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"A point guard turned combo guard": Corral and the Idealized Vision of the Combo Guard

With 6:30 left in the second half at the University of Washington last Thursday, USC had just fought their way back to tie the game and had an opportunity to take the lead for the first time in the second half.

Despite playing on a sore right heel and having as many turnovers as points (5) to that point in the game, Corral seized the opportunity to secure a precious road win.

Corral got going with the go-ahead three to push the score to 54-51 with 6:28 left. After Washington point guard Sarah Morton turned the ball over due to the defensive pressure of Briana Gilbreath, Corral put another three softly through the net. After a missed three by Washington guard Sami Whitcomb, Corral struck again this time pulling up for a long three about 5 feet behind the three point line. The collective sigh let out from the crowd of close to 2000 indicated that it was one of those shots that simultaneously awes and demoralizes a home crowd.

And she wasn’t even done, choosing to show off her versatility as a scorer.

USC coach Michael Cooper got up out of his seat in a rare display of nervous aggravation as Corral handled the ball on the left wing against Whitcomb with the shot clock ticking down. She crosses the ball over a few times, seemingly relegated to taking a desperation shot, before finding an angle to go baseline. With only a few seconds left on the shot clock, she took a hard dribble towards the rim to get Whitcomb rocking backwards, steps back, and hits a jumper while fading toward the baseline out of bounds.

By the time she finished – she added a fast break assist to Gilbreath and another three – she had scored 14 points on 5-6 shooting to put USC up by 11 with 1:48 left and they coasted to a 69-65 win from there.

It was the type of scoring flurry that we might have expected prior to the game given that Corral has been among the Pac-10’s top five in scoring all season. Yet it felt at once jarring and spectacular given that she seemed disinterested in scoring prior to that point.

"We knew it was coming, we knew it was coming," said Washington coach Tia Jackson. "She is a kid who wants to take over the game. She wills the game and she has the green light at any given moment."

When Corral was asked about the shift in mindset that led to the scoring flurry against Washington, she stammered to search for an answer, but Cooper chuckled and interjected, "I started running plays for her – let her do what she does best." However, reducing her performance to a matter of calling plays for her seems to minimize just how effective she is as a facilitator as well.

While waiting for the inevitable scoring outburst to come, it was hard to ignore the patient and steady way she ran USC’s offense in the first 33 minutes of the game – she didn’t necessarily just melt into the flow of the game, but she was singularly focused on setting up others.

Although she finished with 5 assists and 5 turnovers, more interesting in terms of her style of play is that she had both an assist rate of 25.72% -- meaning she had an assist on about a quarter of the plays she made – and a usage rate of 27%. When she did pass the ball, she looked to pass at a rate consistent with an above average point guard meaning she was hardly a ball dominant player. She played an extremely balanced game -- a combination of potent scoring and unselfishly getting her teammates involved.

"As a point guard, I think the most important thing that she has to do for us is she has to get everybody involved," said USC coach Michael Cooper. "She has done a great job at that and the uniqueness about her playing the point position is that she’s a scorer. So once she saw that it was her turn to shoot, she started shooting the basketball."

Indeed the way she recognized the opportunity to score and just "started shooting the basketball" after spending the majority of the game as a distributor is unique. In fact, the late-game shift almost felt as though she had morphed into another type of player entirely – from a pass-first "pure" point guard into a lethal scoring guard who seemingly passed the ball only if someone was ahead of her on the fast break.

As strange as such a transformation might sound, she repeated the in-game point guard evolution against Washington State University on Saturday, finishing with 7 assists and 4 turnovers for an assist rate of 29.16% and a usage rate of 25.66%, meaning she was even more of a distributor in that game.

USC Women Battle Back Again, Beat WSU 61-51. - University of Southern California Official Athletic Site
In similar form to USC's comeback win two days ago at Washington, Ashley Corral got on the offensive late in the game to join Briana Gilbreath's scoring efforts. Gilbreath was the only player in double figures at halftime, and finished out the game just a rebound shy of a double-double with a game-high 17 points and nine rebounds to go with Corral's 10 points - all of which came in the second half. Saturday's edition of the USC comeback saw the Trojans improve to 46-percent shooting in the half to finish out at 37.3 percent, while WSU slumped to 27 percent in the game.

While Cooper suggested that what she does best is score, Corral also looks completely comfortable in the role of distributor, almost to the point where it’s starting to seem like she puts off scoring until she absolutely has to; unlike other scoring guards who sometimes seem constrained by the responsibility to limit their scoring for the sake of the team.

"There’s been games where I haven’t scored 'til like seven minutes into the second half," said Corral matter-of-factly. "It’s not something that I focus on. Like Coop said, I’m kinda out there to get the team involved, get everybody else started. If my shot comes, it comes and I’ll look for it if I’m open."

