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Evaluating Arizona women’s basketball’s point guards

Arizona v New Mexico Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

The goal for Arizona women’s basketball last offseason seemed to be getting better on offense. The team stagnated offensively quite often last year. Without having a catalyst on offense in the first season after Aari McDonald, focusing on defense to save the day just wasn’t enough as the team went out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on their own court. The team that bested them was able to score at will. Arizona’s defense couldn’t contain them, and the Wildcats didn’t have the offense to fight back on that end of the court.

Out went 10 players to graduation or transfer. In came seven new players including four freshmen and three transfers. Many of those players were scorers. Early in the season, the offense seemed to be clicking on all cylinders. However, that was against a fairly weak schedule.

Prior to playing Kansas last Thursday, the Wildcats had not played a team in the top 100 of the NET. The best team they faced in the early season was No. 118 Long Beach State. Kansas came into the Arizona game at No. 32 in the NET. The Jayhawks are now No. 16.

Arizona will face a lot of teams in the top 20 of the NET going forward. Are the Wildcats ready? What has the early part of the season shown about how the team is functioning? Since a lot of the discussion is around Arizona’s point guards, it’s a good time to take a look at the two players getting most of the time at the position.

What do Shaina Pellington and Helena Pueyo both do well? What do both need to improve? Should Pueyo replace Pellington, as some fans demand? Would it be better if they played together? Is the current lineup the best option?

Shaina Pellington

Pellington has improved at Arizona in most aspects of the game every year she has been on campus. Whether it’s her scoring, her two-point shooting percentage, her assist-to-turnover ratio, her assists per game, her rebounding, or her steal numbers.

She is currently second on the team in minutes-per-game at 26.2, playing in six of the Wildcats’ eight games. She is scoring 14.3 points per game to lead the team. She has 3.2 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 0.7 blocks per game.

As for creating for others, Pellington is currently at 3.3 assists per game against 1.7 turnovers. The assists per game lead the Wildcats while the turnovers are the second-lowest among any of those who play point guard behind Pueyo’s 1.4 per game. Pellington is shooting 50.8 percent overall and 55.9 percent from 2-point distance.

It’s not just the counting stats, either. The advanced stats that are relevant for a point guard put her between the 88th and 98th percentile of Division I basketball, and most have improved over her three years on the court at Arizona. Her turnover rate (10.9 percent), her assist rate (22.2 percent), her steal rate (3.4 percent), her rebounding rate (9.4 percent), her player efficiency rating (29.6), and her win shares per 40 minutes (0.38) all put her among the best in the game this season.

One thing Pellington is not and is unlikely to ever be is an outside shooter. While head coach Adia Barnes praised her improved shot before the season, it hasn’t been evident in the early going. It also hasn’t been something Pellington has attempted a lot.

Last season Pellington had the highest three-point shooting percentage of her career at 26.2 percent while taking more three-pointers per game than she had since her sophomore year at Oklahoma. She launched 1.6 outside shots per game in her senior season. As a fifth-year player, she has reduced that again to 1.0.

Pellington doesn’t need to be a great outside shooter. She doesn’t even need to be a good one, and it’s not going to help the Wildcats if she tries to force herself to be one. The fact is that she doesn’t take many outside shots. Her single three-point attempt per game this season is not going to be the difference between a win or a loss.

Taking an occasional three just to keep the defense honest might be useful, but only if she can actually hit them on occasion. As of now, she hasn’t hit any of the six she has taken. It’s important that she doesn’t feel that she needs to be taking more of those shots to prove to pro scouts that she is an outside shooter. It’s not good for the Wildcats and it’s unlikely to help her in the long run, anyway.

As a point guard, it’s far more important that Pellington is either making her shots when she drives or finding open teammates with the pass. Her shooting percentage from the two and her assists suggest that she is, but there are ways she could probably be even better. One of those is keeping Jade Loville as the great outside threat that she is.

Whether it’s happening in games or not, in multiple press conferences, both Loville and Barnes have said that she needs to get to the rim instead of just being an outside and midrange jumpshooter. The problem is that this is the game of both Pellington and Lauren Fields. If all of your backcourt players are trying to drive, it becomes just a matter of plugging up the paint for the defense.

