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Joe Boozell | | May 7, 2019

Here are 7 early Naismith Trophy candidates for next season

Marquette’s Howard uses sports psychology to deal with expectations

Zion Williamson ran away with the Naismith Trophy in 2019. But think back to this time last year, and Williamson wasn't considered a Naismith frontrunner. It's really up in the air at this point.

That's not going to stop us though because there are legitimate candidates out there to be the best player in college basketball. We'll do our best to highlight seven 2020 Naismith candidates. Here they are.

Markus Howard, Marquette

Marquette's Markus Howard.

Spoiler alert: it's Howard, Cassius Winston, and then the field. Howard and Winston are pretty clearly the two best returning college basketball players.

We'll start with Howard, who has a chance to have a bonkers statistical season. He averaged 25 points per game last year and made 40.4 percent of his 3s. Howard is the most lethal off-the-bounce 3-point shooter in the sport; there are shades of Damian Lillard in his game. He's increased his scoring average by at least four points in between all of his college seasons.

Sam and Joey Hauser unexpectedly transferred, and that's going to hurt Marquette from a team standpoint. And it may hurt Howard's eventual Naismith case, because it helps to be on a nationally relevant squad.

But think about the volume Howard will have. He could reasonably average 30 points per game with those extra shots available, and if the Golden Eagles can snag a decent tournament seed, that's a solid resume.

He's going to be a blast to watch in 2019-20.

Cassius Winston, Michigan State

Winston was such a boss last year. There were questions about whether or not he would be able to carry an offense, or if he was merely a high-level facilitator. We got our answer. He's both.

Winston: Michigan State is ready to be better next year

Winston averaged 18.8 points and 7.5 assists last season on 39.8 percent 3-point shooting. He did his best work with Joshua Langford and Nick Ward sidelined near the end of the regular season. Many expected the shorthanded Spartans to falter, but Winston wouldn't let them. Michigan State's effectiveness spiked with his usage rate.

And the Spartans may be ranked No. 1 in the preseason AP Poll. They are national championship contenders and return just about everyone from a 2019 2-seed. Winston could follow the blueprint laid by 2017 Frank Mason or 2018 Jalen Brunson. Both of those guys won the Naismith.

Tre Jones, Duke

Duke's Tre Jones

Jones played a complementary role for Duke in 2018-19, and you have to do some projecting in order to see him blossoming into a star.

But there's reason to think it can happen. Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish are gone, and while Duke welcomes another talented recruiting class, it doesn't match 2018's in terms of star power. He'll get a lot more shots. Jones has a legitimate chance to lead the team in scoring, and Duke is obviously going to be nationally relevant.

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Jones is an ace defender and an excellent offensive facilitator. He's able to get to the basket and finish, but the jump shot needs work in order for him to reach this point. He shot 26.2 percent from 3-point range as a freshman and some teams straight up ignored him from the perimeter in the NCAA tournament.

But Jones is a worker and by no means is his shot broken. If he can average something like 15 points and seven assists while playing outstanding defense for a title contender, he could have a case.

James Wiseman, Memphis

At first glance, there doesn't appear to be a Williamson or even Barrett-level freshman in this class. But Wiseman is an incredibly gifted center who's going to have plenty of offensive opportunities for the Tigers.