Yet what’s interesting is that defining Corral’s game depends on who you talk to. Cooper talks about both her playmaking and scoring, highlighting her scoring ability. Washington guard Kristi Kingma, who grew up playing with Corral, and teammate Gilbreath describe her as a scorer. On the other end of the spectrum – and perhaps carrying more weight -- Stanford University coach Tara VanDerveer had high praise for Corral of a different kind.

Ashley Corral - USC Blog - ESPN Los Angeles
The 5-foot-9 sophomore covered the court aggressively while leading her team's offense. Said head coach Tara VanDerveer:

"Ashley Corral is as good a point guard as we’ve played against — on any team."

Ogwumike said Corral found a way to score against a Stanford defense that doesn't usually allow scorers to do so. "Ashley is very crafty," she said. "She has very good handling skills and a great 3-point shot. They screened for her a lot."

Corral is an extremely unique player in that she is simultaneously known as a great scorer and a great playmaker. At the risk of permanently tainting Corral, she is a "combo guard", but perhaps not in the way people normally understand the team.

The positive side of "combo guard"

As a sophomore, what’s striking about the pattern of late-game awakenings for Corral this weekend is not that she’s perfect as either a scorer or playmaker, but that she is able to so fluidly switch from one to the other and be effective in both roles. In that regard – not just picking and choosing moments to pass or moments to score, but literally shifting her entire mindset for extended stretches of time – Corral is either the ultimate combo guard or an embodiment of the difficulty managing a split positional personality at one time.

Of course, we live in a basketball world in which the label "combo guard" is often used as an epithet or to euphemistically demean a player’s ability to actually run a team. However, what defines Corral’s game is a particular way of being a combo guard that actually embodies the ability to both score and distribute well – a player able to fluidly navigate the point guard continuum from distributor to scorer with ease.

Her evolution as a combo guard is perhaps even more interesting.

Glenn Nelson of once characterized USC guard Ashley Corral "a point guard turned combo guard", which in mainstream basketball parlance is like saying she fell into an abyss of storm and stress that accompanies a positional identity crisis.

Corral takes Three-Point crown at Jam Fest - Insider - ESPN
And a pure passer can transform herself into a bona fide 3-point shooter.

That's the lesson, at least, to be drawn from the Three-Point Shootout at the Powerade Jam Fest here on Monday. The competition was won by a point guard turned combo guard from Vancouver, Wash. Ashley Corral started her career at Prairie High School as a distributor and ended it as its all-time leading scorer.

It is almost unheard of for someone to say that a basketball player has made a transition from combo guard to point guard. Normally, "combo guard" is assumed to mean "tweener" rather than "versatile point guard". While the NBA is seeing a shift in which "combo guards" like Jerryd Bayless, Tyreke Evans, and Russell Westbrook are generally considered "effective" rather than positionally flawed, there still exists a belief that their scoring tendencies necessitate them being paired with a "playmaking point guard".

Seven questions for 2010 - TrueHoop Blog - ESPN we're really starting to see effective players who are a cross between the one and the two in a good way, and they're being complimented with other multi-skilled guards rather than going with a strict point guard/shooting guard backcourt. In San Antonio, they put Tony Parker, who's a great scorer for a point, next to Manu, who's a great playmaker for a shooting guard, and things went well. The double-combo backcourt of Mo Williams and Delonte West turned Cleveland's backcourt from a disaster area to a huge strength last season. Even Jason Kidd, the truest of points, is playing with JET and JJ Barea, and has even become adept at knocking down catch-and-shoot 3s off of other people's assists. Phil Jackson's won only 10 championships using an offense that doesn't require a traditional point. And so many young combo guards are coming in with tons of talent: Tyreke Evans, Russell Westbrook, Brandon Jennings and even John Wall, who should definitely be put next to a guy who can pass and shoot when he comes into the league so that he can spend some time in each game going on guilt-free scoring rampages.

There’s a form of binary thinking about combo guards that they must be either a 2-1 or a 1-2, implicitly excluding the possibility that a player could actually be at times a highly effective 1 and at times a highly effective 2 without necessarily requiring a complementary player that fills in their combo guard flaws.

Riley and Nelson talk Warriors: On the Monta Ellis visit, the point guard issue, and Jordan Hill | Talking Points
-Q: Do you see Stephen Curry as a point guard?

-RILEY: Most people feel he’s a 2-1. Quite candidly, I feel he’s a 1-2. I think his passing skills are really pretty good. It’s sometimes hard to evaluate a guy who… I’ve got to be careful how I say this because I don’t want to disrespect the Davidson team… but he didn’t have a lot of help on that team this year. The team before, that did so well in the NCAAs, was a little bit better team. And he played more 2 on that team. I saw him pass the ball, put it on the money. He made long passes, he made short passes and obviously make shots. I do see him as more of a 1-2. But I’ll bet that I’m in the minority on that. I’ll bet if you talk to most people, they’d say he’s a 2-1.

