Ben Malakoff, Contributing Writer
Leading up to the 2018-19 season, Men’s Basketball fans were unsure who would be the second point guard to redshirt-junior guard Marcus Evans. All signs pointed to an incoming recruit, but a freshman playing essential minutes could be risky.
The Rams sit in first place in the Atlantic 10 — bench play contributes to that success, including freshman guard P.J. Byrd.
The Houston, Texas, native is one of three freshmen on the team and one of two who has played in every game. When Byrd was recruited out of high school, Coach Mike Rhoades and his staff showed a particular interest in his playing style.
“I already had a great relationship with him,” Byrd said of Rhoades. “By him moving to VCU, it was an easy decision for me. And it really helped me decide that I wanted to be part of this VCU program.”
But Byrd’s collegiate career start was rocky — he turned the ball over 10 times in seven games in November.
Veteran leadership has a place on every team. In this case, Byrd has a fellow teammate — who was also once a young point guard — to guide him.
“[Marcus Evans is] always hard on me,” Byrd said. “In practice, we go at each other, and I really enjoy learning from him. He’s a great [point guard]. I look forward to being his backup, and when he leaves making sure the VCU program is up to par.”
Evans, who Byrd typically replaces off the bench, has witnessed and helped the freshman’s development.
“I think it’s starting to click now,” Evans said of Byrd. “He’s always had talent but it’s just about getting a feel for the game.”
Since November, Byrd has played nine games with no turnovers, including a major win Jan. 16 in which he played 10 minutes against Dayton. In a short amount of time, he gave Evans — who logged 28 minutes and was on the verge of fouling out with four personals — a much-needed rest.
“I think now [Byrd] is starting to get comfortable, his minutes have increased a little bit and he feels comfortable with the guys he is playing with on the court.” Evans said. “With all that coming together, you’re seeing him playing at a high level.”
Other freshmen get caught up with mistakes like bad turnovers similar to Byrd’s, but his work ethic keeps him from making the same error twice.
“[I’m] trying to keep my confidence up,” Byrd said. “Never get too high, and never get too low. Staying focused and listening to my coaches is going to help me a long way.”
In terms of improvements, Byrd said he wants to “take care of the ball better” and create more shot opportunities for himself and his teammates. As the A-10 tournament approaches this week, he said those improvements will help the team continue to succeed.
Since becoming a Division I athlete, Byrd has learned to value his opportunity at VCU and not take it for granted.
“Being a college basketball player at VCU is an honor. It’s great,” Byrd said. “I work really hard to get what I want, and this has been a beyond unbelievable experience.”