Player of the Year: Kaminsky or Okafor?

It’s March now, and you know what that means?! Yes, Daylight Saving Time, slushy roads and leprechauns! Oh, and the best month of basketball is officially here. Believe it or not, Selection Sunday is less than two weeks away, and the tournament picture is starting to come into focus.

Most of the attention during March and all of its glorious madness is paid to teams, for obvious reasons. But allow me to talk about individuals for a brief moment, specifically two individuals who are battling for the four major player of the year awards, Wisconsin senior Frank Kaminsky and Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor. Both guys are clearly the best player on teams with a legitimate chance of winning the national championship, and both should be first-round draft picks in June, possibly number one overall in Okafor’s case.

But the player of the year is not about potential, athleticism, upside or any other words Jay Bilas loves. It is about who the best college basketball player is in a given year. I mean most important player in a given year. No, no, definitely the best player. Er, most valuable, but wait, how is value measured again?

Now you see the dilemma that voters of this award face: Who wins it, the best player or the most important player? To attempt to answer this question, I broke Kaminsky vs. Okafor down into five categories: traditional stats, advanced stats, quality of team, importance to team and head-to-head matchup, and tried to settle on a winner.

Traditional Stats

The two big men are very similar here. Okafor averages 18.2 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.4 blocks, 0.8 steals and 2.7 turnovers per game while shooting 66.3 percent from the field but only 52.5 percent from the free-throw line (he hasn’t attempted a 3-pointer this season). Okafor also has 11 double-doubles. Kaminsky averages 18.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.6 blocks, 0.9 steals and 1.4 turnovers per game while shooting 54.9 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from three and 74.8 percent from the charity stripe. Kaminsky has 10 double-doubles.

They have both been extremely consistent, with Kaminsky scoring 15 points or more 22 times, including a season-high 31 against Michigan State Sunday. Okafor has scored 15 points or more 18 times, including a career-high 30 against Virginia Tech last Wednesday, and a 25-point, 20-rebound performance against Elon on Dec. 15.

In summary, they have been the two best statistical players night in and night out in the power five conferences.

Advantage: Even

Advanced Stats

This is for the more nerdy type of sports fan, the kind of person who follows FiveThirtyEight’s blog of the recent MIT Sloan Sports Analytic Conference. These statistics come from Sports Reference College Basketball’s website and can be extremely helpful to gain a better understanding of how a certain player affects a game.

There are a plethora of advanced stats to go through, but not all of them are that meaningful. So I sorted through them and picked out some important ones: offensive (ORtg) and defensive (DRtg) rating per 100 possessions, win shares per 40 minutes, win shares and box plus/minus. Click on the links for explanations of those stats if you’re unfamiliar with them, as they would take way too long for me to explain in full.

Starting with ORtg per 100 possessions, Kaminsky comes in at a resounding 130.3 rating, with Okafor at a 121.3 rating. For DRtg per 100 possessions, Kaminsky again has the upper hand with a rating of 87.6, as opposed to Okafor’s 95.9 rating. Combine these two stats, and this means that per 100 possessions, Kaminsky scores 42.7 more points than he gives up, while Okafor produces 25.4 more points than he allows.

Moving on to win shares per 40 minutes, Kaminsky leads the country with .321 wins contributed (which would be the highest mark since 2009-10, the stat’s inception season), while Okafor is at .242 wins contributed. Kaminsky also leads the nation in win shares with 7.28, with Okafor at 5.3. The extremely simplified summary of this is that Wisconsin would be about seven wins worse without Kaminsky, while Duke would have five more losses without Okafor.

Box plus/minus is an excellent metric in determining a player’s importance to his team. For this stat, Kaminsky has a robust 16.1 points added per 100 possessions and Okafor stands at 11.4 points added per 100 possessions. This means that per 100 possessions, Kaminsky is 16.1 points better than an average center, while Okafor is 11.4 points better.

Kaminsky is noticeably better than Okafor in every important advanced statistic, a big plus for Frank the Tank.

Advantage: Kaminsky

Quality of Team

Duke and Wisconsin are both 26-3, and two of the only teams with a semi-decent chance of beating Kentucky come tournament time. Duke is second in the ACC at 13-3, and will probably finish runner-up to Virginia in the regular season. Wisconsin is 14-2 in the Big Ten, clinched at least a share of the conference championship, and should win it outright.

So, Wisconsin is the best team in the country’s third- or fourth-best conference, and Duke is the second-best team in arguably the country’s best conference; not much to be gained from that. Let’s look at each team’s best wins, then. Duke is 4-0 against teams in the top 25 of ESPN’s RPI rankings, including wins on the road against Virginia, Wisconsin and Louisville. Wisconsin is 2-2 against the RPI top 25, with both wins coming on back-to-back days against Georgetown and Oklahoma in a Thanksgiving tournament. In terms of bad losses, Duke lost back-to-back games in January to mediocre teams, at N.C. State and home against Miami (FL), while Wisconsin lost at last-place Rutgers in January, with Kaminsky missing that game due to a concussion.

