After expanding our look at the nation's best players by examining the top five freshmen and sophomores the past two weeks, respectively, this week Wooden Watch is focusing on the country's most notable juniors. Some of those names will look quite familiar, as several of them held down spots on the Wooden Watch earlier in the season before fading from the national player of the year discussion, but they still deserve recognition as being among the best in the country in their class.
Best players overall
Stats: 17.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 2.3 apg, 54.7 FG%
In the past two columns, I’ve argued that Kaminsky’s defense has earned him the No. 1 spot over Duke's Jahlil Okafor. But it’s time to defend his offense as well. Kaminsky is the primary weapon of an offense that is on pace to become the most efficient of the KenPom.com era (since 2002). The Badgers average just 60.6 possessions per game (337th in the country), but that’s exactly the way Bo Ryan wants it. Instead of trying to get as many possessions as possible, he teaches his team to maximize each one that they have.
Just look at Tuesday night’s game against Indiana. The Badgers turned 65 possessions into 92 points. They shot 60.4 percent from the floor, 54.5 percent from three-point range and 90.3 percent from the foul line. All five starters scored in double figures, but once again it was Kaminsky who stood out, as he scored a game-high 23 points and pulled down six rebounds. For the season, he’s using 27.8 percent of his team’s possessions with an offensive rating of 127.2.
2. Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Stats: 18.3 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 1.6 apg, 66.4 FG%
I always appreciate a big man who knows the type of player he is. Okafor is the best pure post player in college basketball this season and he knows it. According to hoop-math.com, Okafor is taking 70.2 percent of his shots at the rim, and he’s making 72.5 percent of them. He's also making 52.1 percent of the rest of his field goal attempts. And here’s the best part: He has not attempted a three-pointer all season. Some big men, like Louisville's Montrezl Harrell, think that they can be spot-up shooters. With rare exceptions like Kaminsky, that’s not the case. Okafor knows he’s not going to do that. He scores at the rim, and he does it better than anyone else in college hoops right now.
3. Delon Wright, Utah
Stats: 14.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 5.6 apg, 54.1 FG%
Wright’s defensive instincts continue to separate him from the pack of player of the year candidates trailing Kaminsky and Okafor. Check out his three steals from Utah’s most recent game, at USC. On the first, he recognized a shaky pass and pounced on it -- and then finished with a jam. (Hover over GIFs to start them.)
On the second, he made up for a teammate’s turnover by snagging the ball almost straight out of the inbound-passer’s hands. (That light you see at the beginning is an ESPN graphic, not a flash of the divine.)
And on the third, he Malcolm Butlered his way into the lane to intercept a pass. He then finished with an absurd layup that was waived off because of a foul. Rest assured, he went on to get his two points by the end of the possession.
Stats: 17.3 ppg, 3 rpg, 6.3 apg, 51.3 FG%
Grant can do a lot for Notre Dame, but he can’t do everything. In the Irish’s somewhat shocking 76-72 loss to Pitt last Saturday, Grant scored just four points in the first 36 minutes of action. When he finally turned it on, he was unstoppable, scoring his team’s last 10 points. He became such a focal point for the Panthers' defense that they triple-teamed him as he drove to the paint for what could have been a game-winning bucket. Instead, he kicked it out to a wide-open Steve Vasturia. A similar play had worked beautifully one game earlier against Duke, leading to a three-pointer that clinched an upset win for Notre Dame. At the Zoo, though, Vasturia's shot didn’t go through, and the Irish lost for just the second time in ACC play.
Stats: 13.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.1 apg, 49.7 FG%
The Cavaliers took no time to mourn their first loss of the season. After falling at home against Duke last Saturday, they beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Monday. Anderson seems to have rediscovered his three-point stroke in the win over the Tar Heels, too. He entered the game with the Blue Devils shooting 51.9 percent from three but made only 1-of-6 from deep that night; against UNC, he hit 3-of-5. He also posted his best offensive rating, 144, of conference play.
