The National Player of the Year battle is always an exciting race to watch as the season progresses, and it's never too early to start thinking of this year's top contenders. The award has been won by an upperclassman for five straight seasons and hasn't gone to a freshman since Anthony Davis in 2012, though Oklahoma's Trae Young made a strong push last season before Villanova's Jalen Brunson eventually took home the hardware. With the season less than a month away, we've compiled 10 preseason candidates for 2018–19.
Tier 1: The Favorites
1. Luke Maye, North Carolina
The Basics: 6’8”, 240 pounds, power forward/center, senior
2017-18 stats: 16.9 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 43.1 3pt%
Maye exploded onto the scene last year, taking advantage of the opportunity to step up after the departures of much of the core that led North Carolina to back-to-back title games. With no Kennedy Meeks or Isaiah Hicks in the paint, Maye assumed the main rebounding role for the Tar Heels while also emerging as one of their go-to scorers. He recorded 17 double doubles and was one of only eight major-conference players to average double-digit rebounds. Offensively, he excelled both in the paint, where he used his strong frame and soft touch to score on putbacks and post-ups, and from beyond the arc. With Joel Berry and Theo Pinson gone this season, Maye’s usage rate figures to climb from his junior year figure of 24.2% (tied for 15th in the ACC). If Maye can sustain his elite efficiency on more volume, he’ll be in the running for this award all year long. Remember: before Brunson last year, the last four players of the year were seniors.
2. R.J. Barrett, Duke
The Basics: 6’7”, 202 pounds, wing, freshman
2017-18 stats: N/A
Only two freshmen have ever won National Player of the Year: Kevin Durant in 2007 and Davis in 2012. Those are two of the five best basketball players in the world right now. So why is Barrett ranked this high? It’s simple: he’s as close to the Durant and Davis caliber of player as any freshman who has come into college basketball in recent years. Barrett is the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft for a reason. He’s an elite scorer who has the quickness to get past anyone and the athleticism to finish around defenders at the rim. He’s going to be a menace in transition, but also has a variety of ways to create his own shot in half-court offense. The one thing working against Barrett, outside of his youth, is that he’s got two other top-five freshmen on his team in Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson. However, the presence of those guys could easily make Barrett’s case better if he assumes the alpha role. You’re not going to win trophies doing everything for a bad team—just ask Ben Simmons.
3. Carsen Edwards, Purdue
The Basics: 6’1” 200 pounds, combo guard, junior
2017-18 stats: 18.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 40.5 3pt%
The case for Edwards is based on talent and opportunity. Despite his stature (6’1” is being generous), Edwards can do everything you want out of a primary scoring option from the guard position. He’s an elite shooter who can hit threes off the dribble or the catch and is incredibly explosive when attacking the rim. He’s efficient, too; Edwards was third in Kenpom’s offensive rating among players with usage rates above 28%. That Purdue graduated its standout senior class of Vince Edwards, Dakota Mathias, PJ Thompson and Isaac Haas could both help and hurt Edwards’s chances. He’ll take on even more scoring responsibility, but his efficiency could suffer and Purdue may regress too much as a team. Only once since 2008 has the Naismith POY come from a team that finished outside the AP Top 10 (Doug McDermott’s 2014 Creighton team finished at No. 16). Edwards has the talent and confidence to put Purdue on his back and win this award.
Tier 2: The Challengers
4. Dedric Lawson, Kansas
The Basics: 6’9”, 235 pounds, power forward, redshirt junior
2016-17 stats (at Memphis): 19.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 2.1 bpg
A transfer hasn’t won player of the year since Larry Johnson in 1991. Lawson is a legitimate threat to change that. The former Memphis star will get to showcase his incredible array of skills on a national scale as the best player on what should be an outstanding Kansas team. He’s a dominant scorer and rebounder on the interior, but also has guard-like handles and the ability to hit mid-range shots, something he’ll get plenty of opportunities to do with Udoka Azubuike clogging the paint. Lawson has reportedly been working on his three-point shot; if he can improve on his career mark of 30% from deep, the sky is the limit. Expect Lawson, who Bill Self has called “the best passer we’ve ever had here,” to be the focal point of the Jayhawk offense right away. The concern with Lawson is his lack of elite athleticism, which is harder to overcome against frontcourts in the Big 12 than in the AAC.
5. Caleb Martin, Nevada
The Basics: 6’7”, 205 pounds, wing, senior
2017-18 stats: 18.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 40.3 3pt%
Next up on our list is another transfer with a chance to be one of the best players in the country. Martin, unlike Lawson, has already played one season at his new school, and it was a smashing success. Along with Jordan Caroline and his brother Cody, Martin led Nevada to a Mountain West title and the Sweet 16 last season. The Wolf Pack should be even better this year, too, with the Martins and Caroline returning and the additions of five-star freshman Jordan Brown and high-scoring Bryant transfer Nisre Zouzoua. Make no mistake, though: this is Caleb’s team. A long, athletic wing who can score on everything from backdoor lobs to step-back threes, Martin should continue to put up big numbers as a senior. If Nevada has another big year, Martin could be the first player of the year from a mid-major school since BYU's Jimmer Fredette in 2011.
