Wooden Watch: Okafor still chasing Kaminsky
Let's get right to the Watch:
1. Frank Kaminsky, WisconsinPrevious ranking: 1
It would be tempting, given Kaminsky's and Jahlil Okafor's respective performances Wednesday night, to nudge the Duke freshman just above the Wisconsin senior Thursday morning. Sorry, but we can't quite get there.
Kaminsky was hardly spectacular against Penn State: 16 points, 4 of 12 from the field, 7 of 8 from the line, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 block. But the fact that we need to make note of a "mere" 16-point, nine-rebound performance in a 57-possession road win says everything you need to know about how steadily incredible Kaminsky has been all season.
We could explain the hows and whys of this fact in painstaking detail, but it's probably easier to point you to any of the previous Wooden Watches we've written this season. It is to Kaminsky's credit that we're starting to run out of things to say.
2. Jahlil Okafor, DukePrevious ranking: 2
The most eye-popping play Okafor made Wednesday night against North Carolina was almost certainly his wrong-footed, off-handed layup through traffic in the first half. But our favorite play was far simpler.
It was just before the under-12 timeout in the second half. Duke was cleared out around the perimeter. Okafor saw the space, immediately threw his rear end into UNC center Joel James, and sealed perfectly in the middle of the lane. From there, it was game over: a pivot to the left, a finish over his right shoulder, a foul, a made free throw.
That's the stuff we love about Okafor's game: how his incredible hands, feet, strength and finishing are all put in service of what is usually the simplest, most straightforward, most dominant play possible. Nothing Okafor does is more complicated than it needs to be. And when he gets the ball where he got it against James -- or anywhere near the block, against anyone -- there is no better guarantee of a bucket in the sport.
3. Delon Wright, UtahPrevious ranking: 3
In focusing so much on Wright in this space, we run the risk of overshadowing the rest of the Utes. This is far from a one-man outfit (which, it should be noted, is true of every player here). Indeed, the improvement of the group around Wright -- from the arrival of freshman center Jakob Poeltl to the development of Jordan Loveridge and Brandon Taylor into lights-out perimeter shooters -- is perhaps the primary reason Utah has gone from an intriguing up-and-comer to this season's top-10-ranked, four-losses-in-February, Final Four-potential heavyweight.
But make no mistake: Wright is the driving force behind that success. Like Kaminsky and Okafor, he's so consistent that analyzing his output has become a matter of routine. Efficient scoring from a mix of penetration, midrange efficiency (Wright shoots 58 percent from 2) and almost no 3-point attempts? Check, check and check. World-class ballhandling and passing? Yes. (Wright gets space in the lane because Loveridge and Taylor shoot well over 40 percent from 3; Loveridge and Taylor shoot over 40 percent from 3 because Wright collapses the defense so thoroughly. It's quite the virtuous cycle.) Elite perimeter defense on one of the nation's best defensive teams? That, too.
In the meantime, Wright has all but guaranteed himself a serious crack at the NBA this summer. According to Synergy data, 38 percent of Wright's possessions come in pick-and-rolls, and only 10 players in the country with as many attempts as Wright (120 to date) have been more efficient.* None of them attend high-major outfits, or play for teams anywhere near as good as Utah. Let's see: a 6-foot-5 guard who knows his way around the pick-and-roll. Does that sound like something the NBA might be interested in?
(* A special Wooden Watch shoutout to Penn State guard D.J. Newbill, who ranks just behind Wright in pick-and-roll efficiency despite taking 202 [!] PnR plays on the season. Newbill's Nittany Lions may be undermanned and slightly unlucky, but he's having a heck of a senior season all the same.)
4. Jerian Grant, Notre DamePrevious ranking: 4
Jerian Grant, it should be noted, sits at No. 21 on that pick-and-roll volume/efficiency matrix, and what's funny is that the pick-and-roll is just the tip of his imposing offensive attack. In fact, it's the "least" efficient play type in Grant's arsenal. He averages more points per trip in transition, in spot-up situations, in catches off screens away from the ball. This is true even of Grant's isolations -- especially remarkable, given that isos are typically where efficient offense goes to die.
When you look at them side by side, Grant's per-possession numbers look remarkably similar to Wright's ... except Grant also shoots 35.5 percent from 3. He's not the defender Wright is, and Notre Dame isn't very good on the defensive end as a whole. But with so many lethal offensive options surrounding the nation's best and most versatile lead guard, the Irish are 23-4 anyway. Whatever works.
5. Seth Tuttle, Northern IowaPrevious ranking: NR
Never fear: Fashion pioneer and all-around defensive freak show Willie Cauley-Stein will surely return to the top five in weeks to come. Until then, can we talk about how good Seth Tuttle has been? Yes? Awesome. Because Tuttle has been really, really, really good.
Tuttle is the quintessential example of a player whose value is only barely encapsulated by old-fashioned counting statistics. Fortunately you, the discerning Wooden Watch reader, have been reading all season about how best to understand Frank Kaminsky's contributions in Wisconsin's uber-efficient, downtempo attack (and Justin Anderson before him) so you're ready for this mind-blowing bit of analysis.
Anyway, here's the deal: Northern Iowa plays slow -- slower than all but one team in the country. So when you see Tuttle's averages per game -- 16.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists -- you have to view them through a 57-possession prism.
It is through that prism that Tuttle's brilliance truly shines through. Currently, he leads the Missouri Valley -- a league with Wichita State's Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet -- in both offensive rating (121.0) and usage rate (31.1). Just one player in the country (Corey Hawkins of UC Davis) can match that combination (122.2/31.1). Meanwhile, Tuttle, a forward, creates an assist on nearly 30 percent of his possessions, the highest rate on his team. His 70.1 true shooting percentage is the nation's second-highest. The Panthers are 24-2 and likely headed for a top-16 seed in the NCAA tournament. This season, Ken Pomeroy began generating single-game MVP distinctions in his box scores, and guess who has more than any player in the country?
After King Tuttle* put up 29 points in 59 possessions in UNI's easy Jan. 31 win over Wichita State, Shockers coach Gregg Marshall called him "unstoppable." That's about as good as you can do in one word. He may not be facing the same level of competition as other Wooden Award candidates, and he might not be as impressive at first glance. But look closer. Dude is *balling*.
(* We will make this nickname happen if it's the last thing we do.)
Also receiving mentions: Willie Cauley-Stein, Stanley Johnson, D'Angelo Russell, Kyle Wiltjer, Karl-Anthony Towns, Montrezl Harrell, Ron Baker, Malcolm Brogdon, Georges Niang, Tyler Haws, Buddy Hield, Bobby Portis, Kris Dunn
Duke's Tyus Jones
John R. Wooden Award
The John R. Wooden Award is presented annually to the most outstanding men's college basketball player.
Top 20 List
Here are the 20 players who made the late-season cut in the race for the Wooden Award. Is this the final list? No. Can a player not on the list still win the award? Yes. So there is still plenty of time to make a move.
• Justin Anderson, Virginia
• Ron Baker, Wichita State
• Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
• Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
• Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
• Tyler Haws, BYU
• Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
• Stanley Johnson, Arizona
• Tyus Jones, Duke
• Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
• Georges Niang, Iowa State
• Jahlil Okafor, Duke
• Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
• Bobby Portis, Arkansas
• Chasson Randle, Stanford
• Terry Rozier, Louisville
• D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State
• Juwan Staten, West Virginia
• Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
• Delon Wright, Utah
Gonzaga's Kyle Wiltjer