Georgia Tech's Jose Alvarado guards North Carolina's Joel Berry II during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018. North Carolina won 80-66. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Photo: Gerry Broome/AP
Photo: Gerry Broome/AP

Georgia Tech leaning heavily on freshman Jose Alvarado

A little under 16 1/2 minutes remained in the second half of Georgia Tech’s 64-48 loss to Virginia on Thursday. Tech was down 10 points with the ball, a possession initiated when point guard Jose Alvarado dug out a loose ball in the lane for a steal.

In the low post, Yellow Jackets forward Abdoulaye Gueye had the ball poked away from him. Cutting from the opposite wing to the middle already, Alvarado jumped on the loose ball. While the shot clock was running down, Alvarado still had time to set up a teammate. Instead, he dribbled to the basket, where his shot was blocked. Virginia took possession and scored, increasing the lead to 12 to continue to keep out of harm’s way.

That’s a little bit what Alvarado has shown as the Jackets begin the middle one-third of their ACC schedule Wednesday against Florida State in Tallahassee, Fla. Instincts, aggressiveness and quickness, and also decision making that needs improvement.

“There’s things you can do in high school and summer ball that you can’t do at this level,” coach Josh Pastner said, speaking of his point guard.

Though he is apt to make mistakes, Tech will lean heavily on Alvarado the rest of the way. Alvarado is playing 38.5 minutes per game in ACC games, seventh overall and second among freshmen. Pastner has made it clear that that will continue, even as he scales back minutes for guard Josh Okogie and Ben Lammers. It’s experience that will pay off down the road for the Jackets, but for now they’ll have to accept the bumps that come with giving a freshman such responsibility.

“He’s going to be a great four-year player here at Georgia Tech,” Pastner said. “By the time he’s a junior, he’s going to be one of the better guards in the league. Kind of what (Matt) Farrell’s done for Notre Dame, in a sense, on how he’s played there.”

Farrell might be an instructive example. Last season, Farrell broke out as a junior, averaging 14.1 points per game while starting all 36 games for the Fighting Irish. However, as a freshman, Farrell played 62 minutes. Alvarado played his 63rd minute near the end of Tech’s second game of the season.

In an ideal situation, Alvarado might be sharing minutes with a junior or senior point guard. But in this one, he’s quarterbacking the Jackets until his legs fall off. While point guard Justin Moore was to travel and dress for the FSU game after not being available for the previous six because of what Pastner called personal reasons, Pastner made it clear that his rotation is set.

Alvarado hardly is floundering. He leads the team in assists with 58, and his 12.7 points per game rank third on the team. Pastner has loved Alvarado’s willingness to dig out defensive rebounds to start the fast break. He has a decent 3-point shot (36.1 percent) and his free-throw percentage (82.1 percent) leads the team. He preys on opponents’ lapses of concentration to snag steals. He plays with effort, wins loose balls and has a toughness and fire that has won over Tech fans.

“He does a lot of things that don’t show up in the box score,” Pastner said. “He competes. He’s tough.”

On the other hand, Pastner said that he gambles too often on defense and is beaten too frequently on drives to the basket. On offense, his shot selection needs to improve. Alvarado attempts what Pastner calls “hope shots,” – shots taken with little more than hope that they’ll go in, such as the aforementioned attempt against Virginia.

“He’s got to be able to know when to attack or when to be able to keep his dribble alive and go out to the other side and find the opening,” Pastner said.

With 13 assists against 18 turnovers in six ACC games, Alvarado has the lowest assist total among the league’s starting point guards, and he’s also the only one with an assist/turnover ratio under 1.0.

“You’re asking him to the run the team,” Pastner said after Tech’s 80-66 loss to North Carolina on Saturday. “He’s getting better, but it’s just understanding tempo and certain shot selection, and that’s just going to come through experience.”

Alvarado accepts the responsibility that comes with the position, taking accountability for Tech’s 33 turnovers in the losses to Virginia and North Carolina.

“We’ve got to take care of the ball,” Alvarado said after the loss to the Tar Heels. “For me, that’s my part of it, to take care of the ball, make my teammates feel more comfortable and they won’t turn the ball over either.”

One of Pastner’s favorite statistics is assists per made field goal, as it reflects the creation of open shots through ball movement. Tech’s rate of 53.8 percent stands almost nine percentage points below the rate of last season’s team, according to KenPom. It’s also the lowest in Pastner’s nine seasons as head coach.

Tech’s challenges in taking care of the ball and creating open shots underscores the value that Josh Heath brought to the team last season as a senior point guard.

“That’s what I talk about, is being able to get old and stay at that age group,” Pastner said.

For this season, Pastner insists that Tech is a dangerous team. After the losses to UVA and UNC, the Jackets are still 3-3 in the ACC. The defensive play appears solid again. For the Jackets to achieve their potential and truly be dangerous, Alvarado’s on-the-job development will have to continue over their final 12 regular-season games.

The more quickly he ages, the better Tech’s chances become.

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