College Basketball Player of the Year Rankings Post-New Year
The 2018-19 men's college basketball season isn't even 50 percent complete, but it already feels like everyone except for Duke's Zion Williamson is fighting for silver in the National Player of the Year race.
But just in case he gets hurt or Duke falls apart in the second half of the campaign, we've ranked the top 10 John Wooden Award candidates heading into the 2019 portion of the season.
It's important to note from the outset that team success is critical. Were Williamson filling up the stat sheet and hitting his head against backboards for some team struggling to maintain a .500 record, he might only be an honorable mention. After all, neither Ben Simmons nor Markelle Fultz even got a whiff of an invite to a Wooden Award ceremony while wowing NBA scouts in recent seasons.
With limited exceptions, players from teams outside the AP Top 25 were barely even considered. Of the players in our top 10, eight play for teams currently in the AP Top Seven, and all 10 are on ranked squads. Fair or not, POY candidates don't come from teams without a reasonable shot at reaching the Final Four.
Beyond that, players are ranked based on a combination of individual stats and how indispensable they are for their respective teams.
Statistics are current through the start of play on Jan. 3.
Ja Morant, Murray State
23.0 PPG, 9.6 APG, 6.7 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 0.312 WS/40
In the past 27 years of men's basketball, there have only been two players who averaged at least eight made field goals and eight assists per game in a single season: Ja Morant this year and Trae Young last year. Morant is also leading his team in rebounds and steals. Do yourself a favor and set aside some time to watch some Racers games in the next two months, because this guy is way more entertaining than most.
Carsen Edwards, Purdue
25.8 PPG, 3.5 APG, 3.2 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 39.7 3P%, 0.233 WS/40
Markus Howard, Marquette
23.9 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.1 SPG, 42.1 3P%, 0.256 WS/40
We're grouping these two guys together because they're basically the same player: scoring machines who are keeping their respective major-conference teams afloat. Their efficiency marks (offensive rating, win shares per 40 minutes, etc.) aren't that great because they are asked to do everything while on the floor, but both Howard and Edwards are threats to score 40 points on any given night.
Cassius Winston, Michigan State
17.1 PPG, 7.8 APG, 2.4 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 45.7 3P%, 0.276 WS/40
If it's possible for a Top 10 team to fly below the radar, No. 8 Michigan State has, and so has Cassius Winston. As both a shooter and a distributor, he has been lethal for the past three seasons. But this year, he's taking matters into his own hands more often and driving more effectively.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Virginia Tech
18.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 3.7 APG, 2.4 SPG, 47.9 3P%, 0.314 WS/40
Alexander-Walker wasn't quite the one-and-done phenom that many were expecting last year, but he has blossomed into a stone-cold stud as a sophomore. If the Hokies happen to win road games against Virginia and/or North Carolina in the next couple of weeks, he will become more of a household name.
Juwan Morgan, Indiana
16.2 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.5 BPG, 69.2 FG%, 0.293 WS/40
Romeo Langford was supposed to be the guy for Indiana, but it's clear so far that this is Morgan's team. He had a triple-double against Jacksonville two weeks ago, and he has been just lights-out from the field all season. If Indiana can make a spirited push into the AP Top 10 at any point, Morgan will get some NPOY votes.
Ignas Brazdeikis, Michigan
16.5 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.2 APG, 42.9 3P%, 0.278 WS/40
It's too bad the Wooden Award can't go to "Michigan Team Defense," because that would be the top challenger to Zion Williamson. As is, somebody from this undefeated team has to at least be considered, and the freshman who is leading the team in scoring makes the most sense. Jordan Poole, Charles Matthews and Isaiah Livers are also in the running for Michigan's MVP.
By the way, Brazdeikis is the fourth Big Ten player in our honorable mentions, and there's one more at No. 2 on this list. And you could probably put Nebraska's James Palmer on here, too, if you wanted. It's going to be one heck of a fun race for B1G POY.
