College / Jan 14, 2011 / 11:30 am

I Said It: Kemba Walker Is The Best Player In The Country

UConn's Kemba Walker

There would be something universally appealing, even to members of the Basketball Atheists Society, about the hoop gods arranging an NCAA championship game pitting UConn against BYU.

Unlike the NBA, rarely in college basketball do we get to see the two best players in the sport go head-to-head to decide the biggest prize. We missed out on Durant vs. Oden in ’07, Carmelo vs. D-Wade in ’03, Shaq vs. Laettner in ’92, and Ralph Sampson vs. whoever could have challenged him during the three years he was the reigning MVP of the NCAA.

What we did get, unforgettably, was Magic vs. Bird in ’79. And if things fall into place during this year’s March Madness, we could have that again with Kemba Walker vs. Jimmer Fredette in 2011.

Odds are they won’t go on to become NBA legends, but the UConn junior and BYU senior could convey the spirit of ’79: Kemba, city kid with the big smile, running the show with wizard-like showmanship for his big-conference school. Jimmer, dead-eye shooter with the high-major game, finding himself carrying a mid-major contender to unprecedented glory. Oh, and there’s that Black/White thing. The Stormin’ Mormons versus a team with guys named Shabazz, Jamal and Roscoe. But you already saw that, and whether that matters to you is up to you.

The likelihood of the Huskies (13-2) and Cougars (17-1) advancing to the Final Four and beyond is another breakdown for another day, but today it’s clear that Walker and Fredette are in an individual battle for National Player of the Year. And right now, I’d give Walker my vote.

Walker is averaging 25.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.3 steals per game. He leads his team in three of those categories, and is tied for second in rebounding as a 6-foot-1 guard. He is essentially the Derrick Rose and the Chris Paul of college basketball wrapped in one package.

Crunching numbers is only a small part of it, though, because stats-wise, Walker and Fredette are too close to call. What sets Walker apart is that he is the most electrifying and most clutch player in the country. But more importantly, he has achieved that status against the toughest competition. Call it the TCU/Boise State argument: And while the Mountain West Conference may not include the Little Sisters of the Poor as a member school, in the end Fredette loses out to Walker because his stage simply isn’t big enough.

Walker scored 30 points against Michigan State, 29 against Kentucky, and 22 against Texas. The Huskies won each of those games, with Walker hitting the game-winner against Texas on the road. He also put up 31 points in a loss to Pittsburgh, and had a triple-double (24 pts, 13 rebs, 10 asts) in a win over Maryland-Baltimore County. Aside from a Jan. 22 matchup with Tennessee, from now until March, Walker will be tested against teams from the Big East, the deepest conference in the nation.

UConn has already faced five teams that were ranked in the national top 25 at the time they played. (Three were in the top 10.) In those five games, Walker averaged 26.2 points, 5.0 boards, 3.6 dimes and 3.0 steals, and the Huskies went 3-2.

BYU has played zero ranked teams, and if status quo maintains, their two games against San Diego State (Jan. 26, Feb. 26) will be the Cougars’ only tough challenges. I’m not saying Fredette can’t light up top-level competition — because he can and he has — but you have to take his numbers this season with a pinch of salt because he’s not doing it now. It’s simple: Are you more impressed with yourself when you put up 50 points in Madden against your boy, or against your girl?

So far the biggest criticism of Walker is that he’s only putting up big stats because he’s gunning. Does Walker take a lot of shots? Sure. He has to, because UConn is young and without much of an identity beyond “Pass it to Kemba.” In that respect, I have to agree with something Gilbert Arenas told me once:

“Basketball is a game of skills,” Arenas said, “and no one ever looks at it like this, but do you call Jason Kidd selfish or do you call Steve Nash selfish because they pass too much? Do you call Dwight Howard or Ben Wallace selfish for rebounding or blocking shots all the time? That’s what they’re good at, so you let them do that.

