National Player of the Year Race Check-In: Top 10 Early-Season Candidates

We’re just seven weeks into the 2018–19 college hoops season, with more than three months to go until a champion is crowned at the Final Four in Minneapolis on April 8. But the prelude to conference play has already generated plenty of eye-popping performances, from freshman dominance in Durham to a perfect season in Ann Arbor. So with such a large slate of impressive efforts early in the year, which players can you expect to see in National Player of the Year contention come April? We break down the top 10 candidates, highlighted by a pair of Blue Devils at the top.

Zion Williamson, Freshman, Duke

There’s no more electrifying player in college basketball than the 285-pound freshman, a menacing blend of power and speed. Williamson has shimmied and slammed his way to 20.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game and ranks No. 1 in the nation in offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. He’s also one of three players with at least 20 steals and 20 blocks on the season. Williamson has been the story of the year thus far, and he’s the top two-way force in the game.

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Dedric Lawson, Junior, Kansas

The most consistent contributor to the No. 1 team in the nation, Lawson leads the Jayhawks in points and rebounds per game. A year off after transferring from Memphis hasn’t slowed him down. Lawson has paired with junior Udoka Azubuike to form one of the nation’s most formidable defensive frontcourts, boosting Kansas 15 spots from last season to No. 6 in defensive rating in 2018–19.

Lawson tallied 24 points and 13 boards against Tennessee on Nov. 23 and 28 points and 12 rebounds against Villanova three weeks later. He's been consistently excellent, and if Kansas cruises to its 15th straight Big 12 title, he may bring the Jayhawks their second Naismith winner in the last three seasons.

R.J. Barrett, Freshman, Duke

While Williamson has been Duke’s best player, Barrett leads the Blue Devils in scoring at 24.5 points per game. The Toronto native is every bit the tantalizing pro prospect many expected entering the year, a dynamic athlete who’s smooth in traffic. The buckets come easy to Barrett. He’s a solid three-point shooter at 35.5%, unafraid to pull the trigger as defenses rightfully sag into the paint. Barrett hung 33 on Kentucky on opening night. A couple of repeat performances against North Carolina, and Barrett could win Player of the Year and secure the top pick in June’s NBA draft.

Jarrett Culver, Sophomore, Texas Tech

Culver’s Texas Tech squad isn’t in the same tier as Duke and Kansas, yet the Red Raiders sit No. 12 in the nation before a matchup with Duke at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. Culver has been the driving force behind Tech’s success. The sophomore has seen a jump of nearly eight points per game this season and is currently third in the Big 12 at 19.1. He leads Texas Tech in rebounding despite being just 6’5” and is a determined and skilled defender, a perfect embodiment of the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense. Culver’s defensive impact is matched only by Williamson among the Player of the Year candidates.

Ethan Happ, Senior, Wisconsin

Happ leads kenpom.com's Player of the Year standings, leading the Badgers in points, rebounds and assists. The 6’8” senior is efficient and versatile, shooting 60.8% from the field while anchoring Wisconsin’s back line with 1.7 blocks per game. Happ doesn’t provide the same explosion or highlight-reel plays as his fellow Player of the Year candidates, but he’s still one of the most effective players in the nation.

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Admiral Schofield, Senior, Tennessee

Schofield splits much of the credit for Tennessee's 9–1 start with reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams, but it’s Schofield’s performance of late that gives him the upper hand through nine games. The senior swingman torched Gonzaga for 30 points in a 76–73 victory on Dec. 9, canning six threes. Schofield is sturdy with stretch, a force inside with a a more-than-serviceable three-point stroke at 43.9% from beyond the arc. Schofield has even doubled his assist rate in 2018–19. Tennessee is now the SEC favorite, largely due to Schofield’s offensive development.

Carsen Edwards, Junior, Purdue

No Naismith candidate carries a greater offensive burden than Edwards on a night-to-night basis. He is 12 points ahead of Purdue’s second-leading scorer, pouring in 25.6 per game. Edwards takes 38.9% of his team’s shots when on the floor per kenpom.com, fifth in the nation. He sports a 38.7% usage rate, No. 5 in Division I. Purdue would sag to the bottom of the Big Ten without Edwards. His presence should carry them to a fifth-straight NCAA tournament appearance.

Rui Hachimura, Junior, Gonzaga

Don’t let Gonzaga’s two-game slide against Tennessee and North Carolina last week fool you; the Bulldogs are legitimate national title contenders, with Hachimura as their anchor. The junior forward leads Gonzaga at 21.6 per game. He’s a perfect focal point for head coach Mark Few’s offense, a willing passer and patient prober, able to put the ball on the deck or shuffle out beyond the arc. After falling short of the national title in 2016–17, Hachimura will have a chance to deliver Gonzaga its first championship in program history come April.

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Ignas Brazdeikis, Freshman, Michigan

Brazdeikis is the leading scorer on perhaps the best team in the country through seven weeks. The Canadian forward excels in space, shifting and contorting his body in traffic en route 15.8 points per game. He’s a lanky and switchable defender, a cog in the nation’s No. 3 scoring defense. Such success as a freshman wasn’t expected for the nation’s No. 40 prospect, per 247Sports. But after Michigan’s hot start, Brazdeikis’s impact has been hard to ignore.

Markus Howard, Junior, Marquette

Howard is high-volume scorer, not afraid to take or make contested jumpers as the shot clock winds down. He’s second in the Big East in points per game at 23.2, continuing his 2017–18 performance that included a 52-point explosion against Providence. Howard gets to the line in droves, still scoring 27 points in a win against Wisconsin on Dec. 8 despite going 7 of 29 from the floor. Marquette has faced a difficult slate thus far, losing to Kansas and Indiana in addition to wins over the Badgers and Louisville. Another tough test comes against Buffalo on Friday, and Howard will be relied on to carry the offensive load.

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