie's resolve to fight over every single screen, to arrive promptly on the help side 100 percent of the time, to never reach, never not be at the nail when he's supposed to be at the nail. But any player who has spent even a single possession at point guard at the NBA level also knows perfection is an impossibility. In fact, learning the position can feel like nothing more than a perpetual exercise in screwing up.

"He's 20, he was a f---ing teenager a few months ago," Cassell said. "He ain't watching and seeing what he has to do; no, he's a starting point guard for a playoff-caliber team. Think about all the freedom and responsibilities point guards have in this league. It's a bitch for him. It's a bitch for every other point guard. It's nothing but mistakes for the first little while."

All of those mistakes make learning the secrets of basketball's most important but least understood position a daunting and exhilarating journey, challenging even the most ambitious rookies.

NFL QUARTERBACK HAS long been regarded as the most complicated and difficult position in sports. The complex schemes that guide playmaking on an enormous grid with 22 players involved are overwhelming, especially when half of them are trying to take your head off.

Yet in recent years, as the NBA has accelerated into a constant offensive assault, the position of point guard has been transformed. Today's point guard is still charged with the job of organizing an offense at high speed, managing the shot diets of teammates who are hungry for the ball and initiating most actions in the half court. But in 2019, there's so much more.

"You're still the head of the snake, so the health of your team, and its spirit, has a disproportionate weight and responsibility on your shoulders," Hall of Fame point guard and two-time MVP Steve Nash says. "But the way these guys play today is different. I came into a league built on the philosophy that a point guard was running the team, controlling the tempo, making your teammates better, organizing, and doing all of those things. But today, point guards are asked to be aggressive and score. You have to maintain the balance between efficiency and scoring, between getting others the ball and getting yourself involved."

The initiation is a baptism of fire, one both Gilgeous-Alexander and Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young endured over the course of the season. The two players, both of whom will turn 21 this summer, are markedly different in their profiles. Gilgeous-Alexander is tall, long and versatile, with a keen eye for opportunities on both ends -- crafty, in scout-speak. Young is small and not explosive in a traditional sense, but he carries an innate ability to create offense.

During the opening months of the season, both 2018 lottery picks were often overmatched. That's not to say there weren't glimpses of Gilgeous-Alexander's agility and vision or Young's freaky intuition as a budding pick-and-roll artist, but in regard to Nash's checklist -- servicing teammates, accuracy as a passer, efficiency as a scorer -- neither displayed consistent proficiency.

But over the course of the winter, both guards blossomed. Gilgeous-Alexander orchestrated an improbable playoff run with a roster largely filled with a combo of vets and rookies, and Young anchored a young nucleus during a classic rebuild. Both relied on the counsel of experienced mentors -- Cassell for Gilgeous-Alexander, Marlon Garnett (Steve Nash's backcourt partner at Santa Clara) for Young. But neither rookie was furnished with a manual.

It's Jedi code, all unwritten rules and undefined criteria. The items that are defined -- get the ball to your shooter on time -- aren't accompanied with specifics. On time for Landry Shamet or Kevin Huerter might be late for Danilo Gallinari or John Collins.

"Every night it's something different," Young said.

THE SAME WEEK Gilgeous-Alexander was the star of Rivers' halftime slasher film, Young was mired in a woeful shooting slump -- just 7-for-34 over a three-game stretch during which his team had dropped 11 of 12. In a loss to the Clippers and Gilgeous-Alexander just before Thanksgiving, Young scored 25 points (on a less-than-efficient 8-for-22 night from the field) and notched a career-high 17 assists.

The next afternoon at the Hawks' training facility, Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce considered his young point guard's performance, one he saw as a signal of important, if incremental, progress.

"First play they're pressuring him with two elite defenders," Pierce says. "They're all into Trae, and he just blows by them and gets to the rim. So now in the pick-and-rolls, we relieve some of that pressure by setting screens, and now the big has to help. So Trae facilitates -- he hits John [Collins] for a pocket pass, then he hits someone else for a pocket pass. He took advantage of pressure and made the right reads."

After leading by 15 in the third quarter, the game tightened. Those surgical possessions when Young looked like a veteran point guard leveraging the Clippers' defensive pressure for opportunities disappeared. Young was now a rookie again, one who somehow lost the confidence that guided those pocket passes.

"Running point in the fourth quarter of a close game is graduate-level game management," Pierce says.

The next day, Young was relatively sanguine. The blown lead against the Clippers still lingered; there are few things more frustrating for an athlete than losing a winnable game. But Young had sampled a taste for three quarters of what exerting his will over a meaningful game feels like in the NBA.

"I mean, you're managing a game in college," Young says, with "managing" effectively in air quotes. "But when everyone on the court is a professional, the management is a different level."

The game also confirmed an impression he'd developed over the first few weeks of the NBA season: that the pro game might be easier, in some respects, because defenses have to be far more accountable to the offensive weapons on the floor.

"The schemes -- I feel like they're easier [in the NBA] because of the spacing," Young says.