“I’m a great scorer,” Arenas went on. “If you say, ‘Take this guy who’s averaging 30 points and make him average 10 assists,’ you’re not using my ability. Kobe could average 10 assists, but that’s not Kobe. Ben Wallace could try to score 10 more points, but that’s not what he’s there for. … I’ve been a great scorer my whole career. I could average 10 assists no problem, but no coach has asked me to do that. It’s like, you have to let Jordan be Jordan; he can’t be anything else.”

Kemba isn’t Jordan. He may not even be Arenas, but the guy is a scorer. In his third college game, coming off the bench, he dropped 23 points against La Salle. In high school he dropped 88 points in one game at a summer tournament in The Bronx. If scoring is his most useful skill to help his team win — and UConn is winning — Walker should be taking 18.6 field goals per game. (Fredette is taking 18.3 shots a night, yet I don’t hear anyone calling him a ball-hog.)

It’s close, of course. I’m not giving Walker a “hands down” punctuation or dismissing anyone who believes Fredette is the best player in America. I understand the argument for Jimmer Fredette as National Player of the Year.

I just know the argument for Kemba Walker is stronger.

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  • JAY

    uh, the whole article on the main page??

  • Ryan Hawaii

    Kemba is the man! I saw him play here in Hawaii at the Iolani Classic when he played for Rice. Quick as hell, deadly crossover, rebounds well for his height. Without him UConn wouldn’t even be ranked!

  • myke_bigga

    good read. even though i dont follow college ball that closely, kemba is one of my favorite players

  • Herman

    BYU hasn’t played anyone? Please. Just look at BYU’s SOS and RPI compared to UConn’s. Jimmer dropped 33 on Arizona a year after smoking them for 49. He torched UNLV for 45 on UNLV’s home court… and UNLV was ranked #25 at the time.

    The MWC isn’t as bad a league as you make it seam. The league is ranked #5 right now, ahead of the PAC-10 with two top 10 teams and a few others knocking at the door of being ranked.

    Have you seen Jimmer play? Your strongest argument is that he plays on the obscure outer darkness .mtn. I’ll give you that. Otherwise, Kemba is good but Jimmer is better.

    And I’d love to see UConn vs. BYU. That’d be the most exciting game of the season!

  • BYUFan

    I agree that Kemba Walker is probably the best player in the NCAA right now, but your article does not give BYU and the MWC enough credit. You also have one mistake in the article. BYU easily beat UNLV, which was ranked at the time they played them — so yes, BYU has beaten a ranked team. Secondly, BYU currently has a No. 3 rated RPI, so you cannot argue that they have strolled through the first part of their season. True, UConn’s conference schedule will be tougher than BYU’s (the Big East is without a doubt the best basketball conference in the NCAA), but the MWC is still one of the top 5 basketball conferences in the NCAA (according to the USA today rankings). I agree with you that a BYU / UConn championship would be legendary especially if both players continue to live up to the hype. College basketball season is my favorite time of the year!!

  • Nella

    Arenas is crazy, but he does have some good takes on certain basketball philosophies. Real life though, I wouldn’t listen to him.

  • Jason

    Jimmer and Kemba are both very good scoring guards but they get it done in very different ways.

    Jimmer at 6’2″ and 200 lbs plays a game that is very similar to Andre Miller and Billups. He uses is ballhandling a misdirection to get a step on you or a shoulder in front of you. Then it is all over because he is too strong and skilled to be bumped off.

    Kemba at 6′ and 180 pounds is more like Brandon Jennings. He uses skill and quickness to get open shots and to get to the rim.

    And finally a NCAA championship game with BYU vs UCONN would be less exciting because Jimmer and Kemba wouldn’t guard each other.

  • Asphalt God

    UNLV might have been ranked by the AP when they played BYU but they weren’t ranked by ESPN/Coaches. Either way, UNLV wasn’t or isn’t on the level of Michigan State, Texas, Kentucky, etc. BYU fans just need to admit that Jimmer’s schedule is going to hurt him.

