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MAKING A POINT: Running the Friars has Cotton on NBA's radar

February 22, 2014

After leading the Big East in scoring as a junior, Providence senior Bryce Cotton (11) sits atop the conference in assists per game this season. Cotton and the Friars visit Butler on Sunday night. PHOTO BY ERNEST A. BROWN

PROVIDENCE – It’s clear that Bryce Cotton’s mom does not allow her son to rest on his laurels.

On the eve of her boy’s senior season at Providence College, Yvonne Cotton issued something along the line of a challenge to a player who as a junior topped the Big East in scoring. While there’s no denying the merit of such a feat, Yvonne was far more interested in seeing what Bryce could do for an encore.

“She told me, ‘Bryce, everybody is wondering if you can play the point, but I know you can do it,’” was a story the normally quiet and reserved Cotton shared recently. “She kind of made a little joke that it would be something in my final year if I ended up leading the Big East in assists.

“I laughed at it like, yeah, that’s not going to happen,” he continued.

Don’t look now, but Yvonne’s premonition is on the verge of coming true. Entering PC’s crucial Sunday night contest at Butler, the Friars’ version of the alpha and the omega owns the distinction as the Big East’s top assist man, doling out 5.9 per outing with the average slightly up in conference-only games (6.2).

These days, Cotton is no longer strictly pegged as a high-volume scorer; his ball-handling and distribution skills have come a long way in a relatively short period of time. As his Providence career winds down, questions are starting to percolate as to whether there’s a place for the 6-foot-1 native of Tucson, Ariz. at the NBA level.

“He’s still not a true point, which is okay, but he’s shown himself to being a willing passer,” said a NBA scout who is quite familiar with Cotton’s progression at Providence. “He could be some version of (current Denver Nuggets and onetime Boston Celtics sparkplug) Nate Robinson, someone who’s dynamic and athletic enough to make plays.”

Cooley confirmed that Cotton “is definitely on the radar” of NBA clubs. Not long ago, such a topic might have been construed as a reach, a long one at that. Now it’s a perfectly acceptable to debate whether a player already known for his knack to fill up the basket coupled with his burgeoning floor-general skills can land a NBA job.

“Someone has got to like him, but the opportunity (to create for himself as well as for others) has presented itself and I think he has a chance to do something special,” acknowledged Cooley, PC’s third-year coach. “I think he’s enhanced his profile and I’m proud of the way he’s developed.”

***

SHOULD COTTON prove to stay true to the already established course, he would join Vincent Council, God Shammgod and Abdul Abdullah as Friars to wear the Big East single-season assist crown.

At first blush, the company Cotton is positioned to join seems a little askew. Council, Shammgod and Abdullah were all tried-and-true point guards the moment they arrived on the Smith Hill campus and did nothing to sway that perception during their respective PC careers.

Cotton proudly proclaimed that he played point guard “my entire life” before enrolling at Providence in 2010. At the time, the Friars had a floor leader in Council and in two years would welcome another one in Kris Dunn. The presence of both seemed to dash Cotton’s hope of waiving the conductor’s baton.

“At the time, that wasn’t what our team needed,” Cotton recalled.

Fortunately for Cooley and Providence, Cotton was able to dust off his point-guard prowess during the first-semester portion of the 2012-13 season. A team that seemingly had a surplus of floor generals was cut to the bone after Council went down with an injury in the first game along with Dunn still working his way back from off-season shoulder surgery.

In a seven-game stretch, Cotton passed for five or more assists five times. The interlude may have been an eye-opening experience for Friar fans who saw Cotton average half an assist in 31 games as a freshman and 2.5 assists in 32 games a sophomore, but not to the youngster.

“It caught people off guard, but this was something I could do all along,” Cotton said.
Once Council and Dunn joined the fold, Cotton returned to operating off the ball. He was expected to stay there this season, but those best-laid plans were nixed the moment Dunn fell on his right shoulder in an exhibition game.

Dunn did make a four-game cameo before getting shut down for good. Just like the previous year, Cotton was the lone proven ballhander at Cooley’s disposal. The only difference this time around was that the cavalry would not be coming. It was officially Cotton’s show to run.

“Unfortunately due to some unfortunate happenings, that allowed me an opportunity to play point,” Cotton expressed, mixing in gratitude along with a touch of somberness. “I’m just trying to make the best of the opportunity out of an unfortunate situation.”
Based on what has transpired in Cotton’s final season with the Friars, there’s no question he’s done just that.

***

COTTON REFERENCED the summer leading into his junior year at PC when he began working with Shammgod, the former Friar point-guard whiz and current undergraduate assistant coach. Looking back, those sessions along with the ones that remain ongoing are paying off handsomely.

“He’s done a great job showing me little tricks like threading the needle and shovel passes,” Cotton noted. “Overall, (Shammgod) has helped my decision making because he’s similar to my size. There’s a lot I can relate to. He’s been a big help like a big brother.”

In some respects, Shammgod can relate to Cotton. When the latter starred for Providence, his shooting was labeled his Achilles’ heel. The only way to silence the detractors was to keep working at it, a message Shammgod imparted upon Cotton as he sought to become a capable showman with the ball.

“We’ve talked this season about how he can make people more aware of him as a point guard and do things that would grab the attention of scouts,” Shammgod stated. “The last two years, everything happened at the right time for Bryce, but you’ve got to be able to take advantage of it. I think he’s capitalized.”

In the flex offense that Cooley’s Friars run, the object is for the point guard to hold the ball for roughly the first 10 seconds of the shot clock before reacting to the defense. To that end, Cotton has recently authored two noteworthy passes that according to Shammgod “wouldn’t have happened two years ago.”

Last Saturday in the first half against DePaul, Cotton drove the lane before flinging a pass to Carson Desrosiers, who was positioned along the baseline. With the Blue Demons scrambling, Desrosiers calmly buried the jumper.

Another noteworthy sequence took place during the first half of this past Tuesday’s game with Villanova. With 6-7 JayVaughn Pinkston shadowing Cotton on the perimeter, the Friar gave a quick jab step before turning right. Seeing that Josh Fortune was alone along the right wing, Cotton quickly steered the ball to the sophomore. The result was a 3-point make.

“I think he’s always been a point guard at heart because he’s unselfish,” Shammgod said.
When the plays he made against DePaul and Villanova were brought up, Cotton wished to steer clear of taking all the credit. He understands that he’s built his reputation on the backs of others – he’s passed for five or more assists on 18 occasions this season.

“Because I could score so well, it overshadowed my ability to get people involved and facilitate,” said Cotton. “I’ve been able to get guys a lot of good shots because of the defense paying extra attention to me. That’s opened up the floor for my teammates.”

Said the NBA scout, “He’s really accepted everything. Not many people playing college basketball this year can create their own shot or create opportunities for others when double teamed.”

***

THE SCOUT doesn’t feel that Cotton’s NBA hopes would be dashed if he doesn’t hear his name called on draft night.

“He might have to do it the hard way like a lot of guys, but guys with his level of athleticism, you learn to never count them out,” he said. “Sometimes you’re better off not getting drafted at all if you have a good agent that can steer you toward a team that has a need for what you can do.

“He’ll be playing somewhere professionally,” the scout went on.

Cotton’s senior year with the Friars will be remembered as him excelling as a dual threat. He’s opened plenty of NBA eyes, but perhaps none more so than his biggest supporter, Yvonne Cotton.

“Sometimes you envision yourself being successful, but some of the things that come, you can’t always imagine them happening to the extent that they do,” said Bryce Cotton about a pro basketball dream that doesn’t seem so far-fetched any more.

Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03

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