Let’s dispense with the openers and jump right in: Naji Marshall is maybe the most important player on a top-20 (per KenPom) team that could mount a reasonable challenge in a major conference. Should the best come to be for the Musketeers and should Naji be as good as we’re all thinking (hoping?) he can be, there will be a case to be made that he’s the Big East Player of the Year. Here in October, though, it’s all speculation.
So let’s speculate. Here’s a chart with all of the players who have won BE POY since Xavier joined the league (Arcidiacono and Dunn shared the title in 2014-15), plus Naji’s numbers from last season:
All but one of them outscored Naji. All but one had higher usage. All but two had more assists. All of them had higher ORtgs. None of them grabbed more boards, though, and it’s certainly arguable that Naji is the most capable, most versatile defender on this list of players.
It’s an uphill climb for Naji based on these numbers. Each of these guys was either Ryan Arcidiacono or the best, most important player on his own team. Doug McDermott was a high-efficiency bucket machine. Ryan Arcidiacono was scrappy and white. Kris Dunn had the ball in his hands for everything Providence did, even going so far to carry Ed Cooley to his only NCAA tournament win. Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson were keystones for some of the best teams Jay Wright has ever put on the court. Markus Howard spent three quarters of the year being a walking bucket from anywhere inside half court.
Of all these guys, only Josh Hart bears resemblance to Naji’s game. Both are versatile, big-body wings who play at both ends of the court. Hart’s game got a lot of national notoriety because Jay Wright was riding him to a national championship, but he was building to it his entire career, posting ORtgs of 126.8, 125.3, and 117.7 in his first three years. Naji’s career high ORtg is 110.7, as a freshman.
The Player of the Year award doesn’t go to the best player in the conference. That’s a part of it, but it also takes a solid team and a cresting wave of media support to reel in the votes. There is a lot that needs to go right for Naji to take the title. As a freshman, he showed his talent as a razor sharp third perimeter option behind Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura. Last year, he demonstrated his mettle in battling injury and illness to drag a reviving team to the brink of an extremely unlikely NCAA tournament bid.
This season, with health and help intact, Naji is capable of taking the next step and showing the league that he’s worth the accolades he hasn’t yet received. Only time will tell.