Sports Reference Blog

Breaking Down College Basketball’s Naismith Award Race

Posted by Jonah Gardner on March 24, 2017

With the 2017 NCAA Tournament heating up, all eyes are on the college basketball world. By the end of this weekend, the March Madness field of 68 teams will have been pared down to just four finalists, and we'll have just three meaningful games of college hoops left to enjoy this year.

So, as the season wraps up, we wanted to turn our attention to another exciting race for a major trophy: the competition for this year's Naismith Player of the Year Award. The Naismith, given during the Final Four weekend, recognizes the year's best college basketball player. This week, the voters narrowed the field from the original ten semifinalists to four finalists, each of whom has an excellent case for taking the trophy. In fact, in an interesting mirror of the NBA MVP race that we examined a few weeks ago, this year's award could go to any of the major four contenders depending on what voters choose to prioritize. So, with that in mind, let's take a look at the pros and cons of each finalists' case.

Lonzo Ball, UCLA Bruins (Pac-12): 14.7 Points Per Game, 7.6 Assists Per Game, 6.1 Rebounds Per Game, 25.1 Player Efficiency Rating

LaVar Ball's son is the only freshman on this list, and with good reason: since 1992-93, Ball's the only frosh to average 14/7/6. No only that, but he was also insanely efficient, putting up an effective field goal percentage of .674. As a freshman, it's also easier to see the impact he's had by comparing this year's Bruins team to last year's. Without Ball in 2015-16, UCLA went 15-17, including 6-12 in conference play, and missed the tournament. This year, with Ball starting, they've gone 31-4, climbed as high as #2 in AP polling, and have a chance at making the Elite Eight for the first time since the Kevin Love/Russell Westbrook team of 2008.

However, the advanced numbers indicate that this might be overstating the impact of Ball's arrival. Last year's UCLA team was over 10 points better than average, according to Simple Rating System, and their net rating was also positive, despite facing an average opponent that was four points tougher than this year's Bruins had to play and nine points better than the average 2015-16 team.

In fact, strength of schedule is one of the biggest issues in casting a vote for Ball. UCLA had, by far, the easiest schedule of the four teams represented among the finalists, ranking 73rd in opponent strength this year. Ball's average opponent was over six points per game closer to average than Frank Mason, who faced the toughest opposition of this year's finalists. That's mainly because the Pac-12 graded out as such a weak conference this year, finishing 6th in SRS, but UCLA's non-conference schedule wasn't particularly impressive either (although Ball can point to a 14-7-6 in a win against the Kentucky Wildcats).

Then there's the question of whether Lonzo shouldered as heavy a burden as the others. His 18.0 Usage Rate is the lowest of the four, the lowest of the Top 14 players in Win Shares, and lower than any Naismith winner since 2009-10, the first year that College Basketball Reference can calculate USG. In fact, the only Naismith winner in that span to even have a usage under 28% was Anthony Davis. And while AD's 18.8% USG isn't meaningfully different from Lonzo's scoring burden this year, there's also the fact that AD grabbed over 10 rebounds and blocked nearly five shots per game. His defensive rating of 80.7 was far and away better than Lonzo's 99.9 and his offensive rating was also superior to Ball's.

Indeed, the only players to win the Naismith without breaking 15 points per game were Davis and Patrick Ewing, both defensive anchors. T.J. Ford did break 15, just barely, and his case provides a better precedent for Ball since Ford averaged nearly the same assist numbers as Ball and lagged way behind him in rebounding. But it's a reasonable to wonder whether Ford was the right choice, given that players like Mike Sweetney and David West more than doubled Ford's Win Shares that year while future NBA All-Stars like Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade also put up excellent years.

Even giving Ball credit for points generated by assists, he still lags behind the other candidates in total points produced. In other words, while Ball is easily the most promising NBA player of the finalists, and put up numbers that were unprecedented for a freshman, his 2016-17 campaign itself might not quite measure up to the other three candidates.

Josh Hart, Villanova Wildcats (Big East): 18.7 PPG, 2.9 APG, 6.4 RPG, 28.1 PER

If you like advanced stats, you're probably a fan of Josh Hart's case. Hart leads the finalists in PER and Win Shares and trails only Ball in Box Plus/Minus by a relatively insignificant 0.3 points per 100 possessions. And if you care about things like clutchness and winning, you've probably already crossed Hart's name off, given Villanova's shocking upset in the Round of 32, as the Wisconsin Badgers knocked the nation's #1 overall seed out of the tournament in the first weekend.

However, that upset may not be quite the death knell for Hart's chances that you'd expect. While the last two Naismith winners made it to the Final Four, you just have to go back to 2014 to find a comparison that works. That year, the Creighton Bluejays were eliminated in the Round of 32, despite being a three-seed, without hurting Doug McDermott's candidacy. While it was only a 3-6 matchup, instead of a 1-8, it was also a blowout: The Bluejays lost by 30 points and McBuckets scored an uncharacteristically mediocre 15 points on 14 field goal attempts. In contrast, the Wildcats lost a one-possession game against a team with similar tournament experience. And Hart acquitted himself well in that game, scoring 19 and going 5-9 from the field.

