College Basketball: Early Look at Top 20 Candidates for 2014 Wooden Award
Even with Wooden Award winner Trey Burke still months away from being drafted into the NBA, it’s not too early to look ahead to his possible successors in the college ranks. The best contenders for Player of the Year recognition are the ones who can bring—as Burke did—a combination of dazzling individual performance and eye-catching team success.
One returning star who should fit that bill nicely is Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart. The do-it-all point guard led the Cowboys to a 24-9 record as a freshman, and he’ll have an even more dangerous lineup around him as he makes a run at the team’s first Big 12 title since 2004.
Read on for more on Smart and the rest of the 20 most promising candidates to take home the Wooden hardware at the end of the 2013-14 season.
20. Andre Roberson, Colorado
Andre Roberson is the only returning player in the nation who’s averaged a double-double in each of the last two seasons.
The 6’7” Roberson has been a fixture among the country’s rebounding leaders, finishing second a year ago with 11.2 boards a game.
If Roberson can just break through as a scorer, he’ll be an immediate hit with the Wooden voters, but the 10.9 points per contest that he scored last year aren’t going to cut it.
Still, with his rebounding and defensive talents (2.2 steals a night), he’s got all the secondary skills for a great Player of the Year resume.
19. Semaj Christon, Xavier
Of the three newcomers to the revamped Big East, only Xavier failed to make last year’s Big Dance. That fact has the Musketeers under the radar, a situation that could work to the advantage of electrifying point guard Semaj Christon.
Although Christon couldn’t produce impressive win totals as a freshman, the high quality of his own performance—15.2 points, 4.6 assists and 1.5 steals per game—is undeniable.
With his 6’3” frame and top-flight athleticism, he’s a highlight reel waiting to happen if he can just get the Musketeers back in their usual NCAA tournament groove.
18. Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati
The biggest concern facing Sean Kilpatrick for next season is the graduation of backcourt mate Cashmere Wright.
With his point guard gone, Kilpatrick (already a focus of constant double-teams) will be saddled with even more of the offensive load for the Bearcats.
If he can get decent shots, though, the 6’4” senior-to-be is sure to be among the top scorers in the new AAC after averaging 17 points per game last season.
He’s also an improving rebounder at 5.2 boards a night, but as a player who depends on his scoring for recognition, he could really stand to reverse the ugly trend in his shooting accuracy (.307 last year from deep after hitting .376 as a sophomore).
17. Naadir Tharpe, Kansas
Given Bill Self's track record, the loss of all five starters is no reason to believe that Kansas won’t be right back at the top of the Big 12 next season.
If the Jayhawks are in for another conference-title season, the best candidate for a starring role in that effort is PG Naadir Tharpe.
Tharpe came into his own late in the season as Elijah Johnson’s backup, showing both impressive passing instincts and a willingness to take the big shot.
After averaging 5.5 points and 3.1 assists a night off the bench for the year, the junior will be one of the Big 12’s top floor leaders as a first-time starter.
16. Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris are gone to the NBA, leaving Gonzaga firmly in the hands of PG Kevin Pangos. If the rising junior is ever going to make the transition from complementary player to star, now is the time.
Pangos certainly has the potential to become a fearsome scoring point guard, having averaged 11.9 points and 3.3 assists per game while deferring to his talented frontcourt last season.
He’s a devastating three-point shooter (.417 a year ago), and he can even play a little defense (1.5 steals a night) in the bargain.
15. Davante Gardner, Marquette
Many of the stars of Marquette’s unexpected Elite Eight run are gone, but not Davante Gardner. The former sixth man will get his chance to start—and star—for a Golden Eagles team that will be among the favorites for the inaugural title of the new Big East.
Gardner averaged 11.5 points and a team-high 4.8 rebounds per game off the bench last year. His 6’8”, 290-pound frame is awfully reminiscent of another center who had a breakout season last year, Michigan State’s Derrick Nix.