10. Someone from Virginia
Kyle Guy: 15.4 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 47.0 FG%, 45.6 3P%, 0.254 WS/40
Ty Jerome: 14.2 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 4.3 APG, 2.1 SPG, 44.8 FG%, 41.5 3P%, 0.293 WS/40
De'Andre Hunter: 14.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 2.3 APG, 53.6 FG%, 0.329 WS/40
No. 4 Virginia is undefeated and is clearly one of the best teams in the country once again.
But who is the Cavaliers' best player?
NBA draft scouts would say it's De'Andre Hunter, but both Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy have a claim. All three Wahoos are shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range while averaging at least 14 points, four rebounds and two assists per game.
Forced to pick one today, I'd probably go with Jerome. He runs the offense as the lead guard and spearheads the defense with more than two steals per game. He impacts the action in so many ways, whereas Guy is primarily renowned for his shooting and Hunter struggled a bit throughout December.
Until one clearly separates from the pack in ACC play, though, let's just assume that "To Be Determined Cavalier" will become a Wooden Award candidate—like when Kentucky went 38-1 in 2014-15 and it was eventually decided that Willie Cauley-Stein should be one of the five finalists for the award.
9. Jordan Caroline, Nevada
2018-19 Stats: 18.4 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 1.7 APG, 47.2 FG%, 42.9 3P%, 0.194 WS/40
MVP Performance: 25 points, 16 rebounds, two assists vs. BYU (Nov. 6)
As with Virginia and Michigan, one of the reasons it has been a challenge to promote a Player of the Year candidate for undefeated Nevada is because the team has too many options.
Caleb Martin is the leading scorer. Both he and twin brother Cody have been stuffing the stat sheet with rebounds and assists. And one could even try to argue that sixth man Jazz Johnson is the most valuable player on the roster, as he is shooting 56 percent from three and 95 percent from the free-throw line.
But Jordan Caroline created some separation from the (Wolf) Pack in Wednesday's 72-49 win over Utah State. He finished with 15 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists, leading the team in all three categories. It was his ninth double-double of the season, and it came against what was thought to be Nevada's toughest competition in the Mountain West Conference.
Because of turnover issues, subpar two-point shooting and minimal impact on defense, Caroline's advanced metrics (O-rating, WS/40, box plus/minus, etc.) leave much to be desired. But if you watch this team play, it's clear that Caroline is the guy the No. 6 Wolf Pack could least afford to live without—which explains why he is playing nearly 36 minutes per night.
The 6'7", 230-pound Caroline isn't nearly the force in the paint that Caleb Swanigan (6'9", 250 lbs) was for Purdue a couple years ago, but it's not hard to draw parallels between the two. The efficiency formulas didn't adore Swanigan for the same reasons they're a bit out on Caroline. But the double-double machine is the best player on one of the best teams. Voters will recognize that if Nevada continues to win.
8. Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga
2018-19 Stats: 21.2 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.9 SPG, 59.1 FG%, 0.256 WS/40
MVP Performance: 20 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three blocks vs. Duke (Nov. 21)
It was hard to pick a best performance by Rui Hachimura, because they're all darn good.
He has scored at least 17 points in 14 of 15 games, but he has not put up more than 26 points in a game since the season opener. He is just a consistent source of about 20 points and half a dozen rebounds on a nightly basis—whether it comes in an agonizing three-point loss to Tennessee or a 61-point blowout of Denver.
For that reason, it makes the most sense to say his best game came in Gonzaga's best game: the season-defining win over Duke.
Hachimura led the No. 7 Bulldogs in both points and rebounds in that Thanksgiving Eve stunner. The Blue Devils had no answer for him, which is really saying something, since they have a trio of 6'7"/6'8" athletes who might go 1-2-3 in the 2019 NBA draft. It's hard to imagine he'll be meeting his match in the West Coast Conference.
