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McKinley Wright deserves Pac-12 Player of the Year

The senior guard was everything for the Buffs.

NCAA Basketball: California at Colorado Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The discussion began as a career achievement award, but by the end of the season, McKinley Wright IV has done enough to be named the Pac-12’s Player of the Year.

There is no player in the Pac-12 more valuable to his team than the Colorado guard. Everything the Buffs do revolves around his two-way play. This offense needs someone to slice through the lane to create opportunities for shooters and cutters. They need his elite defense at the point of attack, because Colorado’s elite team defense falls apart against dribble-drive penetration. When they need him to do everything, be everywhere, or get every bucket, he can do it. And when I say need, I mean it, because within their balanced offense, it is a complete crapshoot which other Buffs will play well, if any.

In terms of narrative and team importance, it’s almost too easier to point towards McKinley Wright, but he has the numbers too. He finished the regular season averaging 15.3 points, 5.7 assists and 4.3 rebounds — the former two are career bests — all while shooting 49% from the field (elite for a PG) with minimal turnovers. Throw in his career accomplishment of becoming the first Pac-12 men’s player to have 1,600 points, 600 assists and 600 rebounds (he’s now at 1,783, 655 and 620), and that’s a tremendous season.

There are cases to be made for USC’s Evan Mobley, the presumptive Freshman of the Year, and Oregon’s Chris Duarte.

Mobley is far and away the most talented player in the conference. He was rated as the best high school recruit in the country and is a lock to be a top-5 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. The reason for his success is simple: he’s a 7-footer who is more athletic and skilled than any big man in the country. Only Charles Bassey, a former five-star playing in the Conference USA, can match Mobley’s nightly 16 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks. Mobley is the reason USC has the best defense in the Pac-12.

All that said, Mobley does not impose his will on the game in the same way as Wright. I get that Wright has had some rough games, particularly in CU’s puzzling losses to Pac-12 bottom-feeders, but Mobley has disappeared in USC’s biggest games. In the Trojans’ games against UCLA, he drifted off and let Tahj Eaddy take all the shots; against Oregon, he hardly touched the ball (his teammates drained threes all game, but still); and in two losses to Colorado, he shot 40% and had 9 turnovers. It seems that Mobley lacks a certain toughness or tenacity, particularly in those big games, and that’s the real difference between him and Wright.

The case for Chris Duarte is easier to parse out: he’s the best player* on the best team**. The issue with his case however, is that he’s worse at basketball than either McKinley Wright or Evan Mobley. He’s a great shooter and scores more than Wright, but he doesn’t make his teammates better on that side of the floor. He’s great at forcing turnovers with his length and energy, but Mobley is (1) a better defender, (2) with a larger defensive role and (3) on a better defense.

*Eugene Omoruyi might be better than Duarte.

**Oregon had some coronavirus issues that may have helped them. They were playing poorly when they went on pause and ended up dodging an away game against UCLA. They found their rhythm later on and won 10 of their last 11 games, but even then four of those wins were one-possession games that could have gone either way. (Colorado, by comparison, went 2-4 in one-possession games all season.)

At the end of the day, McKinley Wright is better at basketball than Chris Duarte, and looking at team value and stepping up in the brightest lights, he’s had a better season than Evan Mobley.

Final ballot: (1) McKinley Wright, (2) Evan Mobley and (3) Oscar da Silva.