Dark-Horse Candidates to Watch for CBB Player of the Year in 2017-18

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystSeptember 7, 2017

Dark-Horse Candidates to Watch for CBB Player of the Year in 2017-18

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    Could Wenyen Gabriel be the best player in the country in 2017-18?
    Could Wenyen Gabriel be the best player in the country in 2017-18?Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Grayson Allen, Miles Bridges and Michael Porter Jr. are among the most obvious candidates to be named the 2017-18 college basketball National Player of the Year, but who are the dark horses to win that individual honor?

    Over the past 10 years, the Wooden Award winners have averaged 21.9 points per game for a team that wins 31.9 games. Considering the award almost always goes to the MVP of one of the 10 best teams in the nation, those numbers shouldn't be too surprising.

    However, it's worth noting that 18 PPG and 28 wins are the unofficial thresholds that must be reached in order to become a serious candidate. As such, we're not interested in high scorers on bad teams or players who might average a dozen points for a title contender. Only guys who can get serious buckets for a team that can reach the Final Four need apply here.

    And to make sure we're actually listing dark horses rather than guys just outside the five or six favorites, we've eliminated from consideration all 25 players (as well as Marvin Bagley Jr.) from the list of the top players for the 2017-18 season that John Gasaway compiled for ESPN back in May.

    In alphabetical order, those players are: Rawle Alkins, Grayson Allen, DeAndre Ayton, Mohamed Bamba, Joel Berry, Trevon Bluiett, Miles Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Jeffrey Carroll, Jevon Carter, Wendell Carter, Bonzie Colson, Angel Delgado, Hamidou Diallo, Trevon Duval, Devonte' Graham, Ethan Happ, Jock Landale, Kelan Martin, Michael Porter Jr., Landry Shamet, Allonzo Trier, Moe Wagner, Nick Ward and Robert Williams.

Honorable Mentions

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    Mike Daum put up Kevin Durant numbers last season.
    Mike Daum put up Kevin Durant numbers last season.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Atlantic 10 MVP

    There are 13 returning players who averaged at least 20 points while playing in at least a dozen games last season, and three of those guys play in the Atlantic 10. St. Bonaventure's Jaylen Adams (20.6 PPG), Davidson's Peyton Aldridge (20.5 PPG) and Shavar Newkirk (20.3 PPG) of Saint Joseph's are all viable candidates to lead the nation in scoring this year. But would that be enough to win the A-10 or finish the year in the AP Top 25?

            

    Mike Daum, South Dakota State

    Speaking of candidates who put up ridiculous stat lines, Daum averaged 25.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game last season. In doing so, he became the first player since 2008 and just the sixth player in the last 15 years to put up at least 25 and eight for an entire season. Others on the list include Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley and Vermont folk hero Taylor Coppenrath. However, South Dakota State only went 18-17 last year and might not be any better this year.

              

    Collin Sexton, Alabama

    One of the most electrifying incoming freshmen in the nation, Sexton is going to make the college basketball nation interested in Alabama for the first time in a long time. (Apologies, Crimson Tide fans, but when you've suffered at least a dozen losses in a dozen consecutive years, it's true.) But he likely won't be the SEC Freshman of the Year because of Michael Porter Jr., and Alabama likely won't win the SEC because of Kentucky, Florida and several other contenders. He'll be a lot of fun to watch, but National Player of the Year is a huge stretch.

              

    Yante Maten, Georgia

    An injury late in the season negatively impacted his overall numbers, but Maten still put up 18.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game as a junior. He also improved as a passer (1.5 APG) and showed some serious skill as a shooter (21-of-43 from three-point range). Yet again, the question here is team success. Georgia went 19-15 and lost do-it-all senior point guard J.J. Frazier. Maten's PPG may well be higher than Georgia's win total.

           

    Udoka Azubuike, Kansas

    This 7'0" center might be the most important player in the country, as the Kansas frontcourt situation could be a disaster if Azubuike isn't a viable option for at least 20-25 minutes per game. But it's highly unlikely he leads the team in scoring, given all the other options in the backcourt for the Jayhawks. If he becomes a shot-blocking phenom who averages around 10 points and 10 rebounds per game, though, NPOY is possible.

