College Basketball Player of the Year Rankings as December Begins
Denzel Valentine enters the month of December as the favorite to win the 2016 Wooden Award, and that's about the only thing that can be said with any degree of certainty after a wild and crazy first few weeks of the 2015-16 college basketball season.
Valentine was very much a second- or third-tier candidate for the award when the season began, but people tend to notice when you record two triple-doubles in the span of 10 days.
Elsewhere, Kris Dunn, Ben Simmons and Buddy Hield have been living up to their preseason All-American labels, even though one of their teams is an absolute train wreck right now.
We aren't yet three full weeks into the season, so expect plenty to change over the course of the next 17. As things currently stand, though, here are our top 10 candidates for National Player of the Year at the start of December.
Note: Statistics on the following slides current through the start of play on Tuesday, December 1.
Michael Gbinije, Syracuse
Certainly not a name we expected to be considering, but Michael Gbinije is out to an incredible start for the Orange, averaging 19.7 points, 4.0 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game while shooting 51.3 percent from three-point range. If he stays anywhere near that hot this week against Wisconsin and Georgetown, feel free to consider Gbinije a top-five candidate heading into the week of Dec. 7.
Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
Kyle Wiltjer is averaging 18.8 points per game, but the three ball hasn't been there yet. He's starting to come around (7-of-17 in last two games), but there's another Zag we like even better for this list.
Monte Morris, Iowa State
Most tend to argue that the Cyclones' spot should be reserved for Georges Niang, but Monte Morris is having a third consecutive insanely efficient season as Iowa State's point guard. With 35 assists, 11 steals and just six turnovers, the man now has a career assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.79 and a steal-to-turnover ratio of 1.68. He's also scoring 14.8 points per game for good measure.
Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia
Malcolm Brogdon had a dreadful opener against Morgan State, but he has averaged 19.0 points per game since then. Even more important has been his role as the main cog in Virginia's pack-line defense, which is allowing just 57.3 points per game since the surprising loss to George Washington. Brogdon's numbers aren't quite on par with the top 10 candidates, but he'll only get more impressive as the season progresses.
Caris LeVert, Michigan
The Wolverines were soundly defeated in back-to-back games by Xavier and Connecticut—but not for lack of effort from Caris LeVert. He had 50 points between the two games and is currently averaging 18.5 per contest. The foot injury that prematurely ended his 2014-15 season is clearly in the rear-view mirror.
Josh Hart, Villanova
Villanova plays so well as a team that it's often difficult to argue that any individual player deserves to be in the National Player of the Year discussion. If you're picking one Wildcat, though, it has to be Josh Hart. He leads Villanova in scoring and contributes in so many ways that he's clearly the linchpin of this championship-caliber team.
Wayne Selden, Kansas
We're trying not to overreact to one hot week of shooting, but 12-of-17 from three-point range on a neutral court in Hawaii is pretty incredible. After two years of being disappointed that Wayne Selden didn't live up to the hype, he has met our expectations and then some in the first three weeks of the season. If he keeps draining threes through the next month, he could easily be in the top three on this list heading into January.
10. Pick a Kentucky Guard
Isaiah Briscoe: 12.2 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.7 SPG
Jamal Murray: 15.0 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.3 SPG
Tyler Ulis: 13.2 PPG, 4.3 APG, 3.8 RPG, 1.5 SPG
The roster has changed considerably since last season, but Kentucky's relationship with the eventual Wooden Award vote hasn't.
The Wildcats are the No. 1 team in the country. They may well hold that title for the rest of the season. A lot can change in the next 3.5 months, but we can probably all agree that Kentucky is the early favorite for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. And if you think that top dog isn't going to have some representation in the final vote for the Wooden Award, you're almost certainly wrong.
However, just like in 2014-15, there isn't one Wildcat who statistically stands out from the crowd.
Last year, Willie Cauley-Stein was Kentucky's finalist, even though he finished the season averaging a meager 8.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. We would have much rather seen Karl-Anthony Towns on that final ballot, but Kentucky's candidate wasn't statistically holding a candle to Jahlil Okafor or Frank Kaminsky, regardless.
At this early stage in this season, take your pick from John Calipari's backcourt.
The combined force of the Briscoe-Murray-Ulis trio is pretty fantastic, but can you really argue that one of them sticks out in either a positive or negative way?
Gun to my head, I'm picking Ulis. His assist-to-turnover rate is drastically better than that of Murray or Briscoe, and his 90.6 free-throw percentage is pretty clutch. (Seriously, Briscoe? A 9-of-23 mark from the charity stripe?)
