Kansas coach Bill Self was one of the first coaches to notice and speak up this season.
Having played N.C. State in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, winning a close game, Self was impressed and quick to praise Wolfpack guards Jarkel Joiner and Terquavion Smith.
“Joiner’s good,” Self said. “He’s a legitimate lead guard anywhere in the country. And Smith obviously is a legitimate scoring guard anywhere in the country. They’re like the quickest backcourt in the country. They’re good.”
That was late November, after the Jayhawks’ 80-74 victory over the Pack. And Self had one other thought that day in sizing up the Wolfpack: “N.C. State’s 5-men don’t shoot the ball.”
Meaning the Pack’s big men, the centers. That was before center Dusan Mahorcic injured a knee and D.J. Burns, who had eight points against Kansas in 16 minutes, became the big man for the Pack.
Burns shot the ball 26 times Saturday in the Wolfpack’s 79-77 win at Wake Forest in scoring a career-high 31 points. He’ll be high on the Florida State scouting report as the Seminoles prepare for their game Wednesday at N.C. State.
With the Wolfpack 17-5 overall record and 7-4 in the ACC, it’s tough to say who the most valuable player on the team has been during the turnaround season. A case can be made for Joiner, Burns and Smith, the ACC’s leading scorer.
And there’s also Casey Morsell, who Self referred to simply as “No. 14.” The senior guard seems to do all the timely little things that add up in a winning effort — his late 3-pointer against Wake Forest a case in point.
Let’s take a look:
This is the player who might get the vote from NCSU coach Kevin Keatts, who persuaded Joiner to transfer into the Wolfpack program as a graduate from Mississippi after last season.
“We hit a home run with this kid,” Keatts said Monday.
Joiner runs the team at point guard. He’s cool in the clutch, makes big shots, hits his free throws. He’s quick enough to guard and disrupt the other team’s best ball handler and is a willing defender.
Joiner has averaged 16.5 points in the 11 ACC games — that after going an inexplicable 0-for-12 from the field and scoring one point in the Pack’s ACC opener, a 68-60 loss to Pitt.
Joiner has since scored 20 or more points in four ACC games, getting 28 last week against Notre Dame in the Pack’s 85-82 win at PNC Arena. He has 36 assists to 14 turnovers and made 88% of his free throws in conference play, hitting 35 of his past 38 at the line.
“He’s a great person,” Keatts said. “He’s very focused. He’s good on and off the court. He’s great for your locker room.”
The guy they call “Big 30” has the size of an NFL defensive lineman and the soft hands of a nimble upright bass player, which he is. He also knows how to throw his weight around close to the basket.
The graduate transfer from Winthrop is averaging 15 points in ACC games after his big day at Wake. The Demon Deacons did not double team No. 30 often because of his passing ability, and FSU coach Leonard Hamilton might not, either.
“D.J. is a throwback,” Hamilton said Monday. “He has an extremely high IQ. He’s a great passer. He has good vision. When you have a low center of gravity, it’s very challenging to keep the ball out of his hands. Trapping sometimes will be inadvisable because he finds the open man every time you trap him.
“He has a unique skill. He’s a guy who’s a difference maker.”
The sophomore, a quick-twitch guard, can score points in bunches and is averaging 18.5 a game. He’ll shoot anywhere, any time. He’s also the X factor for any opposing coach’s game plan.
Will Smith go off tonight? That’s the question Hamilton will have Wednesday night. Smith will get his points, but how many?
Smith plays off Joiner well — the two look like they’ve been a backcourt pair for two years, not 22 games. Together, they’re a handful.
“You win with great guards, and they’ve got as good a guards as anybody in this league,” Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner said Monday. “It’s a guards’ game and they’re good.”