Top 10 Big Ten Basketball Players of 2016-17

Submitted by Alex Cook on March 8th, 2017 at 5:14 PM

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[Bryan Fuller – MGoBlog]

With the unfortunate news that Derrick Walton didn’t make First-Team All-Conference, I decided that I should jot down some thoughts on the best players in the Big Ten this season. While I leaned on a lot of data to justify these picks, I also have probably watched way more Big Ten basketball than the average person should, so I’m pretty well acquainted with the impact and style of these respective players. Instead of naming All-Big Ten “teams” – which inherently places a huge gap between the fifth- and sixth-best players in the league – I’ll rank the top ten.

10.) Nate Mason – Minnesota

Instead of Walton, Minnesota’s Nate Mason was named First-Team All-Big Ten. Mason’s team finished a game ahead of the Wolverines in the conference standings, and he had better counting stats than Walton did (15.5 points and 5.1 assists per game to Walton’s 14.5 and 4.5); Mason was markedly less efficient as he shouldered the load for the Gophers’ inelegant offense. Aside from impressive assist and turnover rates, Mason’s statistical profile isn’t as impressive. Shooting splits of 39 / 39 / 80 (2P% / 3P% / FT%) aren’t bad, but he did hoist more than his fair share of poor mid-range jumpers and drives into too much traffic, which sunk his eFG% to just 44.9.

Mason deserves credit for his role in helping bring together Minnesota’s new players and being the best* player on a team that finished top four in the Big Ten – one that will be headed to the NCAA Tournament. Aside from Northwestern’s historic bid, the Gophers are one of the biggest storylines in the conference: they were 8-23 last season and sit at 23-8 right now. While Mason was one of the better point guards in the league (and made this list instead of Bryant McIntosh, Tai Webster, and others), his middling efficiency prevents him for ranking more highly.

*Shot-blocking menace Reggie Lynch might be better, but plays <2/3rds as much of the time as Mason does, which limits his impact.

9.) Vince Edwards – Purdue

A player that’s often forgotten about because of his gargantuan teammates, Vince Edwards was quietly one of the biggest reasons for Purdue’s success this season. With Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas often rotating at center, Edwards was able to slide from the three to a more natural four spot. It paid dividends; the versatile wing scored 12.3 points per game, led the team in assist rate, and shot 42% from behind the three-point line. Edwards’s impact as a secondary threat on the offensive glass also complemented the big men well.

The Big Ten champs lean most heavily on Swanigan, of course, but Edwards has had a considerable influence. In the Boilermakers’ last game against Northwestern, Edwards scored an efficient 25 points and added 5 rebounds and 4 assists, helping Purdue to a narrow win. While most of the players on this list are forced to create their own shots or generate offense for others, Edwards doesn’t necessarily have those responsibilities. As a consequence, he’s one of the most efficient players in the league, finishing third in offensive rating for players in Big Ten play with a usage rate over 20%.

[rest of the list after the JUMP]

8.) Bronson Koenig – Wisconsin

Like Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton, Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes have been fixtures in the Big Ten for quite a while, dating back to when they were role players on elite teams. Hayes just missed this list due mostly to his status as the third-best offensive option for Wisconsin (though his proclivity for bad shots also factored in). But Koenig deserves a spot for how well he’s played for Wisconsin this season, when healthy.

The biggest asset that Koenig brings is his shooting: he finished second in the league in threes made and attempted, hitting 39% on a significant sample size. His reputation for clutch shots late in games, boosted by an NCAA Tournament buzzer beater to upset Xavier a year ago, has only grown this season.

Injuries caused him to miss a game against Michigan and limited him in other contests in the latter half of Big Ten play, but Koenig was generally a strong perimeter threat for a Wisconsin squad that loves to play inside-out. It was no accicent that Wisconsin's late conference slide coincided with his nagging issues. He’s a bit unusual for a point guard (as he shoots threes more than he sets up his teammates) but effective nonetheless. The Big Ten will miss him.

7.) Miles Bridges – Michigan State

Entering the season, Miles Bridges had a ton of hype: he’s a remarkable dunker (and has surely put together an insane highlight reel this season), he’s a probable one-and-done player, and he’s versatile enough to score from all over the floor. Michigan State and its excellent freshman class hasn’t exactly taken the college basketball world by storm like many anticipated, but Cassius Winston, Nick Ward (who was robbed of a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman team) and Bridges were almost good enough to keep Tom Izzo’s impressive NCAA Tournament streak going.

