The reason was simple: The Lakers simply oozed talent, so Johnson didn’t receive the sole attention of opposing defenses. Bird was the key to the Celtics winning or losing.
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That’s why Self also goes with Thomas Robinson, the third-ranked Jayhawks’ star forward, when the debate turns to national player of the year. Anthony Davis has had a sublime season for top-ranked Kentucky, but he’s surrounded by a cast of characters capable of 20 points a night.
Without Robinson, the Jayhawks could be sitting on the NCAA tournament bubble.
“Anthony impacts the game in a variety of ways, in some ways more than Thomas does, but his supporting cast is so strong,” Self said. “I really believe Thomas has had the best year.”
Naturally, the Wildcats’ supporting cast is a big reason John Calipari would vote for Davis.
“At the end of the year, he’s going to end up taking 200 shots less than all those guys that they’re considering — 200 shots less — yet probably has as big an impact on any of these games,” the Kentucky coach said. “What he’s done defensively for us, what he’s done offensively for us — and he’s done it in a way where he’s not selfish in any way.”
Calipari is right that Davis will end up taking far fewer shots than most superstars. He’s also right that there are other deserving candidates for player of the year.
Kevin Jones has been phenomenal for West Virginia. Doug McDermott has re-established Creighton as a mid-major darling. Draymond Green of Michigan State and Jared Sullinger of Ohio State have emerged as the two titans of the Big Ten.
Still, Davis and Robinson are leading the pack for the national awards.
In the Wildcats’ storied history, no player has landed one of the three major individual honors: the Wooden Award, Naismith Award or AP Player of the Year. Dan Issel didn’t do it. Neither did Tony Delk, Jamal Mashburn, John Wall or Tayshaun Prince.
Kevin Durant is the only freshman to win all three trophies in the same season.
The Jayhawks have had their share of stars in recent years: Paul Pierce, Nick Collison, Mario Chalmers and Sherron Collins, to name a few. But they haven’t had anybody win national player of the year since Danny Manning won the Naismith and Wooden awards in 1988.
No player from Kansas has won the AP award, which was first handed out in 1961.
“It’s a two-horse race, without question,” Self said, “and they’re both thoroughbreds.”
So how best to handicap it?
Start with the stats:
David is averaging 14.1 points and 9.8 rebounds, and his 66.1 field goal percentage is among the 10 best in the country. The 6-foot-10 forward also has swatted 140 shots, and needs just 31 more blocks to break the SEC record set by Mississippi State’s Jarvis Varnado in 2009.
Robinson, meanwhile, is the only player in the Big 12 to average a double-double at 18 points and 11.9 rebounds. He’s been even better against ranked teams, averaging 19.8 points and shooting nearly 56 percent against a group of opponents that includes Duke, Baylor and Missouri.
Many forget that Davis and Robinson faced each other at Madison Square Garden early in the season. Davis finished with 14 points, six rebounds and seven blocks in his second college game, while Robinson turned in an 11-point, 12-rebound performance for Kansas.
“If I had a vote, he’d be my vote for player of the year,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said Saturday night, after watching Robinson pile up 25 points and 14 rebounds in the Jayhawks’ 77-58 victory. “Just the way he’s carried himself, playing against him — he’s terrific.”
Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor considers he an astute observer of the game, and he’s more than willing to share his opinion on just about anything.
“Anthony Davis is a beast, man, he definitely is,” Taylor said, “but I just don’t see too many better than T-Rob. Especially when he’s on top of his game.”
Davis has his own supporters, starting with the guys taking the floor with him.
“He’s doing everything,” Kentucky guard Doron Lamb said. “He’s always playing defense, he’s always scoring. He’s always doing the right thing, really. I don’t see him making no mistakes.”
“He gets his points so easily: rebounds, dunks, stuff like that,” added freshman forward Kyle Wiltjer. “He’s come a long way on offense and defense.”
There are plenty of differences in Davis and Robinson.
Davis is long and lean, while Robinson has muscles upon muscles. Davis prefers to work around the rim, using his quickness to get around post defenders, while Robinson has shown an improving mid-range game and the ability to extend defenses all the way to the perimeter.
There are also similarities.
Both prefer to pawn off the attention on their teammates, giving them credit for their own success. Both have become the go-to player when things are going poorly, though that’s rarely been the case this season. Both have led their teams to conference championships.
Now, both of them are in the running for player of the year.
“He’s created a lot of attention for himself,” Taylor said Robinson, one of his best friends on the Jayhawks. “He’s the main focus of the scouting report, for sure, and I’m sure teams talking about us say, ‘If we stop Thomas, we have a chance to win the game.’”
Sounds as if the Kansas guard would vote for Bird, too.