Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, Duke's Jahlil Okafor and Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos lead SI's first Wooden Watch of the season.
On Wednesday night, the college basketball world got the game it had been waiting for since the season's start: No. 2 Wisconsin and No. 4 Duke. Not surprisingly, the two best players in the country -- the Badgers' Frank Kaminsky and the Blue Devils' Jahlil Okafor -- spent much of the game showcasing their strengths. Kaminsky got Okafor into foul trouble by forcing him to defend the perimeter, and Okafor proved that he can back down the best of college basketball's big men. Although Duke ended up with the win, Kaminsky still has the more impressive body of work on the season. He's a half-point behind Okafor in scoring average, but he averages an additional assist and rebound per game. Here are how the Wooden Award candidates shake out nearly three weeks into the season:
1. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
Stats: 16.6 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.1 blocks per game, .543 FG%, .419 3-pt% .606 FT%
An underrated aspect of Kaminsky’s game -- and this is perhaps the only one left -- is his ability to handle the ball in transition. Bo Ryan favors a slower pace and prefers his team to set up in a halfcourt offense, but he also doesn’t like to pass on easy scoring opportunities. According to Synergy Sports data, Kaminsky has been involved in 11 transition possessions so far this season. He’s averaging 1.875 points per each of those possessions, and that number goes up to 1.909 if you count his assists. Only two of Wisconsin’s transition possessions involving Kaminsky didn’t end in a basket, and both of those resulted in a trip to the free throw line. Take a look at him leading the charge:
And finishing strong:
2. Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Stats: 17.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.5 bpg, .646 FG%, N/A 3-pt%, .520 FT%
The preseason hype surrounding Okafor was that, at 18, he was already a complete post player. Even if he still has some areas he can improve upon -- most notably on defense -- he certainly understands his identity on offense. Okafor’s possessions and points for Duke have primarily come from post-ups (51.6 percent) and putbacks (17.7 percent). Take away that latter category as well as transition plays, and I charted Okafor receiving the ball in Duke’s halfcourt offense within at least one step of the paint 67 percent of the time. He may be scoring easy buckets, but he's doing hard work to get into a good position before he receives the ball. He’s also mastered the art of the “tie your shoe and use the glass” move.
3. Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
Position: Point guard
Stats: 12.3 ppg, 2.9 rpb, 5.9 apg, .583/.462/.900
Pangos trails just two players nationally in offensive efficiency. The first is Trayling Farris (168.4), who plays for Incarnate Word, which has taken on the likes of Huston Tillotson and Texas A&M International this season. The second is Micah Mason (166.8), Duquesne’s three-point marksman. Pangos’ offensive efficiency of 161.4 far outpaces the next person on this list, Wichita State guard Ron Baker (124.7). Because Pangos is only using 17.2 percent of the Bulldogs’ possessions, his scoring average doesn't seem all that remarkable. But here’s something that is: Pangos has five turnovers all season. He’s the key to Gonzaga’s offense, which is the fourth most efficient unit in the country.
4. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
Stats: 16.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 1.0 apg, .607/.250/.617
Harrell’s decision to stay in school for another year didn’t just benefit the Cardinals, it was good for all of college basketball. (Except for maybe a few backboards.) There may not be a more entertaining player in the sport than ‘Trez. He’s intense, emotional and talented. In Louisville’s biggest game of the season to date, a win against Ohio State on Tuesday, he had 13 points and 10 rebounds. Six of those points came off the dunks below -- one on a backdoor cut, the second on a luckily timed turnover and the final a reward for hustling in transition.
5. D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State
Position: Point guard
Stats: 17.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 5.7 apg, .471/.400/.722
It was somewhat easy to predict that Okafor would be an instant success at Duke. Not only was he joining a Duke team that had a huge amount of possessions and points to replace because of Jabari Parker's decision to enter the NBA draft, he also brought his best friend and fellow McDonald's All-American, Tyus Jones, to play point guard for him. But consider this: Only two players on this list have offensive ratings over 110 while using 28 percent or more of their teams possessions -- Okafor and Russell. Okafor is clearly the best freshman in the country, but Russell is a surprisingly competitive No. 2, averaging 17.8 points and 5.7 rebounds a game.
