Jan. 15, 2008
By Simit Shah
D’Andre Bell stood at midcourt sandwiched by a pair of swarming Charlotte defenders. Cool and calm, the junior guard split the double-team, pulled up just inside the key and drained a jumper to extend the Yellow Jackets’ narrow lead late in a tight game.
“That was a big play,” Coach Paul Hewitt said, contemplating the play a few weeks later. “He’s got the type of game to do that, but he just has to have confidence to make that play every time.”
A year ago, Bell would not have made that play. The California native’s sophomore season got off to a rocky start, as he attempted to make a preseason shift from shooting guard to point guard. Through ten games, Bell had more turnovers than points, and his ball-handling provided mostly cringe-worthy moments.
“The main problem last year that I didn’t have much time to prepare,” he said, shaking his head. “Playing point guard requires a certain mindset, and I wasn’t ready for that. It was a different story this year. I pretty much knew what my role was going to be, so I was able to work at it the entire offseason.”
That work has paid off so far this season. He was pressed into action at the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas after starting point guard Mo Miller sat out with a back injury. Bell responded with a 12-point performance that included several clutch baskets and late free throws to seal the victory in the tournament opener against Charlotte.
Since that game, Hewitt has tapped Bell as the team’s starting point guard. While he’s made strides handling the ball, the 6-5, 210-pounder continues to be one of the team’s most tenacious defenders.
“I know he’s a hard working, tough-minded kid,” Hewitt explained. “He’s a very intelligent kid too. Besides those qualities, which are somewhat intangible, I know that he can guard the basketball and put pressure on the ball. We knew that he would need to play some point guard for us.
“When you have scorers like (Lewis) Clinch, (Anthony) Morrow and (Lance) Storrs, you say to yourself, `Maybe we can find another way to get him on the floor to provide that toughness we want.’ The best place in my mind is at point guard.”
The soft-spoken Bell is the first to admit that’s he still got plenty to learn about playing point guard, and he’s constantly turning to Miller and Matt Causey for counsel on the nuances of the position.
“I ask them for advice all the time,” Bell said. “I ask them questions about seeing the floor better and how to handle to certain situations. The point guard position is a totally different beast. You have to know everyone’s position. You have to constantly talk. You pretty much have to be in control of everything going on out on the floor. You have to know that every second.”
Bell isn’t quite ready to join the ranks of Georgia Tech’s vaunted point guard tradition, but his work ethic already puts him in elite company.
After the failed experiment at point guard last season, Bell found playing time scarce once the ACC schedule started. However, he remained intense in practice and eventually worked his way back into the rotation as a shooting guard and small forward. Hewitt credited his play down the stretch as one of the keys to earning a NCAA bid last season.
“They always say the battle is won outside the arena, so I really focus during individuals, practices, ball-handling and shooting drills,” Bell said. “I just continuously work on it.”
While Hewitt has been pleasantly surprised at Bell’s progress, the coach would like to see him believe more in his own abilities. He points to that play against Charlotte as a perfect example, but that assertiveness wavers during the course of games.
“His confidence does go up and down,” Hewitt noted. “It shouldn’t, because he works so hard. I compare him to Ishma’il (Muhammad) and Mario (West), but he’s probably a little better offensively. He’s got that toughness and can really guard. He might not be as athletic as those guys at the rim, but he’s just as athletic laterally and in terms of physical strength. He’s got to have the confidence that those two guys had.”
A hurdle in attaining that confidence is Bell’s tendency to think too much out on the court. “I’m really naturally comfortable on the wings. I can get out there, run and play. At point guard, I’m always thinking about something,” he laughed, adding that the coach staff had just scolded him about that in practice just a few minutes earlier.
“He’s a bright guy, and he’s one of our dean’s list guys,” said Hewitt. “I think sometimes he might deep-think things. He just needs to go out there and play. That’s what he’s starting to do more. His instincts are really good, and he needs to rely on them.”
For the Jackets to rebound from a shaky start, they will rely on Bell to help steady the ship. Through seven games, he is shooting over 57 percent from the field and is tied for second on the team in steals.
“He’s very poised,” observed Clinch. “He’s a very versatile player who gives you options. He’s a great defender and a good ball-handler that can set up the offense for us. He creates matchup problems for the other team. He does a lot of things for us.”
“He’s a good player,” added Hewitt. “He’s going to be a reason that when people look at this team in the middle or end of the season, they are going say, `They’re a good basketball team, and Bell’s one of the reasons why.’ I don’t doubt that.”