Player of the Year
by John Gasaway
I've been giving out a Player of the Year award now for three seasons, which in internet time practically makes me the David Broder of POY givers. Over that long career I've come to understand that selecting a POY is, unavoidably, a highly subjective endeavor. It's the nature of the beast, so to speak, that you're going to be able to make an "air-tight" POY case for each of several players when the season's over. Understood.
Well, my POY decision came down in more or less of a heartbeat to just two players: Ohio State's Evan Turner and Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins. What seasons they both had. Think about it. How good do you have to be in the Big Ten to be even more important to your team than Robbie Hummel is to Purdue? How good to you have to be in the SEC to be clearly the most dominant player as a freshman on what is widely held to be the most talented team in the country? Turner and Cousins: I spent a good long while pitting them against each other in my mind.
And, I'll be honest, for a while I really thought Cousins was the way to go here. John Calipari, dating back to his great Memphis teams, has long had a trusty and insatiable post man who can clean up misses, and Cousins is far and away the best one of those the coach has ever had. Cousins personally rebounds more than one in every five Kentucky misses during his minutes on the floor. If DeJuan Blair hadn't happened last year, you'd be seeing articles right now with titles like "The True Value of DeMarcus Cousins' Historic Offensive Rebounding." Note to expectant parents: Name that child DeSomething. He or she is sure to be a freak of offensive rebounding in 2029.
But Cousins is far more than just a better Joey Dorsey than Joey Dorsey was. He is, for lack of a better and less injured term, the Harangody of this offense. For all the publicity and shooting sleeves that adhere to other players in Lexington, the truth is Cousins uses a third of this offense's possessions all by himself. Among major-conference players only Courtney Fortson, Devan Downey, and Turner use more. (Something in the SEC water, clearly.) When Cousins is on the floor, the number of UK trips where he doesn't shoot, draw a foul, and/or record an offensive rebound is extremely small. More importantly, he produces points via all of the above. His offensive rating is exemplary, but if he were merely a decent free throw shooter it'd be stratospheric. Cousins draws even more fouls per 40 minutes than Blake Griffin did last year, which is a little like saying someone's even more "fiery and emotional" than Greivis Vasquez. I didn't know it was possible.
I haven't even gotten to the part about how Kentucky is actually defined by its defense and Cousins is no less formidable there, owning the defensive glass and swatting his fair share of shots. But in the end what steered me in a different direction was the most mundane factor: Playing time. Cousins does all of the above fabulous things while playing 57 percent of the available minutes. You don't have to log Jon Diebler-level minutes to get my award. (Last year I gave it to a lad who played 66 percent of the time. Besides, Cousins has clearly improved his ability to stay on the floor as the season has progressed.) But it is true that Kentucky has trudged through 43 percent of its existence with a non-Cousins in that spot.
Turner, conversely, does all of the below fabulous things knowing that he has to, almost literally, stay on the floor at all times. The other day I ranked the nation's consensus top teams according to how many minutes are logged by their top five players. Ohio State came in a close second to Georgetown on this measure, meaning your eyes are exactly correct: Thad Matta in effect says "My team is on the floor" every time he sends the Buckeyes out for the opening tip. True, all five players in Columbus are operating with little or no margin for error, be it fatigue or foul-trouble. But only one of those players has the ball in his hands all game, every game.
Think of The Crushing Burden of Being Evan Turner this way. Kentucky is a way-station for supremely talented hordes on their way to the 2010 NBA draft. Syracuse is a perfect storm of balance and redundancy in personnel. Kansas has Collins, Aldrich, and Henry, not to mention a vastly underrated Marcus Morris. Duke: Scheyer, Singler, Smith, and the suddenly and strangely important Brian Zoubek. And on and on and on. But Ohio State has Evan Turner, period. Sure, Turner has fine teammates, but no other elite team is anywhere near this dependent on a single player.
Am I saddened that for the first time in the long and venerable history of my POY award I have chosen a player who is actually going to win the so-called "real" POY awards? Not at all! The best is still the best, even if everyone says so. Besides, this whole tournament expansion thing has pretty well acclimated me to having my motions seconded by people who are reliably wrong about other stuff. No big thing.
Here's one of the reasons why everyone will be right when they name Turner as their POY.
2005 Paul Davis, Michigan State
2006 Graham Brown, Michigan
2007 Brian Butch, Wisconsin
2008 D.J. White, Indiana
2009 Goran Suton, Michigan State
2010 Evan Turner, Ohio State
That's a list of the top defensive rebounders in the Big Ten in each of the past six seasons. Until this year that distinction, go figure, has gone to a post player, in a league that has "Tremendous Defensive Rebounding at Really Slow Speeds" in Latin on its coat of arms. This year, on the other hand, the title has been won by a point guard. And, sure, Draymond Green's breathing down Turner's neck here and may well catch him. But that's kind of my point. Evan Turner is equivalent to Draymond Green on the defensive glass. In fact Evan Turner is very close to being equivalent to DeMarcus Cousins on the defensive glass. And he's playing point guard.
The assists in the Ohio State offense come from Turner, period, and given that the Buckeyes have made 55 percent of their twos in-conference since the junior returned from his back injury, I think it's safe to say he's making excellent decisions. (Including and especially when he calls his own number: Turner is making 58 percent of his twos.) Yes, he turns the ball over too much--he coughed it up eight times against Michigan on Saturday--and he's made a grand total of eight threes all year. But, hey, that latter factoid is for NBA GM's to worry about, not Ohio State. Between Diebler, William Buford, and (as of this year) David Lighty, the Buckeyes are well taken care of on the perimeter. Not to mention those nice 3FG percentages are being achieved against defenses contending with Turner on every trip down the floor.
At the beginning of the season Matta announced that Turner was going to be his point guard, an announcement that at the time seemed to cause much fuss and scratching of heads. Then again I actually thought Turner was already Ohio State's point guard last year, in fact if not in name. So for better or worse I wasn't bewildered when I heard the announcement, but I sure am now. For the second consecutive year my POY award goes to a player who's done more than excel. He's hit the reset button on my understanding of what's possible for a college basketball player. Congratulations, Evan.