College basketball: Nine potential Naismith Trophy contenders
There are 351 Division I college basketball teams. Each team has roughly 15 players. That means, theoretically, there are more than 5,000 candidates for the Naismith Trophy, given annually to the best player in the game and awarded April 2nd in Phoenix.
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Each Monday, we’ll reward production over reputation. Efficient contributors on winning teams earn the spotlight. Expect violent change on the nine-man watch list early on. Names will shift less frequently by February, and we anticipate another exciting battle like Denzel Valentine and eventual winner Buddy Hield delivered in 2015-16.
So, here’s a guide to a journey through the next four months or so. Also, tiny sample size stats are fun but should be kept in perspective.
Josh Hart, Villanova (19.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg)
Scary thought for America’s college basketball defenders: Josh Hart, the best offensive player on the 2016 national champions, has improved. The 6-6 wing returned for his senior season to become a more consistent outside threat and has hit 41.7 percent beyond-the-arc through five games (after shooting 35.5 percent last season). He remains an excellent option as the ballhandler in the pick & roll and as a spot-up shooter, per Synergy Sports Tech.
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Villanova is unbeaten, has defeated three top 100 KenPom teams and Hart led them to the Charleston Classic title over the weekend.
Markelle Fultz, Washington (27.0 ppg, 6.7 apg, 5.3 rpg)
Stay up late, East Coast fans. Set the DVR, cancel plans, make the proper arrangements to catch this dynamic 6-4, 195-pound basketball wizard. The Huskies have played three games. Fultz has scored 30 points twice, hit 7 of 14 3-pointers and 20 of 26 2-pointers.
Granted the competition has been light. It becomes more demanding in late November with a three-game stretch against TCU, Gonzaga and Nevada. Fultz, who has a 6-10 wingspan, has flashed expert ballhandling, finishing in traffic, passing and dunking and shooting.
“And then he’s very, very athletic,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar told the Star-Tribune. “He has a high basketball IQ. It’s almost like he’s computer-generated or something. And on top of that, he’s a great teammate and he’s extremely coachable. So he has the whole package.”
Fultz has a 140.4 offensive rating using 30.8 percent of the Huskies’ possessions.
Frank Mason III, Kansas (23.0 ppg, 5.7 apg, 4.7 rpg)
Mason has a memorable moment in the 2016-17 season, drilling a pull-up jumper in the final seconds to secure a 77-75 defeat of then top-ranked Duke in Madison Square Garden.
During that game, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas compared the challenge of defending Mason to staying in front of a bowling ball. The sturdy point guard draws 8.1 fouls per 40 minutes, has four and-1 opportunities in three games, per Synergy Sports Tech, and has a 2.83 assist-turnover ratio.
Kansas coach Bill Self thinks his senior has a future at the next level.
“I think the NBA's missing the boat on him,” Self told FoxSports.com after the Duke game. “He doesn't fit the eye test with length and standing (5-foot-11) and that kind of stuff, but he's got some things you can't teach and intangibles that are as good as anybody in America probably possesses.”
Joel Berry II, North Carolina (16.5 ppg, 4.8 apg, 4.5 rpg)
The No. 4 Tar Heels are favored to win the Maui Invitational and playing with purpose. Coach Roy Williams has constructed another elite offense with point guard Berry II at ground control. He’s hit 40 percent of 3s, 61 percent of 2s and 91 percent of free throws.
UNC has yet to play a team in KenPom’s top 100, but that will change in the Maui semifinals and finals, assuming they advance.
Berry II was sharp last season in spot-up situations and off screens, per Synergy Sports Tech. He played his best against the stiffest competition. Smarter shot selection could make him even more efficient. Last season he was 15 of 56 on jump shots off the dribble and most were launched in the dreaded ‘long 2-pointer’ range, a few feet inside the arc. He’s 2 of 4 off the dribble this season.
Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State (23.3 ppg, 6.3 apg, 4.0 rpg)
New coach Brad Underwood wanted his squad to start fast after a 12-20 season marred by injuries to Evans and Phil Forte. The Cowboys racked up 107 points per game against three teams ranked in the 300s of the Pomeroy Ratings.
Evans, a sophomore point guard, has been fantastic. He has a 144.9 offensive rating on 30.9 percent usage, finishing strong (62 percent on 2-pointers) while dishing assists on 44 percent of Oklahoma State’s buckets.
‘Good players make themselves better, great players make their team better.’ Jawun falls into that category,” Underwood told the Pistols Firing blog last month.
“The biggest surprise for me with Jawun is his defense. Tremendous defender. A guy that can go pressure the ball, go hawk the ball, he has long arms, he anticipates.”
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona (20.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg)
Despite the absence of several key players, the Wildcats are 3-0 with solid wins over Michigan State and Cal-State Bakersfield, which played in the NCAA tournament last season. Markkanen, a 7-foot freshman from Finland, appears comfortable as a Dirk Nowitzki clone in the Arizona attack, shooting 67 percent on 2-pointers, 46 percent on 3-pointers. He’s missed one free throw in 19 attempts.
“We have a big mismatch at times and he has the ability to shoot the basketball. As a big guy, that’s not common,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said after a 30-point defeat of Sacred Heart. “He can put it on the floor, he’s a great free throw shooter...He guards perimeter players, he guards post players. He plays three positions for us.”
The Wildcats next big test is Dec. 3rd vs. Gonzaga.
Lonzo Ball, UCLA (16.2 ppg, 9.0 apg, 6.2 rpg)
The Bruins’ 6-6 freshman point guard threatened a triple-double against Pacific in the opener, recording 19 points (on eight shots), 11 assists and eight rebounds. He’s conducting an explosive offense - UCLA has cracked 100 points three times in four games against overmatched opponents and is averaging 1.30 points per possession!
Ball has a 70.7 effective field goal percentage and coach Steve Alford called him a “special passer.” Ball has 36 assists and nine turnovers.
The competition accelerates Thursday as the Bruins travel southeast to Anaheim (and Fullerton) for the Wooden Legacy where they could face Dayton and either Texas A&M or Virginia Tech.
DeAaron Fox, Kentucky (15.2 ppg, 6.8 apg, 4.8 rpg)
Fox hasn’t shot the ball well in the Wildcats’ first four games (44 percent on 2s and 1 of 9 on 3s) yet it’s unwise to overlook his impact on the nation’s new No. 1 team. Fox has assisted on 35.9 percent of Kentucky’s field goals and defenders are finding it difficult to guard him without fouling.
He’s a weapon at the line as well, converting 26 of 29 free throws. A speedy, shifty, strong point guard, the 6-3, 187-pound freshman has elements of Ty Lawson, Kyrie Irving and John Wall in his arsenal.
James Blackmon Jr., Indiana (23.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg)
The 6-3 guard is taking 27.8 percent of the shots for Hoosiers, who have the fifth rated offense at KenPom.com. He should probably keep firing at a rapid rate because he’s hit 14 of 27 from beyond-the-arc and 62 percent of 2-point attempts.
A 26-point performance in the 106-99 overtime victory over Kansas confirmed he’d recovered from a torn ACL suffered in late December 2015. Indiana coach Tom Crean believes Blackmon Jr. is stronger and more athletic than he was prior to the injury.
“James is a lot more explosive than what he was. He's playing with more force. He's playing downhill more. He's covering more ground,” Crean told Stats LLC prior to a 39-point win over Liberty last week. “I think the fact that he's moving the ball, that he's getting better defensively, that's a really good thing.”