Bridges has displayed the talent that makes him such a tantalizing NBA prospect during his brief stay in East Lansing. While his offensive rating is pretty mediocre, he raised it during conference play. Shooting splits of 54 / 40 / 66 throughout the season are good enough, and that three-point % is promising for his future as a swingman at the next level. Because of the injuries in Michigan State’s frontcourt, he was forced to play as a small-ball four, but he was great in that role. Bridges has scored at least 13 points in each of the last 14 games after getting back to full strength after a prolonged mid-season injury absence.

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[Marc-Gregor Campredon – MGoBlog]

6.) Malcolm Hill – Illinois

Even though Illinois has been generally disappointing over the last few seasons/decades/geological periods, the one constant through the eons has been the consistent play of Malcolm Hill. Hill commited to Illinois so long ago that the coach was still John Groce(!). He has been the best player for the Illini for the last three season in various roles; his versatility as a point forward type who can handle a steady dose of isolation possessions has been a huge asset. His stats are down a little bit from last season, but Hill still finished as the fourth-leading scorer in the Big Ten and posted a stat line of 17.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game this season.

Due in large part to starting 3-8 in Big Ten play, Illinois almost definitely won’t make the NCAA Tournament, but they did mount a run of solid play down the stretch before losing to Rutgers in the season finale. In five February wins, Malcolm Hill was the Kenpom MVP all five times, averaging 18.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 4 assists per game. Hill has played some of the best basketball of his impressive career as it draws to a close, but unfortunately he just hasn’t had the necessary support and hasn’t ever played on a good team – unless the Illini make a run this week, Hill, who once finished third for Mr. Illinois Basketball behind Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor, will have never played in the NCAA Tournament.

5.) Melo Trimble – Maryland

Over his three-year career in College Park, Melo Trimble has been one of the biggest reasons the Terrapins have been so successful since joining the Big Ten. Maryland has a record of 79-23 (38-16 in the Big Ten) with Trimble at the helm, and while he’s played with some talented teammates, he’s had to play a bigger role than in previous years because of Maryland’s youth this season. His efficiency has slowly declined as his usage has slowly increased throughout his career, however now he’s top five in usage rate in Big Ten play.

To accommodate a trio of talented freshmen,* Trimble was forced to play off the ball for the first time in his career, which was effective as he and Anthony Cowan each put up 3.7 assists per game, distributing the ball well to Maryland’s forwards. Like Peter Jok for Iowa, Trimble was tasked with taking on a lot of responsibility for a team that had lost four starters from the previous year. Unlike Jok, Trimble managed to guide his team into the NCAA Tournament with ease. While Trimble may go pro after this season, he helped bridge the past to a bright future behind Maryland’s core of young talent.

*Somehow none of Kevin Huerter, Justin Jackson, and Anthony Cowan made the All-Freshman team either, despite securing a double bye and playing heavy minutes as starters all season. Huerter is probably the best of the three, and – like Nick Ward – it’s perplexing that he didn’t make it.

4.) Peter Jok – Iowa

The Big Ten’s leading scorer has put up a fantastic season: Peter Jok is averaging 20.2 points per game because of his green light to shoot from anywhere and Iowa’s rapid pace. Entering the season, Jok was the only holdover from a veteran nucleus and he’s had to put up a lot of points for the Hawkeyes this season to cover for their iffy defense. As freshmen like Jordan Bohannon, Tyler Cook, and Cordell Pemsl have continued to improve, Jok has been the source of stability and leadership that allows the younger players to thrive in a complementary role instead of taking on too much responsibility too quickly.

Jok’s style of play is definitely enjoyable to watch; the 6’6, sweet-shooting swingman who can get to the basket and the free throw line is an archetype that finds itself on these types of lists often, and for good reason. Jok scored at least thirty points five times this season, and perhaps more impressively, was held to single digit scoring just twice. A run this week in the Big Ten Tournament could get Iowa into the NCAA Tournament, and they’ll need some scoring binges from Jok to make it happen.

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[Patrick Barron – MGoBlog]

3.) Derrick Walton – Michigan

Michigan fans are obviously upset that Derrick Walton wasn’t named First-Team All-Big Ten, and for good reason: the senior point guard emerged as the best backcourt player in the conference over league play and his dominance helped Michigan to the second-best conference efficiency margin in the Big Ten this season. He’s by far the most efficient of any team’s primary offensive option, and advanced stats love him: Walton has the most offensive win shares and best offensive box plus / minus of any player in the league by a healthy margin.