14. Aaron Craft, Ohio State
For three years, Aaron Craft has ceded the limelight to high-scoring classmates Jared Sulinger and (in 2012-13) Deshaun Thomas. Both are gone to the NBA now, and rising senior Craft gets his chance to be the face of a very dangerous Buckeyes team.
The dogged PG is the best perimeter defender in college basketball, and his 2.1 steals per game are the foundation of his Wooden portfolio.
He hasn’t been asked to carry much of an offensive load (10 points and 4.6 assists a night), but his clutch performances during OSU’s Elite Eight run suggest that he could blossom into a serious threat on that end of the floor, too.
13. Aaron Gordon, Arizona
In 2007, Kevin Durant won the Wooden Award a year after taking MVP honors at the McDonald’s All-American game. Arizona’s Aaron Gordon is the latest freshman to take a stab at duplicating that performance, and his chances aren’t half bad.
The 6’8” Gordon specializes in the slam dunk—he had nine in his MVP turn at the United Center—and he’ll get plenty of opportunities as the centerpiece of Arizona’s offense.
He’ll also have the kind of talent around him—including 7’0” center Kaleb Tarczewski and versatile SG Nick Johnson—to help him make the Wildcats a Top Five team, always a good start to entering the Player of the Year conversation.
12. Jabari Parker, Duke
Much as Coach K loves to trust his upperclassmen to lead his teams, next year’s Duke squad will likely sink or swim with its prize freshman.
Jabari Parker, the No. 2 recruit in the nation according to ESPNU, is a hard-working SF whose sensational defense is second only to his balanced offensive game.
The Blue Devils are losing nearly 50 points a game in scoring from graduating seniors, and Parker is the best bet to step into the primary offensive role.
If he lives up to his billing, the freshman will make a run at the ACC scoring title and put his team on track for a potential Final Four spot.
11. Adreian Payne, Michigan State
Assuming that Adreian Payne’s breakout 2012-13 season doesn’t convince him to jump to the NBA, it certainly sets him up for a big-time senior year.
The 6’10” forward suddenly developed a perimeter game last year, knocking down mid-range jumpers from the wing to go with his already formidable interior presence.
Overall, the agile Payne finished with 10.5 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game while sharing the middle with hulking Derrick Nix.
Now that Nix has graduated, Payne will be a focal point for the Spartans’ offense, and he might even be capable of the kind of year that made Draymond Green an All-American two seasons ago.
10. Julius Randle, Kentucky
Although there are plenty of plausible claimants to the top spot in Kentucky’s ludicrously stacked recruiting class, the best bet for Wooden consideration looks to be Julius Randle.
He’ll have to earn his minutes in a deep frontcourt, but he’s also got the skill set most likely to generate Player of the Year-type numbers.
Randle is a 6’9” PF who’s a lethal scorer on the low block. He also brings enough rebounding and shot-blocking potential to round out his stat lines and make him a leader among stars.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that his UK team looks like a genuine national title contender (again).
9. Alex Kirk, New Mexico
The one saving grace of New Mexico’s NCAA tournament flameout against Harvard is that four Lobo starters return to avenge the embarrassment.
Kendall Williams has been the main man in Albuquerque, but the senior PG is likely to cede the leading role next season to big man Alex Kirk.
The 7’0”, 250-pound Kirk is a star in the making whose confidence grew visibly over the course of 2012-13.
He garnered minimal attention last year despite strong numbers—12.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game—but if he continues his rapid development, he’ll force his way into the national spotlight as a junior.
8. James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina
James Michael McAdoo’s biggest problem last year was his own obvious potential.
His status as a superstar in waiting made a perfectly impressive season—14.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game—look disappointing as he was overshadowed by Mason Plumlee and other ACC big men.
Now, a Tar Heel team with four starters returning could provide an ideal stage for McAdoo to take the next step and fulfill the potential he couldn’t quite reach a year ago.
If (as expected) Roy Williams moves away from 2012-13's four-guard lineup, it could provide just the opportunity his agile PF needs to have a breakout year as a scorer.
