Wooden Watch: Jerian Grant climbing list of nation's best players
After taking a holiday break, Wooden Watch returns with Jahlil Okafor on top, Frank Kaminsky right behind and the same players in the top five. Not everything, however, is as it was. There are two new faces in our top 10, one player who is back after falling out and another who is leading his team to unexpected heights while reaching some impressive heights of his own and threatening to crack the top five.
1. Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Stats: 19.5 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.5 apg, 68.2 FG%
Okafor’s most promising improvement this week was his free-throw shooting. Through 12 games, the freshman center had been shooting 50 percent from the charity stripe, but against Boston College last Saturday he went 14-of-17 (and 9-of-9 in the first half). Okafor credited the uptick to changing his pregame routine. “This was the first shootaround where I didn't shoot free throws," her told reporters after the game. "I just left the gym, kind of gave up. [Then] I just tried to lock in when I was shooting my free throws today."
Of course, no reliable conclusions can be drawn from a single game. Odds are, Okafor’s percentage will regress to the mean over his next several games. But if he’s figured out a formula for shooting better consistently, then defenses won’t even have the option of hacking him – and he’ll become even more dangerous offensively.
Stats: 16.6 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2.4 apg, 52.8 FG%
And what about Kaminsky’s most promising improvement? The senior big man has made huge strides as a rebounder this season. After finishing 2013-14 with a defensive rebounding percentage of 18.4 -- good for 330th in the country -- Kaminsky is up to 27.6 percent this season (17th). And collecting those boards has become contagious. The Badgers are the best team in the country in defensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom.com. As Kaminsky gets more minutes in Big Ten play, expect the race for No. 1 on this list to heat up. The Okafor-Kaminsky battle has become one of the most compelling storylines in college basketball this season.
Stats: 15.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.8 apg, 55.8 FG%
Virginia has not been a flashy team under head coach Tony Bennett. For all of the merits of the pack line defense, it isn’t always exciting to watch. Because of its emphasis on eliminating driving lanes, opponents often suffer more from shot-clock violations and last-second heaves rather than from shot blocks and steals. But the Cavaliers’ offense has come alive this season, and even ranks slightly ahead of the defense in adjusted efficiency (No. 4 in the country to No. 5). Are you not entertained?
The Cavaliers have four serious offensive weapons in Anderson, Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey. Anderson still stands out above his teammates because of his efficiency and effective field goal/true shooting percentages.
Stats: 9.9 ppg, 7 rpg, 0.9 apg, 58.8 FG%
Cauley-Stein had his worst game of the season against Ole Miss on Tuesday night. And yet, if he hadn't been in the game at the end, his Wildcats likely would have suffered their first loss of the season. He scored just seven points on 3-for-8 shooting and turned the ball over five times. But when the game was in the balance, he came up with two blocked shots, a pair of offensive rebounds and a putback layup. His hustle -- on a night when his shots weren't falling -- made all the difference for Kentucky.
Stats: 16.7 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 1.2 apg, 60.4 FG%
Harrell has the same problem as Cauley-Stein, but unfortunately for Louisville, for much different reasons. Cauley-Stein’s usage is low primarily because of Kentucky’s heavy reliance on platoons through the first 10 games of the season. Harrell’s usage is low because guards Terry Rozier and Chris Jones continue to use more possessions and more shots than Harrell. Rozier’s usage isn’t so much the issue -- his offensive rating is 111.8. Jones’ is. His sub-100 is anchored by his .0797 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports data. Harrell, by contrast, is averaging 1.039 PPP. If their usage rates reversed, Harrell’s player of the year candidacy would rise along with Louisville’s Final Four aspirations.
Stats: 17.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 6.3 apg, 51.3 FG%
Grant turned heads with one of the most impressive dunks of the season last Saturday, and he has risen three sports since our last look at the Wooden Watch despite having his worst performance of the season in Notre Dame’s 71-70 win over North Carolina on Monday night. He scored just eight points and fouled out, yet, because of his eight assists against just two turnovers and his 6-for-6 performance from the free-throw line, his offensive rating was still a respectable 100. That’s not a season-low to look down upon. Every player ranked above Grant has had at least one worst offensive outing. The question now will be if Grant can carry his impressive nonconference offensive performances into the much more challenging ACC. The conference has four top-20 defenses in terms of adjusted efficiency. The 13th-ranked Irish beat one of them Monday night, but despite their 14-1 start they’ll need more from Grant against Duke, Louisville and Virginia.
7. Delon Wright, Utah
Stats: 15.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 5.6 apg, 57.6 FG%
Last season, Wright did everything for Utah all the time -- well, almost all of it. As a freshman, he played 91.7 percent of available minutes and led the Utes in points, assists and, remarkably, blocks, while finishing second in rebounds. And while his raw numbers are down this season, that’s only because he’s surrounded by so much more talent. But Wright, making his Wooden Watch debut, is still the key to the surging Utes. He uses nearly 80 percent of available minutes, 24.5 percent of his team’s possessions and 23.6 percent of its shots. His steal percentage, assist rate and offensive rating are each top-50 in the country. With Wright, a careful ballhandler and improving shooter, at the helm, Utah is ready to challenge Arizona in Pac-12 play.
8. Ryan Boatright, UConn
Stats: 16.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 4.1 apg, 42.6 FG%
Will UConn’s season turn around after a big win on the road at Florida on Saturday? Boatright didn’t have his best game of the season -- he had 14 points, but shot 0-for-5 from two-point range and had four turnovers -- but he continues to battle through injuries. Against the Gators, he played with a left thigh contusion that “turned my leg 45 different colors,” he told the Hartford Courant. If the Huskies can use that win as a springboard for a run in the AAC and Boatright can get healthy, expect find his name to rise on thislist.
Stats: 16.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.2 apg, 47.7 FG%
Baker is back on Wooden Watch after falling off in our most recent edition. People can continue to underestimate his athleticism at their own peril.
10. Georges Niang, Iowa State
Stats: 15.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.8 apg, 47.1 FG%
This is Niang's first appearnce on the Wooden Watch, but he had nonetheless had a mostly great 2014 portion of the 2014-15 season. He played well and had some fun along the way -- blowing kisses to the Iowa student section after a 16-point performance in a win over the in-state rival Hawkeyes last month. But he’ll need to be more consistent to rise any further in the rankings -- or, at the very least, not to be replaced by teammates Monte Morris or Bryce Dejean-Jones.