Jimmer Fredette is a very real contender entering February for National Player of the Year honors, and the recognition is completely deserved.
The BYU senior guard has it all — a top 10 team, the nation's highest scoring average (26.7 ppg) and the innocent, baby-faced assassin appearance that America just cannot help but love (Could he even pry the moniker away from Steph Curry?).
But will he be the Mountain West Conference's Player of the Year?
The only other name in that conversation right now is San Diego State's Kawhi Leonard. The 6-foot-7 Aztec sophomore is the best player on the nation's fourth-ranked team and the toughest match-up not named Jimmer for opposing league coaches.
So, if you had to build a team from scratch and could pick only one of the two to start with, which direction would you go in?
I posed the question to Colorado State's Tim Miles, who on top of having one of the MWC's sharpest basketball minds, has had to plan for both several times in recent years.
"Wow, I'm pleading the fifth," he said with a laugh before pausing for seven seconds.
"You're splitting hairs on that one," Miles continued. "Both guys have such intangibles. I'm really impressed with Kawhi the way he's improved his skill level. I would have originally said Jimmer, because he's a ball-in-hand guard, a guy who can get his own like that. You can go a long way with it at the end of a game or end of the clock when the team needs something, where Kawhi was more of a wing, but he's improved a lot with his skill level."
(another pause …)
"Kawhi's going be a higher draft pick …"
(one last moment for thought …)
"… but I'm taking Jimmer because he's going to stay four years."
Yes, both Leonard and Fredette appear on their way to lengthy pro careers after this season, and 24 NBA scouts are expected to attend the first of their two regular season meetings on Wednesday night in Provo.
But, again, who is the MWC's POY to this point?
Here's the lay of the land statistically …
• In five league games — all wins — Fredette is averaging a ludicrous 34.2 points per game. His four rebounds and 4.5 assists per game in that stretch are modest point guard numbers, but the Cougars make it no secret that he's there to be a scorer, first and foremost. The hot start in league play includes two 40-plus-point performances and a 39-spot in a huge road win at UNLV to open it up. His 21.4 shot attempts per game in that run suggests that he's a chucker, but that's not the case when you're shooting at a 47.7 percent clip and none of your shots come easy (oh, he's also firing away at 50 percent from deep).
• How about Leonard's numbers? It's tough to compare the stats side by side since their roles are so vastly different, but Kawhi's importance to SDSU's success is clear. He's one rebound away in a 71-62 in at Utah from having five double-doubles in five conference games — also, all wins. In MWC play, he's averaging 15.6 points and 12.4 boards a game. The kicker is that in those games, he's pulled down just a shade over four offensive rebounds per contest. What makes his rebounding so impressive is his natural 'Go get the ball' instinct. Few big men have it, and even fewer can hone it so well.
So stats won't pick a winner for us. We'll go with the intangibles to reach a verdict …
Athleticism — Fredette never gets credit for being as good of an athlete as he is. People often forget that he was recruited by high major D-I football programs as a wide receiver out of high school, and he was oh so close to. Next time you watch him, watch how high in the air he gets to use that quick shot release of his from anywhere out to 30 feet. Fredette's jumper is all but impossible to block. Leonard, however, might be the best athlete at 6-foot-7 in the country. When you want a good example for reference after hearing the term 'NBA body,' look no further than here. He's a freak. Advantage: Leonard.
Leadership — From what I've heard in two years of covering the Mountain West, these guys are two of the hardest workers you'll ever come across. Neither is brutally vocal, though, on the floor. Both are demonstrative when they're out to prove a point or in the heat of a major battle, and both lead by example. Advantage: Push.
Killer Instinct — Leonard wants the ball in big situations and won't back down from a challenge, but after witnessing up close the show that Fredette put on in Las Vegas in early January, in a building he'd never beaten UNLV in and after Tre'Von Willis called him 'supposedly the best player in the league,' it's impossible not to give him the nod here. Willis woke up a monster, one which clapped in his face and jawed at both him and the hostile crowd after several of his amazing scores. Some of the stuff I saw that night I'm convinced I might never see again. If Jimmer wants to rip your heart out, he will … because he can. Advantage: Fredette.
OK, tied again. So we move on to sudden death …
Who is more important to his team? — Here's where the MWC POY race will be decided, no matter who you think the best player really is. Take Kawhi Leonard away, and the Aztecs still have two senior big men — Malcolm Thomas and Billy White — who are beasts and will be playing pro ball somewhere a year from now. They also have a host of capable perimeter scorers. Take Fredette away from BYU, and the Cougars would be in much more trouble than the Aztecs sans Leonard. Even with a deeper roster a year ago, BYU was not even close to the same team while Fredette battled mono for a solid chunk of the conference season. As for the strong numbers being put up now by the likes of senior guard Jackson Emery and rising sophomore forward Brandon Davies, they're aided a good amount by how much attention opponents have to put on Fredette. Losing him this year would cripple Dave Rose's club.
It can be argued that it's impossible to decide who is the better player. But the better player doesn't always earn the league's highest honor. Last season, Fredette was the MWC's best player, but New Mexico's Darington Hobson won the award. Why? Well, not only did Hobson's Lobos beat BYU twice (the win in Provo did come while Jimmer was sick), but what he did for them carried well beyond the box score, and it's apparent with New Mexico's struggles this season how much he meant.
Hobson, on top of his high-level production, was more valuable.
So right now, it's Fredette, but Leonard is much closer than you think.