The Whiteboard: Power ranking the best backup point guards in the NBA

Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images
Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images /

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In this season, as COVID-19 has pushed player absences and roster uncertainty to historic levels, reliable depth has never been more important — particularly at the point guard position. A backup point guard can stabilize a second-unit offense, scoring or creating opportunities for his teammates. He can provide a defensive boost at the point of attack and he can be flexible enough to play significant minutes with the starters, adjusting his role as needed.

The best teams in the league all have competent ball-handlers and creators coming off the bench but there are a few that are standing above the rest. For this exercise, I’m taking a slightly more liberal approach to characterizing a backup, looking at players who have appeared in at least 30 games this season with fewer than 15 starts. In terms of characterizing someone as a point guard, I’m relying on a few stats like time of possession, assist rate and self-creation, as well my own subjective opinion.

Who have been the best backup point guards of the 2021-22 NBA season?

5. De’Anthony Melton, Memphis Grizzlies

A technical argument could be made that Melton hasn’t really been a point guard this season — he’s played more than 80 percent of his minutes with either Tyus Jones or Ja Morant on the floor and with his size and wingspan, also picks up wing defensive assignments. But he fills plenty of point guard responsibilities and his time of possession per minute and average touch time are roughly equivalent to players like Alex Caruso and Marcus Smart. Melton has struggled shooting the ball but he fills up the box score everywhere else — averaging 15.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.5 steals per 36 minutes. His malleability and especially his disruptive defense have made him essential to a variety of Grizzlies’ lineups and one of the most important pieces of their depth this season.

4. Delon Wright, Atlanta Hawks

Playing behind Trae Young, Wright has played far fewer minutes and with far less offensive responsibility than anyone else on this list — not even averaging double-digits if you pro-rate his stats per 36 minutes. He’s often playing with other complementary ball-handlers like Lou Williams and Kevin Huerter but he’s slide in and given the Hawks exactly what they’ve needed. Wright has never been much of an outside shooter but he’s hit 22-of-51 (43.1 percent) from beyond the arc this season and is contributing 5.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.7 steals per 36 minutes. He’s among the league leaders in deflections and he’s recorded an assist on 14.2 percent of his drives, a top-10 mark among the 129 players with at least 150 drives this season. He’s nothing like Trae Young but that’s one of the reasons he’s been so useful to the Hawks off the bench.

3. Anfenee Simons, Portland Trail Blazers

Anfernee Simons could be classified as a shooting guard because of his scoring mentality but his average touch length and time of possession per minute this season is roughly the same as players like Reggie Jackson, Dennis Schroder, Fred VanVleet and De’Aaron Fox. Simons has gotten a chance to fill a much larger role this season and has blossomed in the absence of CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard. He’s currently averaging 14.6 points, 3.3 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game and, with Lillard possibly done for the season, Simons will probably be a starter from here on out. In the seven games since he moved into the starting lineup full-time, he’s averaging 26.1 points, 8.0 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game, on 50/40/90 shooting splits. He’s shown he can be a viable creator, for himself and others, and his emergence could make things a lot more interesting for the Trail Blazers at the trade deadline.

2. Tyus Jones, Memphis Grizzlies

It’s truly remarkable that the Grizzlies have two players on this list, especially when their starting point guard is arguably one of the two or three best in the league at his position right now. Jones is averaging 14.0 points, 7.5 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes, on 47.1/38.6/92.1 shooting splits and he really he gives you everything you could ask for in a backup point guard. He plays excellent, disruptive defense at the point of the attack. He’s become a reliable spot-up threat playing off other ball-handlers and his pull-up game inside the arc and improved finishing have made him a reasonable threat to score with the ball in his hands. And, as has always been the case with Jones, he’s unbelievably turnover averse — turning the ball over just 35 times this season on more than 2000 touches. He’s versatile and reliable and would easily be holding the top spot if it weren’t for…

1. Tyler Herro, Miami Heat

Herro is the current betting favorite to win Sixth Man of the Year and although his pace has cooled a bit from the first few weeks of the season, he’s been downright explosive. He’s started just 10 of the 38 games he’s played in this year but is averaging 20.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game, shooting 38.8 percent from beyond the arc. Herro has really blossomed with increased offensive responsibility with an assist percentage, usage rate and free throw rate that are all career highs, with only a slight increase in his turnover rate. His true shooting percentage is right at his career, despite taking about four more shot attempts per 36 minutes than he ever has before and creating far more of his scoring opportunities on his own — 32.6 percent of his 2-pointers and 69.0 percent of his 3-pointers have been assisted this season, down from 46.0 and 72.9 percent last season. He’s more of a microwave scorer than a traditional point guard but he’s the primary creator and offensive engine for Miami’s second unit and he’s absolutely thrived.

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