Ranking Obi Toppin and Top Men's National Player of the Year Candidates

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 6, 2020

Ranking Obi Toppin and Top Men's National Player of the Year Candidates

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    The 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Trophy were announced Thursday amid a wide-open race for National Player of the Year honors.

    Iowa center Luka Garza, Oregon point guard Payton Pritchard and Marquette guard Markus Howard are among the top major conference performers vying for the hardware.

    However, high-flying Dayton star Obi Toppin and San Diego State leading scorer Malachi Flynn are also legitimate candidates who have led their mid-major teams to national prominence.

    Who will walk away with the hardware?

    Ahead, we've provided a rundown of each player's candidacy and ranked them based on who is most likely to be named the top men's college basketball player for the 2019-20 season. Players are ranked based on individual statistical production and impact on team success.

10. G Myles Powell, Seton Hall

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    Stats: 21.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.3 SPG, 22.4 PER

    In a lot of ways, senior guard Myles Powell had a better all-around season as a junior.

    He averaged more points (23.1), assists (2.9) and steals (2.0) per game while shooting at a higher percentage from the floor (.447 to .396) and from beyond the arc (.363 to .306).

    However, he did that for a 20-14 Seton Hall team that settled for a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament and a first-round exit against upstart Wofford.

    This year, the Pirates are 21-8 and projected for a No. 2 seed, according to the latest bracketology from ESPN's Joe Lunardi.

    Since Powell is Seton Hall's clear star, there is no question that improved win-loss performance has a positive impact on his National Player of the Year candidacy.

9. G Devon Dotson, Kansas

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    Stats: 18.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 4.0 APG, 2.1 SPG, 25.2 PER

    Devon Dotson arrived at Kansas with lofty expectations after grading out as a 5-star recruit and the No. 21 overall player in the 2018 class.

    He started all 36 games as a freshman and finished with a modest 12.3 points and 3.5 assists per contest while posting a 17.1 player efficiency rating (PER).

    With Dedric Lawson (19.4 PPG) and Lagerald Vick (14.1 PPG) both departing after last season, Dotson has become the leading scorer for a Jayhawks team with national title aspirations.

    His 18.2 points per game lead the Big 12, and he's been a disruptor as a defensive player, as he is tops in the conference in steals (62) and steals per game (2.1).

    The biggest thing holding Dotson back in the National Player of the Year conversation is the fact that teammate Udoka Azubuike might be the Jayhawks' most important cog.

8. F Jalen Smith, Maryland

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    Stats: 15.4 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 29.1 PER

    Returning to school for his sophomore season was the right move for Jalen Smith.

    On potential alone, he likely would have been a second-round pick in last year's NBA draft after averaging 11.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game as a freshman while playing alongside fellow big man Bruno Fernando.

    However, he put himself in the first-round conversation after adding muscle and refining his game on both ends of the floor.

    B/R NBA draft analyst Jonathan Wasserman had him going No. 27 overall in his latest mock draft, offering the following analysis: "Teams are beginning to take Smith more seriously now that he's physically stronger, making a three-pointer per game and averaging 2.3 blocks. Even if it's tough to picture significant upside, his three-and-D potential as a big is worth coveting this late."

    Smith ranks second in the Big Ten with 69 blocks and has knocked down 31 threes at a solid 37.8 percent clip. That kind of skill set from an athletic player with a long 6'10" frame holds obvious NBA appeal. He's also an excellent rebounder with 20 double-doubles on the year.

    The biggest knock on him as far as his National Player of the Year candidacy is the fact that he shares the spotlight with Anthony Cowan (16.2 PPG, 4.6 APG) on a good Maryland team.

7. C Vernon Carey Jr., Duke

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    Stats: 17.6 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 34.0 PER

    A 5-star recruit and the No. 6 overall player in the 2019 recruiting class, Vernon Carey Jr. has been the offensive focal point for the young Duke Blue Devils.

    The team's eight-man rotation features four freshmen, two sophomores and two juniors, and while point guard Tre Jones (16.1 PPG, 6.2 APG) is the catalyst, Carey is the team's go-to option.

    The 6'10", 270-pound center leads the ACC and ranks fourth in the nation with a 34.0 PER. His .577 shooting percentage also leads the ACC, and he has recorded 14 double-doubles.

    In a lot of ways, Carey's season is similar to Jabari Parker's only year at Duke.

    Parker averaged 19.1 points and 8.7 rebounds per game and posted a 28.4 PER for a young Duke team that went 26-9 in 2013-14 and netted a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. He was a Wooden Award finalist and a consensus First Team All-American.

    The high-profile nature of being the leading scorer at Duke should similarly help Carey's case when it comes time to vote on end-of-the-year awards.

6. C Udoka Azubuike, Kansas

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    Stats: 13.7 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 2.6 BPG, 31.5 PER

    One of the most imposing figures in college basketball at 7'0" and 270 pounds, Kansas' Udoka Azubuike has returned strong from a torn ligament in his right hand that limited him to nine games last year.

    Dotson (18.2 PPG) is the Jayhawks' leading scorer, but it's the big man in the middle who drives the ship for one of the nation's top teams.

    With a .751 shooting percentage that leads the country, Azubuike is one of the most efficient offensive players out there.

    He went off for 29 points on 12-of-15 shooting against another top-tier team in Dayton earlier this year, and he tallied a career-high 31 points Wednesday against TCU.

    However, his best game of the year was a 23-point, 19-rebound, three-block performance against Big 12 rival and then-No. 1 Baylor on Feb. 22 when he played a season-high 36 minutes in a 64-61 victory.

