The Arizona Wildcats have one of the top starting fives in the country, but most of the attention goes toward Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier, and Rawle Alkins — and rightfully so.
But what might be overlooked is that senior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright is posting the best season of his career.
“Parker has done a real good job in a quiet way because he’s not a high scorer, but you have to remember the team that he’s playing on,” head coach Sean Miller said.
“In some ways, he’s the perfect point guard for this team. With Rawle back now, you have two wings that can score, we have a good low post game and what Parker does is what a lot of coaches would love their point guard to do.”
What does he do? Distribute and shoot.
Jackson-Cartwright is shooting a scorching 50 percent (19-38) from 3 this season with 67 assists to just 22 turnovers.
“He sits on a three-to-one assist to turnover ratio,” Miller said. “That’s been his career.”
Arizona’s offense is averaging 121.4 points per possession with Jackson-Cartwright on the floor, a few points higher than the team’s average (117.7).
The 5-foot-8 Jackson-Cartwright is only averaging 7.1 points per game — he’s not one to create his own shot or score in the paint — but when guys like Alkins and Trier drive to the hoop or Ayton and Ristic catch the ball on the low block, PJC makes it easier for them simply by being on the perimeter.
“You can’t leave Parker alone,” Miller said. “As what you decide what to do — trapping, double-teaming our post guys, trying to crowd the court against Rawle or Allonzo — Parker’s continuously in a position to take 3s and make those. And he’s done a great job from game one until now of doing that, and I expect him to continue to shoot the ball well.”
Jackson-Cartwright has always been limited defensively because of his stature, but he does play with effort and can be a pesky disruptor for opposing point guards.
He is averaging a career-high 1.6 steals per game this season.
“Defensively I think this is the best that he’s played,” Miller said. “Even against ASU, Tra Holder had a big night, he has a lot of big nights against a lot of players, but a lot of those points didn’t come one-on-one against Parker. He thrived in transition and sometimes against other matchups.”
One of Arizona’s issues defensively this season — there are many — is that the Wildcats don’t communicate well. Jackson-Cartwright is an exception, emerging as a leader for the team after it lost Kadeem Allen after last season.
“He’s like a coach on the bench,” said UA guard Dylan Smith. “He’s always talking, making sure guys are in the right place even if he’s not in the game. His voice is much-needed on the team because a lot of guys don’t understand the important of communication. Not like all the time, but sometimes guys go quiet.”
Jackson-Cartwright certainly has attributes that are useful to any team, his shooting and carefulness with the ball in particular, but the question he’s faced since taking over for T.J. McConnell as Arizona’s starter has always been: Can the Wildcats reach the Final Four or win a national championship with PJC as their starting point guard?
Many folks don’t think so.
Here’s an example: Even after Arizona beat No. 3 ASU on Saturday for its eighth straight win — a game Jackson-Cartwright had six assists to one turnover in — ESPN’s Jeff Goodman tweeted this:
“Arizona has certainly righted the ship after that disaster down in the Bahamas, and Wildcats have two studs in Allonzo Trier and Deandre Ayton ... but point guard play still worrisome.”
Later he added this:
“I do think Arizona can get to Final Four ... but name me last team to win it all with point guard situation like the one in Tucson right now. Need a high-level PG to win 6 straight.”
It’s a fair point and PJC has his limitations, to be sure. But Arizona’s other starters mitigate some of those shortcomings (especially on offense), and PJC does make his teammates better by putting them in better positions to score.
“Most of my 3s come from his assists,” Smith said. “He plays hard, plays with passion, plays with a chip on his shoulder. He brings an edge to the team that we need.”
Still, even while Jackson-Cartwright is enjoying the best season of his career, his legacy in red and blue might simply be defined by Arizona’s postseason success this year.
Is that fair? Probably not, but those expectations come with territory when you’re the lead guard at a school that boasts the moniker ‘Point Guard U.’
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire