The Stanford senior stands out
My pick is UConn's Breanna Stewart
Connecticut forward Breanna Stewart is ridiculously talented. I love watching Maryland senior forward Alyssa Thomas play. But Stanford senior Chiney Ogwumike gets my vote for preseason player of the year in women's college basketball.
Stewart stands 6-foot-4, and her size and skill set create Elena Delle Donne-like matchup problems. At 6-3, Ogwumike can score on and defend any player on the court.
Thomas led the ACC in scoring, rebounds and assists. Ogwumike led the country in double-doubles (28) and ranked seventh in scoring (22.4 points per game), fifth in rebounding (12.9) and fourth in field goal percentage (58.6).
Ogwumike is the best rebounder I've seen since, well, her sister, Nneka. Much like her big sis, Chiney is absolutely relentless on the offensive glass (4.6 offensive rebounds per game). There were times in Stanford’s Sweet 16 game against Georgia last season when the Lady Bulldogs sent three bodies to Chiney to box her out -- and she still got the rebound.
Ogwumike's footwork around the basket is stellar. She can reverse pivot, step-through, fake and finish -- often on the same play. She has become confident in both her shot and drive from 15 feet in. Most impressively, she never takes a play -- or a moment within a play -- off. She posts hard, goes to the glass hard and defends hard, all the while playing with the exuberance of an elementary school-age child.
As a player matures, she comes to understand the importance of doing the little things on the court: setting good screens, helping the helper on defense, constantly communicating to teammates. Ogwumike does all those things well, and that is what sets her apart.
Ogwumike could be the best athlete in women's college basketball. When you combine those physical gifts with a refined offensive game, a relentless work ethic and an advanced basketball mind, you get my vote for preseason player of the year.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma was recently asked if Breanna Stewart was the top player in women's college basketball. Trap question.
How many coaches are going to say "no" when asked that about one of their players? Plus, he knows just how great the 6-foot-4 Stewart can be. That said, he doesn’t want the sophomore to think she has it all figured out.
Reflecting on her freshman season, Auriemma said, "For big kids to come to college and play well early in their careers, it's really, really hard. For Breanna, she's also very thin, and she got beat up a lot. [Then], the Final Four ends and she wins the national championship as the MVP.
"Where can she go from there? If she does the same exact thing as she did last year, is that going to be good enough? I don't know."
But, he added, if college coaches around the country were asked which player they would pick if they could choose any, Auriemma thinks they would all say Stewart. And that's part of why Stewart gets my vote as the preseason player of the year.
It's not a knock against Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike or Maryland's Alyssa Thomas, seniors who might be the top two picks in April's WNBA draft. And it's not brushing aside the peaks-and-valleys nature of Stewart's first season, when she at times seemed frustrated and baffled by her struggles.
But when things fully clicked, she was everything she had been advertised to be. She can look almost effortless in dominating a game.
Some might say Stewart -- who averaged 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds last season -- is getting too much benefit of the doubt that she won't hit bumpy stretches again and that Ogwumike and Thomas are more experienced.
Similar to the WNBA MVP debate this year, there is more than one good choice. But I'll go with the player who already has a national championship.