Columnists, Sports

Foul Shots: McDermott: The best in NCAA hoops

Ask a fan or even an analyst who they think the best college basketball player is right now. Chances are, they’ll give you the name of the player in the college ranks that they think is the most ready for the NBA. In the past, the answers to these two separate questions might be the same. Take the example of Blake Griffin in 2009. He was considered both the best player in the NCAA and the most NBA-ready, evidenced by his NBA Rookie of the Year award and countless highlight-reel dunks.

But sometimes the answers are different. In 2011, the John Wooden Award, presented to college basketball’s best player, was given to Brigham Young University’s Jimmer Fredette, who averaged nearly 29 points per game. But Fredette was just the 10th pick in the subsequent 2011 NBA draft, and was the fourth point guard drafted. As it turns out, the scouts were right about Fredette. He has struggled at the professional level to make a consistent impact.

Who’s the most NBA-ready player in college basketball this year? It’s a bit of a toss-up. Many mock drafts have Kansas center Joel Embiid going first overall, followed by heralded freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. But who’s the best player in college basketball right now? Is it Oklahoma State University guard Marcus Smart, or maybe University of Kentucky power forward Julius Randle? In my opinion, it’s not any of the players that have been listed above. The best player in college basketball, for the most part, flies under the radar.

His name is Doug McDermott, and he is a senior who plays for Creighton University in the Big East Conference. Part of the reason that McDermott doesn’t get the hype that Embiid, Wiggins, Parker and others do is because he plays for Creighton, a small school in Omaha, Neb., with just over 4,000 undergraduates. Until this year, Creighton played in the Missouri Valley Conference. As such, college basketball pundits weren’t especially impressed with his achievements playing against the likes of Bradley University and Drake University and that’s somewhat understandable. But Creighton moved into the Big East, traditionally a basketball power conference, prior to this season. Many would expect McDermott to falter against the superior defensive play in the Big East. But falter he has not.

This season he’s averaging 24.3 points per game, second in the nation only to Niagara University’s Antoine Mason. He’s shooting nearly 50 percent from the field, 43 percent from beyond the 3-point arc and just under 90 percent from the free-throw line. Those are absurd percentages, even when you consider McDermott’s line from the 2012-13 season: 55 percent from the field, 49 percent from the 3-point line and 88 percent from the charity stripe. He has a chance to finish with 3,000 career points, which would make him only the eighth player in NCAA history to reach that milestone. Pete Maravich (Louisiana State University) is first overall, with 3,667. Of course, he did it in three years.

I’m not comparing McDermott to Pete Maravich. McDermott is a 6-foot-8 small forward. He’s not the fastest guy around, nor is he the most athletic. He’s not even a great passer or defender. But, he has a lethal shooting stroke from mid-range and 3-point distance alike.

Most NBA mock drafts have McDermott going in the middle of the first round, which is probably a good place for him. With his relatively limited athleticism, he’s not ready to lead a team right now. Teams have gotten much smarter about drafting in the last couple years. Hell would freeze over before Adam Morrison got drafted in the top-three like he did in 2006. McDermott, at this point, can be compared to spread-the-floor pure shooters like Mike Dunleavy or Wally Szczerbiak.

Is it depressing to compare the possible Wooden Award winner to Mike Dunleavy? Maybe. I’d much rather have McDermott take the J.J. Redick route. That is, it would be ideal, in my opinion, to have McDermott drafted onto a team where he could be a role player coming off the bench, learning the ropes of the NBA, and gradually work on his game so that he can be a starter. Redick has accomplished that, and now is a major cog on a championship contender.

I don’t think McDermott will ever be a star in the NBA. I’d like to see him try and pull out his Dirk Nowitzki-style step-back jumper against LeBron James. But how far would James swat it into the crowd? Third row? Fourth? It just wouldn’t work very well. McDermott represents a common phenomenon in college basketball right now: The best player, the Wooden Award winner, is often someone who peaks in college. It’s similar to the Heisman trophy. I thought that quarterback Johnny Manziel was the best college football player in the country this year. I think, that if you put Jameis Winston on Manziel’s Texas A&M University team, that the Aggies wouldn’t have won even six games. But the voters gave the Heisman to Winston, in part because they think he’s better equipped for success at the next level. This is unfair to players like Manziel and McDermott, who might very well be solid (maybe excellent) professional athletes.

If either Embiid or Wiggins wins the Wooden Award this year, it’s robbery. Doug McDermott is the best college basketball player alive. He might not look or even play like a future NBA star, but the NCAA isn’t the NBA and McDermott deserves every award that he’ll get at the college level.

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