    At a time when teams are going smaller and perimeter play dominates the college basketball landscape, Azubuike is an old-school post presence and a game-changing force for the nation's No. 1 squad.

5. G Payton Pritchard, Oregon

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    Stats: 20.2 PPG, 5.4 APG, 4.3 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 26.4 PER

    After averaging 12.9 points and 4.6 assists per game for a well-balanced Oregon team that won 25 games and reached the Sweet 16 last year, Payton Pritchard has emerged as the face of the Ducks program as a senior.

    The 2016 4-star recruit leads the Pac-12 in scoring (20.2 PPG) and assists (5.4 APG), and he has more than twice as many assists (158) than turnovers (77).

    He has also become a dangerous deep threat, raising his three-point percentage from 32.8 to 40.5 while knocking down 81 threes on the year.

    Pritchard exploded for a career-high 38 points in 45 minutes in an overtime win against Arizona on Feb. 22, and that type of workload is nothing new.

    Since Sports Reference began tracking minutes played during the 2009-10 season, Pritchard ranks eighth on the all-time list and No. 1 among active players with 4,781.

    Put another way: He has played in 1,062 of 1,195 possible minutes for the Ducks this season, which means he has been on the court roughly 88.9 percent of the time for an Oregon team that is headed for a high seed in the NCAA tournament.

4. G Malachi Flynn, San Diego State

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    Stats: 17.6 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.8 SPG, 28.0 PER

    Now the leading scorer on a 28-1 San Diego State team, Malachi Flynn was a 3-star recruit in 2016 who began his college career at Washington State.

    After averaging 15.8 points and 4.3 assists as a sophomore for a 12-19 team, he spent last season watching from the sidelines following a transfer from from San Diego State.

    Now he's the go-to guy on an NCAA tournament contender.

    Aside from his 17.6 points per game, which rank fourth in the conference, Flynn also leads the Mountain West in assists (147) and steals (51), and he has done an excellent job of limiting turnovers (51).

    Flynn has scored in double digits in 28 of 29 games this season, including a career-high 36 points on 13-of-20 shooting in a road win over Nevada on Feb. 29.

    He also had big games against Creighton (21 points) and Iowa (28 points) at the Las Vegas Invitational in November, proving he can shine against top competition.

3. G Markus Howard, Marquette

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    Stats: 27.6 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.0 SPG, 29.0 PER

    Markus Howard can flat-out score.

    He had a 52-point game against Providence as a sophomore, a 53-point explosion against Creighton during a junior season in which he averaged 25.0 points per contest, and he added another marquee performance this past November with a 51-point effort against USC.

    The senior guard leads the nation in scoring (27.6 PPG) and is second in made threes (115), and he's shooting a solid 40.5 percent from beyond the arc despite the high volume.

    His decision to come back for his senior season was a surprise, but it was the right one for him, as he explained to Jordan Schultz of ESPN:

    "In the back of my mind and in my heart, I knew there were still things I needed to get better at. I thought it would be really important for me to complete my degree and just finish what I started. I wanted to end on a good note, especially the way in which last year ended, and that wasn't the way I wanted my career at Marquette to end. It has paid dividends so far."

    Howard has scored a staggering 34.4 percent of Marquette's points this year, and the 18-11 Golden Eagles are comfortably in the NCAA tournament field as a No. 7 seed in the latest bracketology from Lunardi.

2. C Luka Garza, Iowa

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    Stats: 23.7 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 34.4 PER

    A solid performer during his first two seasons at Iowa when he averaged 12.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, Luka Garza has turned into a star for the Hawkeyes.

    The 6'11", 260-pound center leads the Big Ten in scoring (23.7 PPG) and ranks fourth in rebounding (9.9 RPG). He's also improved his shooting percentage from .531 to .540 despite nearly doubling his shot attempts per game.

    On top of that, he's added an outside shot, knocking down 38 three-pointers at a solid 35.8 percent clip.

    A strong case can be made that the Big Ten is the best conference in the country this year, and there is little question Garza has been its best player. He's averaging an eye-popping 26.1 points per game in conference play and has been held below 20 points just once in 19 B1G games.

    He poured in a career-high 44 points on the road against Michigan on Dec. 6 in the conference opener, and he had huge efforts against Indiana (38 points, eight rebounds, four blocks) and Penn State (34 points, 12 rebounds).

    Simply put, he's been dominant, and Iowa wouldn't be sitting on 20 wins without him.

1. F Obi Toppin, Dayton

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    Stats: 19.8 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.3 BPG, 0.9 SPG, 32.0 PER

    Laine Higgins of the Wall Street Journal recently wrote an article titled, "The College Basketball Season Without a Household Name," which offered the following assessment:

    "Last winter, a certain 6-foot-7, 285-pound Duke freshman dominated the court and the airwaves: Zion Williamson was quite literally the biggest thing to hit college basketball in decades. Making it to March without knowing his name would have required hibernation.

    "But this year, a season without One Great Team or One Transcendent Player, it's a different story. You would be forgiven if you had no idea who might succeed Williamson as the 2020 national player of the year."

    A big reason for that is the nation's most compelling player is suiting up for the Dayton Flyers in the Atlantic 10 Conference.

    Obi Toppin filled up the stat sheet as a freshman with 14.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.8 blocks and 0.6 steals per game.

    This season, he's improved those numbers across the board.

    Since being held to eight points against Grambling on Dec. 23, Toppin is averaging 20.4 points per game on a blistering .636 field-goal percentage, and he has the Flyers in position for a run at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

    In terms of impact on his team's success, the case for Toppin to win National Player of the Year is a compelling one.


    All stats courtesy of Sports Reference, unless otherwise noted. Recruit rankings via 247Sports.