New players emerge as Mr. Basketball candidates

Entering the 2008-09 season, many of the top-rated players in the ESPNU 100 were also deemed top player-of-the-year candidates by ESPN RISE's panel of nine respected prep basketball journalists, recruiting experts and fans.

The results of the preseason player-of-the-year tracker revealed that Derrick Favors (South Atlanta) was the leading candidate for ESPN RISE Mr. Basketball USA honors, which made sense, since the 6-foot-9 power forward was last year's top returning vote-getter.

After the conclusion of the national holiday tournaments, in which many of the nation's top players and ESPN RISE FAB 50 ranked teams squared off against one another, Favors (who is considering Georgia, Georgia Tech, NC State and Memphis) emerged in the pole position after some dominating performances. The No. 2 prospect in the ESPNU 100 appeared on all nine ballots and picked up an additional 10 points as the leading vote-getter in the ESPN SportsNation poll. He finished with a whopping 96 total points, as he was the top vote-getter on six ballots.

After Favors, however, the voting changed dramatically.

Xavier Henry (Oklahoma City/Putnam City), the No. 1 player in the ESPNU 100, appeared on eight preseason ballots but only three this time around, garnering 22 points after netting 61 points in November. Two panel members stated that their opinion and evaluation of the 6-foot-6 wing hasn't changed, but that it wouldn't be fair to the other contenders to put Henry on their ballots because injury has forced the Memphis recruit to miss games, including marquee contests at the Iolani Classic in Hawaii.

One player who appeared at the Iolani Classic that made a favorable impression on voters and fans alike was DeMarcus Cousins (Mobile, Ala./LeFlore). In the preseason, Cousins came in fifth place, appearing on six ballots with 41 total points, but this time around he tied for third place with Kenny Boynton (Plantation, Fla./American Heritage) after tallying 58 points and appearing on eight ballots. Second-place finisher Lance Stephenson, who appeared on eight ballots and finished with 62 points, actually bested Favors for No. 1 votes in the ESPN SportsNation poll but finished second overall in the fan balloting with 1,184 points to Favors' 1,253. On the island, Cousins netted 39 points against Keith "Tiny" Gallon and Oak Hill Academy, the current No. 2 team in the ESPN RISE FAB 50. Cousins' LeFlore team lost by only two points. Against nationally ranked Fairfax (Los Angeles) and big man Renardo Sidney, Cousins pumped in 19 points as his team dropped a four-point contest. He also scored 34 points in a win over DeMatha Catholic (Hyattsville, Md.).

Cousins will look to continue to impress voters and fans alike when LeFlore meets Favors' South Atlanta club in a FAB 50 showdown Jan. 15 (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET).

"Cousins is as dominant a player as there is in the nation," remarked panel member and ESPN RISE senior writer Christopher Lawlor. "When he's on his game, Cousins is tough to beat. He can shoot it from the outside; he's tough inside; and most importantly with a big man, he has a mean streak and wants to win."

Boynton, who set the all-time scoring record at the prestigious City of Palms Tournament in Ft. Myers, Fla. (breaking the old mark of 380 points set in 14 games by prep all-American Teddy Dupay between 1994 and 1997), appeared on nine ballots, the same total as he did in the preseason. He tallied 58 points in this week's balloting, five fewer than he did in the preseason, and appeared as high as No. 2 on one of the voters' ballots.

The City of Palms Tournament -- won by FAB 50 No. 1 Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) over St. Patrick's (Elizabeth, N.J.), 52-45, in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup -- might have been the best in-season holiday tournament since the Las Vegas Holiday Prep Classic in December 1996, which featured Tracy McGrady, Lamar Odom, Tayshuan Prince, Baron Davis and at least four other future pros. With a stacked lineup of teams and players, it's no surprise two talented underclassman that weren't on the ESPN RISE Mr. Basketball USA radar in the preseason emerged from that tournament.

Austin Rivers, a 6-foot-3 sophomore at Winter Park (Fla.) High School and the son of Boston Celtics coach Glenn "Doc" Rivers, took home City of Palms tournament MVP honors after leading his team to a surprise third-place finish. After not receiving any player-of-the-year recognition in the preseason, Rivers appeared on three ballots, good for 20 points, and as high as No. 3 on one voter's ballot.

"Rivers absolutely lit it up in Florida," said Lawlor, who witnessed every key game at the City of Palms. "Everybody knew Doc's son could play, so it didn't shock me the way he played, but it definitely opened my eyes going up against some of the top players in the country head-to-head. He took Wheeler apart [in the third-place game]."

Junior point guard Gary Franklin of tourney champion Mater Dei, who some observers felt should have been named MVP, also received recognition from the panel of basketball journalists and talent evaluators who make up the ESPN RISE Mr. Basketball Player of the Year Tracker. Like Rivers, he appeared on three ballots, tallying 16 total points and appeared as high as No. 4 on a ballot.

While some new faces emerged as player-of-the-year candidates, circumstances changed for a few preseason vote-getters. Jordan Hamilton (Compton, Calif./Dominguez) appeared on two ballots in the preseason, but he has not played a game for the Dons this season because of eligibility issues. He was not on the Dons' bench in last week's big win over FAB 50 ranked Etiwanda (Calif.) at the Pangos Dream Classic and is reportedly concentrating on his studies in an attempt to gain eligibility at the University of Texas.

Hollis Thompson (Concord, Calif./De La Salle) was another who received preseason recognition, but he is no longer on the De La Salle team and will reportedly enroll early at Georgetown University.

Read below to see the voting results of this week's ESPN RISE Mr. Basketball National Player of the Year Tracker, and stay logged in to ESPNRISE.com all season to track the progress of the top individual players as well as the top teams in the ESPN RISE FAB 50.

About the experts' poll: Starting in January, ESPN RISE's panel of nine experts, which includes four active McDonald's All-American selection committee members, casts its votes for the top ESPN RISE National Player of the Year candidates. Each panelist is asked to list his top seven ESPN RISE Player of the Year candidates regardless of class, and the votes are tabulated on a 10-point scoring system, with a first-place vote equaling 10 points, a second-place vote equaling nine points and down to four points for a seventh-place vote. The 10th ballot is determined by the top seven vote-getters on an ESPN SportsNation fan poll using the same scoring system.

The number before the player's name refers to his final ranking on the previous tracker, and the number in parentheses ( ) refers to the number of ballots a player appeared on this week..

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Others receiving votes: Xavier Henry (Oklahoma City/Putnam City) 22 pts. (3); Brandon Knight (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla./Pine Crest) 21 pts. (3); Austin Rivers (Winter Park) 20 pts. (3); Gary Franklin (Santa Ana, Calif./Mater Dei) 16 pts. (3); Tony Wroten Jr. (Seattle/Garfield) 10 pts. (1); Jeremy Tyler (San Diego) 8 pts. (1); Tristan Thompson (Newark, N.J./St. Benedict's) 7 pts. (1); Harrison Barnes (Ames, Iowa) 5 pts. (1); Keith "Tiny" Gallon (Mouth of Wilson, Va./Oak Hill) 4 pts. (1); Mason Plumlee (Arden, N.C./The Christ School) 4 pts. (1); Michael Snaer (Moreno Valley, Calif./Rancho Verde) 4 pts. (1).

Ronnie Flores is a senior editor of ESPN RISE.