But to change my mind, all it would take is one big game from one of the other guards or one or two more games missed by Ulis due to the elbow injury. It's just too close to call right now, but there will eventually be a Wildcat in the top five—and it could end up being Skal Labissiere.
9. Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga
Per Game: 14.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.8 steals
Per 40 Minutes: 24.4 points, 14.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.4 steals
MVP Performance: 26 points, seven rebounds, 12-of-13 from the field vs. Northern Arizona (11/18)
Perhaps the most physical big man in the country, early returns are that foul trouble is going to plague Domantas Sabonis all season long.
He was a complete non-factor in Gonzaga's loss to Texas A&M, fouling out in 18 minutes with just two points and four rebounds. Less than 24 hours later against Connecticut, though, he was the MVP of the game, recording eight points, seven rebounds and two assists in a foul-free first half.
Of course, he went on to commit four fouls in a span of less than six minutes in the second half, proving in one afternoon both how dominant he can be when he's not in foul trouble and how quickly he can unravel when the whistles do come.
When he's actually in the game, his go-to move with the ball in the post is almost unstoppable. He has repeatedly shown the ability to turn an entry pass on the right block into an uncontested left-handed layup in just one dribble.
Opposing big men have to know what the southpaw wants to accomplish, but what can they do once he has the ball? If they deny the lane and try to force him baseline, he gets an even easier look at a right-handed layup. If they double him, he'll just kick it back out to one of the half-dozen players on the roster who can hit three-pointers in his sleep.
And based on how far from the hoop Sabonis seeks to establish his position, trying to front him to keep him from getting the ball in the first place simply results in a lob pass for a seriously uncontested bucket.
Kyle Wiltjer gets all of the love and probably eventually earns whatever recognition Gonzaga gets in the various POY races. Until he starts shooting considerably better than 29.6 percent from three-point range, though, let's pay some mind to the big man converting on 71.4 percent of his field-goal attempts.
8. Gary Payton II, Oregon State
Per Game: 18.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 3.6 steals, 0.8 blocks
Per 40 Minutes: 21.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 4.1 steals, 0.9 blocks
MVP Performance: 19 points, seven assists, six steals, five rebounds vs. Rice (11/19)
As we'll outline in more detail on Ben Simmons' slide, players from teams that don't earn high seeds in the NCAA tournament don't typically get a ton of consideration for the Wooden Award.
That said, Michael Beasley did finish runner-up to Tyler Hansbrough in 2008 while playing for a Kansas State team that merely earned a No. 11 seed. But it was pretty hard to ignore the eventual No. 2 overall draft pick putting up 26.2 points and 12.4 rebounds per game.
Well, it should be equally difficult to disregard what Gary Payton II is doing for an Oregon State team that could also be destined for something in the vicinity of a No. 11 seed.
Without a particularly close runner-up, Payton leads the Beavers in points, rebounds, assists and steals. The 6'3" guard is even second on the team in blocked shots and is shooting 55.1 percent from the field. Entering play on Tuesday, Payton ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in points per game, third in assists, eighth in rebounds and first in steals.
Similar to but arguably better than Delon Wright was with Utah last season, Payton might be the best two-way player in the entire country.
At this point, it's just a question of whether Oregon State will win enough games for it to matter. The Beavers do still have a huge game against Kansas on Dec. 12, as well as a fairly important one against Tulsa on Dec. 19. Without winning at least one of those games, though, the nonconference portion of the season is going to be a real drain on their tournament resume.
Should Payton have a monster performance in a win over Kansas in less than two weeks, get ready to see him jump into everyone's top five.
7. Isaac Haas, Purdue
Per Game: 15.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 blocks
Per 40 Minutes: 31.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, 4.9 blocks, 1.4 assists
MVP Performance: 17 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks in 19 minutes vs. Incarnate Word (11/18)
Isaac Haas is not a household name by any stretch of the imagination, but he is easily the most efficient player on one of the best teams in the country. That's a good way to get on our radar.
Efficient play in minimal minutes is nothing new for Haas. He made frequent appearances in the Honorable Mentions section of my Freshman of the Year rankings last season, ultimately finishing the year averaging 20.8 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per 40 minutes.
However, he has been substantially more efficient this season while playing 30 percent more minutes for a much better Purdue squad.
A lot of people inexplicably despise per-40 numbers. If you're one of those people, allow me to point something out:
2015-16 Isaac Haas: 19.0 MPG, 15.0 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 2.3 BPG
2014-15 Karl-Anthony Towns: 21.1 MPG, 10.3 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 2.3 BPG
It has only been six games, but Haas is putting up more impressive numbers than the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. He'll inevitably slow down a bit during Big Ten play, but don't be surprised if the 7'2" sophomore spends most of the season somewhere on this list.