6. Tyus Battle, Syracuse
The Basics: 6’6”, 205 pounds, wing, junior
2017-18 stats: 19.2 ppg, 1.5 spg, 84 FT%
Every year, several talented NBA prospects surprise the public by deciding to return to school. Battle was one of those guys this offseason. His decision to withdraw from the draft process was absolutely massive for Syracuse, which many project to be a top-25 team this year. It would’ve been incredibly tough to replace Battle, who led the country in minutes played in 2017–18. Battle’s return means Jim Boeheim brings back his entire starting lineup from a year ago, including point guard Frank Howard and power forward Oshae Brissett (both of whom were also in the top-five nationally in minutes played). Battle needs to become more efficient, but he looks poised for a huge year.
7. Zion Williamson, Duke
The Basics: 6’7”, 285 pounds, wing/forward, freshman
2017-18 stats: N/A
In case you’ve been living under a rock, Duke landed the top three recruits in the entire 2018 class. We already talked about one of those super-freshmen as a potential player of the year, but a case can also be made for the most famous of the trio. Zion Williamson emerged as a YouTube sensation in his junior year of high school, lighting the internet aflame with dunk contest-quality jams and other feats of ridiculous athleticism during games. He’s 285 pounds of sheer explosive muscle and is a LeBron-like freight train driving to the basket. Williamson also has some finesse in his game with a solid handle, the ability to pull off acrobatic layups with his dominant left hand and a decent midrange game. If his offensive arsenal has had some polishing this summer, Williamson could come out and be an unstoppable force this season.
Tier 3: Don’t Overlook These Guys
8. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
The Basics: 6’10”, 237 pounds, center, senior
2017-18 stats: 17.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 3.7 apg
One of the starters on the “He’s still in school?” team, Happ deserves a mention as a guy who could be in the running for player of the year honors if a couple things go right. His numbers from last year were award-worthy; Happ led Wisconsin in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. But there are two questions to answer for him to receive consideration for national awards. First, is it too late for Happ to expand his offensive game? He has impeccable footwork on post-ups, possesses every move possible to school opposing bigs, and…does all his work in the paint. He’s a career 56% free throw shooter who almost never takes shots more than eight feet from the hoop. Last year, he attempted the first 11 threes of his career and made one. He doesn’t have to be Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin’s last NPOY, a 7-footer who shot 42% from three in 2014–15), but expanding his range could take Happ’s game to another level. Second, can Wisconsin improve drastically this season? The Badgers were 15–18 last year despite Happ’s brilliance; they’ll need to at least be a strong at-large team for Happ to get consideration. A young core of supporting players like Brad Davison, Aleem Ford and Kobe King offer hope that the Badgers can bounce back.
9. Romeo Langford, Indiana
The Basics: 6’6”, 215 pounds, wing, freshman
2017-18 stats: N/A
A third freshman on this list may seem like a lot considering no rookie outside of Durant and Davis has ever won player of the year, but remember that Trae Young was a near-lock halfway through last season before falling off. Langford has the talent, the role and, potentially, the teammates to have a massive freshman year. A silky-smooth scorer and elite athlete from the wing, Langford could realistically average over 20 points per game right away. He’ll be the go-to guy for Archie Miller and the Hoosiers, and his supporting cast has potential. Senior forward Juwan Morgan will take some pressure off Langford, and there’s a ton of young talent around those two, including Devonte Green, Justin Smith and De’Ron Davis. If Langford leads Indiana back to Big Ten contention, he could get some votes.
10. Markus Howard, Marquette
The Basics: 5’11”, 175 pounds, shooting guard, junior
2017-18 stats: 20.4 ppg, 40.4 3pt%, 93.8 FT%
This is a longshot that would be incredibly fun to see happen. Howard is the closest thing college basketball has to Steph Curry now that Young is gone. He’s one of the best shooters in the country and doesn’t need much space to get his shot off. Last season, Howard put up 52 points against Providence on 11-of-19 shooting from three, the highest single-game output of any player in the country. He was second in the nation in free throw percentage, so any improvement in his ability to get to the line would be huge. Andrew Rowsey—Howard’s backcourt mate and fellow flamethrower from deep—graduated, so Howard may have to put up even more shots as a junior. If he averages 26 points and over four threes per night with regular explosions, single-handedly carrying Marquette to March, he could make a serious run at some hardware.
Others considered: Reid Travis, Kentucky; Cam Reddish, Duke; Grant Williams, Tennessee; Mike Daum, South Dakota State; Tremont Waters, LSU; Kamar Baldwin, Butler; Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga; Nassir Little, UNC; Shamorie Ponds, St. John's; Eric Paschall, Villanova; DeAndre Hunter, Virginia; Payton Pritchard, Oregon; Nick Ward, Michigan State