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Caitlin Clark vs. the field: Top candidates for player of the year

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(G Fiume/Getty Images)

As the new year approaches, the college basketball season is heating up, and so is the player of the year race.

The Naismith Player of the Year award recognizes the best players in NCAA men’s and women’s basketball. Several players on the 50-player watchlist have lived up to their billing. One in particular has done even more.

Here are Just Women’s Sports’ contenders in the player of the year race heading into 2024, in no particular order.

Caitlin Clark, Iowa

Not much more needs to be said here. Last year’s Naismith Award winner is putting on an even better show this season. At the time of publication, Clark averages a league-leading 30.5 points per game and is seventh in NCAA Division I in assists (7.4 per game). At her current pace, Clark could overtake Kelsey Plum’s college scoring record by February. And while she’s a high scorer, she also spreads the wealth around to her team.

In what could be her final year in the NCAA, Clark has also stepped up her defensive play. She’s gathered 91 defensive rebounds through 13 games played, and her turnover rate is at a career low.

For the second year in a row, Clark may well be the best all-around choice for player of the year.

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(Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Alissa Pili, Utah

Few players on this list have taken their team on their backs the way Pili has. When she shoots, she rarely misses. When she defends, she gives her all.

Pili averages just under 25 points per game, good for fourth in D-I. She also has a 69.7 shooting percentage, the fifth-highest in the NCAA. And she is making 56.5% of her 3-pointers, which ranks first in the NCAA.

Pili’s WNBA potential has been debated. But after the show she’s been putting on this season, there’s no question that she could thrive in the pros. Her size, scoring ability and athleticism make her an ideal draft candidate in 2024 — and perhaps a player of the year candidate as well.

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(Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

JuJu Watkins, USC

The freshman guard is already making a huge impact for the Trojans. In the seven-week old college basketball season, Watkins has taken home six Pac-12 freshman of the week honors. And for good reason.

Watkins is averaging a staggering 26.8 points per game, placing her at second in D-I as a first-year player. She shoots over 46% from behind the arc, and she’s snagged 62 rebounds in her nine games played.

Before finishing her first semester of college, Watkins has cemented herself as a regular in USC’s starting lineup and as a favorite for national freshman of the year honors. And if she keeps it up, she could set her sights even higher.

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(M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Paige Bueckers, UConn

Bueckers started the 2023-24 season with something to prove. The redshirt junior guard had less than 50 college games under her belt due to injuries — a good amount lower than many other players in her year. But she hit the court without missing a beat.

The 21-year-old averages almost 19 points per game, shoots 48% from the three-point line and leads her team in points this season. Bueckers also averages more than three assists per game, and she’s snagged 23 steals in 12 games. She is stepping up her defensive game as well. So far, she’s batted a team-leading 16 blocks as a guard and she’s collected 50 defensive rebounds.

If she continues to heat up despite the pressure of leading a depleted UConn squad, she could play her way into the national award conversation.

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(Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Aneesah Morrow, LSU

Morrow is another player whose all-around skillset is serving her well early in the 2023-24 slate. Her versatility is allowing her to shine at LSU after her transfer from DePaul in the offseason.

The 20-year-old forward makes her presence known on the scoresheet, averaging 18.3 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. But her excellence continues on the other side of the ball. Morrow leads the Tigers with 34 steals and 17 blocks in 13 games played.

Through many challenges LSU has faced this season, including a prolonged absence for star Angel Reese and the removal of former starter Kateri Poole from the team, Morrow has taken everything in stride and remained a consistent and reliable player for the Tigers.

Honorable mentions:

  • Cameron Brink, Stanford
  • Aaliyah Edwards, UConn
  • Deja Kelly, UNC
  • Ta’Niya Latson, Florida State
  • Jacy Sheldon, Ohio State