Lost in the preseason hype of Xavier sophomore Edmond Sumner's rise to stardom, was the fact that Sumner's development as a point guard was still a work in progress. Through the first five games, including XU's tournament win in Orlando, his performance was much like that of the Xavier offense as a whole - choppy and getting by on ability instead of proper execution. However, over the past two games he's played in a way that's more conducive to Xavier playing it's best offensively.
While transitioning into his new role as a star player and NBA prospect to start this season, Sumner clearly tried to be more assertive on offense over the first few games. The result was some decent scoring totals for him, but mediocre to poor efficiency overall for the Musketeers. Over the last two games against Northern Iowa on Saturday afternoon and North Dakota State on Tuesday night, his play went to the other extreme as he became almost exclusively a distributor worried only about setting up his teammates and running the offense smoothly.
The results were strong for Xavier, which didn't need Sumner's scoring punch with offense flowing from other sources against an overmatched opponent.
Sumner finished with five points (1-4 FG), seven assists and no turnovers in 23 minutes during Xavier's 85-55 win over North Dakota State at the Cintas Center Tuesday night. The Musketeers averaged 1.27 points per possession, their highest mark of the season, while shooting 48.4 percent from the field, including 10-of-22 (45.5%) from 3-point range. Sumner had 14 points (6-10 FG), seven assists, and one turnover against Northern Iowa on Saturday when the Musketeers shot 45.6 percent and averaged 1.12 points per possession.
"I thought he looked great," Xavier coach Chris Mack said after Tuesday night's win. "I thought he played with a lot of maturity. If you're a point guard, your team runs the offense that the coaches have put in and you get guys in the right spots. We scored 43 points (in the first half) against a team that ranks (over) 300th in the country in pace. I thought he generated some really easy looks for his teammates. He defended at a really high level and so I don't worry about Edmond scoring. He may have games where he gets 15 or 18 points in a game because they completely disrespect him as a guy that can get to the rim, but he played a great floor game as far as I'm concerned."
The XU offense just looked smoother on Tuesday night as the Musketeers started to find some of the ball movement, spacing, and rhythm that became hallmarks of last year's team.
"I think it's a little bit of everything," Mack said of what's sparked the improvement. "Guys are locked in on what makes us a better offensive team, playing deeper in possessions. And Edmond having that pass-first mentality to get guys shots because he has such an incredible ability of getting in the lane."
The win over NDSU was a yawner from the start. The Bison's dribble penetration offense was never able to find enough gaps against the length and effort of Xavier's perimeter defense to make the game interesting. XU held them without points for the first four minutes and 20 seconds of the game which sparked a 13-2 opening run.
The Musketeers' first-half lead reached as high as 21 by the final media timeout and at halftime they led 43-22.
By the time Sumner found freshman Quentin Goodin on the left wing for a kick-out three with 14:45 to play in the second half, the lead had swelled to 36. NDSU never got closer than within 26 points the rest of the way.
Two other areas Xavier dominated the game were rebounding and turnovers. The Musketeers held a 17-2 advantage in second chance points while grabbing 15 offensive rebounds, and they outscored the Bison 22-7 in points off of turnovers as XU had just seven miscues to NDSU's 14.
Trevon Bluiett led Xavier with 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting, including 3-of-8 from 3-point range. Sean O'Mara added 12 points (6-9 FG) and five boards in 19 minutes.
Bluiett also contributed heavily to the ball movement that boosted the Musketeers' offense Tuesday night, dishing out seven assists with only two turnovers. Receiving 14 assists and two turnovers from your two most talented players is a statistic with a strong correlation to winning.
It's not just a numbers game, though. A good shooting night by your teammates or other circumstances can lead to a high assist total. The key is Sumner is passing the look test too. Not every assist is made equal and he's not just hitting his teammates in stride for open layups in transition or threes on the wing. He's creating offense and movement by penetrating and finding teammates with excellent vision.
And he's doing it in a way that we didn't see from him last season.
During his freshman campaign, he played with a bit of tunnel vision, which put him in a lot of all-or-nothing scenarios when driving. If he started, he was going all the way to the rim regardless, which led to some wild layup attempts or turnovers at times. Mack's seen a big improvement in Sumner's court awareness and ability to see the floor as a sophomore.
"I think his vision has really expanded," he said. "A year ago, he could see in front of him but not necessarily to the sides. Now, his peripheral vision is really good. I mean, he's getting easy looks for his teammates."
Mack offered an instance in the second half as an example where NDSU went to a zone defense and Sumner played with proper pace off of a ballscreen and drove right at a defender to pull him off the perimeter before kicking out to Bluiett for threes on back-to-back possessions.
"Six points in two possessions…We all know Trevon can shoot and it's good to know that our point guard understands it too," Mack quipped.
Sumner isn't necessarily being asked to sacrifice his personal statistics. Everyone in the Xavier program, including the coaches, want him to be aggressive in looking for his points. In fact, his scoring will be a necessity for this team as soon as Saturday when they head to Waco to take on Baylor. But how he goes about hunting those points is important.
Him being able to balance his two roles as a go-to scorer and as a reliable distributor is a huge determining factor in how much upside this Xavier team has. On Tuesday night, he at least showed that he's cognizant of the need for him to do both and is working to make the necessary adjustments.