Where's the Buzz for Arizona's Nick Johnson, the Best Player on CBB's Best Team?

C.J. MooreCollege Basketball National Lead WriterJanuary 29, 2014

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Earlier this month during the telecast of No. 1 Arizona's game at UCLA, the legendary Bill Walton had on his agenda that Wildcats guard Nick Johnson should be the National Player of the Year.

Johnson is the best player on the best team, and by that logic, Walton preached he was most deserving of the award.

But other than Walton, no one else is really on the Johnson bandwagon. CBSSports.com's Gary Parrish has him eighth in his latest POY rankings, Rob Dauster at NBCSports.com ranked him at No. 4 and I'm guilty as well—I slotted him at seventh in my rankings last week.

ESPN.com's Eamonn Brennan is the highest on Johnson, somewhat following the company line—or the Walton line—putting him at No. 2.

So when was the last time the best player on the consensus best team wasn't one of the favorites to win the award? 

In the last 10 years, here's a list of the best player on the team that spent the most time at No. 1 each season and whether he won Player of the Year or was a finalist. (I'm using the Naismith Award, which lists four finalists each season, for this particular exercise.)

Naismith Finish for Best Player on Best Team
YearPlayer (Class)TeamNaismith Finish
2013-14Nick Johnson (junior)Arizona???
2012-13Victor Oladipo (junior)IndianaFinalist
2011-12Anthony Davis (freshman)KentuckyWinner
2010-11Nolan Smith (senior)DukeFinalist
2009-10Sherron Collins (senior)KansasFinalist
2008-09Tyler Hansbrough (senior)North CarolinaFinalist
2007-08Tyler Hansbrough (junior)North CarolinaWinner
2006-07Joakim Noah (junior)FloridaNot a finalist
2005-06J.J. Redick (senior)DukeWinner
2004-05Dee Brown (junior)IllinoisNot a finalist
Naismith Award Archives

If you study that list and then look at Johnson's resume, he has two things working against him.

  1. Age bias
  2. He's on a stacked team, and it's hard to determine who is the most valuable guy on Arizona's roster.

 

The Age Bias

Voters always love to pick two types of candidates: seniors and phenoms.

Four of the last 10 winners have been seniors, which is kind of crazy when you consider that a majority of the most talented players in college basketball rarely make it past their junior year.

Three recent winners—current NBA stars Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis—fall in the phenom category. And to start this season, much of the focus was on Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker.

CHAMPAIGN, IL - FEBRUARY 19: Dee Brown #11 of the Illinois Fighting Illini drives down court during the game against the Indiana Hoosiers on February 19, 2006 at the Assembly Hall at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois. Illinois defeated Ind
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Now look at the list again. Notice the year of the two guys (Joakim Noah and Dee Brown) who weren't at least finalists. 

Juniors are kind of in that in-between stage. We start picking apart their games when they make it past their sophomore year and are still in school, and we don't fully appreciate their contribution to the college game until they're seniors. 

Noah doesn't exactly fit since he could have come out after his sophomore year and been a high pick, but a case could be made that Brown's chances were hurt by his lack of NBA potential.

The last player to win the Naismith and not become at least a lottery pick was Jameer Nelson in 2004.

Johnson is a college player who should be celebrated—he's a great athlete who has improved his game every year—but it's doubtful he's a lottery pick. 

"He's a potential first-round guy, a borderline first-rounder," an NBA scout told Bleacher Report. "He's quick off the dribble, a quick first step. I like his athleticism. He's got good balance and a solid stroke. I love the way he competes.

"He's more of a combo guard than a true point guard, although he'll need to play some point in the NBA. He's a guy you could put out there to give your starting point guard a rest, but he's not a guy where you'd say, 'Here’s the ball. Go run my team.' It'll be a spot duty thing."

He's a nice pro, but not a phenom and not a senior.

 

Balance is POY Kryptonite

Johnson, more so than any POY candidate, has competition for most valuable player on his own roster.

TUCSON, AZ - JANUARY 26:  Aaron Gordon #11 of the Arizona Wildcats high fives Nick Johnson #13 after scoring against the Utah Utes during the college basketball game at McKale Center on January 26, 2014 in Tucson, Arizona. The Wildcats defeated the Utes 6
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Aaron Gordon is not only the best pro prospect on the roster, he's the key to the rim protection in Tucson that has turned the Wildcats into one of the best defenses in the country.

Point guard T.J. McConnell's addition has transformed the identity of Sean Miller's team, and he deserves some credit for making Johnson look better. He's the guy I would pick as Arizona's MVP. 

