Every year, within the first month of the season, a leader for National Player of the Year begins to emerge.
Last season, we knew by the PK 80 that Trae Young was going to be the leader in the clubhouse for the Player of the Year awards. He was eventually caught by Jalen Brunson the same way that Buddy Hield, in 2016, was caught by Denzel Valentine. In 2017, Frank Mason more or less held the lead in the Player of the Year race from day one, and in 2015, Frank Kaminsky was either first or second — behind Jahlil Okafor — for the entire season.
This year, no one has really emerged.
The guys on Duke have been terrific, but it’s hard to decipher between the two and the guy that gets all the shots (R.J. Barrett) misses all the shots, too. Rui Hachimura was terrific in the Maui Invitational, but not to the point that he’s set himself apart form the field. Ethan Happ might be the leader if this was an MVP race, although Carsen Edwards would have a strong case, while De’Andre Hunter looks every bit the part of a lottery pick as he battles with teammate Ty Jerome for “Best On UVA” honors.
1. RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga (Last Week: 4)
- 21.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 50.0% 3PT
I’m going with Rui as the leader for National Player of the Year as of today. His numbers justify it, as do his performances against the best teams in the country. In Maui, he averaged 22.3 points and 6.0 boards while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. His best game of the season came in Gonzaga’s win over Duke, in which he went for 20 points, seven boards, five assists and three blocks and not only scored the game-winning bucket but notched a pair of game-saving blocks in the final minutes.
He’s embraced the idea that he is the alpha on this Gonzaga team, and it is sure going to be fun to see how that plays out over the course of the next three weeks; Gonzaga will play at Creighton, host Washington, get Tennessee on a neutral and play at North Carolina before Dec. 15th.
2. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke (2)
- 20.7 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 2.7 bpg, 2.2 apg, 1.5 spg
I’m slotting Williamson in as the highest-ranked Duke player due in part to his efficiency — his offensive rating is 134.6 on a usage rate of 28.6 — for those that aren’t analytically-inclined, that is an astonishingly high number — and in part to the presence that he provides Duke defensively. He is not only an elite shot-blocker that can jump passing lanes, but he’s a terrific rebounder on both ends of the floor and the sparkplug that makes their transition game operate.
We’ve all see the stat by now: R.J. Barrett has missed 74 shots this season while Williamson has attempted just 75. At some point, head coach Mike Krzyzewski will figure out that his biggest and most difficult player to guard is Williamson, and that the single-most efficient source of offensive for Duke in the halfcourt this season has been Zion Williamson in isolation. How do you stop a 280 pound man that can get to the rim in one dribble like this?:
3. ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin (5)
- 17.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 5.7 apg, 1.7 bpg
Happ still hasn’t developed into the shooter we all wanted him to be, but he has taken a fairly significant leap this season in his ability to read defenses and pass out of them. In previous seasons, one of the easiest ways to render Happ ineffective was to send a double-team at him in the post. He’s reading those double-teams better this season, and he’s more comfortable passing out of them. In six games, he has 34 assists this season. Against Virginia in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game, he finished with six assists and totally took the Wahoos out of what they wanted to do defensively — double the post.
Through six games, Happ has reached a double-double with more than five assists five times already, including a triple-double in the season opener. Minnesota’s jordan Murphy and Oregon State’s Tres Tinkle — three times each — are the only other players to have posted that stat line more than twice this season.
4. R.J. BARRETT, Duke (1)
- 22.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.0 apg, 40.8% FG, 31.6% 3PT
What’s the old saying? The only person able to Michael Jordan was Dean Smith?
That’s the way it feels when talking about Zion Williamson, except the only person that can keep him from scoring on every possession is R.J. Barrett.
I talked about this on the podcast embedded above, but I don’t really have an issue with Barrett’s alpha mentality. I like that he demands the ball in big moments. I like that he wants to take game-winning shots. I like the confidence that he has in himself that even though he has missed three in a row, the next one is going to go in. Yes, he needs to be able to see and make this pass, but he’s also an 18 year old playing in the biggest game he’s ever played in. He’ll learn. I’m not worried about that.
