On Point: Jake Kelly or Jeff Peterson

A debate is raging on Iowa Hawkeye message boards right now: who should play the point guard position? Jake Kelly has experienced an offensive explosion these past three games at the position, but Jeff Peterson has shown exponential growth from a year ago while playing each of the past two seasons with hand/wrist injuries. Jon Miller tackles this question...

Jake Kelly has experienced a bit of an offensive explosion in Iowa's past three games, as he has run the point guard position in the absence of Jeff Peterson.

That has also created an explosion of speculation regarding Kelly's future position in Iowa's offense, as some fans believe he is a better point guard option than Peterson. 

I have given this a lot of thought and have put together a few of my opinions on this matter.  You may not agree and I certainly don't claim to have all of the answers.  Some of my thoughts may be along the lines of what you are thinking, and some of the thoughts may open up doors to new questions. 

Can Kelly play the point over a 30+ game season?

I am not sold on that, at least not in the traditional sense of the position.  But I will add this caveat; it all depends on how you define point guard.  Traditionally, this is a position that has taken care of the primary ball handling duties, a position that runs the floor and gets his team into their half court sets, someone that ideally makes good decisions with the basketball, someone that can penetrate and is just as happy doling out an assist as he is putting the ball into the basket himself.

In my opinion, Kelly meets several of these criteria, but I am not yet sold on the thought of Kelly being Iowa's primary ball handler.  He's not the ‘cleanest dribbler' of all time, but I believe he makes up for the occasional sloppy handle due to the fact that his defender cannot be in his shirt the entire time he has the ball.  Kelly can get past most defenders in this league and get all the way to the rim.  Opposing teams know this, and that's why you are seeing a number of hedge calls against Iowa's pick and roll game out top, to try and slow down Kelly's progress.  You don't want to switch on him out top, because then he will be matched up against a forward and he is off to the races.  You also don't want to sag off of him too much inside of 20 feet, as he can rise and hit the three point shot.  He has also shown an improved ability to knock down the 15 foot elbow shot as well.

Make no mistake about it; Kelly has raised his level of play the past three games while playing point guard for Iowa.  Bobby Hansen said a few weeks back, prior to Jeff Peterson going down, that Kelly needs to be a 14 point per game player for Iowa, because he has that skill set.  I agreed with Hansen when he said that, because it was clear to see last year and this year that Kelly had a lot of game in his bag.  His struggle, as is the case with a lot of young and inexperienced players, is that he was unable to bring his ‘A' game to the floor night in and night out.  Perhaps it took the point guard duties to help Kelly focus more, because that it what I see; a more focused player on the floor for Iowa.  Also, Kelly has been healthier.  If you recall, he broke a bone in his shooting hand in October, and he also sprained a thumb against Minnesota back on January 8th.

In his three games at the point, Kelly has scored 62 points (20.6/ppg).  In his previous six games before moving to the point, Kelly scored just 60 points, or 10.0ppg.  So in that time, he doubled his point production with Jeff Peterson off the floor. It's hard to imagine this right now, but Kelly scored six or fewer points in nine of Iowa's 25 games prior to moving to the point guard position.  That's more than one-third of the season!  Again, I believe he is now much more focused on the offensive aspects of his game, where I believe he had attained solid focus on the defensive end prior to that.  During the past three games, Kelly has also collected 18 rebounds (6.0/rpg) and dished out 14 assists (4.6/apg).  He has had 10 turnovers during that time, or 3.3 per game, but he has also drawn the toughest perimeter defensive assignments.

Now, these are fantastic numbers, but it's hard to imagine Kelly being able to put up this point production over a 30+ game season, although Adam Haluska averaged 20.5 points per game over the entire 2006-2007 season.  Iowa is going to have more around Kelly next year in the way of scoring options than Haluska had around him two years ago, which is a good thing. 

The question comes down to something simple, yet something complicated:

Can Jeff Peterson improve?

As I was a big believer in the upside that Jake Kelly showed us last year and at times this year, I am just as much a believer in Jeff Peterson's upside and what he has his in ‘game bag'. 

People either forget or minimize the significance of Peterson's injuries and how they can impact a point guard.

I can't recall exactly when Peterson injured his right thumb last season, but I know that it was no later than Iowa's third game of the season, a win against Florida Gulf Coast.  The game story I found online mentioned Peterson scoring 19 points with a heavily bandaged right thumb.  That is his shooting hand and dominant dribbling hand, and he played virtually the entire 2007-2008 season with some level of pain and discomfort in that very important digit.  That's no small thing for any player on the team, much less a point guard.

This season, Peterson suffered a broken bone in his left wrist very early in the year and had been playing with it all season.  While he is right handed, a point guard has to be proficient at dribbling with both hands as well as passing with both hands.  Have you ever tried to dribble or pass the ball, or shoot a lay up, with a broken bone in your wrist?  I can honestly tell you that I have, as I broke my left wrist twice during my high school athletic career.  I wore a brace similar to the one Peterson had been wearing all year when he was away from the court, and I can tell you that there is a significant lack of strength, and I can't even begin to imagine the pain Peterson felt when he fell on the wrist in the rough and tumble Big Ten.

