Thirty years ago, tall praise for a short point guard appeared on these pages.
‘’I don’t know of anyone who’s got better eyesight and better knowledge of the floor than he has,” said Don Parson, the coach at North Hopkins High School in Madisonville, Ky. “He can handle it.”
The Post-Dispatch writer, the esteemed Jim Thomas, did point out that Mizzou hoops signee Travis Ford “is only 5-10, and he looks all of 14 years old. But he certainly proved he could play with the big boys in two all-star games this spring.”
As a freshman at Mizzou, Ford grew an inch and averaged 3.5 assists . . . before transferring to Kentucky. Three decades later, Ford himself has tall praise for a short point guard, also about to begin his own freshman season in the state.
“He’s kind of old school — he’s thinking of passing first — and there are not that many of those players left anymore,” the St. Louis University coach said of the 6-footer Yuri Collins. “He really sees things happen one or two or three seconds ahead of time. He has a great feel for the game. And those are things that a lot of people don’t have.”
Ford was quick to point out that Collins is a quicker point guard than Ford ever was. But it’s pretty cool that Ford’s freshman point guard is old school. And for his own game, Collins channels Ford’s mentality — that of Ford his new coach and Ford the former player.
“I just like to see my teammates happy,” said Collins, a St. Mary’s High graduate who led the St. Louis area with 7.0 assists per game as a senior. “And it’s a gift that God gave me, so why not use it? I got the good court vision and IQ to find my teammates, so whenever they’re open, that’s what I’m looking for. . . .
“Back in high school, not too many guys were able to catch my passes. And now that I’m able to play with guys like (Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French), I can throw the ball anywhere, even if I’m not looking at them, and they’re able to catch the ball. So it’s a blessing. . . . Throughout the summer and school year at practice, I just saw my teammates being able to click with me real quick.”
There will be turnovers.
Ford said as much. And there already have been some in practice and preseason play. It’s expected with a freshman ball-handler (shoot, there even were a bunch of turnovers last year with SLU’s senior ball-handlers). But with Collins’ advanced skill level — he was the No. 27 point guard recruit nationally, per Scout.com — here’s thinking there also will be nights his passing infuses SLU’s offense.
It’s unclear whether Collins will start or come off the bench Tuesday, when the Billikens open their 104th season as they host Florida Gulf Coast. But Collins is expected to play, the culmination of a recruiting journey that kept the kid home.
“Just being able to play for my city, it’s kind of crazy,” Collins said. “Throughout my process, I always thought about — what would it be like to play for my city? Not too many people do this because you see some local kids go off to other schools.”
Though he grew up in St. Louis, Collins doesn’t have hoops memories of St. Louis University.
“I didn’t know anybody from SLU,” he said Monday.
But during the recruiting process, he met former Billiken basketball alums such as Larry Hughes and Justin Tatum, Erwin Claggett and Daryl “Pee-Wee” Lenard. Collins liked the way they talked about the school. What the school did for them. What the school could do for him. And now across his chest, Collins will wear the school’s name and his hometown’s name. And the point guard will wear No. 1.
“All around, just a good person to be around,” said SLU junior Goodwin, who was named third-team preseason all-conference in the Atlantic 10. “He’s learning — and he teaches us. I’ve learned a lot of things from him already, and he’s a freshman. . . . He plays at an amazing pace. His pace, he can control. He sees things before they happen. If you don’t control him (defensively), he’ll pick you apart. He’s not looking to score, but he can score the ball. On defense, he’s a pest. And he’s very unselfish.”
For Ford, his fourth season will be challenging. The city was stoked last season by the Billikens’ run to the conference tournament title, the four-wins-in-four-days that gave SLU a berth in the NCAA Tournament. That carries over to this year.
But beyond Goodwin, French and Fred Thatch Jr., the Billikens essentially are all new players. Because of that, it’s tricky to gauge how quickly this year’s team will mesh. But Collins’ speed could accelerate the pace, literally and figuratively, for the young squad.
“I try not to talk about freshmen too much too early,” Ford said. “Sometimes that’s not the case, with Hasahn and Jordan who had no choice but to come in and start. But a guy like Yuri Collins has earned the right for me to talk about him because of his toughness and his competitiveness. How hard he plays, every single second. And he’s extremely unselfish.
“I want him to run our team on both ends. As I told him, when you’re the point guard, everybody is looking at you running the offense. But it’s the same thing on defense. People don’t realize that. The point guard is starting your defense, and everybody is looking at you, and if you’re really getting into the ball and giving them (defensive) pressure, that’s going to require everybody behind you to follow your lead. So far, he’s been very good at it. But he’s a freshman, and he makes freshman mistakes.”