              

    Cane Broome, Cincinnati

    The ultimate dark horse, Broome sat out the 2016-17 season after transferring from Sacred Heart to Cincinnati. The shooting guard averaged 23.1 PPG two seasons ago, though, and he should immediately become a starter and potential leading scorer for the Bearcats. This team generally plays at one of the slowest tempos in the nation and focuses more on defense than offense, but Broome should bring an uptick in tempo and scoring for a fringe preseason Top 10 team.

8. Reid Travis, Stanford

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    Reid Travis is too strong to not put up big numbers.
    Reid Travis is too strong to not put up big numbers.Chris Coduto/Getty Images

    2016-17 Stats: 17.4 PPG, 8.9 RPG

    For the third straight year, all Reid Travis projections come with an implied "If he stays healthy." Travis missed nine games of his freshman season due to a stress fracture, only played in eight games as a sophomore due to another stress reactionhe was granted an additional year of eligibility because of that truncated seasonand missed four games last year because of a shoulder injury.

    The poor guy is about as snake-bitten as they come, but he has been impressive when healthy. For his career, he's averaging 17.3 points and 10.5 rebounds per 40 minutes. Last year, those numbers were 23.1 and 11.8, respectively, as he had nine double-doubles and four games with at least 22 points and 13 rebounds.

    If this is the year he finally averages 32 minutes for 32 games, look out.

    The bigger question mark in this proposition, though, is whether Stanford will be relevant enough for his numbers to matter in the Player of the Year conversation. The Cardinal are a combined 29-32 over the last two seasons and lost several key role players as graduates or transfers.

    But the Cardinal bring back five guys who averaged at least 6.7 PPG last season and signed a trio of significant recruits in Kezie Okpala, Daejon Davis and Oscar da Silva. They have a long road to climb to rebound from a 14-17 year, but they should be, at worst, the fifth-best team in the Pac-12. If they happen to over-achieve and finish in the top three with Travis leading the way, it just might be enough for Wooden Award recognition.

7. Jaren Jackson, Michigan State

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    Jaren Jackson could be a freshman phenom.
    Jaren Jackson could be a freshman phenom.Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    2016-17 Stats: N/A (Incoming freshman)

    If not No. 1, Michigan State is certainly going to open the season in the Top 5 of the AP poll, which is a great place to look for Player of the Year candidates. Miles Bridges and Nick Ward were already disqualified from this because they were on John Gasaway's list, but the rest of the Spartans were fair play. Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford are decent options, but the obvious one is Jaren Jackson.

    Aside from maybe Alabama's Collin Sexton, Jackson is the best incoming freshman who was omitted from Gasaway's Top 25. And he's going to fit perfectly into this Michigan State rotation. The Spartans were lacking in big men last season, but the combination of Bridges at the 3, Jackson as a stretch 4 and Ward at the 5 could be the most lethal frontcourt in the nation.

    Is there any chance he actually becomes the MVP of his own team, though? Bridges is a surefire preseason first-team All-American and one of the top candidates for preseason NPOY. Ward's numbers (13.9 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.5 BPG) in just 19.8 minutes per contest were even more impressive than the ones Bridges posted, and he could be a stud with more playing time.

    Jackson is definitely good enough to be a starter on this team, but a lot of things need to go rightor wrong, perhaps—for him to become the leading scorer. He'll likely be projected as a top-10 draft pick for the entire year, but top 10 for National Player of the Year is another story.

6. Bennie Boatwright, USC

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    Bennie Boatwright should be USC's MVP.
    Bennie Boatwright should be USC's MVP.Leon Bennett/Getty Images

    2016-17 Stats: 15.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.7 APG, 36.4% 3PT

    Everyone has USC penciled in as this year's unconventional Final Four candidate, yet the Trojans were curiously absent from John Gasaway's Top 25. No Jordan McLaughlin. No Chimezie Metu. No Elijah Stewart. And most egregiously, no Bennie Boatwright.

    Though he missed the majority of the first three months of the 2016-17 season, Boatwright was USC's primary source of offense late in the year. He averaged 16.4 points per game in February and March while shooting 36-of-96 (37.5 percent) from three-point range. He was the MVP of the comeback win over Providence in the First Four, averaging 18.0 points in USC's three NCAA tournament games. Boatwright also shot 90.7 percent from the free-throw line for the year.

