We’ll find out Sunday who ends up taking home the James A. Naismith Trophy, given to the nation’s top college basketball player. Four finalists were named March 20, but in reality, it’s very likely a two-man race:
Buddy or Denzel, who ya got?
Seniors Buddy Hield of Oklahoma and Denzel Valentine of Michigan State clearly separated themselves from the field throughout the 2015-16 season, but only one can be declared the best. Each has an incredibly impressive resume and would make for a worthy winner, but who will it be?
Follow along as we run the numbers, compare the attributes and intangibles, and let you know why both Hield and Valentine are the best choice. Then you can decide.
By the Numbers
Since 75 percent of the voting for the Naismith Award came from ballots cast at the end of the regular season—the other 25 percent comes from fan voting—we’re only counting the numbers Hield and Valentine put up through their conference tournaments. Anything either did during the NCAA tournament doesn’t count, thus the monster numbers Hield has put up in getting Oklahoma to the Final Four can’t be used to boost him ahead of Valentine and his first-round exit.
It’s only fair since this award is meant to honor the best player from the overall season, not just for who did better (or took his team further) in the postseason.
Hield averaged just under 25 points per game prior to the NCAA tournament, adding 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists while shooting 49.6 percent overall, 46.4 percent from three-point range and 89.5 percent from the line. Valentine averaged 19.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists while shooting 46.4 percent overall, 44.7 percent from three-point range and 85.3 percent from the line.
Valentine is the first player in NCAA history to ever average at least 17 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, per Matt Brown of Sports on Earth.
Though he’s only an inch taller, Valentine was a far better rebounder and notched 10 or more boards on six occasions. And then there’s the distribution numbers, with Valentine dishing out at least 10 assists eight times before the NCAA tourney, helping him to a pair of triple-doubles.
Hield is by far the better pure scorer and can go off for huge point totals at any time, while Valentine provides a more balanced contribution but one that’s often reliant on others around him chipping in.
The Supporting Cast
Michigan State and Oklahoma each earned No. 2 seeds to the NCAA tournament, thus their overall team performance during the regular season was pretty similar. How much of that was due to Hield and Valentine, and how much was the result of the players around them?
Valentine accounted for about 24 percent of his team’s scoring with a usage percentage of 28.4, compared to Hield’s 30.5 percent usage rate and 31.6 percent scoring contribution. Easy translation: Each guy is his team’s go-to player, and each has the ball in his hands quite a bit.
But Hield had better pieces around him to work with, namely fellow perimeter scorers Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard. They both shot better than 40 percent from three-point range, which prevented opponents from being able to completely focus on Hield and thus make it possible for him to elude defenders. Hield accounted for 30 of the team’s 61 regular-season instances in which a player scored 15 or more points., but Cousins, Woodard and others were just as often chipping in.
Valentine had guys around him who could pour it in, but their frequency and consistency wasn’t nearly as strong. Guard Bryn Forbes and forward Matt Costello both averaged double figures but with only a combined 23 games of 15-plus points.
Forbes, who shot better than 48 percent from outside, had eight 20-point games but also five with four or fewer points.
The Big Ten and Big 12 were two of the best conferences during the regular season, and thus Hield and Valentine had plenty of chances to play top competition. Seventeen of Oklahoma’s 33 games prior to the NCAA tournament came against schools that would make the 68-team field, while MSU played 11 such teams when Valentine was healthy.
And in those games, Valentine managed to exceed his already lofty season numbers, while Hield was slightly below. This changed when the NCAA tourney came around, but those aren’t supposed to factor into the Naismith consideration, so we’ll put them to the side.
Valentine averaged 21.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and 8.7 assists with six double-doubles—including one of his triple-doubles coming against the eventual overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney, Kansas—and Michigan State was 8-3 in those games. Hield’s Sooners were 11-6 against the field, and while that sample included four of his 10 regular-season 30-point games, it also featured his biggest stinker (six points, 1-of-8 shooting in the Big 12 tourney loss to West Virginia).
Valentine, on the other hand, had 17 points, nine rebounds and 8.7 assists per game during MSU’s run to the Big Ten tournament title.
The Clutch Factor
Before suffering a minor knee injury that required surgery in December, Valentine looked like he could do no wrong. He posted a triple-double against Kansas and had a second before November ended, and four of his seven 25-point games came after that.
The numbers remained good after Valentine returned from the four-game absence, but they weren’t as good. It wasn’t a rust issue or because he was trying to avoid injury. Instead, it was an attempt to make sure he wasn’t Michigan State’s only key player. And while this makes Valentine incredibly selfless, it also speaks to whether he was capable of carrying the Spartans when all else failed.
Compare that to Hield, who like Valentine didn’t want to be a one-man show but knew there were times when this was necessary. He possessed a switch that could get turned on at a moment’s notice, and the rest of Oklahoma’s players knew when to get the ball to him and watch him go off. We remember the instances of this during the NCAA tourney because they’re fresh in our minds, but it also happened several times during the regular season.
Hield’s team ended up losing more games than Valentine’s, but even in losses, Hield could look unstoppable. Case in point: when he had 46 points on 13-of-23 shooting (including 8-of-15 on threes) in the triple-overtime loss to Kansas in early January.
“It’s rare for somebody to launch a National Player of the Year campaign in a loss, if only because such awards are typically at least somewhat tied to winning,” CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish wrote. “But that’s how good Buddy Hield was that night.”
So which is your flavor? Lights-out shooting and the capability to put up 30 on every night, or someone who could play almost every position on the floor and finds a way to contribute in as many places as possible? Whichever direction you lean, try not to be clouded too much by Valentine and Michigan State being on the losing end of arguably the biggest upset in NCAA tourney history while Hield has gotten Oklahoma into the Final Four for the first time since 2002.
The Spartans could very easily be back in the Final Four, while Oklahoma could have gone out some time during the first weekend. That’s the craziness and uncertainty of the NCAA tournament and why postseason results aren’t considered when deciding the Naismith.
The winner will be announced Sunday, and it would be a major shock if Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon or Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis took home the prize. There will be no surprise for either Hield or Valentine, however.
All statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.
Source: Bleacher Report