DeKALB – Antone Christian already was leading.
Nobody watched more film. Nobody spoke up more during practice. The Northern Illinois sophomore guard did all the right things.
Moving Christian to point guard – where players are considered the “floor leader” – seemed like a natural progression.
“I tell him, when his career is over, he’s going to be a coach,” first-year coach Mark Montgomery said. “He’s a natural leader. He doesn’t mind hearing his voice. He doesn’t mind telling guys to go harder.
“He has to be an extension of me on the floor, a coach on the floor.”
That’s especially important for a young program that lost Xavier Silas to graduation. Silas’ 22 points per game isn’t the only void the Huskies must fill. He was the program’s undisputed senior leader last season, vocally and by example, on and off the court.
Before anything else, Montgomery knew NIU needed to find someone to lead. Christian’s added point guard duties indicate he’s the guy for the future. Perhaps more telling is how he responded to the new role.
The sophomore already knows enough to understand a leader can’t force it.
“I just let everything come natural,” Christian said. “It’s not about me. It’s about us. I don’t change a thing. I just check up on the young guys, make sure everybody is coming together. Everybody checks on me, checks me if I’m wrong.
“I don’t really see myself as having to step up. I just let things come natural, and it’s a blessing.”
There also are tangible reasons for the move.
Most of what fans know about Montgomery is his defensive background. The Huskies first-year coach wants to install the tough, physical style played by his former school, Michigan State. He also wants to implement similarities to the Spartans’ offense.
Slotting Christian into the point guard role is one of the clearest signs of Montgomery’s offensive philosophy.
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Christian fits the mold of a Michigan State point guard, a player who can set up teammates or score himself. After averaging 6.2 points per game as a freshman, Christian is the top returning scorer in NIU’s backcourt. He improved significantly as the season progressed, with all six of his double-figure scoring performances coming in the Huskies’ final 13 games.
“I tell him, ‘At Michigan State, our point guards sometimes were our leading scorers,’ “ Montgomery said. “I have no problem with that. I want a scoring point guard.
“I think it’s just going to make him a better overall guard. Sometimes when you see it from a different position, it makes you see how tough it is. But to be a good college guard, you don’t just want to be labeled as a [shooting] guard. So I think you want to have guard skills, and I think it’s just going to help his overall game to see it at different angles.”
Christian hasn’t played point guard since high school, and he won’t exclusively play it this season. Montgomery said he wants his players to be multi-skilled, able to play different positions. In his first recruiting class, he ushered point guards Zach Miller and Marquavis Ford into the program, allowing Christian to also play his natural shooting guard position.
But expect Christian to regularly run the Huskies offense. It’s a difficult transition, one that will require time and patience. But Christian said he’s eager to learn.
“I’ve embraced it. Whatever it takes for us to win,” Christian said. “If I have to play center, I’ll play center. It’s just whatever coach Monty and whatever the team wants me to do, I’m willing to play anything.”
Spoken like a leader.