Incoming College Basketball Freshmen with Best Chance to Win Player of the Year

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystApril 11, 2017

Incoming College Basketball Freshmen with Best Chance to Win Player of the Year

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    Frank Mason was named the 2017 CBB Player of the Year. Could a freshman win in 2018?
    Frank Mason was named the 2017 CBB Player of the Year. Could a freshman win in 2018?Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

    One-and-done freshmen have been dominating the NBA draft lottery for years, but few have had the appropriate combination of talent, dominance and team success to be named a finalist for college basketball's Wooden Award.

    A senior has won the award in each of the past four seasons while only four freshmenJabari Parker in 2014, Jahlil Okafor and D'Angelo Russell in 2015 and Lonzo Ball in 2017have even made it to the final five in the last five years.

    Based on those last 25 finalists, there are three criteria to look for when seeking to identify a Player of the Year candidate:

    • Must play on a team that earns at least a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. The only exceptions to this rule were Doug McDermott playing for a No. 7 seed when Creighton was still in the Missouri Valley Conference and Russell single-handedly carrying Ohio State to a No. 10 seed.
    • Must average at least 16 points per game. Exceptions here were Ball (14.6 PPG) and elite defenders Victor Oladipo (13.6 PPG) and Willie Cauley-Stein (8.9 PPG).
    • Must be the primary scorer on the team. Along with Ball, Oladipo and Cauley-Stein, the only recent finalist to buck this trend was Tyler Ulis, who averaged 17.3 points to Jamal Murray's 20.0.

    Long story short, we're looking for freshmen who could be the primary reason why his team wins at least 25 games and becomes a viable candidate for the 2018 national championship.

9. Trae Young, Oklahoma

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    Trae Young
    Trae YoungCourtesy of Scout.com

    Reason to Buy

    Despite losing the senior leader from a team that went 11-20, Oklahoma was given 30-1 odds to win the 2018 title, according to CBS Sports' Gary Parrish. That puts the Sooners in a tie with Virginia and West Virginia as the team with the 15th-best odds to win it all.

    Teams with that many losses don't usually get that type of respect, but maybe that's because 20-loss teams aren't typically in the market for 5-star point guards. Oklahoma was fortunate enough to find one in its backyard, as Trae Young opted to remain close to his home in Norman, Oklahoma.

    B/R's Scott Phillips wrote about Young's dominance at the 2016 Nike Peach Jam, where he averaged 27 points with a bunch of assists, rebounds and steals, and "emphatically outplayed" Kentucky commit Quade Green in the championship game. If there's a Lonzo Ball in this year's class who's going to come in and immediately turn a sub-.500 team into a title contender, Young is the one.

    Reason to Sell

    Unless a few guys unexpectedly declare for the NBA draft, Young probably won't even be on the preseason All-Big 12 first team. It shouldn't be much of a challenge for him to come in and immediately become the leader of a Sooners team without one, but he has a long way to go to turn around a team that finished in ninth place in a 10-team league.

8. Kris Wilkes, UCLA

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    Kris Wilkes
    Kris WilkesCourtesy of Scout.com

    Reason to Buy

    Despite losing four startersand possibly a key reserve if Ike Anigbogu sticks with his decision to declare for the draft—UCLA is a unanimous way-too-early Top 25 team because it has one of the best recruiting classes in the nation.

    At the head of that class is combo forward Kris Wilkes. The soon-to-be star of the Bruins is built like a Justin Jackson or Brandon Ingram, but he is a face-up 4 with a half-court game similar to that of teammate Thomas Welsh. Where he thrives is in transition, though. If UCLA is able to push the tempo like it did with Lonzo Ball running the show, Wilkes could put up some ridiculous numbers.

    He gets bonus consideration for his defensive potential. UCLA couldn't guard a lamppost this past season, but Wilkes is a versatile defender who could impact the game on both ends of the floor. His incoming presence at power forward is probably one of the main reasons Anigbogu is testing the draft waters after averaging just 13 minutes per game as a freshman.

    Reason to Sell

    Wilkes may look like Ingram or Jackson, but his perimeter offense is very much a work in progress, making him more of a tweener who might be special than a well-rounded stud certain to dominate. Moreover, Aaron Holiday is probably going to be the star of this team. And if Welsh, Anigbogu, GG Goloman and Alex Olesinski are all healthy and on the roster, minutes in the frontcourt could be tough to find.