It took a few years for the import from Japan to deliver on his massive potential, but the sophomore was well worth the wait.
He would be even higher on this list if a) his win shares ratio was higher (blame his defensive effort for that) and b) there wasn't another Gonzaga player in our top five.
7. RJ Barrett, Duke
2018-19 Stats: 23.8 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.1 SPG, 46.8 FG%, 31.9 3P%, 0.267 WS/40
MVP Performance: 27 points, 15 rebounds, four assists vs. Hartford (Dec. 5)
RJ Barrett has scored at least 16 points in every game this season. He is the leading scorer for the favorite to win the national championship, and he's accounting for more than 10 combined rebounds and assists per game. That combination would usually be enough to declare someone the clear front-runner for National Player of the Year.
However, Barrett has struggled with efficiency, especially against quality opponents. And that's keeping him out of our top five for now.
In Duke's five games against Tier A or Tier B opponents (Kentucky, Auburn, Gonzaga, Indiana and Texas Tech), Barrett averaged 22.4 points (nice) on 22.2 field-goal attempts (not so nice). In the two most recent games against that quintet (Indiana and Texas Tech), he had two assists against 11 turnovers, shot below 50 percent from inside the arc and was 2-of-11 from downtown.
Barrett is supremely talented. There's no denying that. Barring injury, it's all but impossible to dream up a scenario in which he isn't a top-five draft pick in June. But there's no need for him to play this much hero ball with so much talent around him. If he could just turn two or three of his forced shots in each game into smart passes to the perimeter, he'd be a no-brainer finalist for the Wooden Award.
In other words, it wouldn't take much for him to get there. He's probably one huge game against a Virginia or a North Carolina away from joining Zion Williamson as the co-favorites for NPOY.
6. Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech
2018-19 Stats: 19.5 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 4.1 APG, 57.2 FG%, 45.2 3P%, 0.364 WS/40
MVP Performance: 26 points, six rebounds, two assists vs. Nebraska (Nov. 20)
Texas Tech lost six of its eight leading scorers from last season and was expected to take a sizable step backward from a program-record 27 wins. But the No. 11 Red Raiders might actually be better than they were last year thanks to Jarrett Culver's breakout campaign.
Culver was already one of the team's best players as a freshman, but he has thrived in the lead guard role previously held by Keenan Evans. Culver has become a much more assertive driver, averaging 2.8 two-point attempts for each three-point attempt, compared to last year's ratio of 1.2. That driving is paying dividends at the charity stripe as well, where his rate of free-throw attempts per 40 minutes has increased by more than 70 percent.
Moreover, he is a much more accurate shooter—both inside the arc and beyond it—and his rate of assists per 40 minutes (5.6) has more than doubled from last year (2.7).
As was the case with Evans last year, at times it seems like Culver is the only guy on the floor capable of scoring. He is putting up more points per game than Texas Tech's second- and third-leading scorers combined (19.4), and he is also a key piece of a defense that is leading the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. In nine of 13 games played thus far, Culver was the highest-scoring player on either team.
However, outside of a couple of games, Texas Tech's schedule has been a joke. The Red Raiders have faced five opponents ranked 300th or worse on KenPom.com. To this point, they have only faced two opponents with a realistic argument for an at-large bid: Duke and Nebraska. And while Culver was solid in both of those games, we need to see how his averages and efficiency hold up after a few weeks of Big 12 conference play.
If his numbers the rest of the way are even 80 percent of what they have been, though, he'll have a great case for the Wooden Award.
5. Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga
2018-19 Stats: 17.1 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 3.1 BPG, 1.7 APG, 1.6 SPG, 69.5 FG%, 0.319 WS/40
MVP Performance: 21 points, nine rebounds, three steals, two blocks, one assist vs. Tennessee (Dec. 9)
It has been said that defense wins championships, but defense should win the Wooden Award this year, as each of our top five players has been an absolute force on that end of the floor.
