Wooden Watch: Going beyond the stat sheet
A few of the Watch's top candidates didn't put up impressive numbers for their teams last week. But sometimes a player's most important contributions don't show up on a box score.
1. Jahlil Okafor, DukePrevious ranking: 1
By Okafor's own standards -- which include last week's 25 points, 20 rebounds in an otherwise so-so Duke performance against Elon -- the big man's contributions to the Blue Devils' 10-point win over Connecticut on Dec. 18 were harder to notice. He finished with 12 points on just five field goal attempts, a quiet offensive night in terms of touches and production.
But the contributions were there: Five of Okafor's eight rebounds came on the defensive end as a solid back-line anchor against the Huskies' penetration. He positioned himself well enough as the helper in screen-and-roll situations, so UConn couldn't totally break down his team's defensive shell. And while he didn't touch the ball much on offense, he did enough to draw UConn center Amida Brimah into a constant flurry of fouls. Those fouls helped limit -- and coach Kevin Ollie's auto-sub pattern on fouls deserves some credit here, but that's an argument for another day -- the 7-foot center to just 13 minutes.
Coming off a 40-point, 13-of-13 performance against Coppin State, Brimah's offense and immense shot-blocking went missing against the Blue Devils. Okafor was a major reason why.
2. Frank Kaminsky, WisconsinPrevious ranking: 2
As we wrote last week, Kaminsky is currently locked in a two-man struggle atop the Wooden Watch rankings, a struggle that looks likely to be a defining non-Kentucky storyline of the 2014-15 season. He's more like No. 1A than a No. 2, and like Okafor, his most recent contributions -- in the Badgers' tidy 68-56 win at Cal Monday -- were only partially encapsulated by the box score. Kaminsky finished with 14 points on 13 shots. That's just a so-so offensive outing for the Tank. He also grabbed eight rebounds, and Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker combined for 19 rebounds and 31 points on 11-of-23 shooting. The Badgers come at you in relentless waves. You can defend Kaminsky well, but you had better do just as good a job on Hayes and Dekker, or look out.
A simple demonstration of Kaminsky's value, and one that didn't show up in the box score, came late in the first half. Trailing the offense slightly, Kaminsky caught a pass just to the right of the top of the key, one of his favorite shooting areas. But instead of firing, he noticed Dekker alone in the post, in space created by the tight defense on Kaminsky. He waited a half-second for Dekker to turn past his defender and back-cut to the rim, and fired a picture-perfect pass that got Dekker into position to shoot two free throws. It was the equivalent of an unrecorded assist. That's what makes Kaminsky special: His size and skill demand the kind of constant defensive pressure that allows a player like Dekker (or Hayes) to get four-out, one-in post seals whenever they want. Defenses don't stand a chance.
3. Justin Anderson, VirginiaPrevious ranking: 4
Keeping with the more-than-meets-the-eye theme, Anderson submitted his least impressive performance of the season Saturday, posting just eight points in 21 minutes against Harvard. Widen your gaze slightly, however, and you'll note that Anderson was only needed for 21 minutes because his team was in the process of a historic destruction of a very good Crimson team. At the end of the first half, the Cavaliers' defense had held Harvard to just one made field goal and eight total points; the final score was 76-27.
In the meantime, Anderson still made 2-of-3 from 3-point range, as he did in his 16-point contribution to UVa's Dec. 18 win over Cleveland State. That brought Anderson's current 3-point shooting mark to 24-of-40, or 60 percent, this season. That's ... insane? Unsustainable? Maybe, but with a defense playing better than any team not named Kentucky, Anderson can afford to come back to earth and still be considered among the nation's best.
4. Montrezl Harrell, LouisvillePrevious ranking: 3
Last week, the Watch detailed the primary problem with Harrell's candidacy, and Louisville's offense more generally: Chris Jones and (to a lesser extent) Terry Rozier were gobbling up too many of the touches that should go to a player shooting 90 percent on shots around the rim. This week, that lack of touches can be blamed on Harrell himself, who was on pace for a monster outing against Western Kentucky when he threw a mid-scuffle elbow at an agitating Hilltopper. Harrell was later suspended one game by the ACC, forcing him to miss Tuesday night's tuneup against Cal-State Northridge.