Since summer league last July, Young has watched thousands of clips of point guards -- Nash, Mike Bibby, Stephen Curry, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf -- curated by Garnett.

"He learns from seeing," Garnett says. "He's cerebral, and this is the process where he can actually see what you're kind of explaining to him."

While Young was watching video of Nash, Nash was simultaneously watching video of Young at the request of his two former Santa Clara teammates, Garnett and Pierce. And what Nash noted was this: Young was putting undue pressure on himself early in the season trying to break out of his scoring slump. There were nights when it seemed as if his primary objective was finding better looks rather than simply identifying the best play on the floor.

"Once he started making plays, he started shooting the ball better," Nash says. "It took the pressure off his shot, because his teammates are loving the shots they're getting. And two, he's putting the defense in tough positions, because they're like, 'Well, he's killing us either way now.'"

Relying on Nash's precept that defenses can help a point guard make better decisions simply by informing him of what's most available, Young killed the league every which way in the season's final months. After the All-Star break, Young averaged 24.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 9.2 assists on a true shooting percentage of 58. Among the 194 players who passed the ball more than 500 times over that stretch, Young ranked third in shot quality off passes, according to Second Spectrum tracking data.

"The reason he's scoring 30 and getting 10 assists is that he's learned how to take advantage of how the defense is playing him," Pierce says. "He's figured it out."

A COUPLE OF weekends before the end of the season, Gilgeous-Alexander assembled performances in back-to-back home games that served as an almost perfect revue of his rookie season: on Saturday, fluid pick-and-roll play with Montrezl Harrell, hitting Shamet right on time coming off a baseline curl, and a perfect 3-for-3 night from deep in a 22-point, eight-assist performance with only a single turnover. This was followed on Sunday by a six-point, three-assist effort in which the struggles weren't so much about a forgettable stat line as unevenness.

Rivers recalls a couple of possessions when the Clippers didn't get what they wanted offensively because Gilgeous-Alexander wasn't timely with the pass. What Rivers described as honest errors that would go undetected in real time to all but the most advanced viewers can be measured, literally, in milliseconds.

"He's learning the timing of the throw, the speed of the pass, being too close or being too far," Rivers says. "Shooters are unforgiving. M-----f-----, I'm open. They want the ball when they want the ball. Shai may think, 'I got it to him.' Yeah, but it was after he was open, or you threw it too early, or you threw it too hard."

This litany of technicalities guides Gilgeous-Alexander's development with Cassell, the least subtle man in professional basketball, on the most subtle particulars of playing point guard in the NBA. Gilgeous-Alexander has preoccupied himself with timing and pace since the start of the season. On nights in the fall when he was struggling, Gilgeous-Alexander noted that his errors weren't rooted in carelessness, a lack of vision or poor shot selection. When he didn't execute, it was largely a byproduct of not calibrating his velocity and his decision-making to the demands of the game.

"You can't be too fast," Gilgeous-Alexander said in November. "That's where I get in trouble -- when I get sped up or when I play too slow."

LIKE A LOT of professions that require a seamless blend of artistry and craftsmanship, professional point guard claims a certain fellowship. Both Gilgeous-Alexander and Young talk with great reverence about Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Nash and Curry.

And there's another point guard Gilgeous-Alexander and Young each independently cited when asked if there were active players in the league whom they studied closely for the kinds of secrets, hacks and shortcuts that you can conceive of only by observing firsthand: Mike Conley.

"He just knows how to control the game," Young says. "His change of speed, his change of pace, the tempo in which he plays at really made me think about how a point guard needs to run the game, and control the game."

Conley was visibly touched when told a crop of rookie point guards regarded him as a Svengali whose deception and instincts were the object of study. Though he wasn't furnished with Young's quote or choice of language, Conley said the single most important detail to grasp in his maturation of the position was "learning how to control a game."

"I became good at controlling pace and flow and feeling that throughout the game because as I grew as a player, I had [Zach Randolph], I had Marc [Gasol], I had all these guys I had to get the ball to in almost scripted plays," Conley said.

As the point guard who moved the deliberate, slow-it-down Grit 'n' Grind Grizzlies into their offense against a league desperate to run his team off the floor, Conley had to wrest the pace of the game away from his opponents. Yet at the same time, the Grizzlies were a post-up team that was vulnerable to rigor mortis in the half court, which meant Conley couldn't let the flow of the offense get too gummy, no matter how long Randolph held the ball on the right block.

Gilgeous-Alexander names Conley as a point guard whose defense provided a smart template, especially given his listed 6-1 frame. That week, Gilgeous-Alexander was focusing on defending at the point of a screen, especially after two November games in which he became intimately familiar with the body of Portland's hulking center, Jusuf Nurkic, around which he had to navigate a few dozen times.

"I'm working on getting to the guy I'm guarding's hip without fouling before the screen arrives," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "Or dictating which way he's going before the screen so I can get over."