Of the quintet, Gonzaga's Brandon Clarke is the least well-known name. That's partially because he has been overshadowed by teammate Rui Hachimura and partially because he transferred in from San Jose State and the vast majority of college basketball fans had never seen him play before this season.
Heck, he probably wasn't even going to have a starting job until Killian Tillie suffered a stress fracture in his foot and was forced to miss the first two months of action. But don't let that distract you from the fact that Clarke deserves to be a first-team All-American for the work he has done through 15 games.
The 6'8", 210-pounder is one of the best (and most emphatic) shot-blockers in the country. And having that rim protector at their disposal has changed how the Bulldogs defend as a whole. They are hunting steals at a higher rate than usual without fear of gambling and giving up an easy bucket. Clarke is actually No. 2 on the team in steals, too, so his hands are always active.
Even though he's the third option in the offense behind Hachimura and Zach Norvell Jr., Clarke is averaging better than 17 points per game—in large part because he is such a force on the offensive glass. He has scored in double figures in every game and already has six double-doubles. Don't be surprised if he explodes for a points-rebounds-blocks triple-double at some point during the doldrums of West Coast Conference play.
4. Grant Williams, Tennessee
2018-19 Stats: 20.1 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.8 BPG, 1.1 SPG, 59.0 FG%, 0.327 WS/40
MVP Performance: 16 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists, one block vs. Gonzaga (Dec. 9)
Is there anything that Grant Williams can't do?
Tennessee's 6'7" power forward has scored at least 13 points in each game, and he is doing so much more efficiently than last season, boasting a true shooting percentage of 66.6. He was 10-of-11 from the field in his most recent game, and he's even shooting 41.2 percent from three-point range.
He only has four double-doubles on the season, but he is also an excellent rebounder. His rebounding rate would probably be higher if he wasn't sharing those glass duties with Kyle Alexander, Yves Pons, John Fulkerson and Admiral Schofield. A lot of Volunteers have a nose for the ball, but he is the best of the bunch.
The points and rebounds are what made him the SEC POY last season, but the major uptick in assists and defense might make him the national POY this time around.
Williams has doled out multiple dimes in all 12 games, averaging four of them. It's rare to find a big man this eager to get his teammates involved, but it's largely because of his ability and willingness to pass out of the post that No. 3 Tennessee has been so efficient on offense. Without his seven assists, the Vols never would have been able to hang around long enough to knock off Gonzaga.
And his impact on defense might be most important of all. He's not going to block 10 shots in a game, but he blocks more than enough shots (1.8 per game) to make opponents think twice about attacking the rim. He has active hands in passing lanes, too, leading Tennessee in steals. It's not easy to establish position in the paint against Williams, either, thanks to the 236-pounder's low center of gravity and aggressiveness.
He's the total package, and there's a strong case to be made that he should be as high as No. 2 on this list. We're really just splitting hairs for Nos. 2-6.
3. Dedric Lawson, Kansas
2018-19 Stats: 19.1 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.0 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 50.3 FG%, 0.260 WS/40
MVP Performance: 24 points, 13 rebounds, five assists vs. Tennessee (Nov. 23)
Before the season began, it felt like Kansas almost had too many quality frontcourt options.
Until it became public knowledge that Silvio De Sousa would be held out of action indefinitely in connection with the FBI trials, it seemed like he was destined to become a key weapon alongside returning stalwart Udoka Azubuike. The Jayhawks also still have Mitch Lightfoot, and they added to that mix a highly touted freshman (David McCormack) and one of the best transfers this sport has ever seen (Dedric Lawson).
But De Sousa hasn't played and Azubuike didn't even last a month before suffering an injury. Lightfoot has been a non-factor outside of an occasional blocked shot, and McCormack hardly gets onto the court except in blowouts. It has been all Lawson in the paint for Kansas—he has attempted more than twice as many two-pointers as any other player on the roster.
