By Scott Vogelsberg
December 17, 2004
They both came in as the top-rated point guard in their respective recruiting class. Both experienced immediate success as freshmen in the rugged ACC. Both share the backcourt with stellar offensive players. Both play for teams ranked in the national top 10 aiming for a NCAA championship.
So who is the more accomplished: UNC's Raymond Felton or Wake Forest's Chris Paul?
While others will argue that Maryland's John Gilchrist and Georgia Tech's Jarrett Jack can stake a legitimate claim to being the conference's most credentialed point guard, the similarities between Felton and Paul are striking enough that we can compare the two to this point in their collegiate careers.
Felton is a year older, a factor that is important to keep in mind as we take a long, hard look at two of the country's finest point guards. Longtime conference sportswriter Al Featherston of the Durham Herald-Sun has watched both players closely, and was among the valuable resources called upon to help with this analysis.
In Part I, we took a look at Felton and Paul in terms of prep background, honors, scoring and shooting percentage. In this second installment, we'll analyze the tandem in the categories of assist-to-turnover ratio, defense and intangibles.
ASSIST-TO-TURNOVER RATIOFelton paced the league in assists last year with 213, averaging 7.1 per game. Coming into this season, he was second in school history and seventh in ACC annals with 6.91 assists per contest. Through six games this year, he was averaging 7.8 assists, dishing out 47 while committing 23 turnovers.
Paul finished last year with 20 straight games with at least four assists, finishing second in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio, 183:82. He was also third in the conference in total assists. This year, he averaged 5.3 assists in the first six games, handing out 32 assists to 17 turnovers.
Though the numbers are leaning toward Felton in the early going this year, Featherston still gives the nod to Paul in this category. He points out that Felton was second in the league in turnovers a season ago, committing just one less than Jack.
"Carolina fans like to point out that Felton led the ACC in assists [last year], and he did -- playing all the time in an up-tempo offense," Featherston said. "But he also led the league in turnovers [per game]. His 2.06 assist-to-turnover ratio was fifth-best in the ACC. Paul was second at 2.23 to one."
Advantage: Paul. In another category that is almost too close to call, Paul gets the slight edge. His assist numbers are comparable to Felton's even though Wake Forest does not push the ball near as much as UNC, preferring to work the offense through big man Eric Williams in the middle. Paul's ability to penetrate and dish in a halfcourt setting is better than Felton's, but Felton could improve if the Tar Heels can keep him fresh, healthy late in the season.
"I love Felton in transition," Featherston said. "I think he's the best in the league on the break -- he makes good decisions and he's strong enough to finish. He had problems last year because he had to play too much. Having a sub this year might help."
Featherston acknowledges that is perhaps the most difficult category to measure.
"We really don't have stats to define defense," said Featherston. "We do have the coaches' all-defensive team vote that [writer/author] Barry Jacobs takes each year, and neither Felton nor Paul qualifies."
Facing standout league point guards for the first time, Paul led the conference in steals as a freshman with 84, the third-most steals in a season in Demon Deacons history. This year, he had 12 steals and zero blocked shots in the first six games. With a conference-best 2.71 steals per game, Paul also earned inclusion on the ACC All-Defensive Team, an impressive feat for a freshman.
Felton led the Tar Heels in steals last year with 63, averaging 2.13 per game, fourth-best in the league. He also paced the team in steals with 56 as a freshman. In UNC's first six games this season, he had collected 11 steals and one blocked shot.
Since point guards rarely hit the offensive boards, for our purposes it's useful to add rebounding to the defensive analysis. The 6-0, 175-pound Paul is averaging 4.5 rebounds per game this year, after averaging 3.4 boards and collecting 101 total caroms as a freshman. Felton has an inch and 23 pounds on Paul at 6-1, 198 pounds, yet his rebounding is comparable to Paul's, with Felton averaging 4.2 boards in his first six contests. As a freshman, Felton reeled in 143 boards for a 4.1 per-game average, and last year he notched 119 caroms, good for 4.0 per contest.
Duke's Chris Duhon was the league's top defensive point guard a season ago, and that honor likely falls to Georgia Tech's Jarrett Jack this year. Featherston is candid in assessing what he feels isn't exactly the strong suit for either Paul or Felton.
"The fact is that Felton and Paul were the starting point guards on the two worst defensive teams in the ACC last year," said Featherston. "Just off the top of my head, I can count five times when Felton was beaten defensively with the game on the line: he lost Paul for a game-tying three in the triple overtime game; he lost Todd Galloway for the overtime-forcing three in the loss at Tallahassee; he lost Duhon on the game-winning, length-of-the-court drive in Chapel Hill; he lost Todd Billet on the final play in the loss at Charlottesville; and he lost Jack on the final play in the first-round ACC tourney loss.
"I think the evidence is that Felton is a pretty weak defender. I just don't have any evidence that Paul is much better."
ADVANTAGE: Paul. Leading the league in steals and being selected to the ACC All-Defensive Team as a freshman gives Paul the edge here.
Felton was suspended for the season opener due to his participation in a non-league-sanctioned summer league, but that was more of an oversight on his part and the school's, an honest mistake. He was proven over and over to be willing to sacrifice for the team good, putting his own offense aside to defer to more accomplished scorers like Rashad McCants and Sean May. In the latter days of the Matt Doherty era in Chapel Hill, Felton never lost focus; in fact, he lifted his play measurably late in his rookie year, while it could be argued that other players on the squad threw in the towel at the time.
There is some evidence that Paul is reading his press clippings and looking for his own shot more and more this year, a dangerous development for a team that already features a gunner in backcourt mate Justin Gray. If the duo leaves out Williams, a force within the interior, Wake Forest becomes a much easier team to beat. Paul also can be somewhat immature on the floor, chatting it up with foes, and was late for the team bus prior to the Temple game, bumping him from the starting lineup. To his credit, he did bounce back with 14 points and a career-best 11 assists against Elon on Dec. 15.
Advantage: Felton. In terms of spreading the ball around and running the team, Felton plays truer to the role of a pure point guard. He has emerged as the leader of the Tar Heels, something Paul has yet to embrace in Winston-Salem. Part of that is a function of Paul being a year younger, but Felton clearly gets the edge in this category.
Like most, Featherston feels that Paul can beat you in more ways than Felton can, giving Paul the advantage overall. So far this year, Felton appears to have cleaned up some holes in his game, but the true test will come in conference play.
"I like Felton, but judging his play last season, I have some problems with his game," said Featherston. "It's a little early to tell how much has changed It's waaaay too early to draw conclusions, but based on [the first] three or four games, it's Felton who has blossomed this year. Let's see if that holds up in the coming weeks."
So, who is the more accomplished? Paul gets the edge in honors, scoring, shooting percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio and defense, while Felton receives the nod in high school pedigree and intangibles. Both, indeed, are tremendous clutch players. Of course, the statistical categories will be up for re-assessment after this duo gets the chance to test their wares against the likes of Jack, Gilchrist, N.C. State's Tony Bethel, Virginia's Sean Singletary and Duke's Sean Dockery in league play, during a season that could go down as the "Year of the Point Guard" in the ACC.
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