Wooden Watch: SEC big man leads group of best sophomores
Last week, we whittled the Wooden field down to five and then ranked the top five freshmen in the country. This week, we’ll keep the same formula and move onto the sophomores.
Stats: 17.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 2.4 apg, 53.8 FG%
2. Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Stats: 18.7 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 1.5 apg, 66.2 FG%
The two most common complaints I hear for listing Kaminsky ahead of Okafor are that 1) Okafor will be a better pro and that 2) Okafor dominated Kaminsky when Duke beat Wisconsin in early December. Okafor will probably be a better pro, but that doesn’t matter for the purposes of this ranking. And Okafor didn’t dominate Kaminsky. They both played quite well (Kaminsky had 17 points and nine rebounds; Okafor had 13 and six). And even if Okafor had dominated Kaminsky, it is still only one game in a long season.
The reason Kaminsky is ahead right now is because while both are similarly effective on offense, Kaminsky is a much stronger defender. His defensive rating (83.8) is nearly 10 points better than Okafor’s (93.5). Defensive ratings are notoriously tricky, and Kaminsky gets a boost from being on an overall better defense, but the eye test backs up Kaminsky’s edge. He can be backed down by bigger post players in the paint, but he’s adept at guarding switches away from the basket. Okafor struggles outside of the paint, and he often seems to be playing to avoid fouls when he’s in it.
Okafor, of course, has not had three seasons to develop in his team's system as Kaminsky has. But the raw talent and fast learning curve have made Duke's center the focal point of a national title contender, and he would be a worthy recipient of any player of the year award. As the battle between Kaminsky and Okafor intensifies, the distance between them and the rest of the field grows.
3. Delon Wright, Utah
Stats: 14.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 6.1 apg, 53.9 FG%
A good way to evaluate point guards’ offensive ability is Synergy Sports’ points per possession plus assists metric. As you can probably guess, it takes in not only the player’s buckets, but also the points that result from his assists. On his own, Wright averages 1.082 points per possession. Factor in assists, and it jumps almost a half-point, to 1.544, which is in the 99th percentile in the country. In other words, for every two of Wright’s offensive possessions, Utah puts up three points. And Wright uses nearly 25 percent of the Utes’ possessions. He is narrowly edging Notre Dame's Jerian Grant in that category (1.534 ppp+a) and offensive rating (129.9 to 128.9). Wright’s defensive skills, particularly his ballhawking, keep him comfortably in the No. 3 spot this week, but Grant isn’t going away anytime soon.
4. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
Stats: 17.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 6.5 apg, 51.6 FG%
After Grant led the Fighting Irish past Duke in South Bend on Wednesday night with a stellar 23-point, 12-assist performance, Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said, “He’s putting himself in position to be a very wealthy man.” Regardless of his pro prospects or his stats, Grant is simply fun to watch. Let’s start with his range, which appears to be ... halfcourt. (Hover to start all GIFs.)
Then move onto his calm in traffic and his ability to improvise.
And finally, Grant called off would-be court rushers after the win. You have the No. 8 team in the country, Notre Dame fans. Act like knocking off No. 4 is no big deal.
Stats: 13.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.9 apg
We are about to learn a lot about Anderson and Virginia. The Cavaliers will face Duke (at home), North Carolina (away), Louisville (at home) and N.C. State (away) in their next four games. Anderson has scored just 27 points combined in his past three games, but his efficiency remains high because of his ability to get to the free throw line and also protect the ball (he has nine assists to one turnover during that span). Anderson’s shooting is sure to turn around -- he didn’t arrive at a 65.6 true shooting percentage through 19 games by accident.
Five best sophomores
Sophomore year is often a revealing season for many college players. Not everyone is able to adjust to a higher level of play as soon as they set foot on campus, much less be good enough to advance to the NBA after just one season in school. But each of the players below has stepped forward in their second season to become vital parts to their teams' success.
1. Bobby Portis, Arkansas
Stats: 17.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 1.0 apg, 56.1 FG%
In the preseason, many outlets -- SI included -- predicted that Arkansas would be an NCAA tournament team and that it would finish behind Kentucky and Florida in the SEC. Well, we were half right. While the Gators have struggled, it is the Razorbacks that have looked like the second best team in the conference. Portis' improvement is a big reason why. In August, my colleague Seth Davis predicted a breakout year for Portis, and he has improved in almost every metric, from offensive rating (122.3, compared to 116.1 as a freshman) to usage (24.5%, up from 21.4%). The 6-foot-11 stud is wisely taking a lot of shots at the rim (40 percent according to hoop-math.com), but he is able to step out and score too -- shooting 38.7 percent on jumpers, 66 percent on assisted jumpers and 56.2 percent from three-point range (albeit on just 16 attempts).
2. Terry Rozier, Louisville
Stats: 18.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.6 apg, 46.9 FG%
In conference play, Rozier has begun to make a case for himself as the Cardinals' best player. Fellow guard Chris Jones has improved from the non-conference season, but he still struggles with consistency and finding his shot (in his past eight outings, he's had four games in which he made at least three shots from beyond the arc, and three games in which he didn't even attempt a shot from out there), and forward Montrezl Harrell has slowly faded from the national spotlight. Rozier, meanwhile, has been consistently excellent. In ACC play, he has had just one sub-100 offensive rating (98, against Clemson). He’s using 26.3 percent of Louisville’s possessions, 29.0 percent of its shots and doing so with a 115.4 offensive rating. Most importantly, he’s not just reliant on his jump shot. Look at his ability to create points:
3. Troy Williams, Indiana
Stats: 12.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.9 apg, 57.6 FG%
Guards James Blackmon and Yogi Ferrell get -- and deserve -- much of the attention for Indiana’s surprising season in the wake of last year's 17-15 campaign, but Williams has been almost as critical to the Hoosiers’ bounce-back season. He's even been playing out of position recently to help make up for the loss of center Hanner Mosquera-Perea, who hasn't played since Jan. 10 because of a right knee injury. At 6-foot-7, Williams isn’t asked to post up often, but he has excelled almost everywhere else. He’s first on the team in rebounds, third in scoring and third in assists per game.
4. Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina
Stats: 13 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.0 apg, 57.8 FG%
SI's often-prescient senior writer Luke Winn put Meeks at No. 2 in his annual The Breakout Sophomore Formula™ column in September, and he's been proven right. (And I now owe Luke a royalty fee for mentioning that in this space.) Meeks and junior forward Brice Johnson have capitalized on James Michael McAdoo's departure -- McAdoo was a high-volume, mediocre efficiency shooter -- and helped to ease some of the burden on their All-America caliber teammate, junior guard Marcus Paige. Meeks, as has been well documented, dropped 50 pounds in the offseason, and he's playing much better because of it. He's playing seven more minutes a game, so his raw numbers naturally have risen; but he's also been more efficient. His offensive rating has risen nearly 10 points, he's blocking a higher percentage of shots and he's drawing more fouls.
5. Dakari Johnson, Kentucky
Stats: 8.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.1 apg, 53.2 FG%
There's a good case to be made for any player listed below to be put in this last spot. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is Arizona's most important defender, Monte Morris is the caretaker of the country's eight-most efficient offense at Iowa State, Kris Dunn does everything for Providence, etc. But Johnson earns his spot here for being the most-used player on the country's No. 1 team. His 112.4 offensive rating is excellent considering the volume of his work, and he has the highest effective field goal percentage of anyone on the team outside of spot shooter Devin Booker and the much-less-used Willie Cauley-Stein. Johnson also leads Kentucky in rebounding percentage, and his offensive rebounding percentage of 15.2 is 23rd in the country.