Georgetown coach John Thompson III sees a basketball landscape where some recruits arrive at college having been “babied and coddled and pampered.”
He therefore makes sure his players are treated like men, not boys — which sometimes comes a shock to his freshmen. He also runs a program and an offensive system that manages to project a team-first image.
Yet, there comes a time when the best players have to be the best players, when it’s time for the marquee guy to be a little selfish and take over a possession or two — or, better yet, those final four minutes when tight, low-scoring Big East games are often decided. Jeff Green was a prime example a few years back of a Georgetown player able to dominate but who sometimes needed some prodding to do so.
In recent weeks, Thompson’s best players have begun to assert themselves. After losing their first two Big East games as well as starter Greg Whittington for academic reasons, the 15th-ranked Hoyas (18-4, 8-3) have since won eight of nine and are tied for first in the conference headed into Friday’s game at Cincinnati.
While several players have stepped up their games, Exhibits A and B are Otto Porter and Markel Starks, the all-around talented forward and the point guard who have divergent personalities. Porter is never going to rock the boat, while Starks — who wants to run for political office one day — makes grand statements that make Thompson’s eyes roll.
Porter, especially, is playing like the top prospect he was billed to be. He averaged 12.8 points through the first 13 games; he’s at 18.6 over the last nine. There are also stark increases in his field goal percentage (44.8, 52.3) and rebounds (7.2, 8.9) since the light bulb popped on sometime during the second week in January.
“There are a lot of similarities between Otto and Jeff in many, many ways,” Thompson said. “Their particular games aren’t similar, but who they are as people, their caring, their ability to take over. A lot of people want to say that they can take over — and you’ve been programmed from the first time you start playing ball that good players take over. And you end up with up with five people on the court trying to fight, to show that they’re a good player trying to take over, and some can’t do it.
“But he has the ability to take over a game because he’s going to get that rebound. He made some terrific passes in that game the other day. His passing and his ability to create for others, I thought was terrific. He has the ability to dominate a game if he had six points in that game. Now, we need him not to have six points. We need him to have closer to what he’s been doing, and he’s been coming through.”
Porter’s performance in the 63-55 win over No. 18 Marquette on Monday was indeed masterful, from his coast-to-coast layup after grabbing a rebound to his nice dish to Mikael Hopkins for an easy basket just before halftime. Porter’s NBA stock is rising — he could be a top 10 pick if he declares for the draft this year — but getting him to talk about his newfound assertiveness yields, predictably, a team-first answer.
“It’s not just me, it’s everybody else, too, that needs to be more assertive, more aggressive,” Porter said. “Especially me. … I mean, it’s the things that you have to do to win, so I take it personal to step up and be more aggressive.”
Added forward Nate Lubick: “He’s not going to be really cocky. He’s kind of more of a silent assassin.”
While it can be a challenge to get Porter to open up about himself, that’s no problem with Starks, who is quick with an engaging smile and often fills up a notebook with his self-confident answers. His numbers have also jumped from the first 13 games to the last nine (points: 11.2 to 14.0, rebounds: 1.3 to 2.8, assists: 2.6 to 3.2), and he did another of his little celebratory dance moves after Porter made a big shot against Marquette.
“You didn’t do that again, didn’t you?” Thompson said after the game, when a reporter brought it up.
“I mean, you felt the energy out there,” Starks said. “I mean, it’s one of those spirit-of-the-moment type of things. … Sometimes it’s like dancing — you get into it.”