Entering the 2020-21 season, Iowa star Luka Garza stood out so glaringly among his peers as college basketball’s best player that we excluded him as an option for the dribble handoff’s predictions piece on who would win the Naismith College Player of the Year. Essentially, we ended up making our predictions for who would be the second-best player of the college hoops season, because Garza followed through by winning basically every player of the year award.
Heading into the 2021-22 season, things look a bit more open in the race for the Naismith trophy. Gonzaga star Drew Timme is the only returning first-team CBS Sports All-American, but there are four total returners from our three All-American teams, and it’s unclear how the arrival of No. 1 overall prospect Chet Holmgren will impact Timme’s usage at Gonzaga.
Other returning All-Americans include Illinois center Kofi Cockburn, Michigan center Hunter Dickinson and Oral Roberts guard Max Abmas. But sometimes the Naismith winner comes from somewhere unexpected, such as 2020 winner Obi Toppin, who exploded after winning 2018-19 A-10 Rookie of the Year to win numerous national awards awards as a sophomore the following season. There’s also recent precedent for freshmen winning the Naismith award with Zion Williamson in 2019, Anthony Davis in 2012 and Kevin Durant in 2007.
So who is in line to collect the hardware as the nation’s best player in the season ahead? Our writers make their predictions here in this week’s edition of the dribble handoff.
Drew Timme, Gonzaga
The obvious National Player of the Year favorite (as noted above) is Drew Timme considering he’s the only CBS Sports First Team All-American returning to college and the leading returning scorer and rebounder for the team ranked No. 1 in the CBS Sports Preseason Top 25 And 1.
So I’ll go with him.
The 6-foot-10 forward averaged 19.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 28.2 minutes per game last season for a Gonzaga team that played for the national title and finished 31-1. As you likely know, he wasn’t great in that national title game against Baylor, which is among the reasons Gonzaga wasn’t great in that national title game against Baylor. Timme took fewer shots (7) than he normally takes, scored fewer points (12) than he normally scores, grabbed fewer rebounds (5) than he normally grabs, and was a defensive liability in space. Again, not great. But I’m not going to let that last impression overshadow an otherwise incredible sophomore season — and I’ll be surprised if Timme isn’t even better this season while starring for a team that is considered the favorite to win the 2022 NCAA Tournament. — Gary Parrish
Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga
Cobb, thanks for reminding me about that Dribble Handoff piece from the summer of 2020. With Garza not being an option, I took Cade Cunningham — who wound up as a First Team All-American, was the National Freshman of the Year and essentially lived up to the hype on his way to being the No. 1 pick. Since Parrish has taken Timme, and I think he’s going to be close to Garza-level in terms of preseason love for NPOY, I’ll sidestep doubling up. In fact, Timme could get nudged out by Holmgren, anyway. And ya know what?
That’s what I’m going to say happens. I’ll take the projected top freshman in the country — and someone in the mix to be the No. 1 pick — for a second straight season. Holmgren’s role will see him playing much more on the perimeter than Timme. Gonzaga has a good nonconference schedule, but there isn’t one road game on the docket until WCC play begins. Extremely good chance that Gonzaga is a No. 1 seed. Holmgren will be one-of-a-kind in college hoops. It’s easy to envision his stat line being in the range of 17.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.5 blocks and 3.5 assists. If that’s what it is, he’ll have a great shot at beating out Timme to be college basketball’s best player. — Matt Norlander
Paolo Banchero, Duke
I’m already on wax with Duke as my title pick in 2021-22. That is predicated on what I think could be a storybook ending for one of the best college coaches of all time in Coach K as he runs it back one final year before retirement. But, moreso, it’s a gamble on the talent by his side for this last go-round.
Duke as a team has multiple first-round talents that can get them there and a certified superstar in Banchero that will be the best of the bunch. A 6-foot-9 combo forward, he’s going to physically overwhelm opponents and should put up gaudy and efficient numbers for a team with title aspirations. Take a look back at the last two decades and that role on Duke has equated often to recognition as college basketball’s best. If Banchero’s as good as advertised, why would this season be different? — Kyle Boone
The stardom of Trayce Jackson-Davis in two seasons at Indiana has been overlooked because of the Hoosiers’ struggles, but make no mistake about the fact that Jackson-Davis is, indeed, a star. Now, he’s poised to take his first-team All-Big Ten play to the next level under first-year coach Mike Woodson. The 6-foot-9 center is ready to expand his game as a junior under a coach who knows that it takes a good outside shot to be a big man in today’s NBA. Assuming Jackson-Davis adds one to his repertoire, he’ll be borderline unstoppable.
Jackson-Davis is more athletic than fellow Big Ten star big men Kofi Cockburn and Hunter Dickinson, more versatile defensively and just as good, if not better, at rebounding than both of them. Those three will be in the running for Big Ten and national player of the year honors, and if Jackson-Davis continues his trajectory of improvement like he should under Woodson, he can emerge as the best player in from that trio and the best in the nation. — David Cobb