Last Wednesday, the Atlanta Tipoff Club released the 10 remaining finalists for the men’s basketball Naismith Trophy. To recognize these players as they head into conference tournaments and hopefully the March Madness tournament, we’re reflecting on what has made these players so unique and special this regular season. We wrote about the first five last week; here are the remaining five Naismith candidates.
He seems to enjoy this pressurized control he has. That’s my main thought watching Jerian Grant play the style of basketball Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey has designed. Maybe he thrives off it. As much as other players on this list categorize as ‘catalysts’ or ‘his team’s identity,’ Grant and ND coexist as one in the same. He is the team. The team is him.
Notre Dame’s offense is called “Five-Out Cutters.” The premise is simple: Grant with the ball at the top of the key, a big man down low and three wing players spaced along the perimeter. The wings then cut and slash into the lane to create movement before ND’s big man sets a screen for Grant. From there, it’s up to Grant to read the defense properly and dish or attack when appropriate. It’s up to other Fighting Irish players to space the floor properly, but without Grant and his looping athleticism, it doesn’t work. Depending on Grant’s play that night, Notre Dame succeeds or stumbles. A rising Grant floats all Fighting Irishmen.
His impact can also have the opposite effect: In ACC play this season, Notre Dame has lost all but one game when Grant shoots at 30 percent or below. However, he averages 16.8 points and 6.7 assists per game and hovers just below two steals a game. Grant’s play renders this Player of the Year argument chaotic because he might not be the best player in college basketball this season, but he’s certainly the most important guy on one of the nation’s top teams. Also, no player demands attention on a play-by-play basis like Grant because he’s capable of the improbable. It's hard to top a more memorable dunk than this.
Expectations are strange. They indicate a predicted ideal of a thing, but an ideal we believe will happen no matter what. In sports, these expectations raise a player’s profile, but it also comes with demands to be met. It’s almost a way of saying, “We believe in you, so you better not prove us wrong.” What I’m speaking on, of course, is the case of Jahlil Okafor.
Entering the season, he was touted to be exactly what he’s become: A modern renaissance of a post player, with footwork basketball purists dream at night from big men and moves down low for days. He’s patient in the post, plays with a good attitude and performs with an insane level of efficient consistency night after night. But once Okafor met these expectations of ours, a whole new set of expectations developed, ones he hasn’t quite met. He’s below average defensively, he doesn’t take over games when necessary, he’s a bit too deferential.
But here’s where we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves: He’s still the model for new-age offensive big men. No other post player in college can touch his footwork. He still averages 17.6 points a night on 66.8 percent shooting. He’s still close to a double-double a night with his 9.2 rebounds per game. And as great as the rest of Duke’s seven-man rotation has been, it still relies upon Okafor’s demanding presence game after game. In other words, he does what’s expected of him.
Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga, G
It may ring as curious surprise to some that Kevin Pangos was named the West Coast Conference Player of the Year. Doesn’t he play on the same team as Kyle Wiltjer, the transfer with the great story and can score in diverse barrages?
To be dominant in a basketball game doesn’t always involve scoring points. It’s the simplest way, but the only one. Pangos plays to his teammates, syncing with what they need on a given night, rather than enforcing his own will on the game. He drives if the hole is open, pull up if the defense sucks down to the paint, but mostly he tries to create for his teammates.
But even then, numbers don’t tell Pangos’ presence properly. He hasn’t hit double-digit assists in a game all season, averaging 5.0 per game. He doesn’t have the memorable plays of a Grant or D’Angelo Russell and doesn’t quite possess the all-around capabilities of a Delon Wright, but he’s smart. He plays with a high basketball IQ and doesn’t cost Gonzaga nearly anything on the court. All he does is add. Not many college players can say that about their game this season.
Cameron Payne, Murray State, G
His is a buzz that has been growing. Cameron Payne began last seasons as a guy just filling in. Zay Jackson was supposed to be Murray State’s starting point guard, and Payne would back him up, developing until he could evolve into a starter. Then Jackson tore his ACL a couple weeks before the season started and Payne was thrust into the starting lineup.
Payne proved he was worthy early one and this season he has become the type of point guard Murray State needs to perform game after game. He averages 20.3 points, 5.8 assists and 2.0 steals per game. What’s more is he how confidently he runs Murray State’s offense, firing passes with top accuracy and vision.
He showed that he has the clutch gene, hitting a game-winning three against Morehead State in the Ohio Valley conference tournament semifinal and scoring 15 points in the last 11 minutes in the championship game. Had it not been for Belmont’s Taylor Barnette hitting a 20-plus foot heave to win the game, Payne would have received the glory he’s earned.
Find a weakness in Delon Wright’s game. Not a deficiency or something he could be better at, but a genuine aspect of his game that hampers Utah in some way. Try as you might, there really isn’t one.
Wright’s impact lies in his versatility. He averages 14.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.1 steals per game. Wright is the root of Utah’s defense, able to guard almost any member of an opponent’s backcourt. He has uncanny IQ and vision, hitting passing lanes that simple geometry dictate might not exist. And he can take over game when called upon, forcing his will to determine the eventual outcome. When he’s on the court, Utah has a shot.
• The first five