The 2019-2020 college basketball season will be no exception to the impressive talent the NCAA always has to offer. This year will feature returning All Americans, returning top prospects from the 2018 recruiting class, extraordinary five-star freshmen, high-impact transfers and so much more. Narrowing a list of the 10 most likely Wooden Award Candidates was very difficult considering the extreme amount of players that proved they were deserving of consideration. While college basketball has annually been unpredictable, here are the 10 most likely candidates to earn the Wooden Award going into next season.
- Sam Merrill (6’5” Senior Guard At Utah State)
After beating out the Martin twins from Nevada for the 2019 Mountain West Player of the Year, Sam Merrill will be one of the best seniors in the country in 2020. Merrill was the go-to for Utah State last year and he delivered taking Utah State to an 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament (with 28 wins) with averages of 20.9 points, 4.2 assists and 3.9 rebounds on the season. Merrill is one of the best shooters in the country as he knocked down 46.4 percent of his three-point attempts his sophomore year (43 percent his entire career from three) and shot 90.9 percent from the free-throw line last year. He proved he can productively score in the midrange and finish around the rim as well. In a season that didn’t deserve enough attention nationally, Merrill put up more than 37 points twice last year and when the Aggies needed him in a must-win game against 12th ranked Nevada (who tied the regular-season conference title with Utah State), Merril lead his team to an 81-76 win with 29 points. Expect Merrill and Neemias Queta to lead Utah State to repeat another conference title and don’t be surprised if Sam Merrill is one of the top names you will hear in March.
- Udoka Azubuike (7’1” Senior Center At Kansas)
When healthy, Udoka Azubuike plays his role better than arguably every player in the country. There’s no doubt Kansas is a remarkably better team on both ends of the floor when “Dok” is available. With efficiency numbers off the charts (he led the nation in field goal percentage at 77 percent his sophomore year by the way), Kansas has a top tier defense with him and average defense at best without him. Combined with a very large frame and big size, the strength of the Nigerian big man is unmatched by any opponent Azubuike will face. Azubike’s averages should improve to a far extent (13.4 points and 6.8 rebounds last year) this year as he will be the most important player on a legitimate national championship contender team.
- Kerry Blackshear Jr. (6’10” Graduate Transfer Senior Forward At Florida)
Hundreds of players announced their decision to transfer after the 2018-2019 season and no immediately eligible transfer was better than Kerry Blackshear Jr. Blackshear’s numbers improved every year at Virginia Tech and last year Blackshear Jr. was very close to leading the Hokies to a Sweet 16 win over Duke finishing the season with nearly 15 points and 8 rebounds on average (18.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game in the 2 month absence of Virginia Tech’s star point guard Justin Robinson). The grad transfer was top ten in the ACC in field goal percentage last year (50.8 percent) while also being a serviceable three-point/free-throw shooter (33.3 percent from three, 73.6 percent from the line). Virginia’s Braxton Key said this about Blackshear Jr.: “We’re not used to guarding guys like him. He can move very well, shoot the ball very well, dribble it. He can do a lot of everything. Post up. He has a knack to getting the ball in the basket. A guy like that is very difficult to guard.” The addition of Blackshear Jr. springboards Florida from a nationally ranked team to a top 5 team in the nation instantly.
- Jordan Nwora (6’8” Junior Forward At Louisville)
The ACC’s most improved player last year, Jordan Nwora will enter the 2019-2020 season as the preseason favorite to win the ACC player of the year. Nwora always plays under control and to a high level as he impressively put up 17.0 points a game and 7.6 rebounds per game as a sophomore. Nwora is a very skilled player who can score the ball consistently, rebound into double figures and he has a high basketball IQ to make the right reads to find teammates or look for his shot. As an already mature and high character 20-year-old, there’s not much more you can ask for in a star player as he possesses all the intangibles you need as a strong leader. NBADraft.Net projects the Buffalo native as a first-round pick in the 2020 draft: “His height, wingspan, scoring skillset and strong rebounding abilities make him a very versatile and attractive prospect.” The lengthy 6’8” forward also possesses underrated athleticism and defense. Nwora gives the Cardinals realistic potential to make a deep run in March.
- Anthony Edwards (6’5” Freshman Guard At Georgia)
Ranked as the second-best player in the 2019 recruiting class by the 247Sports Composite, Edwards will be one of, if not the best high-volume scorer in the SEC. Edwards is as strong and physical (especially as a freshman) as almost any player you will find in college basketball. He has great strength and athleticism to absorb contact and finish effectively at the rim. Put the ball in his hands and he can create his shot (from the rim to beyond the three-point line) and create plays for his teammates. The lengthy guard makes the right decisions on and off the ball and if you leave him or his teammates open he will quickly make you pay. Edwards is an aggressive guard who is explosive off the dribble but also a catch and shoot threat. Whether it’s Dwyane Wade, Victor Oladipo or many others, Georgia coach Tom Crean has a knack of coaching college and NBA superstars. Anthony Edwards will be the next superstar on Crean’s list and one of the first picks in the 2020 NBA Draft.