Losing as the #1 overall seed is embarrassing, but Villanova wouldn't have even been ranked that high without the Big East Player of the Year. Hart's 18.7 PPG are the most in a season by a Villanova player since Randy Foye in 2005-06, and you have to go back to Kemba Walker in 2010-11 to find another Big East player with as many Win Shares as Hart racked up this season.

Hart's combination of efficiency and usage also sets him apart. His eFG% of .590 was better than Mason or Swanigan, and his usage rate of 27.8% was better than Mason or Ball. But the question is whether Hart did quite enough, outside of scoring, to merit the award. He was the worst playmaker of the group, trailing even Swanigan in assists (although part of that may be a pace issue, since he actually has a slight lead on Swanigan in assist rate). But Hart's advanced defensive numbers are still impressive. He leads Mason and Ball in Defensive BPM and Defensive Rating.

Then there's the matter of schedule. Villanova faced a top 30 schedule and, in the Big East, played in a top three conference according to SRS. So, while Hart's PER dropped nearly two points in conference play from his overall season total, and his scoring was slightly down as well, he still put up extremely impressive numbers against some very tough competition.

Frank Mason, Kansas Jayhawks (Big 12): 20.9 PPG, 5.2 APG, 4.2 RPG, 25.7 PER

Speaking of tough competition, if putting up big numbers against the toughest schedule possible is your main criteria, then you're probably going to be voting for Frank Mason. Mason's Jayhawks were in the best conference in the nation and faced the fourth toughest schedule of the year, according to SRS. And yet, despite that, Mason averaged over 20 points per game and led Kansas to a 31-4 record and a 1-seed in the Tournament.

But Mason had help in the form of Josh Jackson. Jackson was arguably the best teammate that any Naismith finalist had this year; of the others, only Ball played with someone who averaged over 700 minutes and had a PER over 24. Mason also had the lightest defensive load of any of the finalists; his defensive BPM ranks behind Ball, Hart, and Swanigan, and he's the only player out of the four with a defensive rating over 100.

But Kansas didn't really need Mason to be a defensive anchor, nor did they win games with defense. Instead, it was on offense that they excelled, and at that end, Mason was the team's primary engine. While his 25.5% usage rate only ranks third out of the finalists, his 26.0% assist rate ranks second, and the combination of the two is a testament to how often Mason had the ball in his hands. In fact, Mason was the only player out of the four whose assist rate and usage rate add up to over 50% and he leads the four in points produced.

He also led an elite offense; the Jayhawks ranked third in the nation in offensive rating when adjusted for opponent strength. But the problem is that UCLA was better, even after accounting for their easier competition. However, Mason also has another ace in his pocket: a monster game in the NCAA Tournament. As of this writing, his 26-7-7 in a huge Sweet Sixteen win for Kansas was the year's second best individual performance in the Tournament, via game score, as well as the most memorable clutch performance on what is, to date, the biggest stage yet.

Caleb Swanigan, Purdue Boilermakers (Big Ten): 18.5 PPG, 3.0 APG, 12.5 RPG, 26.2 PER

That leaves Swanigan, who has really emerged in his sophomore year as one of the nation's better players and a potential steal for an NBA team drafting at the end of the first round. If this year's Naismith race is kind of similar to the NBA MVP race, then Swanigan is the Kawhi Leonard, a two-way force using top notch defense to make up for not quite shouldering the same creative burden as the other candidates.

Swanigan is the fourth Big Ten player since 2009 to pair a PER over 25 with a DBPM over 5.5 (the other three were Draymond Green, Victor Oladipo, and Frank Kaminsky, putting him in pretty elite company). Swanigan's also the fourth player in that span to do that as a sophomore in any conference.

A large part of that is that Swanigan has been an absolute monster on the boards. Thanks to the recent data additions to College Basketball Reference, we can now see leaderboards in the Big Ten going back to 1985-86. In that span, no one grabbed more boards in a Big Ten season than Swanigan has this year. If you prefer per game numbers, you have to go all the way back to 1985-86, when Brad Sellers averaged 12.6 rebounds per game, to find someone who beat Swanigan in the conference.

18 and 12 is relatively difficult in any college season, but it's especially impressive for a freshman or sophomore in a Power Five conference. Since 1992-93, the only other players besides Swanigan to do it are Blake Griffin and Michael Beasley, and Griffin won the Naismith.

But relying on the defensive case for Swanigan is tricky. Purdue ranked 39th in raw defensive rating and 20th in opponent-adjusted DRtg. Those are good numbers, but are they Best Player in the Nation ones, especially considering that Villanova had a better defense? Especially when you look at both sides of the ball, where Hart's 3.2 points per 100 edge in offensive BPM would seem to make up for the fact that Swanigan only leads him by around a point and a half in DBPM.

In short, Hart seems to have the best individual numbers, the best team numbers, and the best overall contribution when considering factors like opponent strength and the team around him. But Mason has the Tournament heat. I'd still lean towards Hart, because of his larger body of work, but the margin is close enough that big game on Saturday for the Jayhawk guard could sway me.

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