Every Tuesday, we will be providing you with a breakdown of the top ten candidates for National Player of the Year. You can read through the older posts here.
1. Jahlil Okafor, Duke: The scary part about Jahlil Okafor this season is that, despite being the favorite to win National Player of the Year since the minute he set foot on campus, Okafor has seemingly hit his stride over the course of the last couple of weeks. In three games last week, the nation’s best low-post scorer averaged 26.3 points, 8.0 boards and 2.3 blocks while shooting 30-for-39 from the floor, and while posting numbers like that against Toledo, Wofford and Boston College is not all that much to write home about, it’s still a statement to make. How many players in the country can do that?
More interesting, however, is that Okafor has seemingly figured out how to get to the free throw line. Through the first eight games of his college career, Okafor was 13-for-25 from the charity stripe, taking more than four free throws in a game just once and hitting them at a 52.0 percent clip. The last five games? He’s 30-for-50 from the line, an average of 10 free throws a night. That 60.0 percent shooting percentage still isn’t ideal, but it’s worth noting that against Boston College on Saturday, Okafor was 14-for-17 from the charity stripe.
The knock on Okafor has been that he doesn’t know how to use his strength and his size to bully through defenders, that he’s more interested in finesse around the rim that straight power. If he’s finally figured out how to muscle through smaller defenders, that’s a bad sign for ACC big men.
2. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: There are going to be two things that stand in the way of Frank Kaminsky eventually earning this award. For starters, he plays on a Wisconsin team that is as balanced and as unselfish as any team in the country. Sam Dekker is another potential lottery pick. Nigel Hayes is a potential all-Big Ten first team player. That’s a lot of shots to go around, and with a team devoid of egos, like Wisconsin is, those shots will go around. The other issue? The Big Ten just isn’t that good. Okafor will get a chance to go against Virginia, Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame this season. Kaminsky will … over power the front lines of Ohio State, Iowa and Maryland? Huge performances in the biggest games are what get the attention of voters; Heisman moments, if you will. How many of those will Kaminsky have this year?
3. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: There’s been a discussion about whether or not Jerian Grant is a point guard or a shooting guard, and frankly, it’s a silly one. Grant is a lead guard that can score, create open shots for hit teammates and dunk on defenders by putting his chin in the rim. Monday night against North Carolina, Grant played one of his poorer games of the season — 1-for-8 shooting, eight points, fouled out — but the game gave us a perfect example of just what makes Grant so dangerous.
According to Synergy, 32.4 percent of Grant’s shots come as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll actions and, if you include his passes that lead to shots, he’s had 170 possessions in the pick and roll, nearly half of all the offense he creates. What Mike Brey does is simple: He runs a side ball-screen with Grant as the handler, putting three shooters — usually Patrick Connaughton (who plays the four), Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia — on the other side of the court:
The result? If you help on the ball-screen action, Notre Dame gets open threes:
If you don’t, they get dunks:
Grant is one of the best in the country in the pick-and-roll, and he’s the biggest reason why Notre Dame is running the nation’s No. 2 offensive.
4. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: There’s not much new to add here. Cauley-Stein hasn’t played in a week, and he’s still the sparkplug for Kentucky’s potentially historically good defense. If you want an idea of just how important he is, he made this list despite averaging just 10.5 points this season.
5. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville: I understand how weird this may sound, but part of Harrell’s Player of the Year campaign depends on the play of Chris Jones. If Jones can play with the same mindset that he had on Sunday night — pass-first, distributor, team-oriented — Harrell is more likely to put up numbers like he did on Sunday: 25 points and 13 boards.
6. Justin Anderson, Virginia: Virginia is one of the last remaining unbeaten teams, and Anderson has been the best player on the roster to date. He’s shooting 58.8 percent from beyond the arc and averaging a team-high 15.1 points. According to head coach Tony Bennett, that has as much to do with his shot selection as it does with his shooting ability.
“As long as he keeps taking the good shots and being aggressive where he’s supposed to,” Bennett said earlier this season, “and being sound and being patient the way he is, I think he’s very important for us and has given us a good lift.”
7. Delon Wright, Utah: The Utes blew out both USC and UCLA in the Huntsman Center over the weekend. Wright finished with just 16 field goal attempts and 15 assists. He’s embracing the role of facilitator with the amount of talent around him, and Utah is looking more and more like a team that can compete for the Pac-12 title with Arizona.
8. Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble has been the savior for this Maryland team with his ability to run the point and get the team into offensive sets. He’s still turning the ball over too much — 2.7 per game — and his shooting must improve — he was 7-for-28 as the Terps swept their first two Big Ten games — but his presence has been the difference-maker.
9. Georges Niang, Iowa State: In losses to Maryland and South Carolina, Niang has combined for 20 points on 7-for-27 shooting. That said, he also played his two best games of the season in wins over Alabama and Arkansas, and was sensational after a horrid first half in the win at Iowa. He gets dropped until he shows more consistency in big games.
10. Ty Wallace, Cal: Wallace is still putting up ridiculous numbers, but it’s not helping Cal win games right now. They’ve lost three of their last four — including a home game against Cal St.-Bakersfield — and in his last three games, Wallace is shooting just 13-for-47 from the field and 1-for-10 from three. More than anything, the Bears need Jabari Bird to get healthy. Wallace is having trouble shouldering the entire offensive load.
OTHERS THAT WERE CONSIDERED: Ron Baker (Wichita State), Ryan Boatright (UConn), Kyle Collinsworth (BYU), Tyler Haws (BYU), D’angelo Harrison (St. John’s), LaDontae Henton (Providence), Buddy Hield (Oklahoma), Jonathan Holmes (Texas), Stanley Johnson (Arizona), Jordan Mickey (LSU), Bobby Portis (Arkansas), D’Angelo Russell (Ohio State), Wesley Saunders (Harvard), Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Joseph Young (Oregon)