- James Wiseman (7’0” Freshman Center At Memphis)
Ranked as the best player in the 2019 recruiting class (per many websites such as ESPN, 247 Sports Composite, etc.), James Wiseman has the most potential down the road out of everyone in college basketball. Wiseman is freakishly athletic and lengthy with a 7’6” wingspan at 7 feet tall. Wiseman is a bit of raw prospect right now, but that’s very understandable considering he just turned 18 years old a couple of months ago. The freshman is already a force to be reckoned with on defense and his offensive game is soon to follow. On defense, Wiseman is an elite rim protector and he is capable of guarding perimeter players also as he is very agile and quick on his feet vertically and laterally. Wiseman still needs to develop on offense but his offensive skills are already promising. He’s demonstrated a good touch around the basket and as a three-range scorer. He has an arsenal of moves in the post but he also has great awareness as a passer finding cutters and open teammates. As Wiseman gets more time to develop, he will be unstoppable on offense and will be one of the most elite players on defense. It shouldn’t take too long for Wiseman to adapt to the college level. With a crazy amount of upside, the sky’s the limit for Wiseman as he is the current favorite for the top pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
- Cole Anthony (6’3” Guard At North Carolina)
Ranked as the second-best player in the 2019 recruiting class by ESPN, Cole Anthony (son of NBA icon Greg Anthony) can do anything and everything a team can ask for. Through the eye test, Anthony has that “Mamba Mentality,” more specifically that killer instinct that you can only find in a small number of players. The 6’3” guard plays very aggressively with a high motor. Anthony has shown great playmaking abilities and has premier athleticism. He can finish well in the lane and can throw down dunks like few other guards are capable of. Very effective on and off the ball, Anthony can score off the dribble or catch and shoot from far beyond the three-point line. Anthony is a great passer and has the mandatory point guard skills such as ball handling, maneuvering the pick and roll, shiftiness, etc. The D1Circuit chose the dynamic guard as the EYBL’s MVP last spring. Anthony should immediately be very impactful for the Tar Heels. With plenty of very talented teammates around him, Anthony will need to prove he can consistently make his teammates better to potentially put him over the edge for the ACC player of the year award (which will definitely not be an easy race to win). Coming from Oak Hill Academy (the same high school that Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, and many other NBA stars attended) and now a blueblood university in UNC, expect Anthony to continue the legacy of those schools and be right there with Anthony Edwards and James Wiseman as a potential top pick in the draft.
- Myles Powell (6’2” Senior Guard At Seton Hall)
Myles Powell is one of the most natural scorers in the country and he will find a way to score at a high rate no matter who is guarding him. Myles Powell has been very productive his entire career at Seton Hall but he reached another level the entire month of March in 2019 when he didn’t have a game scoring less than 20 points (he scored more than 30 on three occasions and averaged 27.7 points in March). Don’t let that month overshadow the rest of last season and his career, however. Powell has been a double-figure scorer since his freshman year and last year his numbers improved to 23.1 points per game with other career highs of 4.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists and a very impressive 2.0 steals per game. The Trenton, New Jersey native represents his hometown playing very tough with visible passion and emotion (Gus Johnson’s call of “What Trenton Makes…The World Takes!”). No doubt about it, Powell has the clutch gene. Time and time again the 6’2” guard will look for his shot in crunch-time and knock down the cold-blooded his team needs. Other superstars are simply not as clutch as Powell. If you give him enough space, Powell will make shots from the parking lot and will make shots at the rim, in the midrange area and deep three-point territory every game. Even if you don’t give him space, if you contest his shot or guard him in his jersey, Powell will stay find a way to score against any defense (“few players in the country, if any, are as good at hitting shots while defended”-247Sports). However, Powell will not force his shot when he doesn’t have to as he’s very capable of assisting teammates against any defense as well. Don’t forget Powell himself is a pest on defense with 2.0 steals per game (with only 2.2 personal fouls per game as well). Powell is a wise and experienced leader who will take the Pirates very far in March (a preseason top 15 Seton Hall team who returns almost every key player from last year…watch out). While the race for Big East Player of the Year between Powell, Markus Howard (more to come) and others in the Big East will be fun to watch, Powell will also be one of the top contenders for National Player of the Year. Powell will soon get the hype and attention he deserves, so jump on the bandwagon for Myles Powell (and Seton Hall) before it’s too late.
