Before the year 2000, the NCAA Naismith Player of the Year award had been won by a non-junior or senior just five times in 32 seasons. A freshman didn’t win the award for the first time until Kevin Durant did it in 2007.
Now, the award bounces back and forth a bit between accomplished seniors and juniors who become major stars over the course of their careers and freshmen and sophomores who burst onto the scene and are too good to not recognize. Six of the last 10 winners of the NCAA Naismith Player of the Year award have been seniors or juniors.
There are a collection of talented candidates vying for the award this season, and they fit into both categories – upperclassmen wrapping up their college careers and freshmen who are likely headed off to the NBA after just one college season. Here is a look at five players to keep an eye on for the award.
1.) Luka Garza : Iowa senior
The knock against upperclassmen as NBA prospects is that they have lower ceilings due to playing three-four years of college basketball, thus less room to tap into physical potential once they get to the NBA. Garza, a 6-foor-11 center, might be disproving that theory his senior year.
Garza was already an All-American last season and a force scoring the ball in a variety of ways and on the boards. He’s averaging nearly 29 points and 11 rebounds per game this season, but how he’s doing it is immensely impressive. Garza shot 33 percent from three-point range during his first three seasons, but has improved his range and is making nearly 50 percent of his three-pointers as a senior.
That improvement makes, combined with his career, makes him a favorite for the Player of the Year award, but it also adds an element to his game that could make him more attractive to NBA teams looking for stretch bigs in next year’s draft.
2.) Jalen Suggs : Gonzaga freshman
Suggs’ candidacy is derailed a bit by a nagging ankle injury that has kept him out of two games, but he’s seamlessly fit in with an experienced Gonzaga team that is ranked No. 1 in the country.
Suggs is averaging 16 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, and nearly 3 steals per game and shooting nearly 55 percent overall and 48 percent from three-point range. Suggs is also one of the best ball-handlers in the country.
His candidacy could be hurt by the fact that he has a teammate who is also a strong contender for the award in Drew Timme, who is averaging 19 points and 7 rebounds per game while shooting better than 60 percent for the season.
3.) Cade Cunnigham : Oklahoma State freshman
When Durant won the award in 2007, he was a dynamic freshman on a so-so college team. That Texas team was still probably better than the Oklahoma State team Cunningham is on.
Playing for a team that likely isn’t a Final Four contender certainly hurts Cunningham’s candidacy, but the 6-foot-8 guard is having a great season, averaging nearly 20 points, six rebounds, and three assists per game. Cunningham’s three-point shooting has dipped to 31 percent after a hot start, but even if he doesn’t pull off winning the Naismith Award, he’s made himself a strong contender to be the No. 1 pick in next year’s NBA Draft.
4.) Ayo Dosunmu : Illinois junior
Dosunmu is putting up some of the most stuffed stat-lines in the country this season. He’s averaging 24 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists while shooting 55 percent overall and 48 percent from three-point range.
He’s improved each of his three seasons, but his performance this season has been a huge leap from his sophomore numbers. His three-point shooting, in particular, has grown immensely. He shot 35 and 30 percent his first two college seasons.
5.) Trayce Jackson-Davis : Indiana sophomore
Will close out this list of candidates with a classic big man. Jackson-Davis is averaging 20 points, nearly 9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks per game, and shooting 62 percent overall.
Jackson-Davis doesn’t stray too far from the basket, but when he gets fouled, he hits his free throws at an 83 percent clip.
Like Cunningham, Jackson-Davis is playing for a mediocre team, which hurts his Player of the Year chances. But there’s no doubt his play has been a major bright spot for Indiana and puts him in the conversation for this award.