After Anthony Bennett put up career highs with 25 points and 13 rebounds in a win over Cal on Sunday, UNLV coach Dave Rice was asked just how good his freshman star really is.
"He's pretty good," said Rice, with a sly smile.
I think he's even better than that.
We're already a quarter of the way through the regular season, so it's not too early to say that Bennett is head and shoulders above the rest his class and the clear leader for freshman of the year. But with his dominant performance against Cal (the second time he's dropped 20 and 10 on a Pac-12 opponent), Bennett now has to be considered a contender for a much bigger honor: national player of the year.
The buzz has already started, and it's within Bennett's reach. The numbers are there. The highlight plays are there. The team success is there. Take a look at how he's stacking up against some other contenders, using the AP's preseason All-American team as a jumping off point:
Anthony Bennett: 19.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.8 blk, 0.9 apg, 54.8 FG%, 73.8 FT%, 31.6 3pt%
Cody Zeller, Indiana: 15.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.4 blk, 1.3 apg, 62.5 FG%, 65.0 FT%, 0.00 3pt%
Doug McDermott, Creighton: 22.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 0.1 blk, 55.1 FG%, 85.2 FT%, 52.3 3pt%
Isaiah Canaan, Murray State: 21.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 0.3 blk, 3.9 apg, 49.2 FG%, 77.4 FT%, 42.9 3pt%
Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State: 20.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 0.3 blk, 1.1 apg, 48.6 FG%, 88.0 FT%, 42.9 3pt%
C.J. McCollum, Lehigh: 24.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 0.4 blk, 3.1 apg, 50.9 FG%, 82.8 FT%, 51.9 3pt%
Trey Burke, Michigan: 16.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 0.3 blk, 7.1 apg, 49.1 FG%, 74.3 FT%, 35.9 3pt%
Now, these guys aren't the only contenders for POY, but at the quarter mark of the season Bennett's numbers stack up against just about anyone. And don't expect him to tail off just because he's a freshman — Bennett has been a pillar of consistency this season, scoring in double figures in every game and never shooting below 50 percent in any contest.
The biggest factor working against Bennett may be exposure. He's new on the scene, while players like Zeller and McDermott already have media narratives behind their candidacy. Zeller also plays for the No. 1 team in the country, while Burke and Thomas lead top-10 teams.
Zeller, Burke and Thomas also play in a power conference with plenty of televised games. Bennett won't have as many chances to make his case in front of national audiences, so those spotlight games (North Carolina, San Diego State) will take on added importance.
Bennett has been playing his best ball as of late, leading the team in scoring in each of the past six games, and the Rebels may need to lean on him even more now that Mike Moser is out indefinitely. It looks like he'll be up to the task — in the past two contests, playing largely without Moser, Bennett averaged 21.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.0 steals
His recent performance earned him Mountain West Player of the Week honors for Dec. 3-9, but if he keeps up his pace, Bennett may need to clear more space in his trophy case at the end of the season.
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