Illinois and Florida both had similar rosters. 

At Florida, you could have gone with big man Al Horford (the best NBA prospect at the time) as the team's most valuable asset or Corey Brewer, another lottery pick, or even Taurean Green, who led the Gators in scoring.

Brown shared the spotlight with Deron Williams, who was the best pro prospect, and Luther Head, who led the team in scoring.

Let's take a look at the list again and see if scoring averages played any sort of factor.

Scoring Numbers For Best Player on Best Team
YearPlayer (Class)TeamPPG
2013-14Nick Johnson (junior)Arizona16.7
2012-13Victor Oladipo (junior)Indiana13.6
2011-12Anthony Davis (freshman)Kentucky14.2
2010-11Nolan Smith (senior)Duke20.6
2009-10Sherron Collins (senior)Kansas15.5
2008-09Tyler Hansbrough (senior)North Carolina20.7
2007-08Tyler Hansbrough (junior)North Carolina22.6
2006-07Joakim Noah (junior)Florida12.0
2005-06J.J. Redick (senior)Duke26.8
2004-05Dee Brown (junior)Illinois14.2
Basketball-Reference.com

Brown and Noah are the two lowest scorers on that list, along with Davis. What Davis had working in his advantage was that he was the most dominant defensive force in the country that year.

Miller could make a case for Johnson because of his intangibles.

"Nick, in particular, is maybe the smartest kid that I've ever coached," Miller told the media in Tuscon at his press conference on Tuesday. "You can't comprehend how difficult it is to play three positions in one game; he does that for us every game.

"So his responsibilities are almost as if he can think through five positions out there, and obviously defensively the number of very good players that he has to guard and what it takes to be good on both offense and defense, he's a really gifted basketball IQ guy."

That's high praise, but here's what it's missing: Numbers. Davis' stats looked a lot better because of his shot-blocking numbers, but there's not really a number you can pair with high basketball IQ.

 

The Best Case for Johnson

TUCSON, AZ - JANUARY 26:  Nick Johnson #13 of the Arizona Wildcats reacts alongside Rondae Hollis-Jefferson #23 (L) after a slam dunk agianst the Utah Utes during the second half of the college basketball game at McKale Center on January 26, 2014 in Tucso
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

So Johnson does not project as a high draft pick. His stats are nice, but they're not gaudy enough to get the voters' attention. And he has to share the spotlight with his teammates.

But there is one thing working in Johnson's favor...

We live in an era where advanced metrics often tell another story, and the smart people in the game (some of whom get a vote for Player of the Year) pay attention to those numbers. They care less about NBA "potential" and a guy's "ceiling" and more about production.

And the advanced stats paint a nice picture of Johnson's season thus far. He currently ranks third in Ken Pomeroy's Player of the Year standings (subscription required) behind Creighton's Doug McDermott and Duke's Jabari Parker.

Johnson's win shares, a stat that takes into account both defense and offensive production, also compare well with the other past best players on the best teams.

Here are the win shares per 40 minutes for those guys.

Win Shares Per 40 Minutes for Best Player on Best Team
YearPlayer (Class)TeamWS/40
2013-14Nick Johnson (junior)Arizona.250
2012-13Victor Oladipo (junior)Indiana.268
2011-12Anthony Davis (freshman)Kentucky.314
2010-11Nolan Smith (senior)Duke.234
2009-10Sherron Collins (senior)Kansas.181
2008-09Tyler Hansbrough (senior)North Carolina.260
2007-08Tyler Hansbrough (junior)North Carolina.271
2006-07Joakim Noah (junior)Florida.296
2005-06J.J. Redick (senior)Duke.233
2004-05Dee Brown (junior)Illinois.215
Basketball-Reference.com

And here are the win shares per 40 for the other POY candidates.

Win Shares Per 40 Minutes for 2013-14 POY Candidates
PlayerTeamWS/40
Doug McDermottCreighton.268
Nik StauskasMichigan.252
Nick JohnsonArizona.250
Russ SmithLouisville.247
Shabazz NapierConnecticut.240
Julius RandleKentucky.219
Marcus SmartOklahoma State.233
Joel EmbiidKansas.226
Tyler EnnisSyracuse.223
Jabari ParkerDuke.217
C.J. FairSyracuse.145
Basketball-Reference.com

These numbers should tell you two things: 1) Johnson should definitely be in the conversation, and 2) No matter how great he is the rest of the way and how many games the Wildcats win, the award is McDermott's to lose, and deservingly so.

Sorry Walton. 

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @cjmoore4.