With the college hoops season less than a month away and the preseason picture crystallizing, SI breaks down the primary contenders in the race for top awards. Weighting past performance, pedigree, situational opportunity and the prospect of team success, below you’ll find our early watch list for National Player of the Year. It might look like Cassius Winston and everyone else right now...but at least take note of everyone else.
1. Cassius Winston, Michigan State | Senior
Last season: 18.8 ppg, 7.5 apg, 46% FG
By sticking around long enough to let the hype catch up to his ability, Winston has a chance to sniff rarified air as a four-year player in position to snatch up just about every major award this season. Operating in the shadow of bigger storylines, Winston led the Spartans on a two-month tour de force to close last season, which ended in a Final Four rock fight with Texas Tech. And while Michigan State, the best team on paper as November approaches, is wholly capable of clamping down, it's at its best when the offense is flowing freely through Winston’s hands. That’s going to be the case on most nights, and the wins should follow.
While Winston may be hard-pressed to reprise his astronomical 44.8% assist rate, the Spartans will again foist a hefty workload in his direction, banking on growth from a gifted returning cast to knock down shots and finish plays. Xavier Tillman was quietly one of the best bigs in the country last season. Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown are expected to improve. And for what he lacks athletically, Winston’s wizardry as a passer and feel for game flow is as good as any guard in recent memory. The presence of promising freshman Rocket Watts and a healthy Josh Langford should ease some of the shot-creating pressure over the course of the year, and Winston’s shooting splits could actually improve as a result. The Spartans have capable scorers at every position, the benefit of continuity, and may be a cut above the competition, at least from the outset. As the best player and catalyst for what looks like the country’s best team, Winston should be considered the odds-on favorite for top honors.
2. Devon Dotson, Kansas | Sophomore
Last season: 12.3 ppg, 3.5 apg, 1.4 spg
The task of pulling together a new-look Kansas team falls to Dotson, the Jayhawks’ only nominal point guard. They boast size up front and athletes on the wings, but as far as creating off the dribble is concerned, the sophomore guard is the key to everything. Dotson is not particularly big, but he’s shifty, efficient and experienced, after logging 80.3% of available minutes as a true freshman. Kansas has a tried-and-true system, but responsibility will fall on his shoulders to make things run smoothly. The Jayhawks will be highly competitive, but it’s tricky to peg exactly how good at a glance. In order to contend, they’ll need a star turn from their lead ball-handler.
If one thing’s for certain, Kansas will punish teams on the glass, with Udoka Azubuike and Silvio De Sousa back in action up front and David McCormack in relief. But there’s no replacing Dedric Lawson as an offensive focal point, and that’s where Dotson’s playmaking ability comes in. The attack should be more perimeter-centric, with Ochai Agbaji, Iowa transfer Isaiah Moss and promising freshman Tristan Enaruna, one of the more intriguing sleepers in the country, all adding punch. Dotson will be asked to score more and get teammates involved after averaging 15 points and 4.3 assists to 2.8 turnovers per-40 as a freshman. Those marks should all come up by simple nature of volume, and with some individual progression, a breakout year could await.
3. Jordan Nwora, Louisville | Junior
Last season: 17.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 37.4% 3FG
Whether or not Louisville lives up to lofty expectations, a big individual season should be in order from Nwora, who made major strides over the course of his sophomore year and finished as the Cardinals’ leading scorer and rebounder. He tested the NBA waters and returned to school after injuries hampered his ability to participate in pre-draft workouts. He should benefit from time spent with the Nigerian national team at the FIBA World Cup, as well. Consistency and shot selection have not been Nwora’s hallmark, but the hope is that an influx of talent around him should lead to much cleaner looks, and an uptick in performance from one of the better catch-and-shoot players in the country. Nwora has the size to shoot over wings and post smaller guards, but he’s generally better off doing those things when multiple dribbles aren’t required.
The addition of grad transfer Fresh Kimble from St. Joseph’s and potential impact freshman Samuell Williamson and Josh Nickelberry ought to help unlock the halfcourt offense, making life easier for Nwora in turn. This group should be much more dynamic on the perimeter and make it more difficult for defenses to shadow Nwora beyond the arc—even if his volume dips a little, his stats could improve on whole. And if everything clicks for the Cardinals, an ACC title (and potentially more) should be within reach.
4. Cole Anthony, North Carolina | Freshman
Last season: N/A
The one preseason certainty at North Carolina is that this will be Anthony’s show, even more so than Coby White before him, as he makes what’s likely a one-year pit stop in Chapel Hill before turning pro. Anthony is unquestionably ready for the college game, and takes the reins of the Carolina offense with little competition for shots around him, for better or worse. It’s a situation that should lead to high usage and big-time counting stats, with the primary question in Anthony’s award candidacy stemming from just how good the Tar Heels will be. And it seems the answer to that question will be inextricable from his own performance.
Anthony is physically mature, skilled, highly competitive and well-suited for this transition and the expectations that accompany it—he’ll be a threat to score from all over the floor, has the explosiveness and handle to put pressure on the paint. He should be lethal in transition right away. If he ups his willingness to make plays for others, the Tar Heels will benefit. Grad transfers Justin Pierce (William and Mary) and Christian Keeling (Charleston Southern) are key additions as complementary scorers, but Anthony will have to be committed to finding teammates to maximize the situation. There’s little question he can do that, but he does have a tendency to get shot-happy. There are a lot of variables as Roy Williams tries to mesh all his new parts. If Anthony can be a steadying part of that process, he’ll likely finish the season as one of the top players in the country.