The mixed signals about Loville seem counterproductive to why she was brought in and to getting the most from your other backcourt players whose drive-and-kick should be getting her the ball outside. Loville is still getting almost all of her points from outside, but if what she’s doing in games and what’s being discussed at other times are different, it is unlikely to make Arizona as strong as it could be.

There are things about her own game that Pellington must improve, though. Primary on the list is her free-throw shooting. Her slashing game is her bread and butter. That means getting fouled. She improved her foul shooting to 64 percent by the end of last season. While not great, it was the best of her career.

She has fallen back to 55.9 percent this season, hitting 3.3 shots out of 6.0 attempts per game. Those six free throws per game would be the highest of her career if she maintains it throughout the season. Getting to the line is good, but she needs to be able to make the defense pay once she does or it’s done little more than put a foul on the defender’s sheet.

Helena Pueyo

Pueyo has started three games this season and come off the bench for significant minutes in the other five. In fact, she leads the team in minutes per game at 26.8 while playing in all eight games.

Pueyo adds great value at every position she plays. While some argue that she should be the starting point guard, she might be better suited as a two or a three because of her size. At 6 feet, she has four inches on Pellington.

Pueyo has mainly played in the backcourt when Pellington isn’t on the floor. At other times, she has played on the wing or occasionally at the four.

Pueyo was brought to Arizona as a shooter. In her freshman season, it seemed like that would be her path. She took six shots per game in just 21.6 minutes. On a per-40-minute basis, that was 11.1 shots overall and 6.8 shots from outside. She hit 39.1 percent overall and was good for just over 38 percent of her three-point shots.

She has never gotten close to that number of shots again. This season, she is taking 4.9 shots overall which equates to 7.3 shots per 40 minutes. It’s the second-highest of her career after her shots plummeted during her sophomore and junior seasons, but it’s nowhere close to her freshman season.

Pueyo is hitting a very high percentage of her shots. She’s connecting on 61.5 percent overall and 45.5 percent from beyond the arc. Those numbers far outpace even the strong numbers from the floor that Pellington puts up. However, a combination of fewer shots taken than several other players on the team and seldom getting to the free throw line (0.8 free-throw trips per game) knocks her usage rate down to 11 percent.

She’s second on the team in assists per game with 3.0 per contest. Of the players who are primarily in the backcourt, she’s first in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.18, but she has a relatively high turnover rate of 21.2 percent. That places her in the 38th percentile for turnover rate (i.e. the percentage of plays where a turnover is committed by the player). Her assist rate of 17.1 percent is very good—in the 98th percentile—but is lower than Pellington’s 22.2 percent.

In the other counting stats, Pueyo averages 2.9 rebounds and 2.5 steals to go along with her 7.3 points per game. In the relevant advanced stats, her steal rate (4.5 percent) is in the 98th percentile , her rebounding rate (6.0 percent) is in the 27th percentile, her player efficiency rating (22.6) is in the 84th percentile, and her win shares per 40 minutes (0.31) is in the 90th percentile.

Barnes has praised Pueyo for not taking bad shots and being unselfish, but she has also said that Pueyo should have games like her 22-point outing against San Diego more often. During her senior season at Arizona, Aari McDonald said that they needed Pueyo to take more shots. At the time, Pueyo was the primary player on the roster who could have loosened up the defense inside that McDonald faced. While there are now more players on the roster who can shoot from outside, Pueyo’s skills from out there could still be very useful.

The numbers suggest that Pueyo could be a very good complement to Pellington. Pueyo is better at steal rate and shooting percentages. Pellington is better at rebounding and has better turnover and assist rates. She also has a superior PER and better win shares per 40 minutes.

In the past, Barnes has usually had a starting backcourt that consisted of players whose games were similar. Good defenders whose offense primarily hinged on driving to the basket. It was true with McDonald and Bendu Yeaney, then with Pellington and Yeaney. That tendency has held true this season with Pellington and Fields as the starting tandem.

However, Barnes has also said in the past that two point guards can play in her system. Will we get to see a starting lineup of Pueyo and Pellington some time and see if players with more disparate skill sets help open up the paint?