Point well taken

Grant Shaeffer, St. Thomas
Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com 

By Ryan Scott

They run the show.

They manage the offense and, often times, they manage the team. A good point guard is a coach on the floor, someone who sees the whole court with vision and creativity.

They might score, but making shots is less important than maximizing what the team does on offense. As St. Thomas men’s coach John Tauer says, “Good point guards make us look like we know what we’re doing.”

This week, I’m going to single out ten great point guards. I didn’t set out to make it five men and five women, but that’s how it ended up. I considered a lot of players, but with 850+ starting point guards to choose from, there are tough decisions. I wanted to highlight the traditional definition of point guard – not just a great player who has the ball a lot, but a true floor leader and playmaker.

I missed some.

There are just too many to watch or name and the column has limited space. Frank Schettino from Staten Island is a great point guard; he just passed 600 career assists, without an injury last year he would be on pace for top five all time. He’s not in this list – not because he isn’t a supremely talented point guard, but because I haven’t seen him play much. I know that’s capricious and limiting, but it’s what I have to work with.

If you know of another worthy point guard I’ve missed, tell me (ryan.scott@d3sports.com); we’re already planning a follow up column in February where I’ll highlight ten more.

Aldin Medunjanin isn’t in this list either. The Skidmore senior missed all of last season due to injury, now he’s working his way back into a lineup that made the Second Round of the NCAA tournament without him. Medunjanin is silky smooth on the court, one of those players for whom the game seems to slow down. He’s a great ball handler and floor leader, but he’s really only been playing a true point guard role for two or three games as the Thoroughbreds find their rhythm.

Medunjanin illustrates both the kind of player who’s not on the list, because he doesn’t fit my narrow and, admittedly arbitrary definition of point guard, and also the kind of player who should be on the list, because he’s has all the talent, experience, and ability to lead the team in multiple ways with the ball in his hands.

Ron Rohn, the Muhlenberg women’s coach told me, “A leader is someone, when something happens on the court, every head turns to you, because they want to see how you react.”

That’s precisely the kind of point guards I’m focusing on here: tremendous players and incredibly well-rounded individuals, whose coaches think as highly of them off the court as on. These ten are well worthy of this list, as are at least 100 others, but this is the time and space we have.

Without further ado, your Top Ten Division III Point Guards:

1) Grant Shaeffer, Senior, St. Thomas
He’s the point guard from the defending national champion and a three year starter. He was also the starting QB on two consecutive Minnesota Class 6A State High School Football Champions, not to mention one of the calmest, most emotionally controlled players I’ve seen on the court in my 17 years of watching Division III basketball. Shaeffer creates the kind of atmosphere necessary to win big basketball games, sometimes simply with his presence on the floor. 

His coach, John Tauer, says of Shaeffer, “The biggest thing about Grant is that he’s committed to improving every year. He’s gone from being a competitor that would run through a wall to win and he’s learned how to run around the wall and lead his teammates around the wall. His job has become more complicated this year – he not only has to be outstanding in all areas of the game, but he has to mentor and help our younger guys along.”

With the Tommies having graduated six seniors, they’ll likely need some real magic from Shaeffer to get back to Salem. I wouldn’t put it past him, though, there doesn’t seem to be anything he can’t do. 

Brandi Vallely, Muhlenberg

2) Brandi Vallely, Junior, Muhlenberg

Vallely fills up the stat sheet.

She tied the NCAA career triple-doubles mark in one season, with five last year. She missed most of her freshman season due to injury, but jumped right in sophomore year, averaging 14 points, seven rebounds, and nine assists, leading a team that had lost seven seniors to a 25-3 record.

By any definition, Vallely is a true point guard, playing every important minute, including all 55 minutes of a triple-overtime heartbreaker last week. 

“The moment she walked onto the floor it was a totally different team,” says her coach Ron Rohn, “The difference between Brandi being out there and not being out there is the difference between black and white analog TV and a 55” HD plasma. We play a very up tempo offense, so I can say there’s no better point guard in the country for us than Brandi Vallely.” 

“Most top-notch point guards have a certain toughness, a chip on their shoulder. Brandi really doesn’t; she’s a calm laid back individual. She’s not out there barking instructions, she’s not out there grabbing people by the jersey and telling them what to do. She’s a leader, but that’s not her personality.”

Abby Owings, Thomas More
3) Abby Owings, Junior, Thomas More

That last description of Vallely is the exact opposite of how I’d describe Owings’ game.

