Subpar would be a kind description of the caliber of point guard play the Navy men's basketball team received last season.
Head coach Ed DeChellis said many times over the course of a difficult campaign that the lack of a strong floor general who could command the offense was a major reason why the Midshipmen endured a 3-26 record.
"We had no creativity on offense. We couldn't deviate from the set play that was called and got no transition offense," DeChellis said. "It affected the whole team because we became very easy to guard. We had no one who could get other guys' shots."
Jordan Brickman, a junior who had not played basketball since high school, started 20 of 29 games. Sophomore Brennan Wyatt and freshman Kevin Alter combined to start the other games. Those three point guards teamed to average 6.9 points, 3.5 assists and 2.8 turnovers.
"I think with all three of those guys there was a confidence issue. They were all young and inexperienced at the college level," DeChellis said.
DeChellis knew he needed to upgrade the point guard position in order for Navy to improve offensively and in the won-loss column in 2012-2013. That is why the second-year head coach was so pleased to land Tilman Dunbar, a three-year starter at the point for D.C. area powerhouse Paul VI Catholic.
Dunbar was the catalyst of a potent offense that helped Paul VI post a 35-3 record and earn a No. 16 national ranking from USA Today last season. The 5-foot-10, 153-pounder, who was called a "jet with the ball" by Paul VI head coach Glenn Farello, was named second team All-Washington Capital Athletic Conference and honorable mention All-Metro by the Washington Post after averaging 10.4 points, 7.2 assists and 3.1 steals as a senior.
"We saw Tilman as the type of point guard who could help us build a program," DeChellis said. "We told Tilman that we would give him the ball and an opportunity to become our floor leader for the next four years."
DeChellis had spotted Dunbar at a team camp at Albright College a few months after being hired in May, 2011 and began recruiting the youngster hard. Dunbar had been considering several Ivy League schools along with William & Mary, but gave the Naval Academy serious consideration on the advice of his parents.
"It took a little time for me to come around to the idea because I never thought of myself as being part of the military," he said. "My mom and dad told me to look beyond basketball and felt it would be a great life decision to attend a service academy. When I sat down and thought about it, there were so many positives that outweighed the negatives."
Twelve games into his freshman season, Dunbar is beginning to show the talent that led DeChellis to consider him the team's point guard of the future. The northern Virginia native leads Navy in scoring with 10.7 points per game and has dished off 70 assists with just 39 turnovers.
On Monday, Dunbar was named Patriot League Rookie of the Week for the second straight period. Blessed with quiet confidence and natural leadership, Dunbar recorded his second double-double with 13 points and 10 assists in a victory over Bryant and his steady hand at the point guard spot is a major reason why the Mids have won five of their last six.
"Tilman has shown the ability to make other players better. He has the speed to push the ball up the floor and can penetrate into the paint," DeChellis said. "Tilman puts pressure on the defense and forces it to collapse, which opens things up for our perimeter shooters. He can create offense for himself and others. He knows how to get guys open shots."
DeChellis takes pride in developing point guards and has been blessed with some good ones during his 17 years as a head coach. Tim Smith, a 5-foot-7 dynamo, became the all-time leading scorer in East Tennessee State history while playing for DeChellis from 2002-2006. Smith, who was named the Atlantic Sun Player of the Year as a senior, is still playing professionally overseas. Talor Battle became the all-time leading scorer in Penn State history while playing for DeChellis from 2007-2011. Battle, a three-time All-Big Ten selection, currently plays professionally in Italy.
Speaking prior to practice on Wednesday, DeChellis said he prefers a "scoring" point guard that can knock down open jumpers and take the ball to the basket because "it makes the entire team harder to defend." DeChellis said the point guard must possess all the intangibles of confidence, leadership and mental toughness. He noted that Dunbar, like the aforementioned Battle and Smith, has to overcome the knock of being too undersized to play at the major Division I level.
"My best point guards have been smaller guys because they always have something to prove. They bring a certain edge and carry a chip on their shoulder because they've been constantly told they're not big enough to play," DeChellis said.
DeChellis admits he's been notoriously harsh on point guards, believing they need to feel pressure in practice in order to understand the difficulty of running a team during a game. However, he says the point guard must have the freedom to make mistakes without fear of being benched.
Dunbar had to earn his stripes upon arrival in Annapolis and heard plenty of constructive criticism from DeChellis during preseason practice. Navy's presumptive point guard did not start the first couple games of the season because he was still making too many mistakes.
"Coach has gotten on me about this or that. In the beginning, it kind of upset me, but I realized it wasn't anything personal and he was just trying to make me a better player," Dunbar said. "I definitely had to work hard and prove that I deserved to start. I had to show the coaching staff that I could lead this team and set the pace on offense."
DeChellis said Dunbar still must improve his decision-making. The speedster's strength and weakness is that he goes 100 miles per hour at all times out on the court. "Tilman is still learning when to attack and when to throttle things back. He's got to figure out how to adjust to the tempo of the game," he said.
Dunbar must also improve his perimeter shot in order to prevent defenders from laying off and playing him to drive. DeChellis said the plebe can become a much better on-ball defender while cutting down on charging fouls by developing a reliable jump-stop move.
Dunbar, a native of Woodbridge, Va., has an infectious personality and is always smiling. "Tilman has a little bit of swagger and a good demeanor. He loves playing the game of basketball and that shows out on the court," DeChellis said.