Top 10 Player of the Year candidates
College football’s best players were just in New York and Atlanta to receiver their honors, while their basketball counterparts are just getting started the race to be the nation’s best. With about a quarter of the season done, and barely any conference games having been played, some players have already showcased the kinds of performances worthy of end of season awards. The college basketball landscape is littered with freshmen off to a hot start to their careers and upperclassmen establishing their dominance early on.
Through about one month of play, this group of players has jumped out as possible winners of National Player of the Year.
10. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
Though the season has not started perfectly for the Badgers, Happ has not been the issue so far. As Wisconsin has stumbled to a 4-7 record, the junior center has averaged 16.3 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 3.1 assists, while playing some of the most impressive and versatile defense in the nation. He’s led the Big Ten in steals back-to-back seasons, plus topped the conference in 2-point field goals and offensive rebounds last year. Though known for his work on the block and around the basket, Happ has attempted to add a jump shot to his repertoire this season. Last season, just 18 percent of his shots were jumpers, and he only made 34 percent of those jump shots. This season, more than a quarter of his attempts are jump shots, and he’s making half of them. If defenders need to respect him from outside of ten feet, his inside game and fleet footwork becomes even more effective.
9. Kyle Guy, Virginia
Though known for slow, methodical play, Virginia is actually capable of having a player who is fun to watch. Case in point: Kyle Guy, who is among college basketball’s most exciting players. No Cavalier in the Tony Bennett era has had a quicker trigger, brighter green light, or deeper range. Within the flow of the Virginia motion offense, Guy is able to pick his spots and drain shots from all over the floor. The former McDonald’s All-American is shooting over 44 percent from outside the arc and averaging 16.8 points per game for a Cavalier team that plays the slowest pace in college basketball and scores less than 70 points per game. Against West Virginia, Guy buried six threes during a lights out second half.
8. Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
Last season, the Musketeers’ best player led the Big East in 3-pointers made and attempted, at a modest 37 percent. That’s a very solid percentage for a high volume shooter, but not otherworldly. This season, Bluiett has stepped his game up. He’s attempting more threes per 40 minutes of play and making a red hot 47 percent of those shots. Blueitt has been on fire, topping 25 points six times this season already. His offensive effectiveness will pull Xavier all season, keeping the Musketeers in every game they play. He dropped 28 in Xavier’s biggest game this season, the rivalry match-up with nearby Cincinnati.
7. Grayson Allen, Duke
College basketball’s most polarizing player may also be its best. Allen is the rare senior with the athleticism, scoring punch, and star power to take over a game at a moment’s notice. Allen is averaging 17.2 points and 4.4 assists per game for America’s most-watched team. West Coasters and mid-major fans would never admit it, but big national awards tend to go to players with high name recognition. Allen might be college basketball’s most well-known player, and he’s performing well enough to attract even more attention.
6. Mikal Bridges, Villanova
Conventional wisdom had Villanova point guard Jalen Brunson as a National Player of the Year candidate. After what we’ve seen early in the season, it has been Mikal Bridges instead emerging as one of the nation’s top players. The junior forward uses his athleticism and long frame to stuff the stat sheet in a variety of ways. He’s averaged 18.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 2.1 steals, and 1.3 blocks so far this season. Once considered a raw prospect, he’s now an incredibly skilled offensive player, making nearly half of his 3-point attempts this season. Bridges makes the Wildcats dangerous on both ends, as a scoring option and using his wingspan in Villanova’s lethal pressure defense. His effectiveness was on full display for all to see as Villanova handily defeated Gonzaga at Madison Square Garden.
5. Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Though only 6-foot-5, the Irish power forward uses his body in a Barkley-esque fashion to dominate the paint. Colson is averaging 24.0 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks per 40 minutes on the floor. His unique size and shape, make him a match-up nightmare for every opponent. Thanks to his crafty post moves and physical play, Colson is shooting 81.5 percent at the rim. When the Irish need a bucket, it is no secret where they will look. Bonzie Colson is as reliable as any player in college hoops.
4. Marvin Bagley III, Duke
Grayson Allen isn’t the only Player of the Year candidate on the Blue Devils. Freshman phenom Marvin Bagley III has been sensational to start his career. He’s posting 21.3 points and 11.3 rebounds on a nightly basis. Bagley has posted a double-double in 10 of his first 12 games, which includes one game he left with injury early in the first half. Bagley’s 34 point, 15 rebound game versus Texas at the PK80 Tournament may have been the best single game performance we’ve seen all season. He’s poured in more points than any other player this season, with more than a quarter of his baskets coming via putbacks. Bagley’s domination of the glass and the rim has proven to be an elite skill early on.
3. Devonte’ Graham, Kansas
With last year’s Player of the Year Frank Mason III sharing the backcourt at Kansas, Devonte’ Graham didn’t have a chance to shine. He’d shown flashes of brilliance, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, but rarely handled the basketball or served as the primary scoring option. This season, with Mason gone, Graham has taken over as floor general and top dog for the Jayhawks. He’s posting 16.9 points and 7.7 assists per game. Graham even posted 35 points in back-to-back games before a dud against Washington, drilling 12 of 21 3-point attempts in those contests.
2. Trae Young, Oklahoma
The freshman point guard arrived in Norman as a highly-touted recruit, but no one expected him to be as magnificent as he’s been so far. Young leads the nation in points per game and leads power conference players in assists per game. He has the Sooners offense humming like a well-oiled machine, playing the 9th-fastest pace in the country. Young’s scoring has come from all over the floor, making 37.7 percent of his threes, with less than half of those coming via an assist. Meanwhile, he’s assisting on 48 percent of his teammates’ buckets and getting fouled more than 7 times per 40 minutes. Opposing defenses have no answers for Trae Young yet this season.
1. Miles Bridges, Michigan State
When the Michigan State star announced he would return to college for his sophomore season, he surprised the entire basketball community and instantly put his name at the top of every list for this year’s National Player of the Year race. To date this season, he has done nothing to surrender that spot. Despite adjusting from power forward to a small forward role more on the perimeter, Bridges (no relation to Villanova’s Mikal Bridges) has been excellent. His size and athleticism make him one of the most difficult match-ups in college basketball. In a loss to Duke at the Nike PK80 event, Bridges added 4 blocks to his 19 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists. As the Spartans make their way through the Big Ten schedule, Bridges will lead the way.
Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.