Brownlow: Balanced All-ACC ballot hands T.J. Warren POY honors

N.C. State sophomore T.J. Warren and Duke freshman Jabari Parker are the frontrunners for the ACC Player of the Year award.

Let’s get right to the good stuff.

Everyone votes differently. Some put a much heavier emphasis on players from teams that are higher in the standings. (If it’s close, I’ll give a tie to a better team’s player, but since these are individual awards, I won’t ignore someone because their team was bad. Basketball is still, after all, a team game.) Some look at the whole season’s statistics; some look at ACC-only stats (I put much more emphasis on the latter). Some look at tempo-free statistics; some don’t. (I do.) Some use the statistics as a guide, but ultimately rely a lot more on what they see. I tend to mix all three of these.

In what is likely to be an extremely close ACC Player of the Year vote, I went with N.C. State’s T.J. Warren, who led the league in ACC-only scoring by a wide margin (25.5 points per game; No. 2 was Olivier Hanlan at 18.4 points per game). Parker was fourth at 17.6 points per game. Warren shot 52.5 percent from the field in ACC games, a figure that led the league, while Parker shot 45.3 percent.

I’ve watched both Warren and Parker play in person a lot. If Parker had played the way he did in the final two ACC games this year throughout the ACC schedule — a lot to ask of a freshman, of course — he would have been the runaway winner. Parker is just scratching the surface of what he’s capable of, and it’s exciting to watch. It’s like it has clicked in his head that he is unstoppable after a stretch in league play of overthinking everything. He’s just playing. It should absolutely terrify the rest of the nation that as March Madness tips off, Parker is playing his best basketball.

There are a lot of justifications you’ll hear about voting Warren for this award — where N.C. State would be without Warren, Parker receiving more help, etc. That’s not fair to Parker, who shouldn’t be punished for having better teammates. Ultimately, the usage percentage of the two players wasn’t all that far apart. And Warren was still the more efficient player, both for the season and in ACC play.

On the flip side, you’ll hear about Parker’s double-doubles. Those are fantastic, and Parker is the league’s best rebounder by nearly a full rebound per game in league play, but Parker is a forward and T.J. Warren plays the three-spot, which is not often in position to collect a ton of rebounds. In spite of that, he’s still 14th in ACC-only rebounding (6.5), so not necessarily a reason to bump Parker ahead of Warren.

There’s also the fact that I don’t think, for the majority of ACC play, that Parker was the best player on his own team. That was Rodney Hood, who even head coach Mike Krzyzewski called Duke’s most consistent player. When Parker was struggling to find his shot, Hood helped win games for the Blue Devils. And let’s not forget Hood’s fantastic game dissecting the Syracuse zone in Duke’s home win over the Orange. Parker’s the more dynamic player, but Hood was the most consistent. Were the First Team competition not so stiff, Hood would’ve made mine easily.

If I concentrated more on the full-season’s statistics, Parker would have made this race a lot closer. He’ll win a lot more national awards because of his work in the non-conference, and deservedly so. But this is an ACC award, and I don’t care that Warren’s team isn’t going to the NCAA Tournament. That’s certainly not his fault.

Sometimes, good scorers on bad teams pile up garbage-time statistics. That’s not Warren. Sunday night, as no one else on his team could seemingly make anything happen offensively, Warren either scored or assisted on every single one of N.C. State’s baskets in the final 18 minutes against Boston College, and he took over the game on his own down the stretch, getting steals on one end and turning them into points on the other. He scrapped for loose balls, crashed the boards and — oh yes — scored a lot of points. He poured in 83 points in his final two ACC games on just 45 shots, putting up 41 at Pittsburgh in a huge win followed by 42 on Sunday night. He’s been spectacular.

For me, this was an easy choice coming into last week, although Parker’s 30-point game against UNC (and frankly, both of his games this past week) certainly made me reevaluate. Then Warren answered, and did so convincingly.

T.J. Warren, N.C. State (POY)

Jabari Parker, Duke

Marcus Paige, North Carolina

K.J. McDaniels, Clemson

Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia

This is also the order that I voted for these players, by the way. Spots 1-9 on this team were easy — ordering them was difficult. The toughest First Team omissions for me were Syracuse’s C.J. Fair and Pittsburgh’s Lamar Patterson, both of whom were brilliant for their respective teams. Fair, though, is one that has to be seen to be believed. His numbers aren’t the best from an efficiency standpoint (100.8 ORtg and 46.7 percent eFG, per Ken Pomeroy), but he plays almost all of Syracuse’s available minutes and takes and makes almost every big shot for the Orange, particularly lately.

Patterson is one of the most versatile players in the league, stuffing the stat sheet with assists, rebounds and steals in addition to scoring. Before his thumb injury that affected his shooting, he would’ve been one a no-brainer on First Team, not to mention a POY candidate.

Clemson’s K.J. McDaniels blossomed into one of the most versatile players in the ACC this season.

Lamar Patterson, Pittsburgh

C.J. Fair, Syracuse

Tyler Ennis, Syracuse

Rodney Hood, Duke

Dez Wells, Maryland

The 10th spot on this list was the most difficult. Ultimately I went with Wells — he’s absolutely unguardable when he’s on, and he’s one of the strongest guards in the league. He’s a solid defender, too, and he just does so much to make that team go. It was between he, Rion Brown (Miami) and Olivier Hanlan (Boston College), but in the end I had to go with my gut because it was too close to call for me with stats alone.