  • BigErn

    I love these people talking about the gauntlet BYU has to run. I’d love to see what Kemba could do against such stout defenses as Air Force and Wyoming.

  • http://www.vinylletteringdecor.com/ Rhiannon

    You do realize that BYU’s SOS right now is 28 in the RPI, and UCONN’s is 17. So yes, UCONN’s played a tougher schedule, but its not like BYU’s been playing the local prep academies. I also find it amusing that you don’t list Fredette’s stats, since the article is comparing the two players. You probably don’t mention Fredette’s stats because he is averaging more points per game, more assists per game, a higher FG%, 3PT%, and FT%. There’s not much room to argue against Fredette being the better offensive player so far in the season. However, the best argument for Walker is that he is a better defender and rebounder and that those components of the game would push him past Fredette.

  • Nathan Mathews

    I want to agree with the earlier poster that according to most of the computer rankings BYU actually has a higher SOS – 36 vs. 50 according to Sagarin (http://www.usatoday.com/sports/sagarin/bkt1011.htm). I imagine as the author pointed out that might change as the Big East schedule is typically tougher than the MWC. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

  • http://www.vinylletteringdecor.com/ Rhiannon

    BigErn, Air Force has an RPI 144, so while they’re not really good, it’s not like they are the mince meat of Div 1 ball. Wyoming is awfule, though every conference is going to have some bad teams in it, even the big east has DePaul.

  • Taj

    My question is,,, Who tha hell plays Madden wit their Girl!! LMAO!!

  • Jimmy

    hard to argue who the better offensive player is, but defensively kemba gets a lot more rebounds and steals. he makes a bigger impact on the game than jimmer.

  • srb

    Kemba’s cooled off a little bit the last six or seven games though (not counting the Pitt game), so he needs to come back with it. Otherwise someone else will steal the spotlight before the end of the regular season.

  • Chitwood

    Kemba was the POY. But since league play started he is no longer. He just isn’t elevating his game like Jimmer has over the same span. Sure what Kemba did on Maui was awesome. But this was an early season tournament where coaches are still messing with their rotations, getting good practices and reps in, and most importantly haven’t really scouted their opposition. Now that everyone knows who Kemba is and how to game plan him he’s not putting up the numbers he did, or at least scoring with the same efficiency (someone noted his outburst against Pitt – but 31 points on 27 shots isn’t too impressive). Granted he’s also facing more difficult competition also.

    As to the more clutch and electrifying argument this is awfully subjective. Jimmer already has a game winning three. I think Jimmer is more electric as he is doing things that no shooter in the NCAA is. I have yet to see guys pull up from 30-35′ consistently off the dribble and drain treys like they’re FTs. No player gets defended like he does at half court because he’s already in scoring range. And it’s not just the deep bombs that are electrifying but the way he constantly can get to the rim with crossovers, spins, and change of speed that leaves more gifted athletically defenders on their heels or with broken ankles.

    Kemba is the better defender. No real argument there. But Jimmer isn’t terrible.

    Should be an exciting finish to the season. I expect both Kemba and Jimmer to be finalists. I think Jimmer will have a few more 40+ point games this year before it is all said and done. Whether or not that is enough to make up for a slightly lesser SOS (really it’s perception that is hurting Jimmer and BYU – not raw data) we’ll have to see. I am just grateful for college basketball and the opportunity to see Jimmer play. I think most people commenting on Jimmer haven’t even seen him play. He’s a throwback, one of a kind, baller.

  • http://www.weallscheme.com Jeff Chen

    nice article Austin! Completely agree.

  • First & Foremost

    LOL… you mention tough competition as a pro for Kemba, then point out he put up a triple double on UMBC. The schools had exact opposite records at the time of the game 6-0 vs. 0-6. A triple double is a triple double but I don’t think it bolsters your argument. Otherwise great article and I’m sure UMBC appreciates the shoutout.