7. Kevin Knox, TBD

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    Kevin Knox
    Kevin KnoxCourtesy of Scout.com

    Reason to Buy

    Though Kevin Knox has not yet decided where he will be playing in seven months, he's the type of talent who will instantly alter the national hierarchy when he makes his choice. Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina are among his five finalists, and any of the three could open the 2017-18 season at No. 1 in the polls by landing the wing-forward.

    Based on its scouting report from the 2016 FIBA U17 Championship, DraftExpress is obsessed with Knox's athleticism. "Explosive leaper." "Fluid runner." "Fast-twitch muscles." "Elite defender." "Outstanding instincts." "High motor." Basically, pick any adjective-noun combo that scouts use to describe someone who is more naturally-gifted than his peers and it has been said about Knox.

    Reason to Sell

    Though he's bigger and quicker than most kids his age, that athleticism is only going to go so far at the collegiate level if he doesn't become a more consistent shooter. Knox also needs to improve as a ball-handler to create his own shotparticularly until he forces opponents to respect his perimeter game. And if he does end up at Duke, Kentucky or North Carolina, there's a good chance he isn't the go-to scorer.

6. Collin Sexton, Alabama

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    Collin Sexton
    Collin SextonCourtesy of Scout.com

    Reason to Buy

    Collin Sexton's stock has been soaring for the past year.

    According to DraftExpress, he was named the MVP of the FIBA U17 World Championship last July, averaging 34 points, 8.3 assists, 8.0 rebounds and 3.3 steals per 40 minutes. He was one of the stars of the 2017 McDonald's All-American Game, including this absurd behind-the-back alley-oop pass. And as far as Evan Daniels of Scout.com is concerned, Sexton's most impressive showing thus far came at the Nike Hoop Summit practices a few days after the McD-AA game.

    The only question is whether he can turn Alabamaa program with just one NCAA tournament appearance in the past 11 yearsinto a title contender. But with help from Ohio State transfer Daniel Giddens and will-be sophomores Braxton Key and Dazon Ingram, he has the supporting cast to put the Crimson Tide on college basketball's national radar.

    Reason to Sell

    Markelle Fultz. Malik Newman. Isaiah Whitehead. There's usually one 5-star guard who chooses an "unorthodox" team, only for that team to miss the NCAA tournament in his freshman season. Maybe Sexton breaks that trend, but it's worrisome enough to keep him out of our top five.

5. Trevon Duval, TBD

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    Trevon Duval
    Trevon DuvalCourtesy of Scout.com

    Reason to Buy

    In a recruiting class that is top heavy with big men, point guard Trevon Duval is unanimously the best incoming backcourt player in the country. "Tricky Tre" is one of the best ball-handlers in recent memory. He's a bit like Jason "White Chocolate" Williams, but with a more explosive vertical leap.

    At 6'3" with a wingspan closer to 6'10", Duval is much more than just a fancy dribbler, though. He's also an above-average rebounder with strong defensive instincts. If and when his three-point shot becomes a more reliable weapon, he'll be almost unstoppable.

    He's still undecided, but his list of schools is down to Arizona, Baylor, Duke, Kansas and Seton Hall. He could shine for any of those programs, but he could make the Pirates a top 10 team or finally give the Blue Devils the point guard they've been missing since Tyus Jones left.

    Reason to Sell

    There are a lot of "E" words you could use to describe Duval. Electric, elite, extraordinary and elusive rank among the best. But efficient isn't one of them. At least not yet. Duval often tries to do too much with the ball and takes difficult shots. Until he becomes a better decision-makerand until we actually know where he'll be playingit's tough to consider him a POY favorite.

4. Mohamed Bamba, TBD

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    Mohamed Bamba
    Mohamed BambaCourtesy of Scout.com

    Reason to Buy

    There are a lot of things you can teach an athlete, but wingspan isn't one of them. Fortunately for Mohamed Bamba, he was gifted with a ridiculous one. According to DraftExpress, Bamba measured a 7'9" wingspan at the 2017 Nike Hoop Summit.

    Listen closely and you can already hear Jay Bilas drooling during the 2018 NBA draft coverage.

    But while some big men have no touch or feel for the game, Bamba has size and skill. According to Scout's Evan Daniels, "He ran the court for easy finishes, protected the rim and rebounded in and out of his area" during practices for the 2017 Nike Hoop Summit. He was also one of the top performers in the McDonald's All-American Game, finishing with a game-high 17 points, five rebounds, four blocks and two steals.

    "A lot of people look at me and say I’m too skinny and that they can push me around, but I think not," Bamba told Nick Medline of ZagsBlog.com after the McD-AA game. "I may not always be shooting the ball well, but I can make sure my defense is always on point."