6. Ben Simmons, LSU
Per Game: 16.0 points, 15.0 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.3 blocks
Per 40 Minutes: 18.1 points, 17.0 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 2.3 steals, 1.5 blocks
MVP Performance: 21 points, 20 rebounds, seven assists, two steals vs. Marquette (11/23)
Without question, Ben Simmons is one of the three most talented players in the country.
He just so happens to play for a team that apparently thinks it's OK to put a bow on a three-game losing streak with a loss by a double-digit margin to Charleston.
Here's the thing: If you don't play for a title contender, you aren't winning the Wooden Award. In the 37 seasons since teams started getting officially seeded in the NCAA tournament, the Wooden Award has gone to a No. 1 seed 23 times. Only once has it gone to a player from a team seeded lower than No. 6, and that was No. 8 Navy's David Robinson, who averaged 28.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game.
LSU isn't earning a No. 1 seed. Unless they have designs of winning three games against Kentucky, it's already almost inconceivable to think that the Tigers will earn a single-digit seed if they can sneak into the tournament at all.
Even though Simmons will probably lead the nation in double-doubles and will probably be the No. 1 overall pick in June, it's going to be difficult to argue that the most valuable player in the country plays for a team that doesn't even make the tournament.
5. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
Per Game: 22.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.5 steals
Per 40 Minutes: 31.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.1 steals, 1.1 blocks
MVP Performance: 30 points, eight rebounds, three assists, three steals, two blocks vs. Memphis (11/17)
First things first, kudos to the people responsible for Oklahoma's nonconference schedule for honoring this year's seniors with a fun final campaign. Between the Pearl Harbor game against Villanova on Dec. 7 and the Diamond Head Classic from Dec. 22-25, the Sooners will make not one, but two trips to Hawaii in December. If only we could all be so lucky.
It's largely because of that late "early-season" tournament that Buddy Hield and company have only played four games thus far this season, while most of our POY candidates have played six or seven.
Fortunately for Hield's candidacy, he was a monster in three of those four games.
Oklahoma's big men struggled mightily with Memphis, but Hield picked up right where he left off last season by scoring 30 in the season opener. And in the next two games against McNeese State and Incarnate Word, Hield had 46 points in just 45 minutes.
Had he been equally dominant this past weekend against Wisconsin, there would have been a solid case to be made for him at No. 1. However, the Badgers really held him in check with 12 points on 16 field-goal attempts and more turnovers than assists and steals combined.
Even with that minor stinker, Hield is averaging 22 points per game and shooting better than 50 percent from three-point range. He has been a high scorer for the past two years, but he was much more of a volume shooter than an efficient one. If he can keep his three-point accuracy above 40 percent this year, he might be adding some even more impressive hardware to the mantle housing his 2015 Big 12 Player of the Year trophy.
4. Grayson Allen, Duke
Per Game: 22.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.1 steals
Per 40 Minutes: 27.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.4 steals
MVP Performance: 32 points, five rebounds, four assists, two steals vs. Georgetown (11/22)
For most of the season, Grayson Allen has been incredible. He has scored at least 22 points in five of seven games and is shooting 48.6 percent from three-point range and 91.8 percent from the free-throw line. He isn't attempting quite as many triples, but Allen is putting up numbers that are quite on par with those posted by J.J. Redick during his 2006 Wooden Award campaign.
However, Allen laid an egg with the whole world watching, shooting just 2-of-11 from the field for six points with four fouls and four turnovers against Kentucky.
He immediately rebounded with back-to-back games of at least 30 points against VCU and Georgetown, but it's going to take at least a couple more big games before we're really willing to write off that Champions Classic calamity as an outlier.
Regardless, it's crazy to think that this star could barely even get on the court last year.
In just seven games, Allen has already scored more points (158) than he did in the entire 2014-15 season (153). But it always felt like he was pushing the issue; taking shots that weren't there and trying to do too much, knowing full well that he had a limited amount of time to prove that he deserved more.
Aside from the Kentucky game, he looks comfortable out there this year, and it's paying big early dividends for the Blue Devils.
3. Jakob Poeltl, Utah
Per Game: 20.5 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, 1.3 assists, 0.8 steals
Per 40 Minutes: 28.1 points, 13.7 rebounds, 3.2 blocks, 1.8 assists, 1.1 steals
MVP Performance: 32 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks, two steals, one assist vs. Temple (11/22)
Jakob Poeltl was plenty good enough to jump to the NBA this past summer, and he's proving it thus far this season. The Austrian big man is averaging a double-double and blocking his fair share of shots.