Harrell will make his return Saturday, when the possibly historically great Kentucky Wildcats come to the Yum! Center blocking more shots and allowing fewer two-point field goals than any team in the country. If ever there was a time to gauge a player's Wooden worthiness, this is it.
5. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
Previous ranking: 5
After a win like Saturday's blowout-for-the-ages of UCLA -- halftime score: 41-7! -- Kentucky coach John Calipari could do little but unreservedly praise his team. In the midst of doing so, he bristled at the idea that the Wildcats' collective greatness makes their individual value difficult to judge:
"How about this statement," Calipari said. "Are you ready, this statement? 'He's not going to get the numbers to be the best player in the country.' Was that your hope or your opinion?"
Except that's not exactly the problem. Or at least it shouldn't be.
As the Watch has written, it's not that we can't tell how good Kentucky's players are. Per-possession statistics offer plenty of information to the discerning observer. (The answer: Kentucky's players are really good.) The problem is this: Because Kentucky has so many good players, the marginal value of each is lessened. If Duke were to lose Okafor, that'd be a disaster. If Kentucky were to lose Cauley-Stein, that'd be unfortunate ... and then Karl-Anthony Towns and Marcus Lee would simply play more, and Kentucky would still be the best team in the country. Likewise, how much better does playing with so many good players make you? Would Cauley-Stein be as efficient getting 35 minutes and 15 shots a night?
Weirdly enough, UK's overall greatness serves to obscure the excellence of its individuals. Is it unfair? Yes. Is Cauley-Stein good enough to belong here anyway? Definitely. But teasing this out all season is going to be a continual analytic challenge. And counting stats ain't the half of it.
The only solution? Watch as much college basketball as possible, starting with Kentucky's trip to Louisville Saturday. Hey, it's a tough job. But somebody's got to do it.
Also receiving mentions: Ron Baker, D'Angelo Harrison, Ryan Boatright, Tyus Jones, Juwan Staten, Fred VanVleet, Alan Williams, Dakari Johnson, Stanley Johnson, Sam Dekker, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Georges Niang, Melo Trimble, Anthony Gill, Tyler Haws, Kyle Wiltjer, Wesley Saunders
John R. Wooden Award
The John R. Wooden Award is presented annually to the most outstanding men's college basketball player.
Top 50 List
Here are the 50 names to make the cut on our Wooden Watch list. Fear not: If your favorite player isn't on this list, it does not make him ineligible for the award. After all, it is a long season.
• Cliff Alexander, Kansas
• Brandon Ashley, Arizona
• Ron Baker, Wichita State
• Ryan Boatright, UConn
• Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia
• Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
• Branden Dawson, Michigan State
• Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
• Perry Ellis, Kansas
• Yogi Ferrell, Indiana
• Marcus Foster, Kansas State
• Michael Frazier II, Florida
• Treveon Graham, VCU
• Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
• Olivier Hanlan, Boston College
• Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
• Aaron Harrison, Kentucky
• Andrew Harrison, Kentucky
• Tyler Haws, BYU
• Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
• Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona
• R.J. Hunter, Georgia State
• Stanley Johnson, Arizona
• Tyus Jones, Duke
• Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
• Caris LeVert, Michigan
• Jordan Mickey, LSU
• Nic Moore, SMU
• Georges Niang, Iowa State
• Jahlil Okafor, Duke
• Kelly Oubre Jr., Kansas
• Marcus Paige, North Carolina
• Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
• Terran Petteway, Nebraska
• Bobby Portis, Arkansas
• Chasson Randle, Stanford
• Terry Rozier, Louisville
• Wesley Saunders, Harvard
• Josh Scott, Colorado
• Wayne Selden Jr., Kansas
• D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown
• Juwan Staten, West Virginia
• Keifer Sykes, Green Bay
• Isaiah Taylor, Texas
• Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky
• Myles Turner, Texas
• Fred VanVleet, Wichita State
• Dez Wells, Maryland
• Delon Wright, Utah
• Joseph Young, Oregon