She’s got an intensity that doesn’t quit. It’s cliché to say it comes with size (or lack thereof), but at 5’2”, Owings possesses an athleticism and tenacity you don’t often see in a Division III point guard. She’s a monster on the boards and an incredible ball-handler, now with two years of experience (and a national championship) under her belt, she’s proving once and for all that the Saints have never been a one woman show.

“Everybody feeds off of what she does,” says Thomas More coach Jeff Hans, “I love having the ball in her hands as much as possible, because she’s going to make a play.”

That is the overwhelming impression you get watching Owings play basketball, from her freshmen year until now: she’s going to come through. She’ll make the shot, the pass, the steal when it needs to be made. Sometimes it’s difficult to see through the toughness to the person behind the play.

Hans continues, “You watch her play and you see a young lady that loves the play the game of basketball and enjoys every second she’s out there with her teammates. I don’t know, because of the competitor that she is, I don’t know if you always see that joy, but it’s there.”

Nate Axelrod, Ohio Wesleyan

4) Nate Axelrod, Junior, Ohio Wesleyan

As Owings proves, in Division III we know not to judge a player by their size. At just 5’7”, it is literally easy to overlook Nate Axelrod, but his play on the court has been hard to miss.

Averaging 17 points and five assists per game as a sophomore last season, Axelrod led the Bishops to a Sweet Sixteen appearance, where he scored 27 points on 12-for-16 shooting, with nine assists in the loss to National runner-up Benedictine, thus making his name on the national stage.

Even if the nation hadn’t known much about Axelrod, those in the Great Lakes region, the NCAC, and even his own team were well aware from the very beginning.

Ohio Wesleyan coach Mike DeWitt says of Axelrod, “His backup [Jon Griggs] is a year ahead of him and expected to play a lot as a sophomore, but after two weeks of practice Jon came to me and said, ‘Coach, you need to start Nate.’ It’s a testament to the way Nate is and how he’s handled it that his teammates absolutely love him. He’s one of the humblest players I’ve ever met.”

5) Katie McDaniels, Senior, Wheaton (Ill.) 

Katie McDaniels, Wheaton (Ill.)

Let’s face it: Katie McDaniels might be the best player in Division III.

It’s very difficult for players who can do everything to not do everything; McDaniels enables her teammates to play to the best of their abilities and leads both on and off the court. She’s a floor leader in every sense of the word, but her overall talent can mask some of the more traditional point guard attributes, which she also possesses.

“She just really wants the team to be successful, to help lead the team in the best way she can,” says Wheaton coach Kent Madsen, “Whether that’s serving them on or off the court, she’s such a well-rounded student athlete, she reaches out to people and cares about people.”

Star players are not always known for their lack of ego, but that is a trend you see in many of the players in this list – it often takes a point guard working for the rest of the team to bring out the best in that team.

Madsen again, “We’ve always had a real high assist to turnover ratio. Katie scores a lot of points, but she’s also around 100 assists each year and doesn’t turn the ball over. She plays within the team. She also carries a lot on the defensive end – that’s a big part of what’s made us successful.”

Kenny Love, Whitworth
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photogrpahy.com 

6) Kenny Love, Senior, Whitworth 

Whitworth head coach Matt Logie sums up Kenny Love well.

“The nice thing about Kenny that gets overlooked a little bit is just how unselfish he is. As a sophomore he was [Northwest] Conference Player of the Year and an All-American, then last year George Valle really improved as a player and became a go-to offensive force for us and Kenny, although still scoring the ball really well, made a point of getting George and some other guys involved in the offense because it would better our team.”

With an infectious personality that bleeds over into his play, it’s real easy to like Love. And while his assist numbers may not be as high as some on this list, there’s no question he runs the show for Whitworth, especially this season.

Love has just once had more than five turnovers in a game and never topped 50 for a season and he’ll score his 1,000th career point in a few weeks, but perhaps the most unsung part of his game is his 42 percent career three-point percentage. “He shoots the ball,” says Logie, “I think, as good as anyone in the country.”

Katie Sommer, Wartburg
7) Katie Sommer, Junior, Wartburg

In Sommer’s sophomore season, she helped lead Wartburg through a murderer’s row of opponents to the Final Four.

Ball control and strong defense were keys to that accomplishment and Katie Sommer is key to Wartburg doing those well. This season, with a huge target on their back, the Knights are 6-0. Sommer has increased her scoring in just about every game this season without any dropoff in assists – she’s averaging six per game to go along with six rebounds and 14 points.