That's hardly news, though. When healthy last season, he was a force of nature in the paint. At the end of November 2014, he was averaging 12.0 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game.
It's where he has shown significant development this season that has us drooling for more.
For starters, Poeltl is much more assertive. He averaged one field-goal attempt for every 4:13 on the court last season, but he's taking a shot every 2:47 this year. Part of that usage increase is certainly due to the fact that someone has to do something with Delon Wright out of the picture, but I choose to believe that a greater faith in himself is also responsible.
Another extremely promising improvement is his free-throw shooting. Poeltl couldn't hit water in the ocean last year, shooting 44.4 percent from the charity stripe, but he has had an offseason transformation into a 72.2 percent one-point shooter.
This is critical, because his third area of major improvement is in the foul department. According to KenPom.com, Poeltl drew 5.0 fouls per 40 minutes last season while committing 4.3 of his own, but this year, he's drawing 8.8 and committing just 2.7. As a result, he's able to play more minutes, and he's attempting more than twice as many free throws per game.
Not a bad start for arguably the best big man in the country.
2. Kris Dunn, Providence
Per Game: 19.0 points, 6.7 assists, 6.1 rebounds, 3.7 steals, 1.0 blocks
Per 40 Minutes: 23.4 points, 8.3 assists, 7.6 rebounds, 4.6 steals, 1.2 blocks
MVP Performance: 22 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, seven steals, one block vs. NJIT (11/23)
Kris Dunn doesn't have any triple-doubles yet this season, but he did almost mess around and record just the second quadruple-double in NCAA history and the first against a D-I opponent.
And yet, it wasn't the points, rebounds, assists or steals that really impressed us against NJIT. It was the solitary turnover that he committed in that game.
Unless you count his recent injury history against him, turnovers were by far the biggest concern about Dunn's game coming into this season. He committed at least four turnovers in 21 of his 33 games last season, putting quite the asterisk on the fact that he led the nation in assist rate.
But even though his supporting cast is arguably less impressive, Dunn has been substantially more cautious with the ball this season, averaging 3.2 turnovers per 40 minutes as opposed to 4.9 last year. It's still a bit higher than we'd like to see, but we're certainly not going to complain about the ball-control skills of a guy with 47 assists, 26 steals and 18 turnovers.
As with Gary Payton II and Ben Simmons, the big variable for Dunn's Wooden Award campaign is his team's success. So far, so good, as the Friars have wins over Arizona, Illinois and Evansville with just one loss to a solid Michigan State team. They're currently ranked No. 23 in the nation, which is way more than Oregon State or LSU can boast right now.
As long as Providence stays in the tournament picture, Dunn will be a fixture in the top three of the Wooden Award chase. Should the Friars really make some noise by remaining ranked all year and vying for a top-four seed in the tournament, Dunn should win all of the POY awards with room to spare.
1. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State
Per Game: 19.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, 8.6 assists
Per 40 Minutes: 26.1 points, 11.6 rebounds, 11.3 assists
MVP Performance: 29 points, 12 assists, 12 rebounds vs. Kansas (11/17)
It's kind of funny how quickly popular opinion swings on these things.
Before the Wooden Legacy began, I cobbled together a list of potential candidates for this top 10 and researched the history of the Wooden Award, in hopes of making a compelling case for why Denzel Valentine belongs ahead of Ben Simmons for the top spot.
But then Valentine put up at least seven points, seven assists and seven rebounds for a fifth consecutive game, including two triple-doubles. And his Spartans beat Kris Dunn's Friars not 24 hours before Simmons' Tigers lost to Charleston.
All of a sudden, Valentine is the only logical choice for No. 1 on this list.
"At this point of the season, pretty much any way you slice it, there hasn’t been a player in college basketball better than Valentine," Reid Forgrave of Fox Sports wrote on Monday afternoon.
"He's like myself and Draymond (Green) because he can just do everything," Spartans legend Magic Johnson said to Yahoo Sports' Jeff Eisenberg. "He can rebound, score, assist and he gets so much joy out of setting his teammates up. His basketball IQ was already off the charts when he came to Michigan State, but the way he's shooting the basketball right now is amazing."
When the man with 30 career triple-doubles in the NBA playoffs—more than twice as many as No. 2 on that list—favorably compares a guy to both himself and a reigning NBA champion, said player is probably pretty darn good.
There are a ton of games remaining between now and the Wooden Award ceremony in April, but Valentine is clearly the early leader in the clubhouse.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.