When the calendar flipped from 2018 to 2019 last college basketball season, Duke was ranked No. 1 in the country — a spot it would hold for four consecutive weeks last winter and the Blue Devils stayed in the top two for 11 straight weeks — as standout freshmen Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett both averaged upwards of 20 points per game.
Both players were on a first team All-American and national player-of-the year trajectory. Any player-of-the-year short list written around this time last year had to include those two players, along with Tennessee’s Grant Williams amid the Volunteers’ 23-1 start to the season, Marquette’s Markus Howard, and if you were ahead of the curve, Murray State’s Ja Morant, among a handful of other candidates.
This year’s national player of the year could turn out to be Salar de Uyuni, a salt flat in Bolivia that Google tells me is the flattest place on Earth, because it is so wide open.
If you had to identify a frontrunner, Duke freshman Vernon Carey Jr. is probably the best, and maybe the right, place to start. He’s averaging 18.4 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game for a Blue Devils team that’s ranked No. 2 in the AP Top 25 and owns the best adjusted efficiency margin in the country.
Carey’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is 39.0 through 14 games.
Zion Williamson had the highest PER of the last decade at 40.8.
Duke’s latest freshman sensation has scored at least 20 points in half of Duke’s games, highlighted by a 31-point, 12-rebound performance against Cal. Carey is currently ranked No. 1 in kenpom.com’s national player-of- the-year standings.
He’s a great player on a potentially great team, and both traditional and advanced stats view him favorably, so maybe in a year in which teams are passing the No. 1 ranking like a hot potato, maybe the right answer to “Who is the national player of the year?” is the simplest one: Carey. Duke has produced eight Naismith Award winners and it may produce back-to-back recipients for the second time if Carey follows Williamson’s footsteps.
But is Carey running away from the rest of the field, especially while playing on a young team whose rotation just got thinner following the injury to his teammate Wendell Moore? Probably not.
So here are 10 other candidates that could be serious national player-of-the-year contenders in March.
Louisville’s Jordan Nwora, who was picked as the ACC Preseason Player of the Year, is certainly in the hunt. The junior averages a career-best 20.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game, while shooting 51.8 percent inside the arc and 43.7 percent behind it. Nwora’s Cardinals have already been ranked No. 1 this season, so even though they didn’t hold that perch for long, he fits the mold of being the best player on one of the country’s best teams.
He also benefits from the familiarity with fans and media members after his breakout 2018-19 season, when his scoring average climbed from 5.7 points per game as a freshman to 17.0 per game last season. Not only has Nwora’s production increased but so has his efficiency.
Speaking of preseason picks, how about Michigan State’s Cassius Winston?
Winston just turned in a career-high 32 points, along with nine assists (his second-highest total of the season), in a big win against rival Michigan. So the senior, who was the preseason national player-of-the-year pick for many media outlets, is arguably starting to play his best basketball of the season, if not his career, as Big Ten play resumes.
After the Spartans’ 5-3 start, they’ve rattled off seven in a row and Winston is averaging 18.9 points, 6.3 assists and 2.1 rebounds per game while shooting 38 percent from three and posting one of the best assist rates in the country.
Marquette’s Markus Howard is currently on pace to win the scoring title with a national-best 26.8 points-per-game scoring average.
He’s shooting 44.5 percent on nine 3-point attempts per game, which is his best 3-point percentage since his ridiculous 54 3-point percentage as a freshman, and with the Golden Eagles’ 11-4 record, they’re just good enough through two months for Howard to be in the NPOY race even if they’re not currently ranked.
Iowa’s Luka Garza is only six spots behind Howard on the list of national scoring leaders. The Iowa junior averages 22.5 points per game, while also ranking in the top 20 nationally in rebounds per game with 10.1. Garza is attempting almost 6.5 more shots per game than last season and he has developed into a 38 percent 3-point shooter, making a versatile scorer at 6-11 and 245 pounds.
He has eight double-doubles in 14 games, including six 20-10 games, plus a 44-point outburst against Michigan.
