Everyone in the country expected Duke to have a player of the year contender this season, but no one predicted that player would be Luke Kennard. Duke had planned to use its 6' 6" sophomore guard as an offensive sparkplug off the bench, particularly in the second half. Upperclassmen like senior forward Amile Jefferson and junior guard Grayson Allen—the preseason player of the year frontrunner—and bluechip freshman like Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Frank Jackson were supposed to be ahead of Kennard in the pecking order.
But as Duke has endured injuries (Jefferson, Giles, Tatum, freshman Marques Bolden, and coach Mike Krzyzewski) and suspensions (Allen), Kennard has emerged as the most explosive—and the most consistent—offensive force. He is averaging 20.2 points a game and boasting an offensive rating of 133.4, a top-20 mark nationally. For those who saw him play high school basketball in Ohio—where as a senior he surpassed LeBron James on the state’s all-time scoring list—this has come as no surprise. “They recruited me to be a playmaker—Coach K told me that,” Kennard says. “Being in high school, being a scorer, being ‘LeBron,’ it was pretty cool. That’s how I’ve been labeled—a shooter, a scorer—that’s what coach recruited me to do.”
Before the season, assistant coach Jeff Capel challenged Kennard to be more consistent from game to game. He has responded by scoring in double figures in every game but one and by posting more than 20 points on nine occasions already.
Despite the injuries, suspensions and distractions, Duke still boasts a top-10 offense and a top-40 defense in adjusted efficiency, according to kenpom.com. The team is 14–4 and No. 18 in the AP top 25 poll. And there’s good reason to believe that the opportunity for players like Kennard to develop will benefit the Blue Devils in March.
“We’ve had a lot of adversity this year, and I think it shows a lot about our team, how tough we’ve been through it all,” Kennard says. “We’re kind of writing our own story right now. We have to be tough. We have to be together. Great teams overcome adversity, and we have guys who can do that.”
Here are SI.com’s Top 10 candidates for player of the year this week:
10. Maurice Watson Jr., senior guard, Creighton* — 12.9 ppg, 8.5 apg, 2.6 rpg
* Watson is an honorable mention this week. He has been consistently in our top 10 this season and was our guest last week. His season—and his college career—ended when he tore his ACL against Xavier on Monday.
9. Markelle Fultz, freshman guard, Washington — 22.2 ppg, 6.1 apg, 5.8 rpg
8. Johnathan Motley, junior forward, Baylor — 15.8 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 2.2 apg
7. Ethan Happ, sophomore center, Wisconsin — 12.8 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 2.8 apg
6. De’Aaron Fox, freshman guard, Kentucky — 16.7 ppg, 6.3 apg, 5.0 rpg
5. Kennard — 20.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 2.5 apg
4. Caleb Swanigan, sophomore forward, Purdue — 18.4 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 2.7 apg
3. Lonzo Ball, freshman guard, UCLA — 14.6 ppg, 8.0 apg, 5.5 rpg
2. Frank Mason, senior guard, Kansas — 20.3 ppg, 5.3 apg, 4.5 rpg
1. Josh Hart, senior guard, Villanova — 18.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.6 apg