Player of the Year Power Rankings: Ponds vs. Howard, Jarrett Culver’s dominance

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1. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke

Zion is averaging 20.2 points, 9.5 boards, 2.2 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.9 blocks. Since the 1992-93 season, no one has put up a stat-line that looks like that. Take blocks out of the equation, and the only player that has averaged 20 points, nine boards, two assists and two steals was Reggie Williams back in 2007-08.

Zion is doing this for Duke, the No. 1 team in the country and the favorite to win the national title this year. Williams put up his numbers while playing for VMI, who finished 255th in KenPom that season and ran a system that was entirely built around getting up shots as quickly as possible while gambling for steals and getting the ball back as quickly as possible.

I’m sure Zion’s stats will regress as we get into the throes of conference play, but until they do, look at this picture:

Mind-boggling.

2. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

Since the last time we talked about Player of the Year rankings, Williams went out and put 18 points, eight boards and five assists on Georgia in a 46 point win. He’s now averaging 19.9 points, 8.3 boards, 4.6 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.2 blocks with shooting splits of 59.7/44.4/79.8 for a top three team in the country.

He is a monster.

3. JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech

Culver’s performance in Texas Tech’s win at West Virginia last week blew me away.

For the entire game, the Mountaineers face-guarded Culver. Sometimes it was in a straight man-to-man defense. Sometimes it was a box-and-one. Sometimes it was a triangle-and-two. But whatever they were running, they were doing everything in their power to keep Culver from touching the ball. That, combined with the fact that Culver picked up three first half fouls and was used in an offense-defense rotation by Chris Beard for the entire second half, limited him to just 22 minutes. On the night, Culver only had about 10 touches in halfcourt offense, and he still managed to score 18 points on 6-for-8 shooting.

Part of the reason for that was Culver is just a monster. Great offense can beat great defense, and you can see three examples of that here:

Culver also showcased his ability to read pick-and-rolls. Look at these two plays late in the second half. In the first, he recognizes that both defenders stayed with him and he found Davide Moretti for a three. In the second, he sees the switch and beats Esa Ahmad (and all of West Virginia’s help) for a bucket:

Credit should also be given to Chris Beard, who recognized what West Virginia was doing and designed a nice little back-screen counter that led to one tough bucket and a couple of examples of Culver’s ability to see the floor and make a pass:

He only finished with 18 points, but it was one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen from a player this year.

4. R.J. BARRETT, Duke

Barrett’s inefficiency against the best competition Duke has faced this season is starting to become noticeable. Since he put up 33 points and six assists against Kentucky on opening night, Barrett and the Blue Devils have played five high-major opponents — Auburn, Gonzaga, Indiana, Texas Tech and Clemson. In those five games, he has yet to crack 23 points, and outside of the win over Indiana — which came in Cameron — he has not played well in any of them.

In total in those five games, Barrett is shooting 37-for-99 (37.4%) from the floor and 6-for-28 (21.4%) from three and averaging just 18.4 points. In seven games against teams from outside the mid-major ranks, Barrett is averaging 24.7 points and shooting 64-for-122 (52.5%) from the floor and 14-for-39 (35.9%) from three.

I know I’m picking and choosing games here, and averaging 18.4 points against five NCAA tournament teams is hardly a bad thing, but this is a trend that will be worth tracking as we head into conference play.

5. DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

Lawson was not all that good in Kansas loss to Iowa State on Saturday. He was, however, the player that changed the game in their win over Oklahoma last Wednesday. He’s going to be someone to keep an eye on as we move forward this season. Losing Udoka Azubuike is going to change the role he is asked to play and the style in which Kansas will run their offense.

6. SHAMORIE PONDS, St. John’s

7. MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette

Picking between Ponds and Howard for the Big East Player of the Year — and, thus, their spot on this ranking — is like picking between your favorite flavor of ice cream. I’m not sure there is a wrong answer. (Unless you are one of those freaks that eats that cake batter crap, then there is a wrong answer.) Howard is averaging 24.0 points, 4.2 assists and 3.9 boards while shoting 41.9 percent from three and putting up monster performances in the biggest games; he went for 45 points in wins over Buffalo and Kansas State, he had 27 points against Wisconsin. He’s popped off for at least 26 points in five of his last six games.

The one game he didn’t?

A 20 point loss at St. John’s when he finished 2-for-15 from the floor with just eight points. That night, Ponds had 26 points, including 20 in the first half. It was actually one of the first times this season where Ponds, who has always been known as a scorer first and foremost, took over early. The 6-foot-2 junior for the Johnnies is averaging 20.4 points, 6.0 assists and 4.7 boards while shooting 40.5 percent from three this season, but more impressive has been the fact that he’s made it a point to get his teammates involved.

“He is passing a lot more than he ever has, especially early, to get his teammates going,” one Big East coach told me. That said, Ponds has absolutely taken over games, but it tends to be when his team needs him to the most. St. John’s has played six games this season that were single-digit games. They are 5-1 in those games, and Ponds scored at least 32 points in four of those five wins — 37 points and six assists at Georgetown, 37 points vs. Georgia Tech, 35 points and seven assists vs. VCU, 32 points and five assists vs. Cal. That doesn’t include the 26 points and five dimes he had in the win over Marquette, their biggest win of the season.

It’s that willingness to be a passer — A newfound trust in his teammates? — that has changed things for the Johnnies this season. “We were more concerned with his paint touches, [keeping] the floor tight,” said another coach that scouted St. John’s last season.

You can’t play that way against them this season, and the result hasn’t just been a more efficient season for Ponds, it has meant that the Johnnies now look like the best team in the Big East.

And that’s why I have Ponds a tick above Howard as of today.

8. ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin

It’s hard to overlook a redshirt senior that is averaging 19.3 points, 10.3 boards, 4.7 assists and 1.3 blocks for a top 25 team. It’s also hard to ignore that the might be 4-0 in the Big Ten right now if it wasn’t for Happ’s 1-for-7 shooting from the free throw line last Thursday. As good as Happ is, that free throw shooting makes him a liability in close games.

9. RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga

Like Lawson, it is going to be very interesting to see how Hachimura’s role changes with a change in roster status. Gonzaga got Killian Tillie back from injury last week, but he only played nine minutes in a home win over Santa Clara. Rui had 25 points in that game.

10. NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech

Alexander-Walker is the engine for one of college basketball’s elite offenses this season. He’s averaging 18.8 points, 4.2 boards, 3.4 assists and 2.4 steals while shooting 47.2 percent from three and playing as a secondary ball-handler and ball-screen initiator in a spread offense that creates mismatches all over the court. Virginia Tech is so much fun to watch when they get rolling, and Alexander-Walker’s development alongside Justin Robinson in the backcourt is the reason why they are so dangerous even without Chris Clarke and Landers Nolley.

IN THE MIX: Jordan Caroline (Nevada), Carsen Edwards (Purdue), De’Andre Hunter (Virginia), Charles Matthews (Michigan), Ja Morant (Murray State), Cassius Winston (Michigan State)