A new year in college basketball brings a new wave of candidates to take home the Naismith College Player of the Year award come season’s end. While every player enters the season with the mindset of writing their name in the history books, only one will do so. Last year’s hardware was taken home by former-Michigan point guard Trey Burke. Prior to him, household names such as Anthony Davis, Jimmer Fredette, Blake Griffin, and Tyler Hansbrough.
Numbers, although a large part of the equation, do not tell the whole story. It’s all about how much a player contributes to helping his team win. This year will be no different in this regard. However, it will be unique in at least one way. When all said and done, three or four freshman will likely be among the top-ten candidates, and perhaps, one will even take the award home. Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis are currently the only two freshman to ever win the award, but with the talented nucleus of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, and Aaron Gordon, this may be the year that a third diaper dandy leaves with hardware.
With all of that said, two or three players will stand out as men among boys when March rolls around. It is never too early for predictions though. Here is our shortlist of players that may be in the final conversation of decision makers.
5. Julius Randle, Kentucky
Per Game Averages: 18.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.6 blocks
Julius Randle is one of two freshman in the first version of Busting Bracket’s first list of the top-five candidates. Randle posted a double-double in each of his first seven games as a collegiate athlete, snapping the streak in a match-up with Providence that saw him post a line that included 12 points and 8 rebounds.
Despite averaging just 13.7 points per contest in his last three, Kentucky coach John Calipari and Big Blue Nation should be confident that he will bounce back strong. Randle’s usage rate is incredibly high, and given that most of his baskets come from around the basket, his scoring numbers should be consistent as long as he continues to finish.
4. Doug McDermott, Creighton
Per Game Averages: 24.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 0.9 assists
McDermott was in the conversation for last year’s Naismith Award for much of the season before Trey Burke took his game to a totally different world. The sharp-shooting forward will score points with ease, and his rebounding has improved as his game has matured over time.
For the first time since February of last season, McDermott scored single digit points against George Washington this weekend. As expected, the senior bounced back with vengence, netting 22 points in 23 minutes in a win over Long Beach State. Regardless of how Creighton’s season goes, look for McDermott to do what he’s done throughout his whole career: score.
3. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
Per Game Averages: 20.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 3.0 steals
Smart took the college basketball world by storm during a monstrous three-game stretch that saw him average 31.3 points per game over impressive opponents in Memphis, South Florida, and Purdue. Kevin Durant even acknowledged Smart’s ability, saying publicly that he believed the Oklahoma State point guard could play in the NBA this season.
A season ago, scouts and fans fantasized over Smart’s unique size and skill set. Now that he has returned for another season rather than heading to the association, it appears that his game has grown leaps and bounds. If that truly is the case, do not be surprised if Smart runs away with the award.
2. Jabari Parker, Duke
Per Game Averages: 22.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.6 blocks, 1.1 steals
Everyone knew that Jabari Parker was talented heading into this year, but nobody but Parker himself expected him to get off to the type of start to his collegiate career that has.
Parker has shown off his versatility, scoring from the perimeter, in transition, the post, and rebounding the basketball at a high rate in the process. Not only is he unusually athletic for his size, but he has the ability to handle the ball and go coast-to-coast at any time.
Most impressively, Parker’s three-point range has been on full display. At 6-foot-8, with a consistent jump shot and athleticism that doesn’t pigeon hole him as strictly a stretch-four, the NBA can’t wait to have him. Just ask the 68 NBA scouts that saw him drop 27 points and grab 9 boards in a loss to Andrew Wiggins and the Kansas Jayhawks in his second collegiate game.
1. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut
Per Game Averages: 16.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 steals
In UConn’s two biggest games since Kevin Ollie replaced Jim Calhoun as head coach of the Huskies, Napier averaged 26.5 points per contest on 9-of-14 shooting from three-point land against Indiana and Florida. SPLASH.
It’s not all about the three-ball for college basketball’s best player though. For instance, if you let him get to the middle of the court, you might as well add two points for his team rather than waste the time.
He has picked apart defenses to this point, not just with his scoring, but his play-making as well. Nobody will question the fact that nobody in college hoops makes his teammates better the way that Napier does. Nobody means as much to their team as Napier does.