7. Andrew Wiggins, Undeclared
It’s awfully tough to project what Andrew Wiggins’ first season of college ball is going to look like when we don’t even know what team he’ll be joining.
Regardless of which jersey he’s wearing, though, the versatile and talented forward will start the year as a serious candidate for both Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year honors.
Wiggins is a 6’8” SF who will be among the leading scorers in whatever conference he plays in. He’s a solid perimeter rebounder, and his length and quickness make him a force on defense, especially in the passing lanes.
6. Mitch McGary, Michigan
It’s all but a foregone conclusion that Mitch McGary isn’t quite as good as his NCAA tournament performance.
Still, if the Wolverines’ postseason standout can put up anything like his March Madness averages of 14.3 points and 10.7 rebounds a game, he’ll be well on his way to Player of the Year consideration.
Michigan’s offense will obviously suffer after losing Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., but the Wolverines’ bread and butter will still be the three-point shot.
That will give McGary, a sensational offensive rebounder who also runs the floor well at 6’10”, ample opportunity to clean up his teammates’ misses and prove that he can dominate for more than a few games at a stretch.
5. Isaiah Austin, Baylor
Isaiah Austin came to Baylor looking like a surefire one-and-done. If he swallows his pride and returns to the NIT champs for his sophomore year—a decision that’s still pending—he has a chance to develop into an unstoppable force at center.
The 7’1” Austin averaged 13 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game as a freshman, but he was terribly erratic in Big 12 competition.
As he turns in more performances like his showcase against Oklahoma last year—19 points and 20 rebounds, including a conference-record 12 offensive boards—he’ll earn his place among the top big men in the nation.
4. Shane Larkin, Miami
From an individual standpoint, Shane Larkin has everything he needs to make a run at Player of the Year recognition.
He’s a terrific scorer (14.5 points per game on .406 long-range shooting), deft passer (4.6 assists a night) and lethal defender (ACC-best 2.0 steals per contest).
The only obstacle in his way is something over which the star PG has no control: his total lack of experienced teammates.
Ex-reserve Rion Brown is the only help he has on offense, and keeping the Hurricanes competitive with so little talent around him is likely to be too tall a task even for Larkin.
3. Doug McDermott, Creighton
For the third year in a row, Doug McDermott’s scoring is going to make him a leading contender for Wooden Award honors. Whether he gets over the hump and actually takes home the hardware will depend on what else he manages to do.
McDermott’s peerless shooting and 23.2 points per game aren’t in doubt, but he’ll need to show he’s got more to offer after two years as a runner-up.
He’s a solid rebounder (7.7 boards a night last year), but the obvious place to improve is a defensive game that's remained his biggest weakness for three seasons.
2. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
If you’re looking for a player guaranteed to put up Wooden Award-worthy numbers, Marcus Smart is as good a choice as any in the nation.
As a freshman, he filled up stat sheets to the tune of 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and a Big 12-best 3.0 steals per game.
If Smart can cut down on his turnovers and improve his .290 long-range shooting—both realistic goals for a rising sophomore—he’ll be the most complete player in college hoops.
With his 6’4”, 225-pound frame and aggressive floor leadership, he’ll also be headed for a near-certain top-five pick in the 2014 NBA draft, a goal that wouldn't be hindered any by adding "Player of the Year" to his resume.
1. Russ Smith, Louisville
The best player on the defending national champs always gets a spotlight all his own, and this year’s version is a bona fide star. Russ Smith carried Louisville’s title-winning offense with 18.7 points per game and anchored its D with 2.1 steals a night.
With point guard Peyton Siva gone, Smith is almost certain to take over a share of the ball-handling chores, with a corresponding increase in his 2.9 assists per contest.
He’s never going to be Trey Burke as a distributor, but even a modest passing performance could be just the push Smith needs to outpace the other frontrunners and succeed Burke on the Wooden Award winner's list.