The race for National Player of the Year has been whittled down to four players with just over a month left in the regular season, and it’s to the point that I think all four would end up being consensus first-team all-americans if the season were to end today.
Appreciate this season. We’re looking at what could end up being one of the best Player of the Year races this side of J.J. Redick vs. Adam Morrison and Kemba Walker vs. Jimmer Fredette:
1. Jahlil Okafor, Duke: At this point I’m going to leave Okafor at the top of the Player of the Year rankings because, quite simply, I think that he is the best player in college basketball. He has his flaws defensively, and he may not be as important to his team’s success as some of the other guys on this list, but if you are tasked with starting a team from scratch, you’re picking Jahlil Okafor.
Okafor struggled to find a rhythm in the win over Virginia — he finished with 10 points on 5-for-7 shooting and didn’t get to the free throw line — but it’s important to note that the Cavaliers focused their defensive gameplan on taking him away. No one in the country is better at doubling the post on the catch than Virginia, and it completely took Okafor out of a rhythm. But more than anything, Duke’s struggles offensively for the first 30 minutes of that game should highlight just how much of their offense runs through the big fella.
It also should be noted that Okafor had a couple of critical offensive rebounds and second chance baskets during their run, and his pass out of a double-team resulted in what amounted to the game-winning bucket:
He was fired up about it:
2. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: Is it just me, or does it feel like Kaminsky has been completely overlooked this season? Maybe it’s because we expected this kind of season out of him, that the 17.6 points, 8.9 boards and 2.3 assists he averages while shooting 41.1 percent from three as a seven-footer don’t blow us away. Maybe it’s because Wisconsin plays the 340th fastest pace in the country, according to Kenpom, so his stats aren’t eye-popping enough unless you’re a tempo-free diehard. Tyler Haws leads the nation in offensive rating for players that use more than 28.0 percent of their team’s possessions at 122.5. Kaminsky’s offensive rating is 125.7, and he uses 27.8 percent of Wisconsin’s possessions.
What Kaminsky does is rarely flashy, and Wisconsin’s system has a way of bogging down a star’s overall numbers. But rest assured, Kaminsky is having a terrific season as the clearcut No. 1 option for a team on pace to be the most efficient offense of the Kenpom era.
3. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: I wrote a long piece last week on why Jerian Grant is a legitimate National Player of the Year contender and the Most Valuable Player in college basketball. You can read that here.
The one thing I’ll add? Despite playing poorly in a loss at Pitt on Saturday, if Steve Vasturia had hit an open three with less than five seconds left in that game, Grant would have single-handily lead another impressive, come-from-behind Notre Dame win:
It was the exact same shot that Vasturia had made three days earlier to ice the win over Duke, also set up by … Jerian Grant:
4. D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State: Russell is the single-most entertaining player in college basketball this season. He’s so smooth it hardly looks like he’s breaking a sweat, but he can drop you with ankle-breaking crossovers, make you look foolish with ridiculous ‘How did he see that?’ passes, beat you to the rim or drill a pull-up three in your face.
And over the course of the last five games, he’s played absolutely out of his mind, posting averages of 24.2 points, 9.0 boards, 6.0 assists and 1.8 steals while shooting 55.1 percent from the field and 47.5 percent (19-for-40) from long distance. Ohio State is 4-1 in that stretch, with wins over top 25 teams Maryland and Indiana.
On the season, he’s averaging 19.4 points, 5.6 boards, 5.2 assists, 1.8 steals and shooting 47.7 percent from the floor and 45.4 percent from three, and that’s including a stretch early in the year where he was an utter disaster against elite competition. His first four games against high major program — Marquette, Louisville, North Carolina and Iowa — he averaged 11.8 points and had 13 turnovers while shooting 27.6 percent from the floor and 22.2 percent (6-for-27) from three.
And then there is everyone else:
5. Delon Wright, Utah
6. Justin Anderson, Virginia
7. Stanley Johnson, Arizona
8. Georges Niang, Iowa State
9. Melo Trimble, Maryland
10. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
OTHERS THAT WERE CONSIDERED: Ron Baker (Wichita State), Ryan Boatright (UConn), Rakeem Christmas (Syracuse), Kyle Collinsworth (BYU), Tyler Haws (BYU), Montrezl Harrell (Louisville), D’angelo Harrison (St. John’s), LaDontae Henton (Providence), Buddy Hield (Oklahoma), Jonathan Holmes (Texas), Jarell Martin (LSU), Jordan Mickey (LSU), Larry Nance Jr. (Wyoming), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), Bobby Portis (Arkansas), Juwan Staten (West Virginia), Brad Waldow (St. Mary’s), Ty Wallace (Cal), Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga), Joseph Young (Oregon)