There is high-level talent spread out all over the country this year in college basketball, but as far as we know, there isn’t a singular star that is light years ahead of the rest of the pack in terms of production and ability.
Going into the 2013-14 season, Doug McDermott was a pretty solid bet to win the Naismith Award. He did just that. It was the same way in the mid 2000s, with J.J. Redick, Kevin Durant and Tyler Hansbrough all taking home top player honors that they were pegged to win. The award typically goes to the best player on a really good team, and in those years, that's percisely what happened.A clear-cut choice that checks all the boxes doesn’t exist in 2015-16, which makes the Naismith Award discussion all the more fascinating. There are outstanding players that play for middling teams, pretty good players that play for elite teams and freshmen that we don’t know enough about yet to declare them better than the rest of the crop. In other words, it’s a wide open race.
There are, however, a few guys that will almost undoubtedly be in the Naismith discussion once 2015-16 comes to a close. Here are cases for and against four players that have a chance to bring home some hardware this season.
The player: PG Kris Dunn, ProvidenceThe pros: Dunn is probably the most talented and complete player in all of college basketball. CBS Sports ranked the Providence point guard as the top player in the nation, and it’s hard to disagree with that.
As a 6-foot-4 point guard, there’s not a whole lot Dunn can’t do. Looking for a lead guard who can score? Dunn averaged 15.6 points per game last season on 47.4 percent shooting. Need a distributor? Dunn averaged 7.5 dimes per game. How about a perimeter defender that will smother the best guards in the country? That might be the best weapon in Dunn’s arsenal, as he possesses a 6-foot-9 (!) wingspan and averaged 2.7 thefts per contest in 2014-15.
Simply put: the guy can do it all.
The cons: Typically, the Naismith Award goes to a player on one of the best teams in college basketball. Wisconsin made the title game when Frank Kaminsky won the award last season. Creighton won 27 games in McDermott’s dazzling 2013-14 campaign. Michigan was outstanding in Trey Burke’s award-winning year, and Kentucky took home the national championship when Anthony Davis was the Naismith winner in 2012.
So, it doesn’t take a genius to know where I’m headed with this – outside of Dunn, there are several question marks on Providence’s roster. It’s fair to wonder if they’ll make the NCAA tournament. LaDontae Henton, last year’s leading scorer for the Friars, is gone. So are Tyler Harris and Carson Derosiers, Providence’s third and fourth leading scorers in 2014-15, respectively.
Dunn struggled to get ample help last season, and one could argue that his three best supporters are all gone from a 22-12 team that, while solid, was far from spectacular. If Dunn can get this team to a respectable NCAA tournament seed, it will be hard to deny him the hardware.
But that's going to be a tall task.
The player: F Ben Simmons, LSUThe pros: Before, I mentioned that Dunn is probably the most talented player in college basketball. Key word: probably. From what we’ve seen, that statement is true. Dunn is the most talented returning player in the country.
But for those looking to spice things up with their preseason predictions, Simmons might have a higher ceiling than any player in college hoops. We just don’t know as much about him yet, but by all accounts, the LSU freshman is an absolute stud.
At 6’10”, Simmons handles like a guard, has freaky athleticism, owns elite court vision and can guard every position on the floor. On the Tigers’ summer trip to Australia, he averaged 20 points, nine rebounds and 5.4 assists per game to along with 3.6 steals.
The cons: As great as everyone is projecting Simmons to be, we won’t know what he can do against college competition until we see it with our own eyes. There is a fear of the unknown here, and according to scouting reports, Simmons needs to work on his jump shot in order to become a more dynamic offensive force.
LSU has plenty of questions to answer as a team, too. Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin are off to the NBA, and though Tim Quarterman, Keith Hornsby and Antonio Blakeney should form a talented supporting cast, head coach Johnny Jones still has several moving parts to sort out in Baton Rouge.
The player: F/C Kyle Wiltjer, GonzagaThe pros: Wiltjer has two things going for him: Gonzaga figures to be a legitimate Final Four candidate this season, and the guy is a one-man wrecking crew on offense.
An offensive efficiency darling, Wiltjer averaged 24.3 points per 40 minutes last season on 54 percent shooting. He knocked down 46.6 percent of his 3-pointers, which is unheard of for a 6’10” forward/center. The Bulldogs have averaged 32 wins per season in the last three years, and though they lost standout point guard Kevin Pangos, Mark Few’s squad still has plenty of ammo to make a title run in 2016.
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The cons: Defense. That’s really the only knock on Wiltjer’s Naismith hopes, as he lacks the elite impact on that side of the floor guys like Dunn and Simmons have. He’s decent enough defensively, but far from spectacular.
Wiltjer registered a defensive rating of 94.3 in 2014-15, which was fourth among Bulldog regulars. He blocked just one shot per game. Wiltjer’s a solid team defender, but the offensive whiz isn’t intimidating foes on both sides of the court like some of his competitors are.
The player: G Buddy Hield, OklahomaThe pros: Hield is the best player on a very good Oklahoma team, and if the Sooners can somehow dethrone the Jayhawks from the top spot in the Big 12, you better believe he has a chance at the Naismith. Kansas has won 11 Big 12 regular season crowns in a row. Ending that streak would be a huge deal, and Hield might just be the guy who can do it in his senior year.
The explosive guard’s scoring has improved each year in Norman, and Hield is a tenacious defender to boot. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him top 20 points per game this season.
The cons: Sure, Oklahoma winning the Big 12 sounds like a somewhat reasonable possibility, but is it likely? Of course not. Kansas looks as formidable as ever heading into 2015-16, and if they win their 12th conference title in a row, Hield probably won’t stand out in comparison with guys like Wiltjer, Dunn, Simmons, Marcus Paige or Melo Trimble.
And while Hield’s scoring has increased each of his three seasons, his efficiency has not. The Oklahoma star’s field goal percentage dipped to just 41 percent last season, and he’s going to need to bring that number up more than a few ticks to compete for the Naismith Award.