MHERST — Shannon Crooks has played point guard all his life, but in some ways, he still defies the mold.
"I knew he wasn't going to be a pure point guard in the traditional sense," University of Massachusetts men's basketball coach Bruiser Flint said yesterday. "I don't say he should shoot as a first option, but we do need him to score a little bit."
Entering Sunday's game at St. Joseph's, Crooks is on a bit of a scoring roll. He has averaged 13.7 points over his last six games for UMass (7-7, 1-1 Atlantic 10), lifting his season average to 10.5.
"I was a little rusty, but most of that has gone away," said Crooks, a 6-foot-2 sophomore who played sparingly at St. John's two years ago, then sat out last season as a transfer. "It was a tough adjustment at the beginning, knowing when to pass and when to give the ball up."
The tradition of UMass point guards has not been built on scoring. The recent list includes Cary Herer, Anton Brown, Derek Kellogg, Edgar Padilla and Charlton Clarke, and all were expected to integrate others into the offense.
Padilla could score, but his stock rose only after he learned to distribute the ball. If anything, Kellogg sometimes seemed to shoot too infrequently. Clarke could score, but his method of running the offense didn't often draw raves last year from Flint, a former point guard for St. Joseph's.
Crooks is expected to blend his teammates into the offense, too. But perhaps more than any of his predecessors, he has also been given the green light to score, often on slashing drives with occasional jumpers.
"We have three guys who can score, and he's one of the three," Flint said.
The other two are guard Monty Mack (19.9 ppg) and forward Chris Kirkland (15.1 ppg). In Saturday's 82-52 win over Fordham, the three players combined for 53 points with Crooks, who had two assists and scored 10.
"I've played point wherever I've gone, and I could always score," said Crooks, who set the Everett High scoring record (1,743 career points), averaged 26 points and nine assists as a senior and also got a taste of shooting guard when he played AAU ball with current UMass teammate Jonathan DePina.
"He'd play the point, and I'd play shooting guard," Crooks said. DePina also began this season at the point for UMass, with Crooks at shooting guard and Mack (who was injured in preseason) coming off the bench.
When Crooks began slowly, Flint went with a Mack-DePina starting backcourt, but began pairing Crooks with Mack in the lineup three games ago.
As a transfer, Crooks practiced with UMass last year, but the lack of game action carried a price.
"Sometimes you think you're in shape, but then when the game comes, it's a whole different story," he said. "My wind is back now. Some times when I'd have put my hand up to come out before — now I can play through it."
He also thinks the layoff had an effect on his mechanics.
"I was just rushing too much," he said. "I've been taking my time lately, working on my follow-through and other little things."
The results are better. After an abysmal 4 for 19 start from the line, Crooks' free-throw shooting has climbed above 50 percent, and he may be one of the Atlantic 10's better defensive guards.
What Crooks doesn't offer is the traditional assist-to-turnover ratio associated with modern point guards. That ratio is ideally expected to be 2-to-1, but Crooks has 36 assists and 41 turnovers.
Flint accepts those numbers as long as the offense makes the right decisions, which he thinks is happening with time.
"I told all three (Crooks, Mack and Kirkland) not to force shots, because the ball will come to them," Flint said. "Those three will get 50 shots a game between them. They just have to divvy them up."
Against Fordham, Mack took 24 shots, Kirkland 14 and Crooks 10.
Flint is still recruiting high school point guards, while Crooks has two years left. At least for now, and possibly through March 2002, the ball is in the hands of a non-traditional point guard whose play has gradually improved.
"Things are looking up," Crooks said. "Now I've just got to carry it over, from game to game."