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.
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)