    Reason to Sell

    Outside of not knowing who he'll play forhe's reportedly deciding from Duke, Kentucky, Michigan and Texasthe only real concern for Bamba is strength. As far as giants go, his arms and legs are much more Skal Labissiere than Jahlil Okafor, so he might be best suited to sign with the Blue Devils to play a finesse 4 while Marques Bolden and the next guy on our list handle all the heavy lifting in the paint.

3. Wendall Carter, Duke

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    Wendell Carter
    Wendell CarterCourtesy of Scout.com

    Reason to Buy

    Wendell Carter is a superb modern-era center who will inevitably draw comparisons to Purdue's Caleb Swaniganone of the five finalists for the 2017 Wooden Award.

    Carter has a high basketball IQ with surprising passing skills for a big man. He is a relentless rebounder who can use his massive frame (6'10", 257 lbs) to get to any ball that he wants. He's also capable of stepping out to the three-point line and has a great mid-range game. By all accounts, he should be a star in Durham.

    There is still no word on what Grayson Allen is going to decide about the NBA draft, but it might be tough for Carter to become "the guy" at Duke if Allen, Frank Jackson and Gary Trent are all in the picture racking up points. Then again, Jahlil Okafor darn near won the 2015 Wooden Award on a Blue Devils team with all sorts of perimeter weapons.

    Reason to Sell

    Injuries derailed the college careers of Harry Giles and Marques Bolden before they ever had a chance to get started, but outside of Okafor, it has been a long time since a big man came in and immediately dominated for the Blue Devils. And between Bolden, Antonio Vrankovic and Javin DeLaurier, there are already a lot of frontcourt mouths to feed.

2. DeAndre Ayton, Arizona

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    DeAndre Ayton
    DeAndre AytonCourtesy of Scout.com

    Reason to Buy

    Pick any recruiting website and you'll find that DeAndre Ayton is either the No. 1 or No. 2 player in the 2017 class. Needless to say, big things are expected from the big man with nearly limitless range.

    Ayton is a 7'0" stretch 5 who should fit perfectly into a system that just thrived with that type of player. Lauri Markkanen made nearly two three-pointers per game as a freshman at Arizona, but the kid from the Bahamas ought to impact the game in more ways than the one from Finland. Ayton is also an elite rebounder with a must-be-respected shot-blocking presence.

    The one concern scouts have had about Ayton over the past two years is his motor. But as DraftExpress noted in April 2016, "Very little has been demanded out of Ayton at this stage, as he hasn't received very high-level coaching, and you can't teach some of the gifts that he has." We trust Sean Miller will make sure he isn't lollygagging through games.

    Reason to Sell

    Even though Markkanen essentially carried Arizona through the first two months of the season, he never gained any traction in the POY conversation. Ayton will likely face a similar problem if Allonzo Trier returns for another year and leads the Wildcats in scoring.

    Moreover, big men haven't gotten much love lately in this guard-oriented world. Eight of the last 10 Wooden Award finalists have been guards. Caleb Swanigan was never mentioned as a legitimate favorite for the award, despite averaging 18.5 points and 12.5 rebounds while shooting 44.7 percent from three-point range. To become the national POY, Ayton basically has to hope that there isn't a dominant lead guard on a title contender.

1. Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky

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    Hamidou Diallo
    Hamidou DialloCourtesy of Scout.com

    Reason to Buy

    Hamidou Diallo should be the leading scorer for the team expected to open the season at No. 1 in the AP Top 25.

    No need to complicate matters when the logic for projecting a potential Player of the Year is that simple.

    Like Dennis Smith last year at N.C. State, Diallo ought to benefit from having joined his college program a semester early. At any rate, it'd be silly to think he got worse after a few months of practicing alongside and against guys like De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe.

    The only question is whether that time made him a better three-point weapon. He's already a great driver and dunker, but if the shooting guard is a better shooter than when scouts last saw him at the high school level, he could be a force of nature.

    Reason to Sell

    Kentucky has already signed six top-50 recruits and is in the running for three others. Diallo could/should be the best of the bunch, but Jarred Vanderbilt, P.J. Washington and Nick Richards are gunning for that title, too. Also, with all seven of last year's leading scorers likely leaving, the Wildcats could have some growing pains that keep them off the top few seed lines and that may keep any of their individuals from vying for national POY.

    Stats are courtesy of KenPom.com and Sports Reference. Recruiting information is courtesy of Scout.

    Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.