    Those sound like numbers for a shooting guard, but we're talking about a 6'10" stretch 4 cut from the same cloth as a Kyle Wiltjer or Alec Peters, albeit with a little more bounce.

    If he's going to compete for National Player of the Year, though, he'll need to be more than just a shooter. Boatwright has been apathetic as both a rebounder and defender, which is a shame given his height and athleticism. But some of that can probably be attributed to the back, hip and knee injuries he dealt with in 2016, because he was a better rebounder and a much better shot-blocker as a freshman. We'll see if he can get back to those roots a bit as a junior.

5. Deng Adel, Louisville

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    Without Donovan Mitchell, Deng Adel becomes Louisville's star.
    Without Donovan Mitchell, Deng Adel becomes Louisville's star.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    2016-17 Stats: 12.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.1 APG, 34.9% 3PT

    Every year, there's at least one former top-25 recruit who finally puts it all together and explodes as a junior. In 2016-17, it was Justin Jackson. The year before that, Wayne Selden. Go back another year and Kris Dunn's the guy. And in 2013-14, Khem Birch, DeAndre Daniels, Jabari Brown and Nick Johnson all fit that description.

    There aren't many players left from the 2015 class who could even qualify for that spot this year, but Deng Adel is undeniably at the top of the list.

    That's because the breakout was already underway last February. Adel scored at least 16 points in five of his final six games, including a pair of contests with at least 21 points when Donovan Mitchell was unable to get anything going on offense. And playing well while Mitchell struggled is a great omen for Adel's role on a 2017-18 roster without the current member of the Utah Jazz.

    Will Adel discover an identity, though?

    From what we've seen thus far at Louisville, he is a good-not-great shooter who doesn't much care on defense and who doesn't do much reboundingthough, it's been tough to grab boards with some combination of Mangok Mathiang, Jaylen Johnson, Ray Spalding and Anas Mahmoud in the paint. Adel is a gifted athlete, but he's a tweener of a small forward.

    Fortunately, that's the exact same boat that Jackson and Selden were in prior to becoming stars in their junior seasons, and Adel should get every opportunity to shine as Louisville's primary shooting guard this year.

4. Malik Newman, Kansas

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    Transfers never win NPOY, but Malik Newman might.
    Transfers never win NPOY, but Malik Newman might.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    2016-17 Stats: N/A (Sat out after transferring)

    With Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson, Charlie Moore and Sam Cunliffe all sitting out this year after transferring to Kansas, this is the first of (at least) two consecutive years that a new Jayhawk features prominently on this list. But we'll worry about those guys next offseason. For now, the spotlight belongs to Malik Newman.

    The No. 10 recruit in the 2015 class had an inconsistent and inefficient debut year at Mississippi State. He got out to a slow start and then had a rocky final six weeks, averaging 11.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.9 turnovers per game for the season. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs went 14-17 and weren't anything close to the Ben Howland reclamation project that some were anticipating.

    For a 13-game stretch in the middle of the year, though, Newman's immense potential was on full display. He averaged 3.2 made three-pointers per game and shot 47.7 percent from beyond the arc from mid-December through the end of January. He scored 15.0 points per contest during this time, compared to 8.4 the rest of the year.

    Even during that peak, Newman shot just 34.4 percent from inside the arc and had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.29. He has a long way to go to be the efficient leader at point guard that Frank Mason was for the past three seasons. But at least Newman had a year to practice alongside Mason and got an instructional year on the bench watching this offense run like a well-oiled machine.

    Maybe we were a bit delusional to expect him to come in as a freshman and turn Mississippi State into a NCAA tournament team, but there are high hopes for Newman now that he's a third-year sophomore with a season of Bill Self teaching at his disposal. Devonte' Graham is the more likely NPOY candidate from this roster, but the Jayhawks should have one heck of a dual-combo guard backcourt once again.

