Freshman phenom vs. tough nosed senior, the 2015 Naismith Trophy will likely be decided by the matchup. Jahlil Okafor of Duke stepped onto campus as a student athlete in September, and touted as a top recruit, the freshman planned to prove himself amongst the greatest to step foot in Cameron Indoor Stadium. As Okafor adjusted to his role as the starting centre at Duke and the microscope that comes with it, Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin focused in on his senior campaign. Two paths that commenced at opposite ends are set to intersect at the selection of the Naismith Trophy.
A physical specimen (6’11, 272 lbs, 7’5 Wingspan), Okafor possesses instincts as a centre that are uncommon to freshmen. Nimble enough to provide secondary offense in transition while being physically demanding in the post at both ends, it’s no surprise that Okafor has drawn comparisons to a young Tim Duncan. Like the San Antonio legend, Okafor’s growing pains seemed to have passed rather quickly, resulting in elite ball and body control for a centre. The freshman averages 18.6 points and 8.9 rebounds a game; Coach K’s go-to man is widely considered to be the first overall draft pick in the 2015 NBA draft.
Meanwhile in Madison, Wisconsin, Frank Kaminsky is the Big Man on Campus. The seven foot centre (270 lbs) struggled for playing minutes during his frosh years, only to breakout as the Wisconsin Badgers’ main threat in his junior year. Coach Bo Ryan’s patience with the young Kaminsky resulted in the dynamic player he is today. Tangibly, Kaminsky boasts a fluid shot paired with offensive instinct, however, intangibles make the Badger’s centre a Naismith candidate.
Coach Bo Ryan has praised his centre as the most complete player he’s ever coached, and to some extent this is true, but Kaminsky’s rounded game is a reflection of the tough nosed attitude he brings to the court. Upon deciding to return to Wisconsin for his senior season, Kaminsky cited the NBA as looking boring compared to the environment of a sold-out Kohl center. Similar to Okafor, the seven-footer averages 17.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game this season.
The two faced off on Dec. 3 at Wisconsin, the then ranked #4 Duke upset #2 Wisconsin 80-70. Sold as a heavyweight tilt between the two centres, it was fellow Duke Freshman guard Tyus Jones who stole the spotlight with his family in attendance, scoring 22 points with 6 rebounds and 4 assists.
Kaminsky and Traevon Jackson were forced to carry the load for the Badgers, however they were heavily outmatched by the depth and athleticism of Duke’s roster. Kaminsky (17 points, 9 rebounds) ousted Okafor (13 points, 6 rebounds) on the stat sheet, however it was only Okafor’s eighth game at the collegiate level.
Wisconsin and Duke are both paving their way to a top three seed in March Madness and their exceptional big men are large reasons for the success.
There are outside factors that may help determine the 2015 Naismith award winner.
- Strength of schedule: As of Sunday January 25th at 1pm, 5 ACC teams are ranked inside the top 15 (Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame, Louisville, North Carolina) and only two BIG 10 teams are ranked 15th or better (Wisconsin and Maryland).
- Previous winners: The Naismith award has been won by seven Duke Players all during Mike Krzyzewski’s tenure as Duke’s head coach (1980-present day). No player has ever won the Naismith trophy at Wisconsin, in fact only four award winners played at BIG 10 schools.
- Individual importance: Kaminsky is the main feature of Wisconsin’s offense whereas Okafor is a part (albeit large) of a deep unit.
- Voting process: The winner is selected by the Naismith board as well as open to the public via text message. Jahlil Okafor will be a house hold name as March Madness nears, and he is probably well known by fans of the Knicks, Lakers, 76ers and Timberwolves. Frank Kaminsky will likely remain regionally known.
Regardless of the extrinsic factors, both standout centres have plenty of games remaining to make their case as the best player in college basketball.