With roughly three weeks left in the regular season, the race for the National Player of the Year is still wide open.
At first glance, the favorite should come from the University of Kentucky. Sporting an unbeaten record and looking like a juggernaut, it would make sense to reward a Wildcat. The problem: there is not one who can be singled out as the best player. They are too deep and too talented.
Looking past No. 1, it looks to be a two-man race between Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky. Both big men have led top-five teams all season and are the engines that drive them. In a strict sense of who is more valuable, it is impossible to differentiate. Take either away from Duke or Wisconsin, and both programs would struggle immensely.
The beautiful thing about college basketball is that these two players are so tremendously different. Okafor is the consensus pick to go No. 1 overall in the 2015 NBA Draft. He epitomizes what it means to be a “one-and-done” player in this era. He came to Duke as the top recruit in his high school class and has surpassed even the highest expectations. I saw him up close when UConn played Duke in December and he was as good as advertised. He is averaging 17.9 points and 9.4 rebounds while leading the Blue Devils to a 24-3 record and presumably, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Look toward the NBA and you will see half a dozen teams tanking their way into the lottery just for a chance to draft the freshman. He has franchise player written all over him. But does that make him the Player of the Year?
On the other hand, there is Kaminsky, the senior center for the Badgers. He is a throwback to a bygone era of college basketball. Last season, many expected Kaminsky to declare for the NBA Draft. Instead, he stayed for his final season looking to bring the Badgers back to the Final Four. It certainly looks to have been the right decision. He’s averaging 17.7 points and 8.3 rebounds for a team headed for the Big 10 title. Kaminsky does not have the flash of Okafor, but he is just as vital a piece.
At the end of the day, the narrative of Kaminsky does not surpass the pure dominance of Okafor. Okafor has been a dominant and consistent presence for one of the marquee programs in America. He has scored in double figures in every game this season and he is shooting a scorching 66 percent from the field. If he can finish this season at the same pace, Okafor is the favorite to take home a slew of National Player of the Year awards.