Player of the Year Power Rankings: Ja Morant moves into the top five

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1. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke

Zion did it again on Monday night.

He finished with 35 points — a record for freshman at Duke — to go along with 10 boards and four blocks, but it wasn’t enough for Duke to take down Syracuse at home. (More on that in the R.J. Barrett section.) With all due respect to the other players on this list, I really don’t think the race is all that close at the moment.

2. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

Tennessee went into Florida, found themselves in a dogfight and left with a win. Grant Williams had 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting, nine boards, four assists, two blocks and two steals in the win.

Then he gator-chomped his way back to Knoxville. If you can’t appreciate how good this young man is, you don’t know basketball.

3. MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette

Howard had 26 points, six boards and six assists in a win over a good Seton Hall team on Saturday, and no one paid any attention to it. That’s a career game for like 99.8% of the players in college basketball. It was less than half the number of points he scored on Wednesday.

Just soak this in.

4. JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech

After a relatively slow night in a win over Kansas State, Culver bounced back with 23 points and 13 boards in a over Oklahoma and 14 points, nine boards and six assists as the Red Raiders won in Austin.

5. JA MORANT, Murray State

After going for 17 points and 14 assists in a win over Southeast Missouri State on Saturday, Morant is now averaging 23.1 points and 10.7 assists on the season. He is gong to end up being a top five pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and it’s hard to think that he is anything other than a star in waiting. Enough of the nonsense, it’s time to get him into the top five.

6. DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

Lawson continues to be the anchor for the Jayhawks offensively, although the last two games has seen his offensive output somewhat limited. He did have five blocks and five steals against Baylor, but only attempted eight shots in 26 minutes in a win over Texas.

7. R.J. BARRETT, Duke

I dropped Barrett down because, after seeing Duke play without Zion Williamson, Tre Jones and Cam Reddish over the course of the last three days, I think that it is safe to say that Barrett is the third-most valuable player on this Duke team.

Zion is clearly at the top of that list, but at this point, I am of the mindset that Jones is more important to Duke’s success than Barrett is because Jones provides something that no one else on Duke — and very few players around the country — are capable of doing.

For starters, there is what he can do as a point guard with the ball in his hands. He’s a leader and a distributor that is not worried about his numbers or his stats beyond his team’s record. All of those cliches that coaches love to spout about point guards define who Jones is as a player, but more importantly, his presence on the floor means that Barrett is able to slide into a position that better suits his skill-set.

Barrett is a scorer first and foremost, and while he can play with the ball in his hands and is capable of finding assists, what he does best is attack to score. When Jones was out last night and Barrett was forced to play the point, not only did it take a true point guard off the court, but it forced Barrett to play his second-best position.

I think Barrett’s 8-for-30 shooting performance with a crisp 4-for-17 from three speaks for itself here, but it is also important to put those numbers into context. Not only was Duke playing without Jones, they were playing without Cam Reddish, who is the best shooter and the second-most talented offensive weapon on the roster behind Barrett. Combine all of that with the fact that Syracuse sold out in the second half, essentially enveloping their zone around Zion Williamson and daring Duke to beat them from the perimeter — they just stopped guarding Jack White, who was 0-for-10 from three — and what you got was a situation where Barrett’s only real option was to try and win that game himself.

Put another way, I’m far more concerned with the fact that Barrett missed 22 shots and 13 threes than I am with the fact that he took them. It’s a bad sign that he is not a good shooter. It’s not a bad sign he tried to take over a game he needed to take over for Duke to have a chance to win.

And I still haven’t gotten to the point that I need to make about how good Jones is on the defensive end of the floor.

Duke is never going to be a great perimeter shooting team, and frankly, they can be a bad halfcourt team against teams that can keep them in front and rebound the ball. That issue is somewhat mitigated when Jones is on the floor because of how disruptive he can be defensively. It starts with the simple pick-six buckets that he creates off of turnovers, but there is more to it than that. His ball pressure forces offenses to start further out, he makes it a nightmare for an opposing team’s point guard to initiate a set and that, in turn, creates more missed shots. Missed shots lead to fast breaks, and fast breaks mean that Duke does not have to try and score against a set defense.

Can Barrett truly be a first-team all-american if he is the third-most valuable player on his team?

Maybe, but with the number of worthy candidates this year, it’s a tough sell for me.

8. SHAMORIE PONDS, St. John’s

Ponds finished with 23 points and six assists in a loss at Villanova, but when the Johnnies needed him to make some big plays down the stretch, he wasn’t there. He then missed a home game against DePaul, which St. John’s lost 79-71 and reemphasized just how valuable he is.

9. BRANDON CLARKE, Gonzaga

I think I am back on the bandwagon of Brandon Clarke being Gonzaga’s best, and more important, player. He was terrific in their win at San Francisco, leading the team with 24 points and nine boards and coming up with a crucial block in the final minutes. He’s the best defender in college basketball.

10. CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State

Quietly, Michigan State is starting to look like they might push Michigan for the title of the Big Ten’s best. The Spartans now rank ahead of the Wolverines on KenPom and are one of just three teams that are in the top ten in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. The reason why is Cassius Winston, who is having a phenomenal season and may be the best pure point guard in college basketball. It’s time to pay attention to him.

IN THE MIX: Nickeil Alexander-Walker (Virginia Tech), Jordan Caroline (Nevada), Carsen Edwards (Purdue), Rui Hachimura (Gonzaga), Ethan Happ (Wisconsin), De’Andre Hunter (Virginia), Charles Matthews (Michigan)