Marcus Smart won Big 12 Player of the Year as a freshman. Can he repeat?
Marcus Smart was voted preseason Big 12 Player of the Year on Thursday by the league's coaches, and it was unanimous.
Andrew Wiggins was voted preseason first-team All-Big 12—the first freshman ever selected—and it wasn't unanimous, you know, because he hasn't proven anything yet.
Never mind that college coaches do this thing called recruiting, where, with their eyes, they watch the best high-school players compete against each other.
So, the only thing to conclude here is one (or more) of the Big 12's coaches recruits with his eyes closed.
The coaches have a pretty good idea what they're up against in Wiggins. They knew with Smart going into last year too. And Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley probably should have been preseason selections when they were freshmen. Bravo to the coaches who at least picked Wiggins this year.
But hey, preseason rankings and all-league teams are meant to get us excited about the season and to spark debate, and one of the best in-conference debates this season should be this: Who's the Big 12's Player of the Year—Wiggins or Smart?
At this point, we know they'll both be extremely valuable to their respective teams, but it's a guessing game as to how productive they will be.
Let's do what coaches probably don't do when they fill out their ballots, let's try to project what will happen and who will be more valuable.
The argument could be made that Smart was the most valuable defensive player in the country last year.
Before Aaron Craft or Jeff Withey or Russ Smith supporters hunt me down, realize I said an "argument could be made," and hear me out.
Look at where Oklahoma State ranked in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive measure (subscription needed) and other advanced defensive metrics in 2011-12 compared to 2012-13.
|Adj. Def. Eff.||Rank||Effective FG%||Rank||Turnover %||Rank|
That's what you would call a difference-maker.
Smart has amazing defensive instincts—he averaged 3.0 steals per game, for instance—but it's those team numbers that reflect his real impact. Smart's effort rubbed off on his teammates. Plus, he's a great on-the-ball-defender, a great off-the-ball defender and the best rebounder at his position in the country.
So that's a pretty good argument for Smart as the most valuable defender in the country, right?
To hear Bill Self talk about Wiggins, we might be writing similar things in a few months about KU's star.
Improving KU's defense from last season, of course, will be extremely difficult considering Self's team ranked sixth in adjusted defensive efficiency and led the country in effective field goal percentage defense—all hail Jeff Withey.
But Wiggins is so gifted that Self has actually considered altering how his team plays defensively, and this is a coach who has ranked in the top nine in Pomeroy's adjusted defensive metric for eight straight years.
Last week at KU's media days, there was Self talking about using a full-court press, applying more pressure on the ball, and earlier this summer, he suggested KU might even look into playing zone. And a lot of that comes down to the potential of what Wiggins could be.
"He could be our best defender," Self said. "He could be our best shot-blocker. He could be our best lane-runner. He could be our best offensive rebounder. He could be a lot of things."
According to DraftExpress.com, Wiggins has a 7'0" wingspan. His quick-twitch muscles and ability to jump into a passing lane are unreal. He could also be the top steals guy in the country.
But does he have the instincts Smart has?
Because of that unanswered question, and this is the best argument for the Big 12 coaches' selection...
Self has a history at KU of his freshmen wings producing right away. Brandon Rush, Xavier Henry and Ben McLemore were all double-digit scorers as freshmen, and none of them were as gifted as Wiggins.
It's no secret why Wiggins projects to be such a weapon right from the start: his athleticism. Wiggins should be dynamite in transition and also has the quickness and the handle to get to the rim in the half-court. And as Self said, he could be KU's best offensive rebounder.
Similar to McLemore and Rush before him, the challenge could be getting Wiggins to be aggressive as a scorer. As Self said:
He's a guy that I think—and I think everybody that knows him would say the same thing—that relies on athletic ability and turning it on when it needs to be turned on. When you get to this level and even at a very high level of high-quality ball, you've got a lot of guys that if you play that way, you'll never get it turned on. So he has to become a consistent guy that tries to impact every possession in whatever way, shape or form there is to impact it.
Aggression was never an issue for Smart last year. He wasn't necessarily selfish, but he also wasn't shy about trying to attack and taking the big shot in the big moment. In an upset win at Kansas, he scored nine points and had two steals in the final 2 minutes, 20 seconds.
If there was a reason to criticize Smart's game as a freshman, it was his efficiency on the offensive end. Smart shot 29 percent from deep and gave away 3.4 turnovers per game.
Those are areas he needs to improve, and as far as his shooting goes, he did not fare much better this summer playing for the United States' U-19 team. Smart made only 28.6 percent of his threes in nine games at the U-19 World Championship. He did cut down on his turnovers with only 13 in nine games.
Smart's numbers should improve as a sophomore, but defenses are aware of his limitations as an outside shooter.
Considering Self's ability (and history) of getting the best offensively out of his guys, the potential is there for Wiggins to be the most valuable offensive weapon in the Big 12. And he might not put up huge scoring numbers, but I'd expect for him to be fairly efficient.
In the end, this race could likely come down to which Big 12 team wins the conference title.
Kansas has won or shared nine straight.
Who will win the Big 12 Player of the Year
All streaks come to an end at some point, but do you think Self is not winning a conference title with the most talented guy he's ever coached? I wouldn't bet on it.
Smart is an amazing competitor. He's a game-changer on defense. If one player could end KU's streak, Smart is the guy.
Both races should be extremely close and both should teams and players could very well run away from the competition, but if I'm predicting—and after all, that's what these preseason picks are meant to be, right?—I'm predicting Kansas to win the Big 12 and Wiggins to win Big 12 Player of the Year.