With college hoops tipping off in less than two weeks, let’s take a look at some of the country’s most prominent stars and their potential cases for men’s National Player of the Year honors. This list may look silly in a few months—other candidates always emerge—but expect at least a handful of these guys to pop.
1. Drew Timme, junior, Gonzaga
The top returning player on what may well be men’s college basketball’s best team, Timme and his mustache return to Gonzaga with a chance to improve on last season’s 19 points and seven rebounds per game, on 65% shooting. He may not actually be Gonzaga’s best player—freshman Chet Holmgren gets his own blurb here in a minute—but Timme will be the Bulldogs’ primary stabilizer, providing high-energy, skilled interior play and dominant paint scoring (77% at the rim last season, per Bart Torvik’s data). Timme’s elite efficiency and focal role for the Zags isn’t changing, and Holmgren’s presence grants him two new luxuries: a passing target in high-low situations, and true defensive help-side cover at the rim, both of which were missing last season.
Timme has a few areas for improvement: His individual defense and free throw shooting leave a bit to be desired at times, and he’s not yet a consistent three-point shooter. Also consider that Gonzaga may not have the luxury of incredible spacing and ball movement this season, with Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Joel Ayayi all gone. That means Timme will almost certainly see more double teams as opponents dare Gonzaga’s perimeter players to make shots. But it’s fair to call him the front-runner as the season gets going, with a proven track record and tons of opportunity ahead on a team that should again contend nationally.
2. Hunter Dickinson, sophomore, Michigan
Dickinson put together a stellar freshman year, averaging 14.1 points and 7.4 rebounds on 59.8% shooting but appeared to wear down a bit as the season rolled on and wasn’t always the most consistent. Michigan needs him to be dominant in a conference replete with experienced, physical bigs and will expect more from him this time around, funneling post touches in his direction to open things up for everyone else. As the top player on arguably the top team in arguably the top conference, Dickinson’s candidacy here writes itself.
We may see a more versatile Dickinson this time around, as well—he’s put in work on his movement skills and preparing to play out of double teams—and while sharpshooter Isaiah Livers and pick-and-roll buddy Mike Smith are gone, freshman Caleb Houstan and transfer DeVante’ Jones should help fill those roles. Dickinson says he’s going to shoot more threes this season, which may or may not be a good idea in the short term. Regardless, his expected volume of touches and value to a quality team goes a long way in the potential awards conversation.
3. Paolo Banchero, freshman, Duke
Banchero will be Duke’s centerpiece, able to generate and attack mismatches all over the floor using his size, heft and ball skills. He’s one of the more unique players the Blue Devils have had in this era and should be deployed accordingly—he can play out of the post, face up slower bigs, step out and shoot jumpers and make plays for teammates after drawing defenders. I’m not exactly sure how Duke will use him, only that it’s going to use him a lot and that it should be fascinating. There aren’t a whole lot of other playmakers on the roster, and fellow freshman AJ Griffin may be injured to start the season. It’ll be the Banchero show from Day One, and he’s SI’s early projected No. 1 pick in the NBA draft for a reason.
4. Chet Holmgren, freshman, Gonzaga
Here’s the other guy with a strong case as the potential No. 1 pick and a chance to set college hoops ablaze. The 7-foot Holmgren has game-breaking ability: He can handle and shoot like a guard on the perimeter and erase shots around the basket with his length and timing. He’s going to make the game look unfair at times, and he complements Timme well enough in theory for both to thrive without getting in each other’s way. If Holmgren emerges as Gonzaga’s undeniably most important player, that may fast-track him here—but it’s also possible he and Timme split votes when it comes to accolades. If it goes down that way, it would be great news for the Zags’ title hopes.
5. Kofi Cockburn, junior, Illinois
Getting Cockburn back was a major coup for the Illini—his skill set is antiquated by NBA standards, but in college he’ll dole out plenty of punishment in the low post for another year. With Ayo Dosunmu off to the NBA and pass-first guard Andre Curbelo expected to step up, there should be even more touches available for Cockburn. There are two key areas he’ll need to improve to elevate his game: his free throws (55% from the line especially hurts when you draw the fifth-most fouls per 40 in college hoops, per KenPom data) and his playmaking, as he frequently struggled to play out of double teams. Any marginal improvement in either area is a huge boon for Illinois’s hopes and would strengthen Cockburn’s statistical case for national awards.
6. Jaime Jaquez Jr., junior, UCLA
All signs are pointing to a breakout year from Jaquez, who took a star turn in March and should see an uptick in usage as UCLA prepares for another run at the Final Four. The Bruins geared their offense in his direction toward the end of last season and reaped the benefits, and while teammate Johnny Juzang seems to be receiving more early attention, keep a close eye on Jaquez, who’s a more versatile offensive weapon and has made strides as a jump shooter. For my money, Jaquez is UCLA’s best player (amid an embarrassment of riches), and should be treated as such in these discussions moving forward. There’s a lot of room for improvement statistically, and he should be up to task.
7. Johnny Juzang, junior, UCLA
Juzang joins his teammate Jaquez on this list following a star turn in March Madness that’s created big expectations for him this season. It’s entirely possible Juzang winds up garnering the most national love on his team, particularly if his hot shooting sustains over a full season. He can be streaky but is capable of huge nights and will have a significant platform at UCLA to make his case. Of course, it’s possible Juzang and Jaquez split awards attention, but both should have some steam in the conversation and are deserving of the early recognition.
8. Jaden Ivey, sophomore, Purdue
Ivey has become a highly popular breakout candidate as the primary perimeter scorer on a loaded, experienced Purdue team, after appearing to turn a corner over the summer with USA Basketball at the under-19 world championships. A high-level athlete and stellar defender, Ivey has room to improve as a scorer and playmaker and a strong supporting cast to help him do it. He came on strong over the final month of last season and should be among the top guards in the country. If Purdue challenges for the Big Ten title and beyond, expect Ivey to draw plenty of national attention.
9. Collin Gillespie, graduate senior, Villanova
Gillespie enters this season wielding the power of narrative, after a torn MCL in Villanova’s penultimate regular-season game ended his season, dashed the Wildcats’ chances to make noise in March and led to his return for a fifth year. Before the injury, he was in the midst of his best statistical season, and it’s fair to expect another full workload on a team that returns most of its rotation and will again be favored in the Big East. Gillespie will be one of the top point guards in college hoops and arguably the most experienced, and his string of statistically solid seasons should continue. Whether that’s enough to eclipse bigger stars in the awards conversation is a fair question.
10. Max Abmas, junior, Oral Roberts
It won’t be easy for Abmas to follow up his massive sophomore season, in which he led Division I in scoring and was impressively efficient in doing so. He captured national attention in the NCAA tournament, tested the NBA waters and returned to school after a middling performance at the draft combine. He’ll see plenty of defensive attention but also has a bit more help this season, and there’s a lot of room for him to expand his game as a playmaker. He won’t have the inside track to national awards at Oral Roberts but warrants mention nonetheless—if he can find a way to improve on last year’s 24.5 points per game, watch out.
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