Meanwhile, Quentin Grimes has been a major disappointment early in what was supposed to be a one-and-done campaign, Charlie Moore is nowhere near the weapon he was for California, and Marcus Garrett has been in a season-long sophomore slump.
Lagerald Vick and Devon Dotson have been solid, but this team is nowhere near the top-to-bottom tour de force that was advertised in the preseason.
And yet, No. 5 Kansas is 12-1 and clearly one of the top candidates to win the national championship because Lawson has been unstoppable.
In six games against Tier A opponents, he is averaging 23.5 points and 13.3 rebounds, including the above performance against Tennessee. That head-to-head showing against Grant Williams served as a tiebreaker between the two big men in these rankings.
2. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
2018-19 Stats: 19.2 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 4.8 APG, 1.2 BPG, 56.9 FG%, 0.271 WS/40
MVP Performance: 34 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three steals, one block at Marquette (Dec. 8)
Ethan Happ is to college basketball what Baker Mayfield was to college football. As a sophomore, he was arguably one of the 10 best players in the country. Same goes for his junior year. And now that he's playing better than ever as a senior, he might finally be the National Player of the Year.
Happ is scoring, rebounding and assisting at a higher rate than in each of his first three seasons. He has 10 double-doubles in 13 games, including a triple-double in the season opener against Coppin State. Even though he is the primary center for the Badgers, he also has at least three assists in all but one game.
And like Dedric Lawson, Happ has played his best against the toughest opponents. In six Tier A games, he is averaging 22.0 points, 11.5 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.7 blocks. The Marquette performance was his most impressive, but 22 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and four blocks in the loss to Virginia is quite the runner-up.
Happ put up similar stats last year, but we didn't pay much attention to it because Wisconsin had a sub-.500 record for the first time in two decades. Now that the No. 22 Badgers (10-3) are back to being one of the best teams in what might be the best conference, his achievements are no longer flying below the radar.
If Zion Williamson falters in ACC play, Happ could be Wisconsin's second Wooden Award winner in five years after Frank Kaminsky.
1. Zion Williamson, Duke
2018-19 Stats: 19.8 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 2.1 SPG, 1.9 BPG, 65.2 FG%, 0.382 WS/40
MVP Performance: 27 points, 16 assists, six blocks, four assists vs. Army (Nov. 11)
The gap between Zion Williamson and the rest of the country is so wide that he's the only player athletically gifted enough to jump it.
That doesn't mean the race is over, but if the NPOY vote were held today, he might be the unanimous winner.
According to KenPom, Williamson ranks in the top 100 nationally in each of these categories: O-rating, effective field-goal percentage, true shooting percentage, two-point field-goal percentage, offensive rebounding percentage, block percentage, steal percentage and fouls drawn per 40 minutes. Teammate RJ Barrett, is only top 100 in percentage of possessions used and percentage of shots taken, which speaks volume to how many more of his touches should be going to Williamson.
According to Sports Reference, Williamson leads the nation in player efficiency rating, win shares per 40 minutes and box plus/minus—otherwise known as the three metrics that attempt to quantify a player's overall value added. And aside from Jarrett Culver being relatively close in WS/40 (0.364), Williamson is dominating all three categories, which is unheard of.
The last time a player finished in the top five in each of those three categories was Stephen F. Austin's Thomas Walkup in 2015-16, and he had the luxury of only playing six games all season against KenPom top 150 teams. The year before that, both Karl-Anthony Towns and Frank Kaminsky did it while each leading his team to the Final Four and more than 35 wins.
The last player to lead the nation in all three categories was Anthony Davis in 2011-12, which feels right, because that's the level of dominance we're talking about with Williamson. He owns the game on both ends of the floor, and there's no reason to expect that to change once ACC play begins. Williamson is already putting up ridiculous numbers in spite of facing Gonzaga, Kentucky, Texas Tech, Auburn and Indiana. It should be more of the same for the next two months.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.