What is Dawn Staley looking for as she tries to find a new starting point guard?
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WBB: Searching for PG1

The battle for starting point guard is one of the few unknowns the Gamecocks have going into the season. What is Dawn Staley looking for as she makes her decision?

It’s been a while since Staley had to worry about her point guard. Not only was Tyasha Harris a four-year starter at the position, she won a national championship as a freshman and only got better. She is South Carolina’s career leader in assists, an All-American, and SEC Athlete of the Year. Her teammates and opposing coaches alike marveled at how Harris knew what Staley wanted to run before Staley even called out the play, the ultimate coach on the floor. Replacing her will be no easy task.

Vying for the job are junior Destanni Henderson and sophomore Zia Cooke. A month before the season, neither has separated herself.

Their backgrounds are similar. Both were top ten recruits as point guards. Henderson is on the small side at 5-7, but Cooke isn’t much taller at 5-9. Each started at the off-guard position during their freshman seasons, although Henderson only started nine games, while Cooke started all 33. Last season, Henderson was the primary backup at both guard positions, backing up Cooke and Harris.

Statistically, there isn’t much difference either. Both averaged 2.9 rebounds last game. Cooke scored more, averaging 12.0 points compared to 8.5 for Henderson and shooting better from three (36% to 32%). But Henderson was more of a distributor (2.8 assists to 1.8), and she has the edge in experience running the point. That experience gives Henderson a leg up in the battle for the position, but it isn’t a replacement for actually running the team in games.

“For Zia and Henney, they didn’t have to do it full time. Somebody’s going to have to do it full time, one of them, at any given time during the game. That’s been a little bit of a transition for them,” Staley said. “We’re now starting to play situational basketball. There’s a difference. We have to put them in as many scenarios as we think our opponents will put them in, and they’ve got to be better decision-makers all around.

Compared to Harris, both Henderson and Cooke have more of a scorer’s mentality than pass-first. Both are good off the bounce, although Cooke, who led the Gamecocks in free throw attempts last season, definitely has an edge in her ability to get to the rim and draw fouls. Whichever is handling the ball, it will change the way Staley runs the offense.

“We’ve got young point guards, meaning they haven’t had to play the position full time, and then they’re different,” Staley said. “They score the ball a lot more. They are more aggressive offensively than Ty was over 40 minutes. We have to put them in the position to be aggressive.”

They are both scoring point guards compared to pass-first Harris. That isn’t a bad thing, but it does change the way the Gamecocks will run their offense. Staley estimated the playbook will be 25-50% of what it was last season. She also doesn’t know which player is ready to take on the leadership role that comes with being the starting point guard, although she called Cooke a “killer.”

“I’m waiting for that to happen,” she said. “Destanni, her personality is quiet, smooth. She comes to practice every day. The leadership doesn’t scream from her. It isn’t something that comes natural for her. So we’re going to let her lead the way she leads. Zia on the other hand is probably, when the game is on the line you see her go to another level. She’s not an everyday leader when it comes to being vocal and policing things over at the dorms. But when the game is on the line and people aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, she does not shy away from letting people know. It’s just not everyday that she does it."

Staley also has a wrinkle at her disposal. This summer, senior wing LeLe Grissett has been working at point guard. She isn’t competing for the job full-time, but at 6-2 Grissett would be a change-of-pace option that would force opposing teams to figure out how to match up.

Photos by Chris Gillespie
Photos by Chris Gillespie (Chris Gillespie)