And yet somehow, reflecting on Corral’s performance in the Northwest this weekend, the characterization that seems to best describe her really is indeed the seemingly awkward "point guard turned combo guard".

In describing her that way, we also overcome a common assumption that normally plagues "combo guards": while it is assumed that scoring is something that can be learned, it is often assumed that getting others involved is a personality trait or innate sixth sense. So if a player is a small scorer, the assumption is that they will struggle to learn how to subdue that scorer’s mindset enough to cultivate that mystical sixth sense.

Nevertheless, if we accept Nelson’s assessment of her evolution in high school, she’s not even a challenge to conventional wisdom that point guards are born not made. She’s a point guard first and a scorer second, who at any moment can transform into a scoring point guard. She is actually a more powerful representation of the combo guard than we might normally imagine.

While she is in some ways remarkable, or at least unique, it actually resonates with the way in which Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry described infamous combo guard Monta Ellis’ game shortly after being drafted as his teammate last summer.

Stephen Curry talks: "I don’t think it’d hurt to have 2 combo guards" | Talking Points
-Q: Lots of talk whether you’re a point guard or a 2, Larry Riley just said you’ll be the back up 1 here with some time at 2. What do you consider yourself?

-CURRY: Depends on what Monta Ellis sees himself as–don’t know if he’s a point or 2 or combo or where I fit into that. I’m a versatile player, I can do both, I have a lot of experience. I don’t think it’d hurt to have two combo guards in the backcourt, with Stephen Jackson. I think that’s a very dangerous line-up if you ask me.

The notion that a player can actually control the extent to which they are a playmaker or scorer – rather than being fated into becoming one or the other at birth -- is perhaps something we neglect to consider in our effort to better understand players by casting them as an epic black or white type of player. Suddenly, one is not condemned to combo guard purgatory, but actually adapt to specific situations.

Since we rarely see examples of that, Corral’s ability to seamlessly shift between the two poles in the moment depending on what her team needs. And it’s not just that she can be both, but that when she flips the switch she can be fully one or the other.

"If we’re not getting a lot of outside shots, I know that we need to go inside," said Corral about her development as a point guard. "If we’re hitting a lot of outside shots, I look for the players hitting shots. [Cooper] has just taught me a lot about where I need to go, who needs to get the ball, and what we need to do as a team."

Without directly comparing Corral to WNBA all-star Becky Hammon, there is a similarity in style.

Ultimately, this meditation and observation of Corral is reminiscent of the struggle people have with labeling Hammon a point guard: there are those that would believe that she scores so much that she cannot possibly be considered a "point guard". Hammon is instructive in further understanding Corral’s function as a combo guard.

Hammon's Playmaking Ability Beats Lynx: Is Hammon the Best Point Guard in 2009? - Swish Appeal
Coincidentally, an article from a San Antonio NBA blog entitled "What is a Point Guard?" holds some insight into how we might expand our traditional notions of who "counts" as a point guard. The blog essentially characterizes a point guard in much simpler terms than I have in the past with my analysis of point guard styles: Once it is established that a player can effectively bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense – which is no easy task against pro-level athleticism and defense – defining a point guard is more a matter team-specific expectations than a rigid set of attributes.

Perhaps what makes Corral a great point guard at USC is that she is able to fit exactly what her team needs at a give moment, giving them the ability to completely change the face of their offense without even making a substitution. She can meet whatever expectations Cooper has of his point guard and it’s a huge asset to the team.

Corral may be an idealized vision of the combo guard

"The fun part I’m enjoying is that Ashley is slowly but surely take over so I don’t have to stand up much," said Cooper when asked about his much more vocal coaching style in the NCAA compared to the WNBA. "She’s starting to figure out how to make calls and when to make calls for our team. And that’s the joy that I’m getting because at 53, my legs and knees are kinda weary so less standing up, the longevity will be there."

While Cooper experiences joy from Corral’s ability to run the team, her teammates’ enjoy knowing that at any moment they have someone who can fill it up.

"Anytime she starts getting hot we give her the ball because we know it’s going in," said Gilbreath. "We look for her all the time, especially if she’s hot – that means we don’t really have to do much."

Insofar as she’s a combination of a playmaker that can please the coach by getting teammates involved and a scorer who teammates can rely upon to get hot, Corral might epitomize the highest ideal of being a "combo guard".

Related Links:

USC's Defense Earns a Road Win: Does USC Have Enough Upside to Challenge Stanford?

Transition Points:

  • There was an interesting part of the TrueHoop article that's worthy of mention: the fact that combo guards reflect a transition to more versatile players in the NBA that don't necessarily fit "traditional" positional classifications. In many respects, that's exactly why I enjoy women's basketball: positionality is far more fluid, making game strategy and flow fascinating to watch.
  • After the game, sophomore WNBA hopeful Gilbreath spoke briefly about what it means to have a coach like Michael Cooper, who was won championships at the WNBA level and as a player in the NBA.