Wooden Watch: Marcus Smart stands alone above freshmen
Throughout the season, SI.com will weigh in weekly on college basketball’s most prestigious honor, the John R. Wooden Award. Each week, we’ll detail the progress of 10 leading candidates and list a handful of players on the fringes.
1. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
This year’s group of super-talented freshmen was the main conversation in college basketball to start the season. Everyone — from college fans to NBA front office executives — is fascinated with what many consider one of the most talented recruiting classes in the past decade. Returning players like Smart had been dismissed, at least temporarily, out of the national spotlight. That all changed when the preseason AP All-American torched then-No. 11 Memphis last Tuesday for 39 points, five steals, four rebounds and four assists in a dominant 101-80 victory.
It was one of the most impressive performances any player has had against a ranked opponent this season. More importantly, it served as a reminder that Smart is still one of the best players in the country. He followed up that sterling effort by scoring 25 points in a blowout win Monday night at South Florida, which included this shot from beyond half court. If he’s getting 65-footers to go down, Smart’s current status as Wooden frontrunner is tough to deny.
2. Jabari Parker, Duke
The most impressive thing about Parker so far this season has been his consistency. In six games. the Duke freshman has registered at least 21 points, nine rebounds. Parker grabbed the nation’s attention by scoring 27 points, grabbing nine rebounds and throwing down this ridiculous, Grant Hill-esque, one-handed alley-oop dunk against Kansas in the second game of the Champions Classic doubleheader. The Blue Devils may have lost to the Jayhawks, but the consensus afterward was that Parker was the most impressive freshman in the game.
There’s reason to be concerned whether Parker — who has taken 35.3 percent of available shots while posting a 32.9 usage rate — can keep scoring this efficiently (125.4 offensive rating) throughout the season. Duke’s thin front line has forced the freshman forward to guard opposing teams’ best post players, a defensive charge that could wear on Parker and sap some of his offensive production. If he can avoid fatigue issues, though, Parker should never veer too far from the Wooden conversation.
3. Doug McDermott, Creighton
McDermott has a chance to become college basketball’s first three-time Associated Press All-American since Wayman Tisdale and Patrick Ewing accomplished the feat from 1983-85. It will be interesting to see how McDermott performs against more rigorous competition in the Big East. (Creighton left the Missouri Valley Conference to join the basketball-only league this offseason.) In the meantime, watching the Creighton senior light up nonconference opponents will suffice.
Through four games this season, McDermott is averaging 27.5 points and eight rebounds, shooting roughly 55 percent from the field and 50 percent from three. More impressive has been McDermott’s efficiency — his offensive rating of 124.1 is comparable to Parker’s 125.4 mark — while taking 37.9 percent of his teams shot (ninth in the country). McDermott might have the most versatile offensive game in the country. The difference this year is that he’ll have more opportunities to showcase it against better teams.
4. Julius Randle, Kentucky
Watching Randle take on Michigan State two weeks ago at the United Center, it was easy to feel like the Kentucky freshman should have just traded in his blue-and-white Wildcats uniform for a red-and-black Bulls kit. Randle struggled early against the Spartans, but when he found his groove in the second half, the Kentucky freshman was nearly impossible to contain. Not only has Randle been Kentucky’s most effective scorer (he leads the Wildcats at 19.8 points per game), no UK player has rebounded better — Randle ranks among the top 60 players in the country in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. Randle is also drawing an average of 9.2 fouls per 40 minutes, good for 19th in the country, and making good on those opportunities by knocking down 73 percent of his free throws.
It’s been a long time since a first-year player has packaged so much refined skill with so much athleticism. Most freshmen, no matter how talented, require a little fine-tuning during their first years of college basketball. Randle looks like a finished product right now. The scariest part for Kentucky’s opponents this season? Wildcats coach John Calipari is pushing Randle to get better.
5. Jahii Carson, Arizona State
One of the most impressive single-game performances so far this season belongs to Carson, who scored 40 points on 16-of-25 shooting in a six-point road win over UNLV on Nov. 19. The impact that performance could have on Arizona State’s postseason hopes — and coach Herb Sendek’s job status — is significant. The Sun Devils, who missed out on the NCAA Tournament last season, are on track to qualify in 2013-14 if Carson continues to put up crazy scoring lines in nonconference games.
Carson scored 23 points and dished out five assists to help his team dispatch No. 25 Marquette at home Monday night, adding a good win to an already solid nonconference resume. When Arizona State enters Pac-12 play, Carson will be pitted against some of the best backcourts in the country: Colorado’s Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker; Arizona’s Nick Young and T.J. McConnell; and Oregon’s Joseph Young, Johnathan Loyd and Damyeon Dotson. His speed, quickness and ability to turn on a dime make the Sun Devils sophomore one of the most exciting players in the country.