Happy New Year, fellow Wooden Watchers. We've resolved to write fewer wordy introductions. Begin!
1. Jabari Parker, Duke: Twenty-one points and eight rebounds per game, 53 percent from the field, 45 percent from 3, 117.3 offensive rating on 31 percent usage. You can try to argue with Parker’s candidacy on a statistical level if you like, but you probably won’t have much success. And anyway, stats aren’t the only things we’re working with here. At some level, year-end awards end up being about the player who gains the most perceptual steam along the way -- the player who most defines a season from its beginning to its end. Right now, in this Anno Freshmani, that player is unquestionably Jabari Parker.
2. Doug McDermott, Creighton: But don’t count out Mr. McDermott, either. In reality, not much has changed about his POY profile. His mixture of efficiency and volume would feel insane had he not been working on some version of the same for two and a half years. In perception-land, though, McDermott could very well end this season with something like a lifetime achievement award consideration. How so? Last weekend, McDermott crossed the 2,500-point barrier, and as we wrote in Monday’s Game Plan, an average of around 25 points per game (he currently averages 24.3) would mean McDermott will finish this regular season with 2,963 career points, 10 shy of Oscar Robertson, and would likely find himself in the hyper-elite 3,000-point category by the time postseason play is through. Who doesn’t love a good milestone chase, eh?
3. Aaron Gordon, Arizona: Gordon’s most recent outing was not a particularly good one: He scored nine points, grabbed five rebounds and shot 3-for-8 from the field. Fortunately, the Wildcats were playing Northern Arizona, whom it held to 44 points in 58 possessions, and still won by 33. Gordon’s résumé isn’t really about offensive production, anyway: It’s about his athleticism and natural gifts on the defensive end, where he is quick enough to guard just about anyone and tall enough (and airborne enough) to affect truckloads of shots. In so far as that ability can be analytically teased out from his also-excellent teammates, I think he’s a viable candidate. The Wildcats’ ensemble nature may make us bound to disagree.
4. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: After a hot shooting start, Smart has begun to regress back toward his numbers as a freshman, when he was good at just about everything (and really good at most things) save shooting the basketball. Smart was probably never going to average 40 percent from 3-point range; that’s not who he is. But if he can maintain his current shooting marks -- 57.6 percent from 2, 32.8 percent from 3 -- he will still be an absolute nightmare to guard.
5. Casey Prather, Florida: You know that player in your pickup game who plays about five times harder than everybody else? Maybe he’s overly serious about pickup, or maybe he’s just trying to get a good workout in. Either way, every time he comes on the court you do your best to make sure you’re not guarding him, because you’re tired and don’t really feel like wrestling for rebounds and watching for back cuts on every possession?
That must be what it’s like guarding Prather. His Synergy scouting breakdown is a how-to guide for turning hustle into points: His most-used offensive play type (27.1 percent, to be exact) is transition, where he averages 1.26 points per possession. Prather generates another 20 percent of his possessions via cuts and offensive rebounds/putbacks. When Prather is shooting the ball at a standstill, he’s not very good. When he is moving around the rim -- as the ball handler in a pick-and-roll, for instance, or diving into the lane or working in behind defenders for offensive rebounds -- he shoots an astonishingly high percentage. Opposing teams know this by now, but Prather keeps producing. Does any player in the country work harder for his points?
6. C.J. Fair, Syracuse: It’s often been tempting to give this spot to another member of the Orange. Like Tyler Ennis, who may be one of the two or three best guards in the country at this point and who is combining a high assist rate with few turnovers and disruptive defense on the perimeter. Or Trevor Cooney, whose outside shooting -- he is now 43-for-86 from 3 on the year, almost every one of them a product of his perfect, fluid release -- gives Syracuse an offensive weapon it sorely lacked last season. Or Jerami Grant, who in 26 minutes per game off the bench is averaging 13 points, six rebounds, two assists and at least two or three massive plays per game. Fair’s tempo-free stats aren’t nearly as impressive as any of the three. And yet, because he does a bit of everything well and draws so much attention at the high block and defends so well, he feels like the logical Syracuse candidate. It’s weird, right? Anyway, I’m guessing Orange fans don’t mind.
7. Joseph Young, Oregon: When Ole Miss, BYU and Illinois are the best three teams on your nonconference schedule, your nonconference schedule is a little bit weak. But even so, Oregon went undefeated against that slate, and in the process Young established himself as one of the best -- maybe the best -- scorers in the country. Young leads the Ducks’ balanced offensive attack with a 27.6 percent shot rate (with 22.3 percent overall usage) and he’s still putting up a 142.4 offensive rating while shooting 60.5 percent from 2, 46.7 percent from 3 and 81.8 percent from the free-throw line. It’s going to be fascinating to see how and whether this keeps up in Pac-12 play, but it’s also going to be a joy. Because at this point, the dude basically doesn’t miss.
8. Russ Smith, Louisville: Rough week for Louisville, and Smith is no exception. His 19 points at Kentucky looked fine on paper, and he was good but not great in the Cardinals’ 73-66 loss. Smith’s candidacy last season was probably stronger than any other player not named Trey Burke, but he failed to generate any awards heat whatsoever mostly because he coughed up in big moments. (He wasn’t very good in the Final Four, and he was abysmal in that five-overtime road loss at Notre Dame.) Smith has been putting up POY-level stuff against a bad schedule so far this season, and now Louisville is without Chane Behanan and may be stuck in the sport’s second tier at least until March.
9. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: It’s a bridge too far to take Napier off the list just yet, because he’s still playing pretty well. But his team? Strug-g-ling. A Dec. 18 home loss to Stanford wasn’t a great sign, but it was forgivable; Tuesday’s road loss at Houston isn’t. The Cougars entered the game allowing well more than a point per possession to opposing offenses, but UConn scored just 11 points in the first 10 minutes and needed a second-half flurry just to get within striking distance. Napier remains perhaps the most multitalented, capable guard in the country. But that won’t matter if UConn slides into mediocrity.
10. Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico: Bairstow was last on this list in the very first 2013-14 Wooden Watch, all the way back on Nov. 21, when most teams had played just a couple of games. Bairstow’s numbers were so insane at that point that they were impossible to trust; there was no way he was going to keep that up. But you know what? He kind of has! Ten games later, Bairstow’s line is still crazy: 20.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, with a 121.6 offensive rating on 29.6 percent usage. Nuts. He’s also shooting 80.6 percent from the free-throw line and drawing plenty of fouls in order to get there. New Mexico has some defensive wrinkles in need of ironing. While it does so, it can rely on Bairstow’s steady low-block bucket acquisition strategy. He’s not going anywhere.
Honorable mentions: Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Julius Randle (Kentucky), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Keith Appling (Michigan State), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Gary Harris (Michigan State), Yogi Ferrell (Indiana), Sam Dekker (Wisconsin), Chaz Williams (UMass), Tim Frazier (Penn State), Roberto Nelson (Oregon State), Marcus Paige (UNC), Kendall Williams (New Mexico), Caris LeVert (Michigan), LaQuinton Ross (Ohio State), T.J. Warren (NC State), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Jordan McRae (Tennessee), Augustine Rubit (South Alabama)