Recently, in the world of the Internet where everyone is a pundit, I’ve seen substantial criticism of Quinn Cook. Barring injury Cook will be Duke’s starting point guard next season, so I thought it was worth taking a closer look to determine just how good he is.
The best way to do this is to look at his season in historical context. Cook was the starting point guard on a Duke team that went to the Elite Eight. He was also a sophomore. What have other starting point guards done as sophomores at Duke?
To keep things simple we’ll restrict ourselves to the Coach K era. The list, unsurprisingly, is not that long. It’s not often that a sophomore is a better option at the most important position on the floor than an upperclassman. Sometimes the upperclassmen is not very good, or sometimes there simply isn’t one. In these cases, an underclassman will start at point out of necessity. This is obviously not true in Cook’s case, as last year Thornton proved to be a very good backup point and Seth Curry was also capable of bringing the ball up the floor. Minimally, Cook was a better option than those two.
But how good was he? Here is the full list of starting sophomore point guards, in chronological order, as near as I can figure:
Smith (partial season)
Thornton (partial season)
Of those nine players in 30 seasons, two led their teams to a title—Bobby Hurley and Jason Williams—and one to the championship game—William Avery. I would argue that all three had better sophomore seasons than Cook, and not just because of team success, which is subject to roster makeup, health, and more than a little luck.
Jason Williams had the best season of any sophomore to play the position. He averaged 21 points, six assists, three rebounds, and two steals. He shot 47% from the field, and 43% from three. At 114, his offensive rating was not out-of-this-world, but it was very good for a player of incredibly high usage (31%!).
So we can safely say that Williams was a much better sophomore than Quinn Cook.
It may sound crazy at first glance, but on paper the gap between Cook and Hurley is much smaller. They averaged roughly the same number of points per game—11.7 for Cook versus 11.3 for Hurley. Hurley edges Cook in field goal and three point percentage, but not by a significant margin. Cook is the much better free throw shooter and rebounder.
Usage and efficiency numbers are harder to come by for Hurley. But Cook’s assist-to-turnover ratio is better, at 2.4, than Hurley’s 1.9. Still, it seems doubtful that a player of Hurley’s caliber would have posted an efficiency much below Cook’s 109, which is in the good-but-not-great range. And Hurley’s usage was undoubtedly higher.
This is getting into more subjective territory, but I think most fans would agree that Hurley was the better defender. Though their steals per game are roughly even, steal rate is not the only determinate of good defense. In fact, sometimes playing the passing lanes can be a sign of lazy defense. Cook is not lazy, but he is certainly susceptible to bad pick-and-roll defense. This has to do with lack of size and awareness, as well as the predominance of the pick-and-roll in the modern game. Though Hurley was as small as Cook, and perhaps physically weaker, he played in an era where ball screen offense was not nearly as advanced as it is now. Nevertheless, I think it’s safe to say that no one remembers Hurley’s defense as spotty like Cook’s can be at points.
Where Hurley is easily better than Cook is as a distributor. He is the finest pure point guard Duke has ever had. He didn’t have a single season where he averaged fewer than seven assists per game. He holds the NCAA assist record and it will likely never be broken. Quinn Cook put up very good assist numbers (5.6 per game) and showed a penchant for wraparound passes in the lane, threading the needle on the fast break, and other types of passing wizardry Duke has not seen in a long time. Should he stay four years, he has a chance to finish third all-time in assists.
But 7.4 versus 5.6 is no small difference. Adding this to Hurley’s defense and team success, and I have to give the edge to Hurley. Still, the margin isn’t as large as fans might think. Remember also that the pace of play in the ‘90s was significantly higher than today, and that Duke last year played at a pedestrian pace even by current standards. How many assists and points would Cook have average at the pace of the 2001 team, for example? How many would he have had playing with Grant Hill and Christian Laettner?
Now let’s look at William Avery. He’s the only other sophomore point guard I think has a case for being better than Cook. He averaged 15 points, five assists, 3.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals while shooting 49% from the field and 41% from three. So in every category except assists he was equal to or better than Cook. (Surprisingly, that ’99 team, maybe the most talented in Duke history, didn’t average a ton of assists, despite having multiple scorers and setting all kinds of scoring records.) Additionally, his efficiency, at nearly 124 with roughly equal usage to Cook, blows Cook’s out of the water. An efficiency of 120 or above is the sign of a low-usage player or the truly offensively elite. Avery was the latter. He was not the distributor that Cook is—Cook would have averaged over seven assists on that team—but when considering all of the other factors, he takes the third-place spot for sophomore point guards. You could even make a case for his being better than a sophomore Hurley, but I think distribution skills and a championship ring make Hurley the better player.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time on the rest of the list. All the point guards left either had significantly worse numbers (Amaker, Smith, Thornton) or much less team success (Capel, Paulus). Two of them, Smith and Thornton, didn’t even start at point guard for a full season. Capel’s numbers do seem to edge Cook’s at first glance, but Cook easily beats him in assists. He also leads in steals, rebounds, and FT%. Also, Capel was on the worst Duke team of the Coach K-era (discounting the first few years when Coach K was still establishing himself). Is that his fault? No, not entirely, especially when you consider Coach K’s absence for most of the season. But as point guard, it was his duty to get the team to winning ways.
Paulus, of course, has the same knock against him that Capel did. His sophomore team went 8-8 in the ACC and lost in the first round of the tournament—a decent season by many program’s standards, but not at Duke. His raw stats are eerily similar to Cook’s except when it comes to assists, where Cook has a huge advantage. Additionally, Cook’s assist-to-turnover ratio, FT%, and overall efficiency are higher. And if Duke fans sometimes grumble about Cook’s defense, it’s nothing compared to how they felt about Paulus, who was the whipping boy of Ty Lawson and all the other great ACC point guards of his era.
All this leads me to rank Cook ahead of Paulus. So in terms of sophomore point guards, Cook only ranks behind the two best point guards Duke has ever had, both of whom are jersey-retirees, and Avery, who played on arguably the most talented team in ACC history.
Additionally, all those player got much more opportunity as freshmen than Cook did. None of them made the jump he did between freshman and sophomore years. While Cook was very efficient as a freshman, posting a 118 efficiency thanks to his astounding 3.5 assist-to-turnover ratio, he also played less than 12 minutes per game. What could he have done had his knee been fully healthy? And how would those extended minutes have affected his play last season? Like everything in life, basketball is a game of continuity, of building on what you learn. This can be done to an extent in practice, but there’s no way to simulate live game experience.
Cook has managed to stay healthy this summer, knock on wood. And he is coming off a season in which his team went to the Elite Eight despite nagging injuries to two of its key players and a ridiculously hard bracket. In the end, Duke lost to the eventual champions. Duke fans, expecting if not demanding a championship every year, cast about for someone to blame. Despite posting nearly six assists per game and a 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio in the NCAA tournament, Quinn Cook did not shoot well and therefore made an easy target. This overlooks everything he accomplished in the season and how historically rare those accomplishments were.
Will Cook make the same jump this year that he made from freshman to sophomore seasons? Will he rank in the same elite territory for junior point guards? No one can predict that. But for now he has given Duke fans a lot to be optimistic about.