Young faced up against Conley in his second career NBA game, and he marvels at just how Conley seems almost telepathic in reading defenses. Conley said that early on he set out to create what amounts to a mental decision tree when confronting defenses in the pick-and-roll, a method by which pattern recognition would determine exactly what he'd do next against the defense.

"Once I completely understood coverages -- as an offensive player the 30 ways they could defend me in the pick-and-roll -- I had every answer," Conley says. "I had the cheat sheet for each one. When you're not as big or strong or fast, it's a big part of your game."

"Running point in the fourth quarter of a close game is graduate-level game management." Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce

Conley explains that if the defense drops its big man, then a single dribble will yield a pull-up jumper with a rear contest.

"You have a one-on-one against the big, which they'll switch after about two dribbles," he says. "So once that second dribble happens, you have the step-back."

When Conley sees a trap, he'll take one dribble back, then try to immediately hit the pocket with the pass, or swing it quickly.

"Young guys will come in and they'll try to dribble around it and use their quickness to beat it," Conley says. "I'm like, 'Why do that when you can take the shortcut?'"

"Shortcut" tends to have a negative connotation in basketball -- a lazy gesture intended as a slapdash substitute for real work -- but Conley's shortcuts are the accelerants in a young point guard's quest for greatness. Virtually every point guard hides a weakness -- Gilgeous-Alexander will never have Russell Westbrook's first step, and Young's size and frame make him a vulnerable defender. Success in the NBA is often the story of a very good player hiding a deficiency.

"Being a point guard is like being a psychologist," Conley says. "It's a mixture of different roles. You have to know how to strike a chord with everyone and you have to understand yourself."

AS PART OF the effort to empower Young as the point guard charged with leading the franchise forward, the Hawks handed him the pregame huddle. When it was time to break just before tipoff, Young would yell "Family!" on three. Though there was no humor intended, teammates found it hilarious.

"He has a real high-pitched voice," veteran teammate Kent Bazemore says.

When Young would yell, teammates would join in by mimicking Young's Urkel-ian pitch. Young would be visibly irritated. On a team with 13 other jocks under the age of 30 (teammate Vince Carter was born in roughly 1902), conveying embarrassment at being mocked is effectively an engraved invitation for more mockery.

"He definitely had a ton of insecurities that he had to overcome," Bazemore says. "We gave it to him every day -- joking on him and keeping him honest."

Gradually, Young acclimated himself to being razzed. When the team broke on a collective chant of Young's high-pitched "Family!" Young would chuckle at the gesture. Then, maybe he'd go back at a teammate on the way out to the tip. When presented with rookie duties, like fetching cookies for a team flight or store runs on the road, he took it as an actual team-building exercise, even if it felt like ridicule.

"The biggest thing coming back from the All-Star break is he's been easier to make fun of," Pierce says. "[Gregg Popovich] says it all the time, 'Get over yourself,' and I think Trae has gotten over himself a little bit. When you do that, you're able to relax."

As Young got over himself, he became more efficient, more dangerous and a point guard who could find shots for teammates, who themselves started to catch fire.

Out in Los Angeles, Gilgeous-Alexander doesn't have much of a choice -- he's subjected to Cassell for extended stretches nearly every day. Whether it's an hour of player development on the practice floor, film study over a laptop or warm-ups, Cassell provides a running commentary that's not without his customary ribbing.

As Gilgeous-Alexander emerges from the home tunnel at Staples Center and trots to the court for warm-ups last winter, Cassell sings, "Who wears short shorts? Shai wears short shorts!" to the tune of a gaudy Nair spot from the 1980s. Gilgeous-Alexander then collects a ball and begins to go to work, dribbling from the elbow to the nail for a pull-up jumper as Cassell instructs him to use his eyes as a tool to deceive the defender.

"I don't give a f--- if you miss the shot!" he yells.

Clippers assistant coach Brendan O'Connor notes that Cassell doesn't relent with Gilgeous-Alexander. Whether Cassell is recounting an anecdote or playfully teasing Gilgeous-Alexander, the rookie absorbs it, then moves on.

"That's his son," O'Connor says.

When Nash arrived in Phoenix for his rookie season in 1996, veteran big man Joe Kleine was the graybeard on the roster.

"[Kleine] said to me, 'Rook, you wanna make it in this league a long time, you gotta be able to laugh at yourself,'" Nash says. "And it was great advice, you know? There's so much insecurity and pressure and just adaptation that has to take place, let alone in the world of social media, where you inevitably have grown up in this kind of echo chamber, or you just can hear about every step you take."

It's very likely that at some point in this first-round series against the Warriors, Gilgeous-Alexander will get cooked by Curry, and when it happens, the best prescription might be laughter.

"Early in the season when Shai was struggling, you could see it," Rivers says a week before the playoffs. Rivers then imitates Gilgeous-Alexander, brooding, muttering "Jesus" to himself.

"He turned the ball over the other night, and you know what he did?" Rivers said. "He starting laughing and shaking his head. He knew it was a bad play, and he knew why it was a bad play. But he gave himself a break. That's called growing up."