That said, his inefficiency and, frankly, selfishness does mean that I need to drop him in these rankings. There’s nothing wrong with being a ball- and shot-dominant player, but there it when you do it as inefficiently as Barrett does on a team with as much talent as Duke has. To put it into context, there are just three high-major players with a usage rate higher than Barrett’s: Carsen Edwards, Ethan Happ and Butler’s Kamar Baldwin. Here is how their efficiency stacks up:
5. CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue (3)
- 25.3 ppg, 4.2 apg, 41.0% 3PT
The graphic above basically says it all. For comparison’s sake, Jalen Brunson had one of the most efficient seasons in memory last year, and he finished with an offensive rating of 128.5 with a usage rate of 26.0. Trae Young checked in at 112.1 with a usage rate of 38.5.
6. DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia (UR)
- 16.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.3 apg, 46.7% 3PT
Picking between Hunter and Ty Jerome is difficult, but I think I lean Hunter this week. He was awesome as the Cavaliers won the Battle 4 Atlantis title while Jerome struggled a bit with his shot. This is going to be a constant point of contention for me. Hunter is Virginia’s best player, but Jerome may be their most valuable.
7. JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech (UR)
- 18.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.3 apg, 50.0% 3PT
I’m not sure there is a more improved player in college basketball this season than Jarrett Culver. The Texas Tech sophomore has gone from being a good piece on Texas Tech to being a star, a playmaker that the Red Raiders can run their offense through. As a freshman, less than 10 percent of Culver’s offensive possessions came as a ball-handler in pick-and-rolls. When you include passes, the 0.746 points-per-possession that he produced in ball-screens was in the 28th percentile nationally.
This year, 24.8 percent of his possessions come in ball-screens, and he’s produced 1.351 PPP in those actions when you include assists, good for the 97th percentile nationally. Culver hasn’t replaced Zhaire Smith. He’s replaced Keenan Evans.
8. DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas (UR)
- 17.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 3.8 apg
Picking who the Player of the Year on Kansas is this season is tough. On the one hand, the Jayhawks might have lost at home to Vermont and/or Louisiana if Lagerald Vick hadn’t gone full Steph Curry, scoring 65 points and shooting 15-for-20 from three in those two games combined.
But Lawson has been the best player for the Jayhawks is their three games against high-major competition, and it’s really not all that close. Against Michigan State, Marquette and Tennessee, Lawson is averaging 23.3 points, 13.0 boards and 4.7 assists, and while his efficiency is not quite at a level you would like ideally, he’s the piece that Self can run his offense around and through. That earns him a spot on this list.
9. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee (6)
- 21.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.2 bpg, 1.2 spg
Let’s ignore, for a second, the first game of the season, where Tennessee played a non-Division I opponent. In the four games since — against Louisiana, Georgia Tech, Louisville and Kansas — Grant Williams has averaged 23.8 points, 8.8 boards, 4.0 assists, 1.0 blocks and 1.0 steals. He was the best player on the floor for Tennessee in their win over Louisville. As Bill Self put it after his Jayhawks managed to dispatch Tennessee in the finals of the Preseason NIT, “we may not play a better player all year than Grant Williams. He’s a load.”
Tennessee plays Gonzaga on December 9th. Buckle up.
10. NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech (7)
- 19.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.4 apg, 2.4 spg, 53.5/40.0/92.3
Alexander-Walker has been terrific this season. Virginia Tech has looked like a team capable of finishing top four in the ACC this season, and his improvement is one of the biggest reasons why. He’s scoring at a more efficient clip, he’s become a playmaker defensively and he’s averaging 4.4 assists through five games. We’ll see if he can continue at this pace throughout the season, but there’s no doubt that he’s earned his spot on this list today.
Dropped Out: 8. Cameron Johnson (North Carolina), 9. Ty Jerome (Virginia), 10. Lagerald Vick (Kansas)