Player of the Year Power Rankings: Jahlil Okafor remains on top

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1. Jahlil Okafor, Duke: I’ve introduced you guys to my friend Rizzo before, a hardcore gambler and a Vermont-obsessed DJ. (Weird combo, right?) Anyway, a couple of weeks back, Rizzo and I got into an argument about Jahlil Okafor. I said that Okafor is a future star, that he’s the best low-post prospect I’ve seen come through the college ranks and that his ceiling is Tim Duncan. Rizzo disagrees. Rizzo think Okafor will be a massive bust, mostly because he watched Okafor get pushed around by Cliff Alexander in the McDonald’s All-American game.

I bring Rizzo up again because after Duke’s win over UConn in New Jersey, Rizzo sent me a series of texts more or less explaining how Okafor stinks because he couldn’t dominate UConn that had Amida Brimah on the floor for 13 minutes. My response?

Well, nothing.

You don’t reason with Rizzo.

So I decided to explain here, for everyone, that Okafor’s ability to pass out of the post is what makes him so good. You see, on Thursday, UConn almost always had two players running at Okafor when he got a touch in the post. Sometimes it was a big-to-big double, sometimes it was Ryan Boatright or another guard digging down, sometimes they doubled down with the guy that threw the ball into the post, whatever. What makes Okafor so good is his ability to distribute the ball out of these situations, creating shots for his teammates when he doesn’t necessarily get an assist out of it.

In this first example, you see Okafor kicking the ball out from the double-team to Justise Winslow, who swings the ball to Quinn Cook for an open three:

In the second example, Okafor throws a ridiculous cross court pass to Matt Jones, who beats a close out and finds Amile Jefferson on the baseline who, eventually, scores:

And then there are passes like this that he makes:

Regardless of how good the shooters are around Okafor, you have to double-team him. When you don’t, this happens:

2. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: You got a glimpse on Monday night of what is going to plague Kaminsky all season long when it comes to his Player of the Year candidacy. Nigel Hayes finished with 17 points and 13 boards and Sam Dekker added 14 points. Kaminsky had 14 as well, but he was the third-best player on the floor for the Badgers. As talented as he is, Bo Ryan isn’t going to pound the ball inside to him. When Hayes or Dekker gets it going — which will happen quite a bit this season — they’re going to get plenty of touches. Will that limit Kaminsky’s numbers?

3. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: In the past two games, Grant has not shot the ball well, finishing with a combined 19 points on 5-for-22 shooting, including 2-of-10 from beyond the arc. But the Irish won both of those games by at least 25 points, including a 31-point beatdown of Purdue. Grant added 15 assists and just one turnover. That’s a good sign for the Irish.

4. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: Cauley-Stein is the guy that makes Kentucky’s engine run defensively. His ability to play at the top of Kentucky’s press combined with being able to switch ball-screens and protect the rim as well as anyone in the country makes him so valuable.

5. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville: There may not be a more valuable player on this list than Harrell given what he provides Louisville offensively and defensively. He’s their spark, but he’s also the guy that will be suspended for Tuesday night’s game with CSUN after getting tossed for throwing a punch in a win at Western Kentucky. Even emotional leaders need to keep their composure.

6. Georges Niang, Iowa State: Niang played just 17 minutes in a 29-point win over Drake since last week. He’s still the focal point for this team offensively, especially if Bryce Dejean-Jones remains in Hoibergs doghouse.

7. Ty Wallace, Cal: Wallace has been terrific this season, and while Cal got worked over by Wisconsin on Monday night, it wasn’t Wallace’s fault. He finished with 17 points, seven boards and two assists and is now averaging 19.3 points, 8.8 boards and 4.2 assists. If you haven’t seen him play, what the athletic, 6-foot-4 point guard does best is help on the defensive glass and slash to the rim off the dribble, where he’s a lefty that finishes better with his right hand. The perfect example:

8. Justin Anderson, Virginia: I keep waiting for Justin Anderson’s shooting to come back to earth. In wins over Cleveland State and Harvard last week, he was 4-for-6 from beyond the arc and is now hitting 60.0 percent from three on the season. That’s pretty good.

9. Delon Wright, Utah: We named Wright a first-team Midseason All-American yesterday. Here’s what we had to say about him: “The Utes are 3-1 in their last four games, beating Wichita State, BYU and UNLV, the latter two on the road. The only loss? By three, at Kansas in Kansas City. In those four games? Wright is averaging 17.8 points, 6.0 boards, 4.3 assists and 2.8 steals while playing 39.8 minutes. He’s the most indispensable player in the country.”

10. Ron Baker, Wichita State: Baker’s development as a player has continued this season, as he’s having easily the best season of his college career. He’s averaging a career-high 17.3 points, shooting a career-high 46.0 percent from three and posting a career-high 127.8 offensive rating, according to Kenpom.com. What’s interesting, however, is how much his role has changed this season. As a sophomore, Baker played more of a combo-guard role, getting used in more pick-and-roll actions and acting as more of a facilitator. This season, he’s primarily a spot-up shooter (stats via Synergy):

source:

There’s a reason for this, I believe. With Cleanthony Early on the roster last season, the Shockers had a go-to scorer. They didn’t need Baker to be a guy hunting shots and trying to score 20 points a night. With Evan Wessel in the lineup instead, Gregg Marshall is in need of more of a scoring pop, and Baker is the guy to fill that role.

OTHERS THAT WERE CONSIDERED: Ron Baker (Wichita State), Craig Bradshaw (Belmont), Tyler Haws (BYU), LaDontae Henton (Providence), Buddy Hield (Oklahoma), Jonathan Holmes (Texas), Angel Rodriguez (Miami), D’Angelo Russell (Ohio State), Wesley Saunders (Harvard), Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Joseph Young (Oregon)

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.