HUNTINGTON — Dan D’Antoni is no fan of labels.
“When you label people, you shortchange them,” he said. “Don’t shortchange them.”
The new Marshall men’s basketball coach doesn’t want to slot a player into a certain role simply due to his size or the position listed beside his name on the roster. He wants players proficient in multiple skills and wants to install offensive and defensive systems that take advantage of them.
He’ll begin with one of the key spots on his team. Marshall’s point-guard situation is in flux after former starter Kareem Canty, a third-team all-Conference USA pick and all-freshman team member, left the team and transferred to the University of South Florida. Another possible contender, Jaylen Brantley, transferred to Odessa Junior College in Texas after sitting last season as an academic non-qualifier.
D’Antoni has his eye on two to fill the void — junior Tamron Manning, who has played some point guard at Marshall, and redshirt junior DeVince Boykins, who hasn’t played the position since high school.
That doesn’t dissuade D’Antoni from giving Boykins a shot.
“I think there are a lot of guys who can play point,” he said. “Somebody taught me. Why can’t they? People want to pigeonhole people.”
D’Antoni offered the example of Golden State Warriors star David Lee, who D’Antoni coached with the New York Knicks when he was part of younger brother Mike D’Antoni’s staff there.
“David Lee was told to get out of the offense and don’t shoot. He became a point forward. Now he’s an all-star. Why? Because he learned how to play point guard out of the forward position.”
Boykins said that, at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, he figured D’Antoni saw he had the frame to work as a big point guard. He also figured his ball-handling and unselfish style of play fell in his favor, too. As a junior at East Rutherford High in North Carolina, he averaged 15 points, 11 rebounds and six assists as a junior, then 17 points, 13 rebounds and four assists as a senior.
“I’ve always been comfortable with playing point guard,” Boykins said. “But I know it’s going to be a little different at the college level. I know I’m going to have to be more of a vocal leader and pretty much just run the team and keep everyone under control. I’m looking forward to the task at hand.”
D’Antoni is no stranger to players with unconventional talents. He remembers 6-7 George Stone, a power forward on two of the Marshall teams on which D’Antoni played, shooting 20-foot jump shots with regularity — and success, considering he averaged 24.4 points in 1966-67 and 23.7 points in 1967-68.
How a player looks shouldn’t dictate how he plays, D’Antoni said, if his abilities don’t fit a certain mold.
“LeBron (James), are you going to make him a power forward because he’s 6-9?” D’Antoni asked. “The worst thing you can do is say, ‘That’s all you can do.’ I don’t do that. I expect them to do more. I expect that, when they get in the game, they understand where they are and they do the things they can do.”
Those opportunities could be there with the 2014-15 Marshall roster. Forward Shawn Smith on Saturday mentioned the outside shooting ability of teammate J.P. Kambola, listed as a 6-9 center. Boykins also said that, if big men can shoot, D’Antoni will give them the chance.
“He’s not going to limit people’s games,” Boykins said. “I think that’s just going to free everyone up. I feel like everybody will benefit. We’ll be able to share the ball and get a lot out of the offense. Find our strengths and use them to our ability.”
D’Antoni hopes that, as the season draws nearer, the players will find their niches within his system and thrive there, even if those niches don’t mesh with with those players’ conventional roles. He plans on using practice time to build their entire games so that, later, they can take the court and broaden themselves even further.
“We’re wide open, and we’re going to teach them everything it takes to be a good basketball player,” D’Antoni said. “I’m hoping if we’re successful, there’ll be people up in the stands saying, ‘I didn’t know he could do that.’”
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.