We’re more than halfway through the season, and although various players have come and gone from Wooden Watch each week, no one has occupied first or second place other than Wisconsin senior Frank Kaminsky and Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor. At this point, if you gave me Okafor and Kaminsky or the field for player of the year honors, I’d take the two who have topped this list from the beginning.
In light of that, we’re going to narrow the Wooden field to five this week and then examine five more of the nation's best freshmen who have been overshadowed by their classmate in Durham. But let’s begin, as always, with the five most impressive players in the country as of today.
Stats: 16.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 2.4 apg, 53.4 FG%
It’s time for the first (and perhaps only) edition of Who Passed It Better! Our two top candidates this season are not known for their prolific passing, but a big man’s offensive arsenal isn’t fully stocked until he knows how to pass out of a double team. Frank Kaminsky had two slick assists versus Iowa on Monday night. In the first, he drove, spun and kicked out to Josh Gasser for a trey.
In the second video, he drove, spun and split two defenders with a pass to back-door-cutting Sam Dekker for a layup:
And now to our second nominee...
2. Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Stats: 18.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.4 apg, 67.0 FG%
The beauty of Okafor’s pass is his court awareness. Okafor is so dominant offensively that he takes the attention of literally all five defenders on the floor for Pitt.
He makes them pay for their inattention to his teammates by throwing a football-style pass to a wide-open Quinn Cook, who nails a three. Bonus fun fact about this pass: The broadcasters were talking about how Duke’s staff wanted their team to help Okafor out of double teams, and how they wanted Okafor to pass before the double teams even arrived. Message received, guys.
Stats: 14.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.8 apg, 50.6 FG%
First, allow me to plug my colleague Brian Hamilton’s feature on Anderson from last week. Anderson is a reminder of how important college basketball is. He has always had the physical tools to be an NBA player, but he has had the time at Virginia to develop the habits and skills that could one day make him a star at that level. He spent the offseason completely reworking his jump shot, and it’s shown this season. His effective field goal percentage skyrocketed from 47% a year ago to a team-high 63% this year -- good for 33rd in the country. In the Cavaliers’ most recent game, a 15-point win Saturday at Boston College, Anderson also showed off his versatility. He went 0-for-8 from the field but still managed to get to the free throw line nine times and make eight of his attempts there. He may not win national player of the year -- in fact, with Okafor around he might not even win ACC player of the year -- but Anderson is the most improved player in the country.
4. Delon Wright, Utah
Stats: 15.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.8 apg, 54.9 FG%
Wright and the Utes appeared ready to make a statement at Arizona last Saturday. Wright scored Utah’s first four points -- the first of which was a dunk off a steal -- and forced the Wildcats to burn an early timeout. By the under-16 media stoppage, the Utes were up 10-2. But Arizona slowly slid back into the game, taking the lead at the 3:54 mark of the first half and cruising to an 18-point win that gives it an important leg up in the Pac-12 regular season race. Wright finished that game with a season-high four turnovers and just 10 points and did not get another steal. The Utes take on the state of Washington (Washington State, Washington) at home then the state of California on the road (UCLA, USC) in the next two weeks. Great teams and great players rebound from tough losses; the Utes' Pac-12 title hopes and Wight's Wooden Award candidacy now have some ground to make up.
5. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
Stats: 16.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 6.4 apg, 51.2 FG%
Grant doesn’t have nearly the same talent around him as Anderson or Wright, but he may be the most dangerous guard to defend in college basketball. According to Synergy Sports data, he’s averaging 1.10 points per possession this year, which by itself is great. But consider his points per possession plus assists, which as you may have just concluded, adds to the equation the times he sets up teammates for baskets. That number is an astounding 1.53 ppp. Grant, whose assist rate of 32.4 is 58th in the country, doesn’t just know how to get himself points, he is the centerpiece of Notre Dam’s entire offense, which is second in the nation in offensive efficiency.
Next Five Freshmen, non-Jahlil Okafor division
Good news, Seth. On SI.com this week, he can.
1. Melo Trimble, Maryland
Stats: 16.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.0 apg, 42.9 FG%
Trimble’s main problem is that he isn’t being used enough -- or, more accurately, that another player is taking up too many possessions. As hard as it is to imagine, given the preseason expectations placed on him, senior guard Dez Well needs to take a step back in Maryland’s offense. He’s using 29.1 percent of the team’s possessions and 30.3 percent of its shots with an offensive rating of 98.3. Trimble and junior forward Jake Layman, meanwhile, have each used more than 24 percent of possessions, but with much better efficiency; they have identical 117.6 offensive ratings. Trimble also has a leading candidate for crossover of the year.
2. D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State
Stats: 18.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.8 apg, 45.5 FG%
Russell was a regular on the Wooden Watch proper for the first few weeks of the season, but he dropped off for a few reasons. The first was that increased competition from upperclassmen like Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein and Gonzaga's Kyle Wiltjer forced him out. The second was, as Rob Dauster of NBC Sports pointed out in his Player of the Year Power Rankings, Russell is at least partially benefiting from Ohio State’s soft schedule. Against teams in the KenPom top 100, Russell’s offensive rating is a fairly pedestrian 92.8. Against teams outside of the top 100, it balloons to 131.8. Fortunately, it won’t be long before we see Nos. 1 and 2 on this sub-list face off: The Buckeyes welcome Trimble and the Terrapins to Columbus on Jan. 29.
Oh, and you didn’t think I was going to forget that slick Ginobli-esque spin pass, did you? Sam Thompson, you gotta finish that layup.
3. Stanley Johnson, Arizona
Stats: 14.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.7 apg, 48.2 FG%
Johnson is leading the AP's No. 7 team in points and rebounds per game. But two other aspects of his game have helped him standout. First is his ability to get to the free throw line -- he is drawing an average of 6.5 fouls per 40 minutes, which is 53rd in the country. Arizona’s offense is top-20 nationally according to KenPom.com, but it has struggled at times to score this season. Johnson’s ability to get free throws helps his team find easy points when shots aren’t falling. Second, he’s been a bit of a ballhawk, with a steal percentage of 3.4. Shots and points can be replaced, but steals are hard to come by.
4. Cliff Alexander, Kansas
Stats: 8.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 0.4 apg, 57.3 FG%
Jayhawks head coach Bill Self deserves a lot of credit for the way he has brought -- and his still bringing -- his star freshmen along this season. Kelly Oubre Jr. was almost non-existent for the first seven games of the season, averaging eight minutes per game, but he has since taken a starting spot in the backcourt. Alexander, meanwhile, has yet to supplant Jamari Traylor in the starting lineup, but he will eventually. His usage rate is already above Traylor’s, as is his offensive rating, by a wide margin -- 118.7 to Traylor’s 97.8. Alexander is also Kansas’ best shot-blocker and draws more fouls than any other Jayhawk.
5. Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
Booker Stats: 10.4 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 1.5 apg, 50.0 FG%
Towns Stats: 8.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.6 bpg, 49.5 FG%
Ulis Stats: 5.6 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 3.6 apg, 45.7 FG%
It’s hard to stand out when you’re playing fewer than 20 minutes a game, but this trio of Wildcats has done exactly that. Ulis and Devin Booker, the backcourt subs for the Harrison twins, have offensive ratings hovering around 130; Aaron Harrison’s O-rating is 114.5, and Andrew’s is 103.0. Towns, who starting at one of the two forward spots, has had some inconsistent offensive performances, but he has been a force on defense. His block percentage of 14.0 leads all freshmen and is fifth in the nation.