Best juniors, non-Justin Anderson division
We won’t repeat on Anderson here, but we will begin with three of his teammates:
1. Anthony Gill, Malcolm Brogdon and Mike Tobey, Virginia
Brogdon, guard: 13.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.7 apg, 45.8 FG%
Gill, forward: 11 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 0.9 apg, 56.6 FG%
Tobey, center: 7.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 0.4 apg, 51.2 FG%
Virginia revolves around its juniors. Anderson is the best -- and the most improved -- but Brogdon, Gill and Tobey each play their parts with aplomb. Consider, too, that Anderson was the highest-rated recruit of the group, and he was No. 48 in the composite RSCIhoops.com rankings. Tobey was 92nd, Brogdon 94th and Gill was outside the top 100. Now all but Tobey are in KenPom.com’s list of top 10 player of the year candidates. Gill leads the Cavs in usage at 24.9 percent, with an O-rating of 123.9. Brogdon trails Gill and Anderson at 23.9 percent and 118.1, respectively. And Tobey’s raw numbers are the least impressive because he doesn't play quite as much, but his post presence is essential to helping defend opposing big men.
2. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
Stats: 15.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 1.1 apg, 57.3 FG%
Since it was announced on Jan. 20 that Harrell had stripped himself of his captaincy at Louisville, he has been playing much more consistently. His offensive rating, which dipped as low as 80 early in January, has been 108 or better against Pitt, Boston College, North Carolina and Miami. His 22 point, 15-rebound performance against the Tar Heels last Saturday was the biggest reason the Cardinals were able to rally from an 18-point second-half deficit and get a much-needed win against an upper-tier ACC opponent. He may no longer have the title of captain, but Harrell is still Louisville's most important player. Indeed, everything seems to be coming up for Harrell lately.
3. Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
Stats: 15.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.9 apg, 53.4 FG%
Just to give you an idea of how valuable Wiltjer is to Gonzaga, his most apt comparison from an efficiency standpoint is Jerian Grant. Wiltjer's usage rate is 25.8 percent (to Grant’s 25.4) and his offensive rating is 127.6 (to Grant’s 128.0). Wiltjer is the primary option on the nation's third-most efficient offense this year, on a team that plays inside-out basketball. He is also one of five players who average in double figures for the Bulldogs, who have risen to No. 2 in the latest AP poll.
And I guess if Gonzaga ever gets in a tricky situation where it needs a behind-the-back-from-half-court game-winner, then they know who to turn to:
4. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
Stats: 8.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 0.8 apg, 58.9 FG%
Cauley-Stein’s outstanding defense (for more on which, see Luke Winn's story in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated) put him on our main Wooden Watch list in November and December. He’s shown a tendency to disappear offensively during conference play, however, averaging only 6.8 points during that time. Take Tuesday night's game against Georgia, for instance. Cauley-Stein played 31 minutes, tied for the most on the team, but scored only six points while grabbing five rebounds and picking up four (mostly) untimely fouls. His body of work earns him a spot in this discussion for now, but that will change if he continues to be a non-factor offensively.
Stats: 16.4 ppg, 4 rpg, 2.2 apg, 45.4 FG%
Don’t interpret Northern Iowa’s 70-54 win over Wichita State last Saturday to mean that the Shockers aren’t good this year. A wiser reading of the game is that the Panthers are really good too. It would still be unwise to bet against the Shockers, who remain top-35 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and still boast two premier veteran guards in Baker and Fred VanVleet. Baker’s off night against Northern Iowa -- 12 points, 4-of-12 from the field, 2-of-10 from three-point range -- was hardly indicative of his performance against Missouri Valley Conference foes. Before that game, he'd averaged 15.6 points per night in league play, shooting 47.4 percent from the field overall and 44.7 percent from deep. Expect him to return to form quickly, and don't be surprised if there is a similarly lopsided result when the Panthers come to Wichita on Feb. 28 -- except this time in favor of the Shockers.