Over the last two months or so, Walton has taken over and Michigan’s offense has thrived with masterful play from the point guard position. He’s still a lethal shooter, has been keeping defenses honest with his newfound ability to get to the basket and finish through contact, and he’s still been setting up his team excellently from ball-screen action featuring Moritz Wagner and his deadly shooting stroke. Strong senior guard play can carry teams a long ways in March, and Michigan will be a tough out for anyone in the NCAA Tournament because of the sublime play of their leader, Derrick Walton.

2.) Ethan Happ – Wisconsin

Since replacing Frank Kaminsky as the Wisconsin center, Ethan Happ has been quite effective, though in a much different style. His placement on the stat leaderboards in the Big Ten are impressive – in conference play, Happ ranked 1st in steal rate (listed at 6’10, which is incredible), 4th in usage rate, 5th in fouls drawn and free throw rate (though his foul shooting is atrocious), 7th in offensive and defensive rebounding rate, 8th in block rate, and 12th in assist(!) rate. Wisconsin’s slow tempo prevents him from racking up truly absurd raw point, rebound, assist, block, and steal stats* and it’s hard for the numbers to truly gauge Happ’s impact.

His stat-line is very good – 13.9 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.0 steals, and 1.2 blocks is about as versatile as possible – but his defensive impact is still perhaps underrated. Happ’s ability to jump passing lanes, poke the ball away from big men posting-up, and his shot contesting at the rim are all reasons why he was probably the best defender in the conference this season. He’s also a terrific low-post scorer and Wisconsin uses him as a focal point in their offense, having him set up others with passes from the low block. Because he’s not an NBA prospect, Happ will likely continue to dominate in Madison for two more seasons.

*Derrick Walton also has a similar issue and Michigan’s snail-like pace is probably a big reason why he wasn’t on the first team.

1.) Caleb Swanigan – Purdue

The consensus choice for Big Ten Player of the Year is Caleb Swanigan, a sophomore big man who plays center and a little bit of power forward for Purdue, the Big Ten champions. I was down on his game after a freshman season in which Swanigan posted the lowest offensive rating of any contributor on the team, but he’s refined his body even more, taking advantage of his strength and size down low while not sacrificing the necessary quickness to gobble up as many rebounds as he does.

Like Happ, Swanigan isn’t a conventional big man. Last season, he shot 29% from three on about two attempts per game; this year, with the same amount of shots, he’s making 45%. His assist rate is 17.6 – high for a center, though lower than Happ’s – because of his ability to find Purdue’s deadly shooters behind the arc. Swanigan also peacefully coexists with Isaac Haas, an enormous, more traditional center, playing alongside him as a stretch four on occasion. Needless to say, the Swanigan-Haas high-low action is about as tough to defend as any play any Big Ten team routinely runs.

Swanigan is a dominant rebounder, the best on the defensive glass of any Big Ten player in the last decade or so, and he’s relatively ground-bound at a listed 6’9. As he continues to get into better shape, he’ll be even more of a force – though there’s a chance he could depart for the next level after testing the waters last offseason.

Comments

Steves_Wolverines

March 8th, 2017 at 6:09 PM ^

Reposting for a possible discussion item:
I was thinking about putting together a list of B1G non-seniors who could maybe leave early for the NBA draft. Here's a rough list off the top of my head:
 
1. Swanigan, So. - Purdue
2. Bridges, Fr. - MSU
3. Trimble, Jr. - Maryland
4. Blackmon, Jr.  - Indiana
5. Happ, So. - Wisconsin
6. Ward, Fr. - MSU
7. Haas, Jr. - Purdue
8. Bryant, So. - Indiana
9. Jackson, Fr. - Maryland
10. Tate, Jr. - OSU
 
Can't really think of any more than that, and I think there are some stretches even in those 10 names above.
My gut would say Blackmon, Ward, Jackson, and Tate stay, while the other 6 go pro. Ward has the best resume out of the 4 I just mentioned, but I just don't think his game translates to the NBA right now. 

umumum

March 9th, 2017 at 8:25 AM ^

Happ ain't leaving---both because he isn't NBA ready (no outside game whatsoever) and because of Wiscy's history.  Tate's game also doesn't translate to NBA and he wouldn't get drafted.  Haas also isn't ready and has a great chance to show he does next season when he will get 30 minutes a game with Swanigan gone.  I don't know enough about Jackson's family, but I agree that neither he nor Ward will leave.  Bryant and Blackmon are 2nd-rounders (at best) but may actually leave because their stock is dropping each year--like Trimble, Hayes etc.  So that leaves Bridges--mid-1st, Swanigan late-1st, and possibly Anunoby.