6. Ron Baker, Wichita State
Position: Shooting guard
Stats: 17.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.4 apg, .469/.469/.824
On Wednesday, the Shockers' 35-game regular-season winning streak ended with an overtime loss at Utah. Wichita State's previous regular-season loss came on March 10, 2013 against Creighton. And before you say “The Shockers don't play anyone,” consider that they had won their last seven games against ranked teams and have already beaten three teams this year that were in the NCAA tournament a year ago. With Cleanthony Early now in the NBA, Baker has embraced his role as the team's primary scorer, with notable increases in his points per game (17.8 from 13.1) and three-point shooting (.469 from .380), while cutting his turnovers in half (0.9 per game from 1.7).
7. Ryan Boatright, senior, UConn
Position: Point guard
Stats: 20.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 4.0 apg, .434/.238/.825
Boatright’s strength has always been his aggressive defense. He jams opposing guards and makes it a struggle for them to get around or over him. But the most subtle improvement in his game has been on the other end of the floor, where he’s become a much more careful ballhandler. While his usage of possessions (31.2 percent) and minutes (91.0) this season closely resemble his numbers as a sophomore (25.6 and 87.5 respectively), but his turnover rate -- a tempo-free measure of taking care of the ball -- has dropped from 19.7 as a sophomore to 15.2 now. All that the Huskies need from him now is for him to get back onto the court after he sprained his ankle on the final play of their loss to Texas on Sunday.
8. Alan Williams, senior, UC-Santa Barbara
Stats: 19.8 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 2.8 blocks, .457/.000/.795
In Luke Winn's excellent story on Williams in the Dec. 1 issue of Sports Illustrated, Williams explains how he is able to rebound so effectively despite being just 6-foot-8: "Rebounding is a science," he told Winn. "It's not about who can jump the highest, or who can create the most space. It's about who knows where the ball is going to be, and has the most efficient way of getting there and making sure they're prepared to go up there and get it. You need the strength and the skills to keep the ball in your hands, but if you know where the ball is going before your opponent does, then you have a really good chance of getting the rebound." That combination of skills and smarts helps explain why Williams' leads the country in rebounds per game this season after ranking second a year ago and sixth in 2012-13.
9. Wesley Saunders, Harvard
Stats: 20.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 4.2 apg, .545/.273/.850
On Saturday, Saunders and Harvard hosted a likely NCAA tournament team in Massachusetts. The Crimson trailed by six at the break, but Saunders’ 27 points -- and especially his pair of free throws with under a minute to play -- were enough to complete the comeback for the three-time defending Ivy League champions. After the game, Minutemen coach Derek Kellogg said of Saunders: "He's a very good player. He's a tough player who knows what he's doing. He's probably the best player in their league and maybe one of the better players in New England, if not across the country." Couldn’t agree more, coach.
10. Angel Rodriguez, Miami
Stats: 14.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 4.8 apg, .402/.452/.727
Rodriguez had a tremendous start to the season, highlighted by his 24-point performance at Florida on Nov. 17 and dagger three-pointer to win the game. In Miami’s first four games, he averaged 17.5 points on 46.8 percent shooting from the floor. In his last four games, he’s averaged 10.8 points on 32.5 percent shooting. So why is he on the Wooden Watch? Defense. His steal percentage of 5.6 is 21st in the nation. If he boosts his offensive production and his defense remain steady, he could rise on this list. If not, below you’ll find a few guys eager to swap places with him.
The next 10: Caris LeVert (Michigan), Perry Ellis (Kansas), Jerian Grant (Notre Dame), Fred VanVleet (Wichita State), Jonathan Holmes (Texas), Rakeem Christmas (Syracuse), Sam Dekker (Wisconsin), Brandon Ashley (Arizona), Travis Trice (Michigan State), Delon Wright (Utah)