It probably shouldn’t be shocking that Gonzaga was going to have at least one player emerge as a potential All-American this season, even after the ‘Zags lost All-Americans Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, but who knew it would be Filip Petrusev? He attempted slightly less than four shots per game while coming off the bench last season and now he’s the leading scorer (16.6 ppg) and rebounder (8.1 rpg) for the No. 1 team in the country.
Gonzaga had two scares last week, which suggests it’s not invincible, but if the Bulldogs can hang on to the No. 1 ranking for the next few weeks, let alone the next few months, Petrusev’s case could only get stronger.
The last national player of the year to come from a non-power conference, for lack of a better term, was BYU’s Jimmer Fredette in 2011, when the Cougars were in their last season playing in the Mountain West before moving to the WCC.
But Dayton’s Obi Toppin could be the next. Toppin, who should no longer need an introduction nationally, is averaging 19.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.0 steal per game while shooting 35.9 percent from three and 63 percent from the field for a top-20 Dayton team.
He ranks in the top 40 nationally in points per game but he does so much else beyond scoring. He’s the college basketball player that fans need to know more about, if they aren’t familiar with Toppin already.
Speaking of players who can fill up a box score, last decade there were 89 who averaged at least 18 points, four rebounds and four assists per game. That list of players includes 2010 and 2017 Naismith Players of the Year Evan Turner and Frank Mason III, national champions Kemba Walker, Nolan Smith and Shabazz Napier, and No. 1 NBA draft picks Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz.
It’s a special group and Kansas sophomore Devon Dotson is threatening to join that class of player. Through 13 games, he’s averaging a team-high 18.5 points, 4.4 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game for a Jayhawks team that’s been ranked in the top five all season.
Another notable point guard, Oregon’s Payton Pritchard, already meets that criteria, and then some, with his per-game averages of 18.7 points, 5.9 assists, and 4.4 rebounds for a Ducks team that’s been on an upwards trajectory all season. They’ve gone from No. 15 to No. 14, No. 11, No. 13, No. 10, No. 8, No. 6 and now No. 4 in the AP poll, so at that rate, they’ll be No. 1 by February.
Washington was the class of the Pac-12 last season and given the Huskies’ roster turnover, plus the improved play of Oregon, Arizona, Stanford and Colorado, Washington will have to work to get a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament as one of the conference’s top-four finishers. But luckily for the Huskies, they have freshman standout Isaiah Stewart, who’s half a point and a rebound shy of averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds. The 6-9 big man is shooting 62 percent on twos, which is why his offensive rating is 119.5 and he draws 6.5 fouls per 40 minutes.
Stewart’s personal stats are there, now he just needs Washington to make a run through the Pac-12 and to enter the polls.
In a season in which there has already been six different teams that have been ranked No. 1 in the country, it’s been hard to anoint a team that won’t lose in a matter of weeks, if not a matter of days. That brings us to the two remaining undefeated teams in college basketball — No. 5 Auburn and No. 7 San Diego State — each of which took significant jumps in the latest AP poll.
Let’s say one or both teams makes a serious push at an undefeated regular season record. Frankly, neither is very likely to do so but the Aztecs are much more likely given their stronger resume of wins and more navigable remaining schedule, but with each win, Malachi Flynn would likely become more entrenched in the All-America conversation, which inherently means he could be a fringe national player-of-the-year candidate.
The junior is averaging a team-high 15.9 points, 5.0 assists 3.5 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game, and his advanced stats are just as impressive. Flynn’s 121.8 offensive rating ranks in the top 100 nationally, even though he has the highest usage rate on the team, he has a top-80 assist rate (30.7%) while rarely turning the ball over (11% turnover rate) and he gets to the free-throw line with regularity.
Could San Diego State have the best player in college and professional basketball at the start of the new decade?
It might be unlikely, but never say never.
Maybe we look up in March and one of these 11 players has established himself as the clear national player of the year.
Or maybe Seton Hall’s Myles Powell shoots his way to the top of the short list, Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson uses his newfound inside-out game to lead the Buckeyes to a Big Ten title or someone else closes the season strong to earn the honor.