3. Bruce Brown, Miami

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    Bruce Brown is a big reason Miami might be a preseason Top 10 team.
    Bruce Brown is a big reason Miami might be a preseason Top 10 team.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    2016-17 Stats: 11.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.5 SPG, 34.7% 3PT

    In the last five years, seven freshmen from major conferences have averaged at least 10.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 3.0 APG and 1.0 SPG. Those seven players were:

    • 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons
    • 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz
    • 2015 No. 2 pick D'Angelo Russell
    • 2017 No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball
    • 2014 No. 6 pick Marcus Smart
    • 2016 No. 29 pick Dejounte Murray
    • Miami's Bruce Brown

    How Brown's incredible freshman season flew below the national radar is a gigantic mystery, because he averaged 23.0 points in Miami's three marquee wins over North Carolina, Duke and Virginia. He also had a triple-double (11 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) early in the year against South Carolina State.

    And he wasn't even one of the go-to guys for the Hurricanes for most of the season. He and Ja'Quan Newton split the ball-distribution duties, with Brown finishing fourth on the team in shot attempts per 40 minutes (11.1).

    Though the 'Canes do add a potential superstar shooting guard in Lonnie Walker, look for Brown to become more of a scorer now that Davon Reed is out of the picture. At any rate, he should inherit a decent chunk of the six three-point attempts per game that Reed leaves behind. If he becomes a marginally better shooter in the process, it's feasible he could put up 20 points per game for a 30-win team.

2. Mikal Bridges, Villanova

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    Meet Villanova's replacement for Josh Hart.
    Meet Villanova's replacement for Josh Hart.Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    2016-17 Stats: 9.8 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 39.3% 3PT

    Among players who averaged less than 12 points per game last season, no one was better than Mikal Bridges.

    Per Sports-Reference, Bridges was one of just three players to play at least 600 minutes with a box plus/minus greater than 12.5 and a scoring average below 12. The other two were NBA draft pick Jordan Bell and annually underappreciated Isaiah Wilkins. But both of those players were defensive specialists who had already more or less hit their offensive peak.

    With Bridges, we've only just begun to scratch the surface.

    Per KenPom's O-rating metrics, Bridges was Villanova's most efficient offensive weapon in each of the last two seasons. Last year, his true shooting percentage was 10th-best in the country, as he shot 39.3 percent from three and 69.7 percent inside the arc. However, Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins did most of the shooting in both of Bridges' seasons with the Wildcats, making him an efficient scorer who didn't actually score that much.

    That duo is now out of the picture, though, so Bridges should join Jalen Brunson as the stars of this offense. Like Josh Hart becoming the go-to weapon as a junior after Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston graduated, Bridges could be the breakout sensation of the nation in his third season. And it doesn't hurt his NPOY case that he'll do so as a player on a team realistically seeking a fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance as either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.

1. Pick a Kentucky Wildcat

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    John Calipari has plenty of NPOY candidates on his roster.
    John Calipari has plenty of NPOY candidates on his roster.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    2016-17 Stats: N/A (Multiple players, most of whom are freshmen)

    Hamidou Diallo was the only Kentucky Wildcat on John Gasaway's Top 25 list, which makes every other player on the roster a dark-horse candidate for NPOY.

    Of the bunch, Kevin Knox is probably the best bet because he is exactly the type of player every college and NBA team is coveting in this era of hoops. An athletic 6'8" wing who loves to shoot the three, handles the ball well and can jump out of the gym, there are only a handful of players at this level who can physically match up with him. Knox scored at least 22 points in all but one game last year at Tampa Catholic High School.

    Point guard Quade Green would also be a solid pick, as he'll probably lead the Wildcats in minutes played. Shades of its 2014-15 team, this Kentucky team is loaded with big men. John Calipari has six viable starters who are 6'8" or taller, which could make playing time interesting in the frontcourt. But Green enters the fall as the clear starter at point guard who just might play 33 minutes per night until either he or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander forces a change.

    Don't sleep on Wenyen Gabriel, either. Kentucky's leading returning scorer went through some serious ebbs and flows last season, ending the year on a brutal cold streak that spanned more than a month. But he was transitioning from power forward to wing-forward and never quite carved out a solid role in last year's rotation, despite starting 23 games. The "veteran" leader will be a key defensive asset, and who's to say he can't be the top scorer?

    Long story short, Kentucky has some dudes, and it has averaged 31.1 wins in Calipari's eight seasons as head coach. Someone on this roster is going to be a Wooden Award candidate. We're just not sure yet which future first-round draft pick it will be.

              

    Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames. Recruiting information courtesy of Scout.com. Advanced stats courtesy of Sports-Reference and KenPom.com.