LAFAYETTE — Roughly 10 months removed from having point guard Elfrid Payton patrolling the perimeter and initiating the offense, the Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball squad has counted on a collective effort to keep the ball moving.
“We are a better passing team overall than last year,” coach Bob Marlin said.
The Ragin’ Cajuns topped the Sun Belt last season in assists per game at 13.5. Payton, a first-round pick in June now with the NBA’s Orlando Magic, had 208 of their 472 assists.
A combination of front-court freshmen and upperclassmen have used vision and decision-making skills to vault the Cajuns (10-5, 4-0) to the top of the conference. Junior forward Shawn Long totaled 19 assists last season; he has 17 through 15 games.
“Shawn has improved his decision-making, and he is not forcing the ball out of double teams,” Marlin said. “He gets double-teamed quite a bit. We love to shoot the (3-pointer) off that inside-out action.”
Guards Kasey Shepherd and Jay Wright have been waiting on the other end of those passes. Wright has made 44 percent of his 3-pointers, and Shepherd is shooting 42 percent from long distance.
Considering that Long is the team’s leading scorer at 15.4 points per game, there is a need to balance the inside-out game with another approach.
“We want to shoot 3s, and we have a good percentage, but we don’t want 3-point contests,” Marlin said. “We have the best inside scorer in the league.”
In addition to Long, newcomers such as junior transfer Devonta Walker and freshman Bryce Washington have played a part to help the Cajuns average 82.6 points. In a list littered with guards, Walker and Long are tied for 15th in the conference with 11 assists each in four SBC games. Walker posted a season-high five assists and 23 points in a December loss at Northwestern State
Washington’s passing skills have shown up in some late-game situations. When the Cajuns were protecting a slim lead Thursday during the final seconds in an eventual 84-80 win over Georgia State, the freshman was responsible for making the inbound pass. Washington mentally went through the necessary details, including his first question for Marlin: “Coach, do we have timeouts?”
When opponents place a full-court press on the Cajuns, that passing and ball handling ability has served the forwards and centers well when they are far away from the paint.
“When we throw it back to the (power forward), we let our guys bring it up the court,” Marlin said. “A lot of bigs that inbound the ball don’t dribble. Their coaches won’t let them. It takes pressure and wear and tear off the point guards. It’s a big plus for us.”
That also led to some comical moments. In a November loss at Auburn, one of Marlin’s acquaintances noticed Washington’s point-guard skills.
“He brought the ball up the court against Auburn for us, and a friend of mine who lives in Alabama was at the game,” Marlin said. “He said, ‘I really like your 6-foot-7 freshman point guard.’ I said, ‘Well, he’s not our point, but we will let him bring the ball up.’ ”