2020 NCAA tournament schedule and locations:

Dates Round Watch City, STATE Host(s) Facility
March 15 Selection Sunday 6 p.m. ET on CBS N/A CBS will broadcast the Selection Show at 6 p.m. ET N/A
March 17-18 First Four March Madness Live Dayton, OH University of Dayton UD Arena
March 19/21 1st/2nd Rounds March Madness Live Albany, NY Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Times Union Center
March 19/21 1st/2nd Rounds March Madness Live Spokane, WA University of Idaho Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena
March 19/21 1st/2nd Rounds March Madness Live St. Louis, MO Missouri Valley Conference Enterprise Center
March 19/21 1st/2nd Rounds March Madness Live Tampa, FL University of South Florida Amalie Arena
March 20/22 1st/2nd Rounds March Madness Live Greensboro, NC Atlantic Coast Conference Greensboro Coliseum
March 20/22 1st/2nd Rounds March Madness Live Omaha, NE Creighton University CenturyLink Center Omaha
March 20/22 1st/2nd Rounds March Madness Live Sacramento, CA Sacramento State University Golden 1 Center
March 20/22 1st/2nd Rounds March Madness Live Cleveland, OH Mid-American Conference/Cleveland State Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse
March 26/28 Midwest Regional March Madness Live Indianapolis, IN Horizon League/IUPUI Lucas Oil Stadium
March 26/28 West Regional March Madness Live Los Angeles, CA Pepperdine University STAPLES Center
March 27/29 South Regional March Madness Live Houston, TX University of Houston Toyota Center
March 27/29 East Regional March Madness Live New York, NY St. John’s University/Big East Conference Madison Square Garden
April 4/6 Final Four and title game TBSMarch Madness Live Atlanta, GA Georgia Institute of Technology Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Wiseman is a crazy 7-1 athlete who's going to be a put-back machine for Memphis. His post game could use some polish, but today's style is straying further and further away from low-post brutes anyway. Wiseman is a modern center: a guy who will dunk everything in sight and guard in space. He's got a nice jumper for his size, too.

It will be fascinating to see how Penny Hardaway utilizes him. Wiseman has one of the highest ceilings, but also one of the lowest floors on this list.

Cole Anthony, North Carolina

Anthony is one of the top incoming freshmen in the country, plays point guard, and is joining one of the most successful college basketball programs ever. The Tar Heels are also losing plenty of key pieces. He'll have every opportunity to shine, and if he does, he could vault into the Naismith conversation.

Anthony is a shot-creator who can score from anywhere. He has the toughness to get to the rack and finish over length. He's a good shooter, both spotting up and off the dribble. And he's got a knack for getting others involved, even if he's more of a score-first lead guard.

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And with Coby White, Kenny Williams, Luke Maye and Cam Johnson leaving, there will be tons of shots available for Anthony. The downside of this argument: this could be the worst North Carolina team we've seen in a while. The Tar Heels are extremely unproven.

But it seems foolish to doubt Roy Williams these days, and if Anthony can have a White-like impact with more usage, the Tar Heels will finish near the top of the ACC again. We'll see how quickly he can successfully step into a starring role.

Udoka Azubuike, Kansas

Azubike has had trouble staying healthy throughout his college career, but he's been an absolute monster when he's on the floor. And he should be featured heavily in the Jayhawks' offense this season.

His per-minute 2018-19 numbers were nuts. Azubuike averaged 26.3 points, 13.3 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per 40 minutes in nine games. If he stays healthy, it's not crazy to think he can average 20 and 10 for a Kansas team that is always a national threat.

Udoka Azubuike locks down the paint

Dedric Lawson is gone, and Bill Self would be wise to surround Azubuike with as much shooting as possible. He's a two-way force, and when he has room to operate on offense, he's absolutely lethal.

Here's to hoping Azubuike can stay on the floor in his fourth college season.

Zach Norvell, Gonzaga

Gonzaga's Zach Norvell.

It should be noted that Norvell is still considering remaining in the NBA Draft, but if he stays, he could have a monster season.

Is it fair to expect a Jarrett Culver-like jump from him? Maybe, maybe not. But Norvell projects as someone who can approach 20 points per game on a good team with increased shot attempts.

Norvell is a 6-5 sharpshooting wing who has canned 37 percent of his 3s in each of his college seasons. He's incredibly smooth and could be Gonzaga's top option in 2019-20. Norvell averaged 14.9 points last year and was the beneficiary of open looks created by guys like Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura.

He'll have to create more for himself next year if he returns. But Norvell seems capable of doing so. He just averaged 3.1 assists, and while that's not a gaudy figure, it's an impressive clip for a wing. Norvell playing point forward is a tantalizing idea

Mark Few always gets the best out of his guys. If Norvell stays, he could put his name on the national map.

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