5. Kerry Blackshear Jr., Florida | Senior
Last season (Virginia Tech): 14.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.4 apg
Finding college bigs who can score inside and also face up comfortably is always a challenge, and Blackshear was one of the most sought-after grad transfers on the market for that reason. The 6’10” center should give Florida the offensive fulcrum it sorely lacked last season, and with the SEC landscape having leveled off somewhat, there’s real opportunity for the Gators to make national noise. Freshman standout Scottie Lewis and returning point guard Andrew Nembhard have garnered more early attention, but Blackshear might be the most pivotal piece of the lineup. He’s progressed nicely over the past few years, and another step forward could be in the cards if the Gators commit to playing through him.
Blackshear is a capable passer on the block, a comfortable jump-shooter and has the skill set to rescue dying offensive possessions late in the clock. The Gators made the tournament last year relying on their defense out of necessity, without a true go-to option on offense. Blackshear’s presence figures to remedy that, although he’s not much of a shot-blocker on the other end. Florida should be comfortable feeding him half-court touches, particularly if they intend to bog games down again (they finished 344th of 353 teams in adjusted tempo, per KenPom). Tangible offensive improvement, with Lewis and fellow freshman Tre Mann also potential sparkplugs, could elevate the team’s profile and put Blackshear in award conversations.
6. Tre Jones, Duke | Sophomore
Last season: 9.4 ppg, 5.3 apg, 1.9 spg
Jones’s responsibility will increase in essentially every way this season, and he’ll have to be up to task in order for Duke to succeed to their usual standards. If it all breaks in the right direction, Jones figures to get the credit. He was a stabilizing piece for last year’s team, known for stifling on-ball defense and unselfish play, but his struggles shooting the ball from outside hamstrung some of his value within a personnel group that lacked ideal spacing. The cult of Zion and R.J. is out the door, and the Blue Devils will need to share the ball, defend and get in transition to maximize what’s on the roster. Jones will have to set the tone, and will need to find ways to make more of an impact scoring the ball, beginning with a steadier jump shot.
His statistical contributions figure to increase regardless, with a major spike in assists on the table if Duke’s freshmen are ready immediately. Wendell Moore has been a standout, Matthew Hurt will add a much-needed spacing element in the frontcourt and Vernon Carey Jr. should be impactful on the glass and finishing plays. It’s Jones’s job to figure out what makes everyone else tick, with his own offense figuring in after that. His candidacy is likely contingent on major team success, and it’s certainly possible everything goes right here.
7. Myles Powell, Seton Hall | Senior
Last season: 23.1 ppg, 2.9 apg, 2.0 spg
One of the deadlier catch-and-shoot guards in the country, Powell returns after a quietly prolific year, along with the vast majority of a Seton Hall team expected to take the next step and contend in the Big East. If they’re to do it, he’ll again be the reason why. Powell’s not overly big or quick, but he’s become an intelligent scorer who knows what works for him. If he can improve on his 36% three-point clip while maintaining his heavy volume and minute dosage, his scoring output could tick closer to 30 per game. Building on last season from the team and individual standpoint is bound to put him in the conversation here. Powell can really light it up, and seems due for a true star turn.
8. Markus Howard, Marquette | Senior
Last season: 25.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.9 apg
For Marquette to win big, Howard is going to need some help, as his exhaustive individual scoring wasn’t enough down the stretch last season, and he’ll be asked to do the same, if not more as the Golden Eagles regroup with a new-look roster. By now, he’s proven exactly how good a shooter he is, and Marquette has found ways to weaponize him in spite of his size. It’s almost certain he’ll have another impressive year scoring the ball. But his two-point shooting percentage suffered a major dip last season in the absence of playmaker Andrew Rowsey, and the hope is that the presence of transfer Koby McEwen makes the backcourt more dynamic, unlocking Howard off the ball and making his looks much easier. Marquette lost the Hauser brothers, but if the Golden Eagles can pick up the pieces much the same, Howard will again be among the top scorers in the country.
9. James Wiseman, Memphis | Freshman
Last season: N/A
Most everyone is eager to see Memphis in action this season, due mostly in part to the hype surrounding Wiseman, the prized recruit of Penny Hardaway’s tenure and a likely top-five pick in the 2020 NBA draft. Blessed with just about every physical trait you could ask for in a center, Wiseman will have every opportunity to leave his mark on this season. He can make lesser athletes look foolish with his sheer size and play around the basket and above the rim…and just about every opponent he’ll face this season will be a lesser athlete. He also has a developing face-up game, and though his jumper is inconsistent, it’s enough of a threat to make a difference. The Tigers will run an NBA-style attack and put Wiseman in position to create mismatches, make some decisions and maximize his ability.
It’s important to note that Wiseman, like his team, is still a work in progress. He’s still striving toward true consistency in terms of effort and production. It’s not crazy to think, if the right internal switch flips, he could have a season in the ballpark of what Deandre Ayton did at Arizona, in a best-case scenario, and the Tigers would absolutely take that outcome. But while Memphis has the depth and talent to win the AAC, but it’s not fair to expect a one-man show, and there will likely be some growing pains, as with any freshman-heavy group. It’s a big caveat when trying to place him in the context of performance-based awards, but Wiseman’s sheer ability makes him tough to omit from any watch list.
10. Sam Merrill, Utah State | Senior
Last season: 20.9 points, 4.2 apg, 3.9 rpg
Merrill was quietly one of the most effective offensive players anywhere last season, shooting 52.9% on twos, 36.9% from three and 90.6% from the foul line, and leading his team in assist rate while for the most part admirably mitigating turnovers. The Aggies might be the most intriguing team outside the power conferences, and with Neemias Queta working back from injury, Merrill will continue to be the focal point, and bigger numbers could be in the cards. Based on his track record, a vaunted 50/40/90 season is within his range of outcomes (he made 45% of threes two seasons ago on 207 attempts). Accolades may follow.