Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Villanova’s Josh Hart Making Early Case for Wooden Award, Drops 37 in Front of 30 NBA Scouts
NEWARK — This may have been billed as “The Year of the Freshmen” in college basketball, but Villanova senior Josh Hart looks like the runaway winner for the Wooden Award at this point.
The 6-foot-5 senior from Silver Spring, Md., went off for a career-high 37 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists on Saturday as No. 1 Villanova remained unbeaten with a thrilling 74-66 win over No. 23 Notre Dame in the Never Forget Tribute Classic at Prudential Center. