Versatility is a prevalent theme in college basketball this season. Maybe it’s because so many young players grew up watching LeBron James, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, then grew up with the size of a small forward, the skill set of a point guard and the power to play in the post.

Regardless the reason, it’s fun to watch. And it’s making for a compelling Naismith Trophy race between several top candidates. It might be difficult to determine their position, but it’s easy to identify their talent.

The initial 50-man watch list was released Wednesday.

The list will be pared to 30 players on Feb. 11th, the 10 semifinalists will be announced March 2nd and four finalists will be revealed on March 20th. The winner receives the award on the first weekend of April during the Final Four in Houston.

Each Monday during the regular season we’ll publish a nine-man watch list, ranking the favorites to win the award if the season ended today.

The usual candidates will land here, although this list could fluctuate wildly from week-to-week, especially early in the season when performances and level of competition vary from game-to-game. We’ll concentrate on production rather than reputation, aim to rank the players based on their consistency, offensive efficiency and overall contributions to helping their teams win games.

9. Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga (21.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg)

The Zags fell to 5-2 Saturday, dropping a 68-63 game to Arizona, but their preseason All-American forward Wiltjer did all he could, pouring in 33 points and snagging nine rebounds. It was the third 30-point game for Wiltjer in two seasons in Spokane.

He’s also improved on the defensive end this season, holding teams to 0.87 points per possession when he’s out there. The key to better efficiency for Wiltjer could be turning down the occasional 3-point shot. He’s firing up 2.1 more 3s per game than he did last season, but his percentage has dipped from 46.6 percent to 36.6.

8. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana (15.0 ppg, 6.6 apg, 5.1 rpg)

The Hoosiers departed Duke last Wednesday with more questions than answers, as their defense was shredded yet again. It’s an area Indiana should try and solve because its offense is dangerous and powerful, 10th in the nation in points per possession (1.22). Ferrell is the catalyst, dishing out assists on one-third of Indiana’s field goals and even flashing old-school mid-range game (46.2 percent on 2-point jumpers per hoop-math.com).

7. Tyrone Wallace, California (19.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 5.0 apg)

After a disappointing November, the Golden Bears took a step toward a turnaround Saturday night with an overtime win at Wyoming. Their senior point guard Wallace played a pivotal role, scoring 23 points with six assists and six rebounds. The offense runs through him. He’s taken 29 percent of Cal’s shots when he’s in the game, and assisted on 32 percent of its field goals. Still needs to find the range from the free throw line, where he’s missed 10 of the last 17 and converted only 60.6 percent this season.

Rick Osentoski | USA TODAY Sports Images

6. Caris LeVert, Michigan (19.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.0 apg)

The Wolverines’ 6-7 wing has improved each season in Ann Arbor. Watching him operate against N.C. State and Texas, it was difficult to recall the player who shot 31.5 percent and played 10.7 minutes per game as a freshman. Michigan coach John Beilein leans on LeVert and he’s been dependable, excelling in shooting, passing and drawing fouls to produce a flashy 136.4 offensive rating (if a team had five players as efficient as LeVert it would have the best offense in the history of college basketball by a wide margin). He’s finishing 75.8 percent of his chances at the rim and has made half his 3s (15 of 30) vs. D1 opponents.

5. Jakob Poeltl, Utah (21.3 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 2.5 bpg)

The Utes are 7-1 and Poeltl made a smart decision to return for another year of college basketball. Not many had a better week than the 7-foot center, whose refined post moves make him one of the best pro prospects in the nation. He’s shooting 69.2 percent from the field and has improved his free throw shooting to 66.7 percent after making a woeful 44.2 percent in 2014-15.  He also had a career-high six assists in Utah’s win over IPFW. In a tight matchup with rival Brigham Young, the Utes fed Poeltl and he delivered the final three baskets.   

4. Grayson Allen, Duke (21.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.0 apg)

One cool aspect of the current Naismith race is the nation’s top five players would form an explosive starting unit - assuming whoever was lucky enough to coach this group didn’t mind a three-guard lineup (and we seriously doubt they’d complain). Allen continues to be a handful for opposing defenses, shooting, slashing and putting up eye-popping numbers against a schedule that’s pitted Duke against four teams in the top 40 of the Pomeroy Ratings. He’s made 2 3-pointers per game, shot seven free throws per game and converted 61.7 percent of his attempts at the rim, per hoop-math.com.

3. Kris Dunn, Providence (18.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 7.3 apg)

The powerful senior point guard drives the Friars’ engine (his 32.7 percent usage rate is 14th in the nation). His contributions across the court have helped Providence start 8-1 with solid wins away from home against  Evansville, Arizona and Michigan State. And he recorded a triple-double (16 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds) in a defeat of Hartford last week. Because there aren’t many scoring options around Dunn, he’s forced to take questionable shots at times. Still, he’ll need to improve his 3-point shooting (6 of 25) to climb these rankings.

Since 1995-96, no player has averaged at least 18 points, seven assists and six rebounds per game. Two are at that level this season.

2. Ben Simmons, LSU (19.9 ppg, 14.9 rpg, 6.0 apg)

Against North Florida last Wednesday, the 6-10 freshman forward became the only player in the last six seasons to have 40 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals in one game. Simmons also blocked three shots, leaving him two blocks shy of the first ‘5 x 5’ game in college basketball history (minimum five points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks). The Tigers continue to dig for an identity and Simmons looked like a frustrated rookie in their 70-58 loss to College of Charleston on Monday, but there’s no questioning his unique and diverse skill set.

Michigan State's struggles without Denzel Valentine have proven just how valuable he is.
Mike Carter | USA TODAY Sports Images
Michigan State's struggles without Denzel Valentine have proven just how valuable he is.

1. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State  (19.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 7.9 apg)

Win shares in college basketball were devised to measure an individual player’s contribution to a team’s success or failure. (Here’s a more in-depth explanation). The formulas can be overwhelming, but the top of the list passes the ‘eye test’ by including players who are valuable to their teams.

(sports-reference.com)

 

Valentine makes 6.3 field goals per game and assists on 48.1 percent of his teammates’ baskets, which is the best rate in the nation. Without him it’s unlikely Spartans would be unbeaten with quality victories over Kansas, Louisville and Providence.