Tyler Hansbrough is in the process of sweeping up every national Player of the Year award worth sweeping up, despite the inconvenient little fact that he doesn't play the game of basketball as well as Kevin Love does. More on that shortly. First, some good news.
I'm an incurable optimist, so I truly believe 2008 will be the last season when a player so demonstrably not as good as another will win national player of the year. Seriously, I believe that. Here's my thinking.
Over the past couple seasons I've seen a change in how the game is watched, followed and talked about. Actual performance is now a factor. Said performance should never be the unquestioned ruler of these discussions--"actual" performance has context, players have effects on teammates and games that can't always be captured--but it does need to at least be acknowledged. Call me a dreamer, but from where I sit performance is indeed acknowledged today to a greater extent than at any other time in my memory.
Nevertheless, we're about to make Hansbrough the POY. So what? Goodness knows he really does have a motor and, anyway, I swear there's a fin de siècle feel about this whole exercise. This will be the last Heisman-inflected POY, the last one where exposure so unapologetically nullifies mere performance.
That's not to say every future national POY will necessarily be the very best player in the country. It's just that we won't soon see another situation like this year's, where all the extraneous variables are so beautifully negated.
With Hansbrough and Love, happenstance has given us an elegantly symmetrical case study where the relative weights of performance and exposure can be pegged with minute precision. Here are two big guys playing in the paint in major conferences with excellent teammates for blue-chip programs that, barring mishap, will receive top seeds. In other words, Hansbrough and Love are virtually identical in their hoops demographics. That leaves performance and exposure as the only independent variables. Love wins on the former metric. Hansbrough, as you may have noticed, fares rather well on the latter.
Let's be clear: As unavoidable as Hansbrough as been on our flat screens the past few months, he really has had an outstanding season. In fact, it's not too much to say that he's been the second-best player in the country this year. No mean feat, that.
Michael Beasley? He'll be drafted long before either Love or Hansbrough, and he should be. As far as national awards, though, Beasley effectively absented himself from consideration on that fateful day in November 2006 when he announced his intention to play at Kansas State. Having chosen to play for a team that's decent, but not great, he shouldn't be surprised to find that said team is now clinging to him on offense like a piece of driftwood.
The qualitative disparity between Beasley (projected to be one of the first two players selected in the NBA draft in June) and his team (projected as an eight-seed in the NCAA tournament) has made him a traveling exhibit, like a player who's chasing a home run record while playing for a middling team. His points are exuberantly prolific but his efficiency, while undeniably impressive under the circumstances, is a notch below that of Love or Hansbrough. We'll never know how much better Beasley could have been on a better team. No matter. He'll be drafted based on the promise of what he can do. That promise is correctly recognized as vast.
Hansbrough and Love, on the other hand, are blessed with the supporting casts that Beasley lacks. Hansbrough is a savvy, indefatigable and, not least, lethally efficient scoring specialist who both earns and makes free throws with machine-like regularity. Past that? He's an adequate defensive rebounder, he never blocks shots (ten the entire year) and rarely records assists (28).
As for Love, by way of introduction let us note that it's taken Hansbrough three seasons to become the weapon on offense that Love already is:
Hansbrough and Love
Off. Def. Off.
Rtng. FTRate eFG pct. Reb. Pct. Reb. Pct. %Poss.
Hansbrough 06 118.7 72.5 57.3 14.9 13.9 26.6
Hansbrough 07 119.8 72.6 52.6 16.9 11.9 26.2
Hansbrough 08 127.8 80.9 55.2 20.5 12.8 26.9
Kevin Love 08 126.5 72.5 60.3 30.6 17.0 27.9
While playing as large a role within his own offense as Hansbrough does in his, Love is the better shooter from the field. He doesn't get to the line quite as often, but he's a better offensive rebounder. The largest difference between the two players, however, is that Love's defensive rebounding is simply on another planet. In addition, he blocks a few shots and records a modest number of assists.
It's beyond odd to be speaking of a UCLA player in revelatory tones more appropriate for an affronted underdog from the mid-major side of the tracks. Keep in mind this is no Nick Fazekas I'm introducing here. This is no boutique efficiency marvel teleported in from a below-radar league. This is Kevin Love. His mug graced magazine covers in November. He plays a featured role in the offense for a Final Four contender in the Pac-10.
True, on Hansbrough's behalf it is said that he carried his team while Ty Lawson was hurt. Darn right he did. Is that admirable? Of course it is. By all means, give Hansbrough an admirable behavior award. Call it the Gutsy, call it the Irving Thalberg Award, call it anything you want. Only please don't call it the Player of the Year award.
The Player of the Year award rightly belongs to the player who's as good as Hansbrough on offense, but vastly superior to Hansbrough on defense. It rightly belongs to Kevin Love.
He won't get it, of course, but that's OK. Love will cry all the way to a handshake with David Stern in June. Hansbrough is a solid number two. Besides, he's used to the exposure.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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