Trae Young may still be the frontrunner in the player of the year race, but he’s facing competition from a handful of worthy challengers.

By Chris Johnson
March 08, 2018

It wasn’t that long ago that the winner of the National Player of the Year race looked like a foregone conclusion. Oklahoma freshman guard Trae Young had created so much separation from the field, it seemed, that no one had a realistic chance of catching him. Maybe we got ahead of ourselves. With Selection Sunday less than a week away, Young is still in the lead, but he’s no longer a virtual lock to sweep every NPOY award. Before seeds, brackets and matchups take center stage in a few days, here’s an update on the competition to be crowned the best player in the sport. Below is a ranking of the four candidates with the strongest cases.

This is the 15th version of a weekly column analyzing four college hoops topics bound by some underlying narrative thread. If there’s something you’d like to see in this space, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

1. Trae Young, freshman, G, Oklahoma

In late December, Young was on top of the college basketball world. He scored 31 points on 9-of-16 shooting and dished out 12 assists in a 26-point blowout win over Northwestern to improve his season averages to 28.7 points and 10.4 assists with a 41.1 3P% on 9.7 attempts per game. A little more than two months later, it’s far from an open-and-shut matter that Young is the top player in his own conference (more on that below), let alone the nation. During Big 12 play, Young still carried a massive offensive workload, but the efficiency that made him a nigh-unstoppable force the first two months of the season dissipated. Young hit a lower percentage of his looks from both sides of the three-point arc and committed more turnovers, including when he set a Big 12 record with 12 giveaways during a Jan. 16 loss at Kansas State. The scoring eruptions that made for mandatory viewing on a weekly basis the first two months of the season gave way to high-volume, lower-return shooting efforts in which Young looked worn down, frustrated or both by the end of regulation.

As league opponents homed in on shackling Young, he mostly just kept firing away. That worked well for Oklahoma in certain cases, but not always. There was his 8-for-22 performance in a loss at West Virginia in early January, the controversial 39-field-goal-attempt rampage in a double overtime defeat to Oklahoma State later that month and the 3-for-13 showing in a 30-point beat down at the hands of Kansas on Feb. 19. Young’s dip coincided with Oklahoma’s stunning descent from a project top-three seed in the NCAA tournament onto the fringe of the bubble. After an overtime win over TCU on Jan. 13 pushed the Sooners’ Big 12 record to 4-1, they dropped 10 of their next 13 games, including six in a row, and entered the conference tournament with the second-worst seed (No. 9) before being bounced by the No. 8 seed Cowboys on Wednesday. Oklahoma is still in decent shape to make the NCAAs, but its downturn in the Big 12 dented Young’s case.

2. Deandre Ayton, freshman, F, Arizona

In a season defined by a sprawling scandal that will have a lasting impact on the sport and potentially the rules at the heart of the NCAA’s amateurism model, Ayton is something like a perfect NPOY candidate. Late last month, ESPN reported that FBI wiretaps picked up conversations in which Arizona head coach Sean Miller discussed a six-figure payment to ensure Ayton would sign with the Wildcats. Miller repudiated the report in a statement last week, but the day after it came out, Ayton seemed like he was on a mission to break Oregon’s defense. Over 44 minutes with No. 2 scorer Allonzo Trier suspended after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, Ayton pulled down 18 rebounds, converted 11 of his 15 shot attempts and all six of his free throw attempts for 28 points. The Wildcats lost that game in overtime, but if it was a preview for what Ayton will do the rest of this season, all of Arizona’s opponents will need to come up with a more effective defensive game plan than the one the Ducks used in vain.

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This is a good time to mention that Ayton was playing great before being implicated in the FBI probe. Few doubted before the season began that he would be one of the most imposing big men in the country, and he’s been about as dominant as the glowing scouting evaluations and NBA mock drafts suggested he would be. Ayton is a nightly double-double threat who supplies consistent inside scoring, shot-blocking and glass-cleaning on both ends of the floor. He leading the Pac-12 in player efficiency rating and box plus/minus, ranks behind only UCLA’s Aaron Holiday in points per game and no high-major player has recorded a higher total rebound percentage. All the while, Ayton has helped the Wildcats bounce back from a shocking three-game losing streak at the Battle 4 Atlantis during Feast Week to win the Pac-12’s regular season title outright and position themselves to earn a top-four seed in the tourney.

3. Jalen Brunson, junior, G, Villanova

At one point during conference play, Brunson felt like the obvious choice for the totally mythical honor of “best player in the country not named Trae Young.” That’s not true anymore, but he still belongs in the NPOY discussion on account of his production and importance to one of the top teams in the nation. A year after earning All-Big East honors while helping push Villanova to its fourth consecutive Big East crown, Brunson has pulled off the difficult task of shouldering a larger share of the Wildcats’ offense while increasing his efficiency. Brunson is the lead scorer and playmaker of the No. 1 offense in Division I, according to Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency metric, and he is using a higher percentage of his team’s plays while he’s on the floor than he did his first two seasons. He is recording more points, dishing out more assists and committing fewer turnovers on a per-40 minute basis and his effective field goal percentage—which takes into account the added value of threes—is a career-high 60.8.

Just past the halfway point of the conference schedule, it looked like Brunson would have another league banner to add to his résumé. After beating Seton Hall at home on Feb. 4, Villanova stood at 9-1 in the Big East with eight games to play. Then the Wildcats went out and fell to St. John’s at home and both Providence and Creighton on the road to open the door for Xavier to finish atop a conference that the Wildcats have ruled since it downsized to 10 teams in 2013-14. That said, Villanova did sweep the Musketeers, and it’s still on pace to win at least 30 games and earn a No. 1 or No. 2 tourney seed for the fourth consecutive year. Brunson is a big reason why. The Wildcats’ closing stretch of the regular season may have veered from the program’s recent norm, but that shouldn’t overshadow how good Brunson has been over the course of 2017–18.

Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

4. Devonte’ Graham, senior, G, Kansas

Young may have Graham beat in an evaluation of the two players’ entire seasons to date. In Big 12 play, though, the latter outshined the former, and he did it while extending one of the most incredible active streaks in sports. After functioning as an auxiliary option while fellow Kansas guard Frank Mason swept the NPOY awards last year, Graham has upped his production in most major statistical categories as he’s powered the Jayhawks to at least a share of their 14th consecutive Big 12 regular season championship, breaking the record set by UCLA from 1967-1979. A unanimous selection by Big 12 coaches for the conference’s player of the year award, Graham has kept his scoring efficiency around where it was last season despite consuming a much larger portion of Kansas’s offensive pie: His offensive rating has increased from 121.7 in 2016-17 to 122.4 in 2017-18 even as he bumped the percentage of team plays used while he was on the floor from 18 to 23, according to Sports Reference.

Graham has been so pivotal to Kansas’s success this season that head coach Bill Self hasn’t been able to put him on the bench for more than a few minutes against any opponent. Since the Jayhawks edged in-state rival Kansas State at home on Jan. 13, Graham has logged all 40 minutes in 12 of their 14 games, and since the start of Kansas’s league schedule he has logged fewer than 36 minutes in a game only once. Kansas, which ranks 349th in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s bench minutes statistic, has needed Graham out there, and he’s delivered time and again by knocking down long-range shots (42.3 3P%), setting up his teammates for baskets (31.5 assist rate), drawing fouls (5.5 free throw attempts per-40 minutes) and converting at a career-best clip once there (83 FT%). Graham’s play warrants consideration on its own, and the fact that it was instrumental in keeping alive a team achievement that looked in serious peril at multiple points this season bolsters his candidacy.

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