Rion Brown, Miami

Olivier Hanlan, Boston College

Daniel Miller, Georgia Tech

Joe Harris, Virginia

James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina

(With respect, of course, to Aaron Thomas of Florida State, Eric Atkins of Notre Dame, Jerami Grant of Syracuse and Okaro White of Florida State. In that order.)

Harris is going to be one of the players that ranges from Second Team on some ballots to left off completely on others. His stats, particularly in the ACC-only department, aren’t that flashy (he’s not in the top 20 of ACC-only scoring), but just watch Virginia play and you’ll see what he does for that team. He doesn’t need to do as much as he has prior to this year, and that’s because Virginia has gotten better. But he’s just so good at doing all the little things Virginia needs, like hitting a big shot when this team is in a drought to ignite a run or just instructing his teammates on what to do defensively.

James Michael McAdoo’s stats also weren’t fantastic in ACC play, but his energy and effort and improved all-around play were the primary impetus of UNC’s turnaround from a 1-4 start to the league’s No. 4 seed in the conference tourney. And he still averaged 13.8 points per game and 7.2 rebounds on nearly 48 percent shooting in ACC play.

Side note: Florida State’s Aaron Thomas is going to be one of the best players in the ACC next year. If not the best. Mark it down. I switched he and Harris at the final moment, and I can see why some might think that’s unfair: Thomas averaged 14.9 points per game in league play and is one of the better defenders in the ACC. He absolutely will be one of the league’s best players as a junior; he’s only getting better as a scorer and will continue to grow.

K.J. McDaniels, Clemson (DPOY)

Akil Mitchell, Virginia

Daniel Miller, Georgia Tech

Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia

C.J. Fair, Syracuse

Some of this is a combination of eye test, advanced metrics and what the coaches are saying. Virginia has the best defense in the league by a wide margin, so naturally I’m going to reward them more. Mitchell could make a great case for the best defensive player in the league, positionally. The coaches say as much, and he’ll likely win that award. It’s not a sexy statistic or something you can prove with numbers, but you see it when you watch Virginia play. He does the dirty work down low, taking on players generally bigger than him, and is so fundamentally sound.

His teammate Malcolm Brogdon is often guarding an opponent’s perimeter threat, and he’s done a great job all year while making a huge difference on the other end, too. C.J. Fair is dominant in that Syracuse zone with his length and is part of what makes it work as well as it does.

Side note: I’m not too big on steals or blocks as proof of defensive prowess. Often you’re taking risks to get those numbers at the expense of your team. I’d cite UNC’s Brice Johnson as an example, who’s improved a lot defensively but still costs his team at times going for a blocked shot and leaving his man wide open for an easy layup. This is why the eye test is important — guys like McDaniels and Miller do block a lot of shots (and McDaniels gets steals, too), and both are capable of taking over a game on that end of the court.

Jabari Parker, Duke (ROY)

Tyler Ennis, Syracuse

London Perrantes, Virginia

Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina

Devin Wilson, Virginia Tech

The hard part was picking two after Parker, Ennis and Perrantes. And while Ennis made it close for a time, Parker was one of the easier choices on this list.

Tony Bennett led the Virginia Cavaliers their first outright regular season ACC title in 33 years.

Meeks wasn’t that consistent for UNC, but neither were a lot of the choices on this list.Devin Wilson of Virginia Tech was admittedly on a bad team, but he got thrust into a tough situation — playing point guard with a roster that became more and more injury-plagued as the season went along — and he kept fighting through it. He earned a lot of praise from opposing coaches for his toughness, and that’s what edged him past some of the other candidates for me. Well, that and he was fourth in the league in assists in ACC play and averaged 10.1 points.

I tend to vote for the coach whose team wins the ACC. In a league with as unbalanced a schedule as we have today, that’s difficult. But Bennett’s team won nearly every game in front of them and took zero bad losses. No other team in the ACC can say that. Literally, none. And Virginia’s only two losses in ACC play came at Duke (on a fortunate bounce from a Rasheed Sulaimon 3-pointer — in a game where the Cavaliers didn’t even play their best and still had a chance to win) and at Maryland, playing its final ACC regular-season game in front of a frothing crowd.

Virginia thrashed Syracuse to lock up said regular-season crown, and Bennett did a masterful job improving his team from the blowout loss at Tennessee until now. The tweaks he’s made have all worked to perfection, and he deserves this award.

This was a tough call between Miami’s Rion Brown and Paige, but it struck me when I was watching Paige at Duke on Saturday and he was making closely-contested jumpers — how is this the same player I watched last year? He did improve significantly towards the end of last season, which is why I don’t think I thought of him for this award as quickly, but he’s stepped his game up so much from this year to last that it’s tough to argue.

This was another tough call. I nearly went with Virginia’s Justin Anderson because of his defense. If I could have called it a tie, I would have. And if you want to yell at me about this one, I’m completely fine with it. For me, it was Johnson’s 55 percent shooting in league play (9.4 points per game, 5.9 rebounds) that slightly edged out Anderson’s 41 percent shooting (8.3 points per game, 2.7 rebounds). In spite of Anderson’s edge defensively.