College Basketball Player of the Year race: Duke's Luke Kennard an early surprise

It is still early. This college basketball season isn't even a month old. So nobody should crown anything or anybody quite yet. But if I had to vote for National Player of the Year today, I'd vote for ...

UCLA Bruins 's Lonzo Ball.

And it's not just because the freshman sensation is leading the nation in assists per game (9.3) while also averaging 14.6 points and 5.0 rebounds for a team that's undefeated and ranked second in the AP poll, second in the Coaches poll and second in the CBS Sports Top 25 (and one). That's an important part of things, clearly. But what's most impressive about Ball is how he's completely transformed a program.

UCLA went 15-17 last season. UCLA is 9-0 this season.

That's not completely because of Ball.

But it's mostly because of Ball.

Thus, I think, the 6-foot-6 point guard should be the leading candidate for National Player of the Year. Below is an in-the-moment look at my top 10 candidates.

1. Lonzo Ball (UCLA)

Ball, as noted above, is posting incredible numbers across the board while also shooting 55.4 percent from the field and 43.5 percent from 3-point range. His assist-to-turnover ratio is better than 3-to-1. He's the main reason why UCLA looks like a legitimate threat to make the Final Four. And, as I detailed last week, he seems to have established himself as a likely top-10 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.

2. Josh Hart ( Villanova Wildcats )

Hart is leading the top-ranked Wildcats in scoring (17.1 points per game), rebounding (6.5 rebounds per game) and assists (3.9 assists per game). The 6-6 guard is shooting 57.6 percent from the field and 43.2 percent from 3-point range, and last week he posted Villanova's first triple-double in more than 30 years. If Villanova wins a second straight national championship, he'll be a big factor.

3. Frank Mason III ( Kansas Jayhawks )

Mason has been tremendous for Kansas, which is 7-1 and ranked fourth in the Top 25 (and one). The 5-11 senior is averaging 19.6 points, 5.4 assists and 4.5 rebounds while shooting 56.1 percent from the field and 48.4 percent from 3-point range. He had 30 points and nine assists in the season-opener against Indiana Hoosiers .

4. Luke Kennard ( Duke Blue Devils )

Kennard didn't get nearly the attention that Grayson Allen and Duke's heralded freshman class received in the preseason, but he's been the Blue Devils' best player. The 6-6 sophomore is averaging 19.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists while shooting 50.0 percent from the field. He scored a career-high 35 points in Saturday's win over Maine Black Bears .

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We expected a Duke player high on this list, but not Kennard. USATSI

5. De'Aaron Fox ( Kentucky Wildcats )

Ball isn't the only freshman point guard making an impact on a top-10 team. Same goes for Fox, who is averaging 15.9 points, 7.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds. The projected lottery pick recorded a triple-double in last week's 115-68 win over Arizona State Sun Devils . He's scored at least 16 points in four of Kentucky's past five games.

6. Jock Landale (Saint Mary's)

Last season's early breakout player was Providence Friars 's Ben Bentil . This season's is Landale, who is averaging 19.7 points and 9.0 rebounds for a Saint Mary's team that's No. 8 in the Top 25 (and one). The 6-11 center is shooting 76.1 percent from the field and 83.3 percent from the free throw line. Not bad for somebody who only played 14.5 minutes per game last season.

7. Maurice Watson ( Creighton Bluejays )

Watson is averaging 12.0 points, 9.0 assists and 2.0 steals while shooting 45.6 percent from the field and 53.8 percent from 3-point range for Creighton, which is ranked 14th in the Top 25 (and one) thanks to an undefeated record featuring double-digit wins over Wisconsin Badgers and North Carolina Tar Heels State. The senior point guard had 14 points and 13 assists in Saturday's 82-70 win over Akron Zips . He's the key to the Bluejays' dynamic offense.

8. Joel Berry (North Carolina)

Berry has taken a leadership role in UNC's program and mostly been fantastic. He's averaging 14.8 points, 4.7 assists and 3.8 rebounds for the Tar Heels, who are 8-1 and ranked sixth in the Top 25 (and one). The 6-foot point guard had a season-high 24 points in a 107-75 win over Oklahoma State Cowboys . He's dealing with an ankle injury now that will keep him out of Wednesday's game with Davidson Wildcats .

9. Amile Jefferson (Duke)

How about two Blue Devils making this list -- neither of whom is the CBS Sports Preseason National Player of the Year (Allen) or one of the heralded freshmen? Seems wild. But it's reasonable considering Jefferson is averaging 14.7 points and a team-high 9.8 rebounds in 30.1 minutes per game. The 6-9 senior has four double-doubles for a Duke team that's No. 5 in the Top 25 (and one).

10. Markelle Fultz ( Washington Huskies )

Fultz has been incredible but mostly off of the national radar because his team has struggled. The 6-4 freshman is averaging 22.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.6 assists while shooting 54.0 percent from the field and 48.1 percent from 3-point range. His only issue is that Washington is 4-3 with two losses to TCU Horned Frogs and another to Yale Bulldogs . And players from average teams are rarely serious National POY candidates.

CBS Sports Insider

Gary Parrish is an award-winning college basketball columnist and television analyst for CBS Sports who also hosts the highest-rated afternoon drive radio show in Memphis, where he lives with his wife... Full Bio

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