- Markus Howard (5’11” Senior Guard At Marquette)
There is not a scarier player to defend in the country when Markus Howard finds his rhythm. When Howard has the green-light, there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop him. Just ask Providence and Creighton fans, where he went on the road and dropped 52 points his sophomore year at Providence and 53 points at Creighton last year, breaking all-time Big East records in both games. In Howard’s second of three 45+ point games of last season, he once again proved he can score in a hurry as he put up 40 points (and 4 assists) in a 16 minute second-half stretch against Buffalo (65 percent from the field during that stretch also). While Howard’s range is anywhere in front of the half-court line, he’s way more than just a shooter though as he will score in so many ways. Howard’s first step is always very explosive and off the dribble, he’s very effective in the pick and roll, isolation and a one and one mismatch (among other off the dribble tactics). As a three range scorer with so many ways to score in his arsenal, he’s always keeping the defense guessing and creating separation. Howard creates a ton of separation on his consistently effective step back he likes to frequently use. He’s also great at using the floater to make shots in the lane but he definitely seeks contact as well as he was able to draw an average of 7.2 fouls per game last year (and he’s 91 percent from the free-throw line in his career). With unlimited range, Howard has converted more than 40 percent of his three-point attempts every year (he also led the nation in three-point percentage at 54.9 percent as a 17-year-old freshman). Last year’s averages of 25.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.1 steals earned him the 2019 Big East Player of the Year. Howard has shown he’s capable of making plays for his teammates as he led Marquette in assists per game last year. Even though Howard is more of a scoring guard, he has the top-notch ball-handling skills and court vision a point guard needs (he will need to limit turnovers on a more consistent basis though). Despite the Hauser brothers surprisingly transferring away from Marquette, Howard will still have more than enough talent around him and Marquette will be a nationally ranked team. Howard is already used to a high usage rate as he had the second-highest usage rate of all major conference players last year. The highest usage rate belonged to the sensational Carsen Edwards who had a similar situation Howard will have this year. Carsen Edwards took Purdue to the Elite 8 (and almost the Final Four) and Howard can do the same. While a wrist injury deterred the momentum of Howard’s play in March last year (he still averaged 26.6 points in the Big East/NCAA tournament), look for Howard to lead Marquette into a far and heroic run in March this year. Nobody in college basketball is Steph Curry, but Markus Howard is the closest player you will find.
- Cassius Winston (6’0” Senior Guard At Michigan State)
As many people will point to this being just the best player on what looks to be the best team this season, Winston is so much more than that incomplete label placed on his name. Winston may not be as flashy as other guards but that shouldn’t overshadow his amazing play on the court. He’s a very talented point guard who put up an outstanding stat line last season averaging 18.8 points, 7.5 assists and 1.0 steals (and 3.0 rebounds). He’s already had a heroic run in March as he took last year’s very injury-plagued Michigan State team all the way to a Final Four appearance (not to mention a Big Ten championship also). He didn’t have an easy road to get to the Final Four either. Winston showed up in every March Madness game but what will be most memorable is his Elite 8 performance upsetting national championship favorite Duke when he put up 20 points, 10 assists and 4 steals in a 68-67 win over the Blue Devils. He is the ideal point guard you want on your team. In addition to a high basketball IQ and exceptional passing ability, Winston is a terrific shooter as well. He was a 50/40/90 guy sophomore year (50.7 percent from the field, 49.7 percent from three and 90 percent from the free-throw line) and is a career 43 percent three-point shooter. Just like many other guys on this list, Winston is another three-range scorer who can catch and shoot but is also effective off the dribble. He’s decisively lethal in transition and in the pick and roll. Winston plays with a lot of poise, controlling the tempo and making the right decisions on the fly instead of making his mind up to what he will do beforehand. The race will be exciting, but Winston will go into the season as the Wooden Award headliner. Expect Winston not only to be the preseason favorite for the award but be the leader on the preseason national championship favorite as well.
With all that being said, the 10 most likely candidates for the Wooden Award is going to change significantly throughout the season. There were a ton of players I felt were worthy of being on that top 10 list so it goes without saying that there’s a lot more than just those 10 players you should be paying attention to. As CBS college basketball analyst Jon Rothstein will tell you, it’s mandatory to expect the unexpected. Players on that list will certainly look to move their way up as well. For example, Myles Powell will look to directly move up that list when Powell and the Seton Hall Pirates will make their season debut against Cassius Winston and Michigan State on November 14th…months before Powell will play against Markus Howard and Marquette at least two to three times during Big East action. With so many stars in college basketball, many dark horse candidates who few people saw coming to make their presence known on a national spotlight. Stay tuned for my next article which will highlight some key dark horse candidates you will need to keep an eye on.