Always a young team, Wartburg’s players have grown and matured together, with Sommer really embracing the point guard role towards the end of last season.

“She really started to take over and lead our team, to the point where it’s hard for us to take her off the floor,” says her coach, Bob Amsberry, “Katie has really good players around her; she makes them, but they also make her. There’s no question we’re not the same team when she’s not on the floor. She’s poised to continue leading our team into really great things.”

Brian Sortino, Oswego State
8) Brian Sortino, Senior, Oswego State

Sortino has always been a scorer.

The thought was he’d have to do a lot more scoring this year with the Lakers having lost four key seniors from a Sweet Sixteen squad, but Sortino has done a masterful job of bringing along teammates in new roles and keeping them involved.

“[Brian] is just as capable and just as talented making the others around him better [as he is at scoring],” says Oswego coach, Jason Leone.
That is abundantly clear to anyone who watches Sortino play. He always seems to know the right thing to do, even under pressure; he is one of those point guards who looks like he’s playing chess on the floor – always three moves ahead.

“After his sophomore year, Brian became our best player, not only on game day, but in practice every day,” adds Leone, “He really sets a good tone. It’s good for our new guys to see our best player be such a hard worker every day in practice.”

Oswego will rely heavily on Sortiono’s hard work, wisdom, and maturity to lead a team with high expectations in the always tough SUNYAC.

Tahron Harvey, Benedictine
9) Tahron Harvey, Senior, Benedictine

Tahron Harvey has not always been a full time point guard.

He served mostly on the wing for Benedictine, during their undefeated run to the NCAA Championship where they fell to St. Thomas. This season, though, he’s got the ball in his hands most of the time – and it’s paying off. The Eagles return a strong squad, despite the graduation of National Player of the Year Luke Johnson, and Harvey is largely responsible for bringing them together.

Two early losses hurt, but they were by a combined four points, to two Top Ten teams (St. Norbert and North Central), but Harvey’s 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists per game are giving Benedictine a spark to win a lot of games in a very tough schedule.

“He has to [lead the team]; he has no choice,” says Benedictine coach Keith Bunkenburg, “He’s our point guard. He’s a calming influence on our guys. He doesn’t get too up; he doesn’t get too down, no matter what the situation is. When you have a guy at the point who can get you in the right frame of mind emotionally, it’s a great start.”

Makenzie Fancher, Christopher Newport
10) Makenzie Fancher, Junior, Christopher Newport

There may be some bias here, because Fancher plays for a team in my region who I get to see in person more often than most. Still, she embodies the qualities of a true point guard extremely well.

Part of the reason might be because she’s been doing it for so long. Fancher started all four years of high school and all three years at CNU thus far. If anyone has put the time and effort into learning and playing this position, it’s Makenzie Fancher.

She’s confident on the ball and really understands what can be a pretty complex offense, essential on a squad who’s relied on young players for significant contributions.

“Makenzie does a great job organizing our team and getting everyone together – she’s not just super book smart, but she picks up plays really fast and is able to help get everyone where they need to be,” says Captains coach Bill Broderic. “She’s also close to a 4.0 student in the classroom and is probably the player who does the most community service.”

Fancher’s maturity and poise have gone a long way towards shaping was it a very strong Captains squad that seeks to make a difference both on and off the floor. As much as it’s a team effort at CNU, and they are very deep, Fancher is the Captain of the ship, and they’ll go as far as she leads them.
So there you have it: ten fantastic point guards.
Are they the ten best in Division III? That’s certainly up for debate… a debate I hope we get to have on the message boards and in the comments section.

Point guards are essential for a winning basketball team; you need somewhere who has the ball in their hands, making critical decisions and critical junctures. There are many different ways to play the position, as this list illustrates, but it takes a special individual, with a lot of hard work and dedication, to do the job well. We have a lot of them in Division III and they deserve all the recognition they can get.

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Ryan Scot

Ryan Scott serves as the lead columnist for D3hoops.com and previously wrote the Mid-Atlantic Around the Region column in 2015 and 2016. He's a long-time D-III basketball supporter and former player currently residing in Middletown, Del., where he serves as a work-at-home dad, doing freelance writing and editing projects. He has written for multiple publications across a wide spectrum of topics. Ryan is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College.
Previous columnists:
2014-16: Rob Knox
2010-13: Brian Falzarano
2010: Marcus Fitzsimmons
2008-2010: Evans Clinchy
Before 2008: Mark Simon