Player of the Year Power Rankings: Jahlil Okafor the favorite, Delon Wright top three?

Delon Wright (AP Photo)

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: Duke lost their first game of the season on Sunday, succumbing at N.C. State, 87-75, despite Okafor’s 23 points, 12 boards, three blocks and three steals. The key numbers there? Three blocks and three steals. What did the Blue Devils in against the Wolfpack was the dynamic play of guards Trevor Lacey, Ralston Turner and, to a point, Cat Barber. The Blue Devils play a style of man-to-man defense that requires guards to pressure out to half court, with off-ball defenders pushing out and cutting into perimeter passing lanes. The goal is to take a team out of their offense, but one of the by-products of that is that it creates driving lanes for ball-handlers.

Against ACC opponents, there is going to be pressure put on Okafor as a rim protector, which can potentially be a problem given the fact that he’s not exactly known for being the second-coming of Tim Duncan. That said, eight blocks in three ACC games is a good start.

2. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: The Badgers lost their last game, succumbing to Rutgers — I know, right? — in a road game where Wisconsin played without Kaminsky (concussion) and without Trae Jackson for much of the second half (broken foot). At this point, we’re in a holding pattern. Just how long will this concussion keep Kaminsky off the floor, and just how much will the absence of Jackson hurt them?

3. Delon Wright, Utah: There’s an argument to be made that Wright is the single most valuable player in the country. He’s a defensive menace against opposing ball-handlers, the spark for a team that currently ranks sixth-nationally in defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom. His turnover rate is down and his assist rate is up playing on a team that has, at times, struggled to score. Perhaps most importantly, Wright has not spent his senior season in college trying to prove to NBA scouts that he can shoot.

The biggest concern for Wright as a pro prospect is that he’s a career 23.8 percent three-point shooter. But in his last five games, he’s only attempted five three-pointers. He knows his strengths and he knows his weaknesses, and he knows which of those things will help Utah win games. The Utes look like they’re in the discussion for being the best team in the Pac-12, and they’ll get a chance to prove it on Saturday: at Arizona.

4. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: We diagrammed Jerian Grant’s importance to Notre Dame’s No. 1-ranked offensive attack (according to Kenpom) last week. He’s been terrific all season long, but in their two games last week — at North Carolina and against Virginia — Grant finished with just 14 points combined, shooting 3-for-16 from the floor. He’s missed all nine of his threes in ACC play and, if you discount the 6-for-8 he shot from deep against Coppin State, is shooting just 28.4 percent from three on the season. And despite Grant’s (relative) struggles, the Irish are still playing like one of the ACC’s elite, having won at North Carolina and taken Virginia down to the wire.

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Montrezl Harrell (Getty Images)

5. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville: Harrell had six points and was 2-for-5 from the floor as Louisville struggled to beat Clemson on Wednesday night. He was 4-for-10 from the floor with just nine points as the Cardinals lost at North Carolina on Saturday, although that was a game that Louisville led by 13 midway through the second half.

6. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: Cauley-Stein is still a major part of what Kentucky wants to do on the defensive end of the floor, but his struggles on the offensive end are becoming more apparent. He was 4-for-12 from the floor and had just 11 total points as the Wildcats needed three total overtimes to beat Ole Miss and Texas A&M.

7. Justin Anderson, Virginia: Anderson’s hot start this season hasn’t slowed down yet. Through three ACC games, Anderson is shooting 44.4 percent from beyond the arc and averaging 14.3 points. His numbers will never be eye-popping — eventually, that 56.3 percent three-point shooting will come down, and with it the 14.9 points that he is averaging — but that’s part of Tony Bennett’s mantra as a coach. Virginia shares the wealth. They work the ball offensively until they get a great look, and they lock up as well as anyone on the defensive end. It’s why they’re 15-0 and No. 2 in the country, and no one on the roster has been better at it through two months that Anderson.

8. Georges Niang, Iowa State: Niang hasn’t quite had the season that we’ve expected from him, as he continued his up-and-down play against quality opponents with a poor performance in a win over Oklahoma State and impressive play in a win at West Virginia. Niang is now shooting just 33.3 percent from three and averaging 3.6 assists and 2.6 turnovers.

9. Melo Trimble, Maryland: It feels weird putting Trimble on this list. He’s a point guard, but he’s averaging 2.9 assists and 2.5 turnovers this season. He’s Maryland’s leading scorer, but through four Big Ten games he’s shooting 28.6 percent from the floor and 5-for-25 from three. But there’s two things that he does that have gotten him on this list: 1. He’s finally provided Mark Turgeon with an effective ball-handler, a guy that can get them into offensive set, and 2. He gets to the foul line and does not miss when he’s there. He shoots 7.8 free throws per game and is hitting them at an 88.6 percent clip. The difference between Maryland being good and Maryland being “second-best in the Big Ten” good is free throws. According to Kenpom, they’re top 15 nationally in free throw rate and defensive free throw rate.

10. Bobby Portis, Arkansas: Arkansas is looking more and more like the second-best team in the SEC this season, and Portis is the biggest reason why. The 6-foot-11 forward is now averaging 18.1 points and 7.8 boards while shooting 58.2 percent from the floor and hitting nine of his 15 threes this season. In two wins to kick off league play last week, Portis averaged 26.5 points, which included 21 points in a come-from-behind win at Georgia and 32 points and 11 boards — nine on the offensive end — in a win over Vanderbilt and star big man Damian Jones.

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), Jarell Martin (LSU), Jordan Mickey (LSU), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), Bobby Portis (Arkansas), D’Angelo Russell (Ohio State), Wesley Saunders (Harvard), Juwan Staten (West Virginia), Ty Wallace (Cal), Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga), Joseph Young (Oregon)

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.