  • BoomerCougar

    I can see the strength of schedule argument as relevant if you’re comparing UCONN to BYU as a whole, team vs. team. As far as the player comparison, its irrelevant! Each team that Walker and Jimmer play are going to game plan for the star point guards and each team will put their best defender on him. Furthermore, sure UCONN plays a bunch of solid big east teams, but they’ve also played the likes of Stony Brook, UMBC, Fairleigh Dickinson, Coppin St. etc. Definition of Little Sisters of the Poor! Finally, I Jimmer plays his best ON THE ROAD, when his teammates need him to step up in a hostile environment. I believe Jimmer has had 14 or 15 30+ point games in his career, and all but one have been on the road! Incredible for college basketball. Look at Walker, on the other hand. He hit a nice game winner AT Texas in a great win for UCONN. He shot 8 out of 27 for the game! That’s 22 points on 27 shots! Jimmer hit for 47 at Utah on 28 shots. Basically the same # of shots, twice the points. Sure, let’s say Utah is much worse than Texas. But watch the highlights of some of those crazy shots Jimmer hit on and tell me if you think Kemba Walker could equal him. No way. By the way, that win over Texas is UCONN’s only tough win away from home. Compare that to Jimmer’s standout preformance in Cougar wins at UNLV, at Utah, neutral sites vs Arizona and St. Mary’s.
    Fredette for player of the year!

  • MAX

    I think we should all just say that they are tied. Cut the trophy in half and give half to Jimmer, half to Kemba

  • ArizoniaRules

    I get the overwhelming feeling that you’ve never seen Jimmer play. He and their opposition are much better then you describe them

    Just so you know I hate his guts… Hes utterly embarrassed us the last two years putting up 49 then 33

  • Preston

    Strength of their relative competition is a matter of considerable debate. According to today’s Sagarin ratings, BYU has three wins over top-25 competition, with all on the road or a neutral site. Fredette scored in bunches in two of those three, UNLV and Arizona, and had a very good point total and the game-winning assist on a neutral floor against St Mary’s. I’m with those who are not overly impressed by someone having a terrible night but hitting the game winner, at least not when the contest is for national player of the year, rather than some team award. That said, I think Walker is having a fine year overall. The author of the article, however, like Walker the past few games, seems to be in a bit of a slump.

  • Here’s The Deal

    The Jimmer supporters are getting too caught up arguing semantics. Here’s the key part of the article:

    “What sets Walker apart is that he is the most electrifying and most clutch player in the country. But more importantly, he has achieved that status against the toughest competition.”

    If you think the Mountain West is better than its getting credit for or you think BYU’s nonconference schedule was tougher than people think, I got no problem with that.

    But you can’t argue that the Big East as a whole is WAY tougher than the Mountain West. Kemba plays in arguably the toughest conference in the country (maybe 2nd to the Big Ten). Jimmer doesn’t play in a conference anywhere near consideration for being the toughest. Please don’t try to fix your mouth to say the MWC is better than the Big East this year.

    Then you throw in Michigan State, Texas and Kentucky onto UConn’s schedule and it completely blows BYU’s schedule away. How is that even debatable?

    Jimmer is nice, Kemba is nice, but if their putting up similar stats you have to go with the guy who’s doing it against tougher comp.

  • Arno

    Actually, Ralph Sampson met his only rival at the time and was completely destroyed. By Arvydas Sabonis, playing for the Soviet Union WITH healthy knees.

  • Joe

    It’s not even close Jimmer is POY, Jimmer leads Kemba in nearly every stat and can take a game over at any point, Kemba cannot. Jimmer is a machine!

  • Marc

    Anybody know what shoes Walker is wearing in the picture above?..Peace

  • Russ M

    Looks like he’s wearing Jordan 5’s.


    Another game winner vs villanova monday…How many does Jimmer have again? Kemba = Clutch.