Men’s point guard for the Gophers? It’s turning into a three-person job.

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Since Ben Johnson took over as head coach of the Gophers men’s basketball team, the point guard position has been a revolving door. He’s had three different point guards in three years.So far this year, three guards have shared tasks and completed the task.The Gophers (4-1) face their first road test against San Francisco on Sunday at the Chase Center, home of the Golden State Warriors. Elijah Hawkins, Mike Mitchell Jr., and Cam Christie will share the court with one of their generation’s top point guards.

NBA superstar Steph Curry is not just one of the game’s finest shooters, but also one of its best facilitators. Hawkins, Christie, and Mitchell all enjoy three-point shooting, but they also bring unique perspectives to the game’s most vital position.”As far as the point guard situation is concerned,” Johnson explained. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job throughout my years here of finding guys that fit us, and I think that’s the most important thing.”Payton Willis was Johnson’s point guard in Year 1. Ta’Lon Cooper in his second year. And after Cooper left for South Carolina, Minnesota’s offense was given over to three players.

Men's point guard for the Gophers

Hawkins and Mitchell transferred from Howard and Pepperdine, respectively, and signed with the Gophers through the transfer site. They combined for 125 starts in their careers, and both shot better than 44% from three and averaged 5.0 assists last season, both of which are Curry-like stats.”I get my teammates involved a lot,” Hawkins said after starting all five games. “I have a niche for getting in the paint and getting it to my teammates for open shots.”Despite Hawkins and Mitchell’s experience, Johnson trusted Christie with the ball in the final minutes of a 70-68 loss to Missouri on Nov. 16. He missed a pair of three-point attempts in the final 21 seconds, but the 6-6 freshman has consistently nailed game-winning shots in practice.Former Gophers coach Richard Pitino had several All-Big Ten lead guards.

Men's point guard for the Gophers

Nate Mason and Amir Coffey lead their respective teams to the NCAA tournament in 2017 and 2019. Marcus Carr, who transferred to Texas, set the school single-season assist record in 2020 and was named all-league the following year.Willis was regarded as one of the Big Ten’s top guards in Johnson’s first season, despite playing for a last-place team. Since Willis’ graduation, the Gophers have yearned for that kind of effect.Christie, a former four-star recruit, has talent as a large guard that Johnson compares to Coffey, who currently plays for the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA.”With [Christie’s] size he can make every type of pass,” Johnson went on to say. “He’s crafty in the ball screens, but with him and Mike [off the bench], it’s like pick your poison with who brings it up.”

Men's point guard for the Gophers

Hawkins is the starter right now due to his speed and court vision. He’s the driving force behind Johnson’s new, fast-paced approach. Christie and Mitchell supplement defensive-minded starter Braeden Carrington by providing more size and offensive versatility off the bench.
“Hopefully going into the [Big Ten] season you have Elijah, Mike and Cam who are confident getting us into the offense or being the primary ball handler,” Johnson went on to say.Christie, a native of Illinois, could be the most promising rookie guard to join the program since Coffey in 2016. Christie, like Coffey, is at his best when he has the ball in his hands.”When we recruited him that was kind of the game plan,” Johnson was quoted as saying. “He’s a little bit like Amir in terms of when I recruited Amir, he was really engaged when he was on the ball.”

In 2016-17, Johnson was an assistant under Pitino and witnessed Coffey score 30 points in his fourth college game. However, Coffey struggled as a freshman to stay involved on the offensive perimeter without being the primary ball handler.”Sometimes when Amir was off the ball you couldn’t notice him — he just kind of floated,” Johnson told ESPN. “When [Christie’s] on the ball there’s more of a fight to him.”Christie’s 18 points against Texas San Antonio on Nov. 10 became the highest debut for a true freshman Gophers player since former NBA big Kris Humphries in 2003.

Men's point guard for the Gophers

Christie shot 2-for-12 in his next two games after his strong debut, including going scoreless from the field in the loss to Missouri. But he bounced back with a 14-point, four-assist performance against Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Tuesday.Christie leads all Gophers guards in scoring (9.8 points per game) and assists (3.0). He also leads the club in three-point shooting with 52.9%.”In college, you have to make the right reads coming off ball screens,” Christie said in a statement. “You must be able to control the game’s tempo.” It’s definitely been a learning experience. But I know I have teammates and coaches on my side, and they understand that I’m learning how to do it for the first time.”

Hawkins, Mitchell, and Christie like to get the Gophers running in transition as much as can, but one of them is “wicked” quick, according to Mitchell.Teams aren’t going to be used to that,” Mitchell said of Hawkins’ speed.Hawkins, who stands 5-11, is sending nice lob throws to teammates, including Joshua Ola-Joseph, who leads the team with eight dunks.”He does have a knack for that,” Johnson observed. “However, you must read the defense.” Don’t take any chances. If it’s open, I’m all for it. But I also want to be as wise as possible as we mature and into the season.”Hawkins, who led Howard to its first NCAA tournament appearance in more than a decade last season, is third in the Big Ten in assists per game (4.8) but second in turnovers per game (3.2). Mitchell scores 8.4 points per game yet has the same number of assists and turnovers (both 2.2). Christie has the third-best assist-to-turnover ratio (plus-4.0) in the conference.

Men's point guard for the Gophers

The Gophers lead the Big Ten with 14 turnovers per game, so Mitchell, Christie, and Hawkins will need to keep working together to get the offense moving quickly but smartly on Sunday.”Not being too fast and playing at your own pace,” Mitchell explained. “[Johnson] talks a lot with our guards about going from zero to sixty [miles per hour] rather than sixty to hundred.” Finding the correct shots while without rushing.”

 


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