It’s that time of the year again. Early November. A chill is in the air. We all wait with bated breath for the first tip of the college basketball season.
Our predictions and opinions have been formed. We have our national title favorites. We have our preseason top 25. The players to watch have been determined. Sure surprises can happen and players can burst onto the scene like Obi Toppin in 2019 — but the more likely outcome is that we probably already know the next national player of the year (NPOY) quite well. Most of the prohibitive favorites are returning stars from last year or highly lauded freshmen with unique skill sets.
The race for national player of the year should be an exciting storyline to follow. The list of contenders runs the gamut from unicorn-like phenoms to mustachioed offensive maestros — from imposing goliaths to minuscule world-beating warriors. Here are the five players that I think have the best shot at winning NPOY entering 2021-22.
Drew Timme, F, Gonzaga
Recent write up on Drew Timme at Zagaholic.net
The odds-on NPOY favorite according to almost every publication and reigning second-team All-American, Drew Timme took the college basketball world by storm last year and helped lead Gonzaga to the national championship game. The rising junior averaged 19 points, 7 rebounds, and shot an incredible 76.5 percent at the rim. When Timme goes to work down low, he is virtually automatic.
That should continue thanks to Andrew Nembhard. Nembhard is probably the nation’s best pick and roll point guard and highly capable of running Mark Few’s offensive scheme. The Nembhard-to-Timme connection will be about as bankable as it gets in the sport. If Timme can continue to improve and increase his production this season, he will likely run away with the award. Timme is unique in his ability to run the floor and bring the ball up. Something the Zags will be able to employ with Chet Holmgren as well. This versatility, in part, is why Gonzaga is the overwhelming favorite to win the championship.
The biggest questions surrounding Timme’s game are his perimeter shooting and defensive foot speed. Timme is weakest when switched outside and forced to guard smaller, quicker players, something Baylor infamously took advantage of in the national title game. He also has never really been reliable in-game from outside. I have it on good word that Timme put in a ton of work in the offseason shoring up both areas. While he may never be elite in either facet, if he even improves slightly, it will be a massive boon for the Bulldogs’ chances of finally winning a national title.
Kofi Cockburn, C, Illinois
Kofi Cockburn might just be the most imposing player in college basketball. His size and strength are herculean in comparison to most big men in the game today. The 7’0” 285-pound giant knows how to use his size to his advantage to the tune of 17.7 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Cockburn was a second-team All-American last year and will likely either equal or improve upon that this year.
Like Timme, Cockburn is highly efficient inside the paint shooting 76.3 percent at the rim. Unlike Timme, Cockburn will likely never develop a perimeter game to speak of and takes on the role of the traditional big inside. Cockburn is an elite defender in the paint, perhaps even the best in the nation. He will continue to punish opposing Big Ten frontcourt players this season in the hopes that he can lead Illinois to a conference title.
If Cockburn was born in another era, he would likely be one of the top NBA prospects of this generation. Unfortunately, no matter how talented he is, his ceiling is as an NBA reserve in today’s game. Look for budding star point guard André Curbelo to help take Cockburn’s game to the next level as he challenges for NPOY.
Johnny Juzang, G, UCLA
Perhaps no player improved more during the end of last season than Johnny Juzang. The rising junior and former Kentucky Wildcat helped lead UCLA on an improbable run to the Final Four — culminating in an overtime loss to a historically great Gonzaga team. He averaged 22.8 points on over 50 percent shooting and was named to the 2021 All-Tournament Team.
During the offseason, he was widely viewed as a potential first-round pick in the NBA draft but ultimately decided to return to school. This may have surprised some people who expected him to capitalize on a prolific NCAA Tournament, but Juzang decided to bet on himself and his teammates that they could recreate their late-season magic and challenge for a national championship this season. In the past, there have been questions surrounding Juzang’s ability to stay healthy and consistently perform at the peak of his game. While some of those questions may linger, Juzang is now squarely in the limelight as a preseason All-American and shortlist candidate for NPOY.
Juzang is at his best in the mid-range where he made an exceptional 48.7 percent of his shots (2pt jumpers) last year. He excels at creating offense off the dribble either by finding his shot or creating contact and getting to the line where he shoots 87.7 percent. He can be streaky at times and does make puzzling decisions with the ball in his hand. That being said, expect Juzang to challenge for the Pac-12 scoring title en route to leading the Bruins on another deep tournament run.
Paolo Banchero, F, Duke
The manchild, the myth, the legend. Paolo Banchero might be the most intriguing physical prospect entering the collegiate level since Zion Williamson. He stands 6’10” and 250 pounds but has the ability to run the floor and play like a guard. Banchero is a remarkable shooter and passer for his size. He has exceptional use of both hands, can change directions on the fly, and has a natural ability to see the court. Banchero will immediately become Duke’s best player and best shot at giving Coach K a shot at the Final Four in his final season.
Projected by many to be one of the top prospects in next year’s NBA draft, Banchero has all the skills that scouts covet. He has great polish and poise for a player of his age. Banchero is a playmaker in every way imaginable with or without the ball in his hands. Duke should see huge dividends in the way Banchero makes winning plays for himself or for others.
Perhaps his biggest weakness at the next level is his outside shooting. He could stand to continue to improve a bit on the defensive end of the floor as well. All that being said, Banchero will be highly prolific this season and produce at a level that could see him become a threat to Timme for NPOY.
Max Abmas, G, Oral Roberts
What an incredible ride Oral Roberts had in last season’s NCAA Tournament. Max Abmas burst onto the scene and helped lead the Golden Eagles to the Sweet Sixteen as a 15 seed. Abmas, despite his smallish size, brings toughness to his game that few possess. He is a fantastic scorer and led the NCAA last year at 24.5 points per game. He shot 43.3 percent from outside and 45.6 percent on jumpers inside the arc last season. He is also one of the best free-throw shooters in the nation at 89.3 percent.
Abmas is the prototypical ball-dominant scoring guard — sometimes to a fault. Having lost prized big man Kevin Obanor to Texas Tech, he has only become further entrenched as the lead scoring option in Tulsa this season. He could become the first player to repeat as college basketball’s leading scorer since Reggie Williams of VMI in 2007-08. If he continues to produce at a prolific level and Oral Roberts can remain nationally relevant, perhaps Abmas can become the dark horse candidate to win the NPOY. This will be a tough road, but ORU will be appointment television for one reason — Max Abmas.
Josh Linke is a long-time college basketball fan, amateur writer, and founder of Zagaholic.net. You can follow him on Twitter: @TheZagaholic