Again, this injury is no small inconvenience for a point guard.  So for the vast majority of Peterson's two year Iowa career, he has had a significant injury to one of his hands.

For those that have been fairly stern in their criticism of Peterson, I would suggest you keep these medical aspects in mind when you think of his future in the black and gold, and not be so dismissive of what you have seen without taking into consideration the adversity he has played through.

Just as I felt Jake Kelly had tremendous potential, the player Peterson reminds me most of from Hawkeye past is Andre Woolridge.  He has the same sort of knack for getting to the rim that Andre did, a similar flat shot from the outside, though he is not nearly as strong as Woolridge was.  I am not going to predict a similar growth curve for Peterson as we saw in Andre, but when Andre first stepped on the court for Iowa, he was a third year sophomore, as he played as a freshman at Nebraska, then sat out a transfer year when he came to Iowa.  So in essence, Peterson's 2009-2010 season will be the equivalent in age to the first year Woolridge stepped onto the court for Iowa.

Woolridge averaged 14 points per game in his redshirt sophomore year and had right around 190 assists; great numbers, to be sure.  But we haven't seen Peterson at that same age yet, and I think Jeff, if he can play healthy next year, is capable of exponential improvement.

He has gone from averaging 5.2ppg as an injured freshman to 10.6ppg as an injured sophomore.  His three point percentage has improved from 26.9% last year to 39.7% this year.  His overall field goal percentage has risen from 32.5 last year to 45.0 this year.  Woolridge hit just over 47.8% of his shots as a redshirt sophomore.  Peterson's assist totals have risen from 3.1 last year to 4.2 this year, while his turnovers per game is roughly the same; 3.1 to 3.2.

That last area has room for significant improvement, because I think he will be a different player when he is healthy.  I also believe his offensive numbers have room for significant improvement, due to the health aspects, and we are already talking about a player that is averaging 10.6ppg, which is just two points per game less than BJ Armstrong averaged during his true sophomore season, and Peterson is averaging just one assist per game fewer than BJ did in his true sophomore season, which was the fabled 1986-1987 season when BJ played with six teammates that would spend some time in the NBA.  I know we can't say that about Peterson's teammates on this year's team.

Perhaps it's just me, but I see exponential growth opportunities in Peterson's overall game bag, and I believe that one cannot possibly make any conclusions on Peterson after two injury plagued seasons.  Taking that adversity into account, I think J-Pete has done a pretty solid job as it is.

What is best for Iowa the next two years?

That is an easy answer; having both Peterson and Kelly on the floor at the same time.  They are most certainly two of Iowa's best five players when we look ahead to next year's roster.  The others include Matt Gatens, Jarryd Cole and Anthony Tucker.  Depending on his development, Aaron Fuller can fight his way into that mix, too. 

Is there a way for Todd Lickliter and the coaching staff to allow Kelly more freedom and flexibility within the offense that doesn't begin to take away from the execution of the players around him?  I think there is, though I am not going to be able to sit here and ‘x and o' that for you.  Is there a way for Iowa to run some of its more ‘rigid' half court sets without stifling Kelly's offensive creativity and abilities?  I think the answer to that question is also yes. 

And when you ask these questions, you must remember there are three other players on the court, too.  At some point in time, Jake Kelly is going to not average 20 points per game from his point guard position.  There will be nights when he may try to do too much.  Some people were already beginning to have doubts about this point guard experiment early in the game against Michigan State when Kelly had two or three turnovers.

The thing that is most exciting to me about this exercise is we are talking about two players in Iowa's backcourt that have their best basketball ahead of them.  I think we can say the same things for freshman Matt Gatens, who is still this team's leading scorer in his rookie campaign; we have hardly seen him fire his best shots yet.  If Anthony Tucker can take care of things in the classroom and come back into the mix for next year, you have a player that showed a very exciting knack to knock down three point shots for you; Tucker, having played only 14 games for Iowa, including three of those games where he played just 8, 1 and 6 minutes, is still second on the team with 38 three point field goals.  He didn't make any trey's in those three games I just mentioned, meaning he averaged 3.4 three's per game in the other 11 games.  Matt Gatens 47 three's is tops for Iowa this year, and he has made those in 28 games, or an average of 1.7 per game.  Chew on that thought for a bit and get back to me with regards to how optimistic you are getting about Iowa's offense next season.

I believe I could go on and on here in what I see in Fuller, Cole, the role Balwinkel can play, etc, but we will save that for another day.

Do I think Jake Kelly at the point is the answer for this team's future?  Not in the traditional sense, but I think that Coach Lickliter has some less than traditional options in his bag of tricks.  A.J. Graves was a scoring point guard at Butler, and not your traditional drive and kick ball handler.  I think Jeff Peterson can be a drive and kick player, but he has more offense in his game than being typecast like that.

The great news is that Iowa has options for next year and beyond, and were it not for injuries and attrition this year, the 2008-2009 Hawkeyes would have exceeded by 15 to 17 win prediction total.  I think they'd be at around 18-10 right now, and at least in the discussion as an NCAA tournament bubble team. 

If Iowa basketball were a stock, I would be in a buying mode.

Can I add them to my 401K?


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