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Ohio has a top-notch point guard

John Groce knew the kid had talent.

He had the raw skills — shooting, ball handling, quickness — but his understanding of the game caught the attention of Ohio’s basketball coach. It took only a couple of quarters, but as Groce watched from the high-school bleachers of an Illinois gym, he saw something special in the smooth point guard from Seton Academy.

“After I saw him for a half,” Groce said, “I called our staff and said, ‘here’s the guy. This is the guy.’”

That player was D.J. Cooper, a baby-faced point guard who has quickly become one of top talents in the Mid-American Conference and a key component of Ohio’s team.

In his first season with the Bobcats (14-12, 5-7), Cooper has played more like a fifth-year senior than a 19-year-old freshman. He is the most well-rounded player on the team, leads Ohio in assists, steals and minutes, and ranks second in scoring and third in rebounds.

“We’ve put a lot on him,” Groce said. “He’s shouldered the load in ways that a lot of freshmen aren’t required or asked to do.”

When Cooper arrived in Athens, Groce said he knew he had found his point guard of the future. Players with Cooper’s talent are tough to find, and he fit perfectly into Groce’s system.

It just did not take long for the future to arrive, as Cooper immediately became a starter and now seldom comes off the floor.

On a team where he’s one of the youngest players, Cooper stands out as a leader. For the few minutes a game when Cooper sits on the bench, the team’s flow changes without his command.

“He has the ability to make decisions at different gears, and I saw that in him from the first time I watched him play,” Groce said.

With the fast-paced transition offense Groce likes to run, the point guard is everything. Transition teams usually go only as far as their point guard allows, and Ohio has placed the controls in Cooper’s hands.

“It’s not that much pressure because coach is always telling me to just play my game, do what I do best, get others involved, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do,” Cooper said.

Cooper is on the fast track to becoming the MAC Freshman of the Year, and will likely end up as an all-league selection, possibly even first-team. He leads the MAC in assists and steals, is second in minutes played, and is one of the top-10 scorers.

No other freshmen even ranks in the top 15 for any of those categories.

“I try not to look at that stuff,” Cooper said. “If you get caught up in that, then you start to be selfish. I feel like if you play together as a team, then the numbers will come.”

Groce has coached a handful of top-flight point guards during his career, including former Ohio State star and current NBA player Michael Conley. Like he saw in Conley, Groce praises Cooper’s ability to affect the game in a number of ways.

Cooper’s blend of quickness and ball-handling makes him a threat to drive to the hoop, but his outside shooting and step-back jumper force defenses to respect his shot.

Defensively, Cooper’s anticipation allows him to snag steals, and despite almost always being the smallest player on the court, Cooper somehow manages to come up with five or six rebounds a game and has flirted with a triple-double on a few occasions this season.

He can do it all.

Cooper is the only player for Ohio to have led the team in either scoring, assists, rebounds and/or steals in at least one game this season.

“He’s one of those guys that can impact a game without making shots or scoring on a given night.” Groce said. “Then there’s other games where we’re going to need him to score to be at our best, and he’s starting to learn that.”

As Groce talked about Cooper’s standout freshman campaign, he emphasized Cooper’s drive and willingness to work. In a season that has been marred with discipline problems as four players have been suspended and two have left or been kicked off the team, Cooper has stayed out of trouble. No suspensions. No arrests. No questions about effort.

Just consistently good play.

“The thing about him is that he really hates to lose; that is one of his most redeeming qualities,” Groce said. “That’s really motivated him and challenged him to improve on a day-to-day basis.”

That kind of attitude gives Groce the confidence that he has invested the future in the right kind of player, and one that can be the foundation of a program.

“He’s got a chance to really do some special things here during his career, as long as keeps that mindset of where he’s humble and wants to get better,” Groce said. “As long as he has that mentality, we may not have not even seen the best of him yet.”

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Category: Athens News, Basketball, Feature Writing

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