Jesse Temple: Kaminsky most valuable Badgers player ever

Frank Kaminsky is averaging 17.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.7 blocks this season for the Badgers.

Mary Langenfeld/Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON, Wis. — Here was Bo Ryan at his most honest. In the minutes after Wisconsin had escaped with a 69-64 overtime victory at Michigan on Saturday night, Ryan couldn’t help but effusively praise Badgers center Frank Kaminsky, whose 22-point, nine-rebound performance lifted the team from the depths of despair. And if you’ve come across many Ryan news conferences, you’ll understand the gravity of his words.

"Let’s face it," Ryan told reporters. "He’s one of the best players in the country, and I don’t say that very often because I let other people judge. Frank means a lot to this team."

But just how much does Kaminsky mean? And, in a broader (and sure to be debated) sense, is he the most valuable Badgers player ever? Will this go down as the best single season in Wisconsin history given all that is at stake?

Kaminsky still has half of his senior season remaining, so putting his career or season into historical context is subject to change. But let’s try anyway. Because at a time when every opposing scouting report targets Kaminsky as the Badgers’ primary threat, all he’s managed to do is put up numbers that best anyone in the game today.

Here are Kaminsky’s current statistics this season: 17.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.7 blocks. Consider that he is the only player in Division I averaging at least 17 points, eight rebounds, two assists and 1.5 blocks per game. And if he isn’t the favorite to win the national college player of the year award — something not seen at Wisconsin since World War I — he’s second in some circles to Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor.

Some Badgers fans surely will note that other all-time greats finished with more points or better career statistics in some areas. Alando Tucker and Michael Finley, for example, are the only two Wisconsin players to score at least 2,000 career points. They also had the benefit of playing substantial minutes as underclassmen — Kaminsky did not. Kaminsky averaged all of 8.9 minutes per game during his freshman and sophomore seasons, which makes his achievements as an upperclassman even more impressive. And Kaminsky’s career shooting numbers stack up favorably against Tucker and Finley.

Tucker shot 48.0 percent from the field in his career, including 30.7 percent on 3s and 63.6 percent from the free-throw line. Finley shot 44.0 percent from the field, 33.8 percent on 3s and 76.8 percent on free throws. The two also took more shots than anybody in school history.

Kaminsky’s career numbers thus far: 51.0 percent from the field, 35.6 percent on 3s and 74.9 percent on free throws. Though Kaminsky’s field-goal percentage is higher, in part, because the 7-footer can score easily at the rim, how many would have guessed he shoots 3-pointers at a better clip than the program’s most talented scorers?

"Just all the things Frank does," Badgers assistant coach Greg Gard said when asked to discuss Kaminsky’s impact. "Plays he makes with the ball. How he’s gotten so good protecting the rim. Defensive rebounding, offensive rebounding, leadership, experience. The list is very long in terms of what Frank gives this team."

Kaminsky may not be the single-best scorer or the single-best rebounder in Wisconsin history, but he just may prove to be the best all-around player ever. And such incredible versatility lends credence to the idea that he is therefore the most valuable Badgers player ever. His season rivals any put together by Tucker, Finley, Danny Jones, Claude Gregory, Rick Olson, Trent Jackson, Jordan Taylor or Devin Harris.

During that Michigan victory, Kaminsky became just the second player in UW history to tally 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 100 blocked shots in a career, joining Mike Wilkinson. Kaminsky ranks second in program history with 129 blocks and surely will break Jared Berggren’s career record of 144 blocks in the next two months.

Four players during the Ryan era have led the team in scoring and rebounding, including Kaminsky. Only Jon Leuer has done it twice — something Kaminsky will achieve at the end of this season. But Kaminsky also is on pace to become the first player under Ryan to average more than eight rebounds per game. No UW player has done so since 1998. Plus, Kaminsky’s shooting percentage this season (.538) would be the best by a player under Ryan. The previous best belongs to Tucker, who shot 53.3 percent in 2003.

In 2007, Tucker was Wisconsin’s first consensus postseason All-American since 1942. And if Kaminsky doesn’t join that short list, something is wrong with the voting process. At this pace, Kaminsky will finish with more steals, assists, blocks and rebounds than Tucker did that season.

The leap Kaminsky made from his sophomore to junior season was exceptional. He led the Badgers in scoring (13.9 points), rebounding (6.3) and blocks (1.7). But his leap as a senior is equally impressive considering the attention he draws from other teams after earning West Region Most Valuable Player honors during Wisconsin’s run to the Final Four and claiming a spot on the AP preseason All-America team this season.

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Yes, this year’s Wisconsin team has more talent than most Badgers units of years past, which — some could argue — diminish Kaminsky’s worth relative to former players. UW (18-2) is ranked fifth nationally, is a favorite to win the Big Ten and very well may earn the program’s first No. 1 NCAA tournament seed. But just ask Ryan about the importance of Kaminsky, who missed one game with concussion-like symptoms two weeks ago — a game Wisconsin stunningly lost 67-62 to lowly Rutgers.

"He’s been marked and with all the different scouting tools that we have with Synergy and everything else, they know each player pretty well," Ryan said Monday. "So for him to be able to still improve on his numbers from last year obviously is no longer a surprise. He’s been very impressive this year. All you’ve got to do is look at a game where he might not have been on the court if you can think of any to know how valuable he is."

How valuable is Kaminsky? Statistics indicate as valuable, or more, than perhaps any player in Wisconsin history. So appreciate him for what he’s achieving. Ryan certainly is. Because these seasons rarely, if ever, come along.

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