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Joe Boozell | NCAA.com | February 21, 2018

3 players who have jumped back into the Naismith race

A few weeks ago, Trae Young appeared to be a lock to win the Naismith College Player of the Year Award. Six straight losses and a cold shooting stretch later, and that’s no longer the case.

Young could still win it – in fact, he’s likely a slight favorite. But the race is open.

Here are three guys who could also challenge for the Naismith.  

RELATED: Full Naismith top 30 list

*PG Jalen Brunson, Villanova

Brunson is the best player on arguably the best team in America. If that’s your criteria for the Naismith, look no further.

The junior is averaging 19.5 points, 3.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists for No. 3 Villanova on his usual absurd efficiency; Brunson is shooting 54 percent from the floor and 43 percent from 3. The counting numbers are nice, but the efficiency is what sets him apart — Young, for example, is shooting 43 percent from the floor and 37 percent from 3. Point guards aren’t supposed to shoot 54 percent – that’s generally a figure reserved from centers who rarely stray from the paint. His defense, as always, is rock-solid as well.

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Brunson isn’t your typical point guard. He’s stronger than he is quick. He can get by guys, sure, but he’s about as lethal posting up a smaller defender as he is weaving in and out of ball screens. A Jay Wright special: plant Brunson on the block, and watch one of two things happen: bully his way for a bucket, or use his canny passing to find an open shooter. Brunson’s post-up game is a weapon that no other team can boast — or on most nights, defend.

If traditional stats are the most important thing, Young will win the Naismith — and if Oklahoma rebounds to end the season, that would be hard to argue. But look at recent Naismith winners – they almost always come from great teams, and the Sooners aren’t close to that level at the moment. Jimmer Fredette’s 2011 case is the most similar, but BYU won 32 games that year. Oklahoma has 16 wins right now.

RELATED: Is skidding Oklahoma in trouble of missing the tournament?

Brunson benefits from how teams like Virginia and Michigan State are constructed. You can talk in circles trying to figure out who Virginia’s best player is. Miles Bridges has perked up lately for the Spartans, but he’s far from a one-man show — Jaren Jackson is more productive on a per-minute basis. Brunson’s closest competition for the “best player on the best team” distinction might be teammate Mikal Bridges, which is a fair knock against Brunson’s candidacy.

Then again, the Wildcats aren’t nearly as deep as the Cavaliers or Spartans. Take Brunson off of Villanova, and it would hurt a lot more than removing Bridges from Michigan State or anyone from Virginia. Duke is a top-five team and Marvin Bagley III is putting up monster numbers, but the Blue Devils have looked better with Bagley injured. That has to matter.

Next to Young, Brunson has the best shot to win the Naismith.

*C Deandre Ayton, Arizona

Ayton is the eye test candidate. Watch every player on the final list of 30, and you’ll probably come away thinking he’s the best.

Ayton looks like this decade’s Greg Oden. He’s built like a monster, but has a speed and agility advantage over most guards. Arizona has been relatively disappointing this season, but the Wildcats would be in especially rough shape without Ayton — a lack of defense and depth is more to blame than anything their freshman sensation has or hasn’t done.

Dusan Ristic is a good player, but he’s not an ideal frontcourt partner for Ayton. Ristic is a post-up savant who does most of his damage on the low block. Ayton is more versatile — he has feathery touch from out to 18 feet and is growing more comfortable from behind the 3-point line. But he’s most effective inside, and Ristic clogs his space.

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Teams commonly throw double teams at Ayton. It would be a lot harder to do that if Arizona surrounded him with four shooters — something Purdue does for Isaac Haas. But the Wildcats don’t, because their perimeter players are inconsistent outside of Allonzo Trier. Ristic is one of their four best guys, so he has to play big minutes — even if it means Ayton isn’t maximized. Easy baskets don’t come often for Ayton, because he usually has to power through multiple defenders in tight quarters in order to score. Arizona ranks 292nd in 3-point attempts. 

Despite all of that, Ayton’s numbers are awesome — he’s averaging 19.7 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks for the likely Pac-12 champions. In an ideal environment, Ayton might be scoring 25 a game.

The issue with his candidacy? If stats are the most important thing, Young beats him. If winning is the most important thing, Brunson edges him. Ayton wins more than Young, and has better stats than Brunson. But he’s first in neither category.

Ayton is a marvelous player, regardless. If Arizona goes on a hot streak and he posts gargantuan numbers, he could still get a look.

*F Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State

Bates-Diop is posting huge numbers for a good team. But his candidacy is real because of his defense — he’s clearly the best defender of this bunch.

Bates-Diop can guard anyone — that’s not an exaggeration. The 7-4 wingspan helps. Ohio State lost to Michigan but Chris Holtmann (successfully) used him on center Moritz Wagner in spurts. He guards wings that are closer to him in size. If an opposing team puts Bates-Diop’s man in a ball screen, fine. Bates-Diop can switch onto the guard, and that action is toast. Swing the rock and try your luck elsewhere.

The Buckeyes have a 96.9 defensive rating. With Bates-Diop on the floor, that number drops to 92.5 – tops on the team by a mile.

He’s also 23-7 Ohio State’s best offensive player by a landslide. Bates-Diop, a natural forward who also plays center in super-small lineups, is averaging 19 points and 8.7 rebounds. He’s shooting 49 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3 – in other words, the prototypical two-way guy.

When comparing Bates-Diop to Ayton and Brunson, look at the supporting casts. Bates-Diop has nobody close to as talented as Bridges or Trier. Young’s supporting cast is more comparable, but Ohio State is significantly better than Oklahoma.

Bates-Diop’s candidacy really comes down to how much you value defense. It’s not as important as offense, but the ratio is debatable. Is it 60/40 in favor of offense? 70/30?

If we’re ranking these four defensively, it goes Bates-Diop, Ayton, Brunson, Young. On offense, Young gets the top spot — after him, you could reasonably argue it in any direction.

Defense is way harder to quantify than offense, which hurts Bates-Diop. But if you believe he’s the best defender of the bunch and acknowledge his comparable offensive stats, he deserves a long look.