Duke is ranked third in both the AP and USA Today Coaches Poll, while Wisconsin is sixth in the AP and fifth in USA Today. If you prefer advanced rankings, Duke is fourth in the RPI and Wisconsin is sixth, while the Blue Devils are seventh in the BPI and the Badgers are third. Joe Lunardi currently projects Duke as a one seed and Wisconsin as a two seed.

In short, both teams are really, really good, but Duke has more impressive victories and won in Madison.

Slight Advantage: Okafor

Importance to Team

This category is tougher to quantify, but I generally look at it by answering the following question: If Player X was replaced by an average player at his position, how would that affect Team X’s record?

Looking at Kaminsky first, Wisconsin would lose its leading scorer, rebounder, shot-blocker and playmaker. Kaminsky is so tough to guard because he has nice post moves but is also a great 3-point shooter. His versatility is the key to Wisconsin’s polished swing offense. Kaminsky is comfortable handling the ball on the perimeter, and makes quick, smart decisions down low. His loss would give Wisconsin a similar look to some previous Bo Ryan teams: not that talented, grind-it-out, defense-oriented basketball, end up fourth in the conference and lose in the round of 32 or Sweet 16. Instead of 26-3, Wisconsin would probably be 20-9. Maybe I’m selling guys like Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes short, but a big reason for their breakout years is all the attention Kaminsky commands.

If I replaced Okafor, Duke would lose it’s leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker. The would also lack an interior presence and go-to scoring option. However, I don’t think the loss would be disastrous, since it would mean more opportunities for Quinn Cook, Justice Winslow and Tyus Jones, three very good players. The highly talented Amile Jefferson would also get some more looks in the post. Instead of 26-3, Duke would be roughly 21-8, still a tournament lock with scary potential.

If you’re uncertain about this category, just look at the one game each player missed. Okafor was on the sidelines for a home game against Clemson that the Blue Devils easily won 78-56. Kaminsky missed a road game at Rutgers, a worse team than Clemson, and Wisconsin was upset 67-62. In Okafor’s absence, Quinn Cook poured in 27 points and Justice Winslow put up 20 points and 13 boards. Without Frank the Tank, the Badgers looked lost offensively and no one stepped up to fill Kaminsky’s void.

Slight Advantage: Kaminsky

Head-to-head Matchup

As noted earlier, Duke faced Wisconsin on Dec. 3 in the most anticipated nonconference matchup of the season. The game did not disappoint, and was back-and-forth most of the night, with Duke eventually winning 80-70 thanks to their red-hot shooting (over 65 percent from the field!).Okafor was limited a little bit due to foul trouble, but the two studs faced each other the majority of the time they were on the court. Okafor schooled Kaminsky on a few post moves and Kaminsky dragged Okafor away from the hoop to show off his 3-point range.

The really interesting part about this game was that Kaminsky and Okafor weren’t the best players on their team that night. They certainly didn’t play poorly, with Kaminsky totaling 17 points on 5 of 12 shooting, nine rebounds, two assists and a block, and Okafor putting up 13 points on 6 of 8 shooting, six rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block. However, the point guards stole the show. Traevon Jackson was terrific for Wisconsin and scored 25 points with two assists while single-handedly keeping it close in the first half. On the other side, Tyus Jones was phenomenal for Duke, totaling 22 points, six rebounds and four assists while making huge shots down the stretch.

It certainly wasn’t Kaminsky’s fault that Wisconsin lost, but he didn’t play that well for his standards and had trouble containing Okafor down low. Okafor did exactly what was asked of him, didn’t force anything, relied on his teammates and came out with the win.

Slight Advantage: Okafor

Final Decision: Kaminsky

This is basically a toss-up, with each player having the advantage in two categories and a draw in one. With four major player of the year awards, I wouldn’t be surprised if they split them. I’m giving an ever-so-slight edge to Frank the Tank due to his noticeable advantage in advanced stats and his importance to the Badgers. Okafor might be the slightly better overall player right now, but more is asked of Kaminsky than any player in the country, and he almost always delivers at an exceptionally high level.

Cover photo from SI.com. The College Tailgate does not own any photos on our website.

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2 comments

  • A.J.- great point that even further strengthens Kaminsky’s case. Thanks for reading man!

  • Advantage could lean more towards Kaminsky in the “Importance to team” category when you look at the fact that, prior to Sunday’s game against Michigan State, Wisconsin had outscored its opponents by something like 427 points with Kaminsky on the floor and only 11 points with him on the bench. That’s a huge testament to his importance to their success.

    Great article and insightful read. Good analysis, Ryan!
    -A.J. Day

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