Early 2020-21 College Basketball Player of the Year Candidates

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistDecember 28, 2020

Early 2020-21 College Basketball Player of the Year Candidates

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Luka Garza entered the 2020-21 season as the front-runner for National Player of the Year, and one month hasn't changed that.

    But as Iowa's center strengthens his resume, several other top players are within striking distance.

    Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu and two Gonzaga standoutsJalen Suggs and Drew Timmeheadline the group of key challengers. They have a few months to narrow the gap, though Garza is maintaining a high bar.

    The list of candidates is subjective but considers total production, team impact and player reputations.

7. Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    As a freshman at Indiana, Trayce Jackson-Davis averaged 13.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. While that performance landed him on the preseason watch list for Player of the Year honors, he was a low-tier contender at best.

    Heading into 2021, his chances are improving.

    Jackson-Davis has lifted his production noticeably, tallying 20.0 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. The only other player in the country with those averages is Garza, per Sports Reference.

    The challenge for Jackson-Davis is Indiana's 5-4 record. Since the NPOY winner tends to come from top-tier programs, the Hoosiers need a stronger record for him to remain a candidate.

6. Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

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    Mitch Alcala/Associated Press

    A projected top pick in the 2021 NBA draft, Cade Cunningham has lived up to lofty expectations so far.

    The freshman has collected 19.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game, also hitting 36.7 percent from three. Cunningham, who recently buried a late winner against Wichita State, has propelled Oklahoma State to a 6-2 record.

    Context is important, though.

    Cunningham has improved his draft profile with decent long-range shooting and better passing than anticipated. For this particular honor, he's drifting a bit.

    Oklahoma State is a mid-tier Big 12 program and already 0-2 in conference games. If the Pokes struggle to contend in their league, Cunningham will lack the appeal the next players should have.

5. Jared Butler, Baylor

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Baylor has regularly had good offenses, but the 2020-21 roster is taking the program to an unfamiliar level. The Bears have averaged more than 80 points only once in Scott Drew's 18-year tenure, but they're putting up 93.7 per game so far.

    Because of his effectiveness as the primary ball-handler, Jared Butler lands much of the credit for that success.

    The junior has scored 14.8 points per game and drilled 42.9 percent of his three-pointers. Plus, after averaging 2.9 assists in his first two seasons combined, he has thrived in pick-and-roll sets and increased that output to 6.5 per game.

    As long as Butler is healthy, Baylor's team success should keep him in the NPOY discussion.

4. Drew Timme, Gonzaga

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    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    Forwards aren't supposed to be this graceful.

    Thanks to excellent footwork, Drew Timme breaks the mold of how a typical 6'10", 235-pound forward operates. He's comfortable around the basketa base expectation for a post playerbut is also confident enough to dribble the length of the court.

    Best of all, he's highly efficient. Along with 7.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game, Timme has netted 21.6 points per contest while converting 60.4 percent of his shots.

    Jalen Suggs is the engine of an offense averaging 95.1 points, but Timme unlocks Gonzaga's full scoring potential.

3. Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga

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    Josh Jurgens/Associated Press

    We can argue and disagree over who exactly is the most complete ball-handler in the country, but Jalen Suggs would undoubtedly be a part of that conversation.

    The freshman is a spectacular talent.

    Suggs has pulled the strings for Gonzaga's high-powered offense, showing off a calm but aggressive approach to create for himself and others. He's averaged 15.1 points and 5.9 assists, hitting 48.0 percent of his threes and 55.6 of his overall field-goal attempts.

    Given that he's thrived against high-level competition (Iowa, Kansas), Suggs should dominate in West Coast Conference play.

2. Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois

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    Holly Hart/Associated Press

    Few players can take control of a game like Ayo Dosunmu, who's already posted at least 25 points and five assists in four contests.

    While some concern over his decision-making is reasonable, the junior's total performance far outweighs that. He's provided 24.1 points and 5.2 assists per game while hitting 44.4 percent of his threes. He has also grabbed 7.2 rebounds per game.

    According to Sports Reference, he ranks second nationally in offensive win shares (1.8) and fourth in scoring.

    It's relatively early, but Dosunmu entered the season as the top challenger to Garza and has maintained that label.

1. Luka Garza, Iowa

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Last season, Luka Garza earned All-American honors and was named the Big Ten Player of the Year. He's been even better in 2020-21.

    The center is currently pacing the country at 28.8 points per game. He also leads in offensive win shares (2.2), box plus/minus (19.9) and player efficiency rating (48.2), per Sports-Reference.

    While he's averaging 10.0 rebounds and 1.2 assists, his biggest improvement is his shooting range. Garza knocked down 33.5 percent of his three-point attempts in his first three seasons, but he's converted them at a 52.9 percent rate this year.

    If the 7-2 Hawkeyes can sustain their pace, Garza will be difficult to surpass in the Player of the Year race.