Watson is Out, Now What?
When the news came down on Tuesday afternoon that Maurice Watson's career as a Creighton Bluejay had been cruelly cut short by a devastating knee injury, everyone in Bluejay Nation more or less had the same thoughts. First and foremost, how awful it was for Watson to have something like this happen.
Watson has been a leader on and off the court for Creighton since the day he stepped on campus. He ushered in a new era of Bluejay basketball and seeing him robbed of finishing that journey is nothing but unfair. But after fans heard Maurice Watson speak at his press conference, and you read his tweet and the outpouring of support he received from across the country, everyone quickly realized the same spirit that Watson led CU with, would serve him well in his recovery and he would be just fine. That's when the second thought started creeping into the minds of Jays fans. Watson's gone, now what?
It's a simple question without an easy answer. In a perfect world, there would be a backup point guard waiting in the wings with a similar skill set who could step right in and Creighton would hardly miss a beat. But to think that is a realistic possibility would be to diminish the impact of Watson, the nation's assist leader.
The prime candidates to play the point guard spot are the savvy veteran Isaiah Zierden, the talented youngster Davion Mintz, and the unheralded walk-on Tyler Clement. Each has their strengths and their weaknesses and each have varying chances on being able to lead Creighton deep into the NCAA tournament. Here's the breakdown:
Tyler Clement has already played more basketball for the Creighton Bluejays than most people outside his immediate family probably ever thought he would. He was the primary back up at point guard his first two seasons in the program (after his redshirt year) and had assumed the same role this year until a rough showing at Arizona State forced Coach Greg McDermott to explore other options.
That being said, there has been times over the last two plus seasons where Clement has looked like he can functionally run the offense. Even earlier this season the Jays seemed to play well with Clement spelling Watson for a few minutes at a time in the Paradise Jam. There was even a time during Clement's freshman year where I argued he should start over Austin Chatman, and I stand by that.
Here is what Clement brings to the table: He is eager to pass the ball and knows the offense well enough to initiate every set Coach Mac has in the playbook. He does a good job pushing the pace in transition, although he doesn't have the speed to do it as well as Watson.
On the downside, Clement's size and physical abilities sometimes make him a liability on defense. Also, while he can run the offense, he isn't likely to create much offense. Finally, as Arizona State showed, if you heat him up with the press, he can be exploited. It's for this reason I don't believe you can give Clement the majority of the minutes at point guard, but that doesn't mean he is without a role on the team. More on this later.
Isaiah Zierden has literally seen it all in the last four years at Creighton. He has been part of Creighton's greatest season to date (as a freshman in 2013-2014). He has been part of one of Creighton's worst teams in recent memory (as a sophomore in 2014-2015). And the last two years as a junior and now a senior, he has been part of the rebuilding of Creighton into an elite program, culminating with a program best 18-1 start and No. 7 national ranking in both polls.
That is quite the rollercoaster for one college career. With that in mind, its fair to say that there's likely not much that will rattle Zierden, which is the biggest positive if you ask Zierden to take over at point guard. He has been through every imaginable scenario and Coach McDermott trusts him for it.
Much like Clement, Zierden brings an ability to initiate offense but not create it. However, he also can help to space the floor with his shooting ability. Again like Clement though, he can be a liability on defense.
The wild-card of the bunch is true freshman Davion Mintz. You could almost count on one hand the number of minutes he's played this season (slight exaggeration), but he is also the most talented candidate to replace Watson. Mintz has the ability to drive and get into the paint. He can shoot the ball and he can finish at (and above) the rim.
On the flip side, he's a freshman and he's going to make mistakes. Probably a lot of them. And often. But he is a long and athletic 6'3" guard who scored over 40 points multiple times in high school, averaged almost 7 assists per game as a senior and knocked down 10 3-pointers in a game.
Obviously Maurice Watson is irreplaceable. That can't be the goal. The goal should be to first, put your remaining players (who are really good) in the best position to succeed, and second, to keep as much continuity as possible. There is only one way to do that.
Start Davion Mintz at point guard with the goal of playing him about 25 minutes a game. Here's why:
Starting Mintz at point guard means you have a change at the point guard spot, but only at the point guard spot. Starting Zierden changes your rotation at both wing spots, in addition to the point guard spot. Not to mention, leaning on Zierden for heavy minutes has to give the coaches pause about his durability, don't forget that Zierden has had season ending injuries each of the last two years. Maybe it's coincidence but that's not a chance Coach Mac can afford to take at this point. With Zierden coming off the bench for Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas, that allows you to still have an experienced backup point guard in Tyler Clement to come in for Mintz. The change to the rotation is minimal in this scenario.
Starting Mintz at point guard also means your style of play doesn't have to change. If the second half of the Xavier game is any indication, playing with Zierden at the point means a lot more half court sets and a lot less transition game. Trying to replace an All-American point guard is hard enough, the coaching staff shouldn't make it harder by changing the entire philosophy of how the team plays in the middle of the season. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, that's what starting Zierden at point guard means.
Finally, due to the timing of the Watson's injury, starting Mintz at point guard gives him plenty of time to learn on the job. There are time's that it's going to be ugly, but thats ok. There are times when fans will want to pull their collective hair out, but thats ok. Creighton has over a third of the season left before the conference tournament. That is more than enough time to let Davion Mintz go through his growing pains.
If Mintz is allowed to grow, while it may mean Creighton drops a few mid season games, it may also mean that they are still able to reach their peak as a team with a dynamic point guard at the helm. This is a player who I stated emphatically was better than Shamorie Ponds (17 ppg, 5 rpg, 3 apg) of St. Johns and I still believe that. The biggest difference between Ponds and Mintz is opportunity. Ponds has gotten the opportunity on St. Johns while Mintz was backing up an All-American.
Opportunity is knocking for Davion Mintz now, its time for the youngster to show the country what he's made of.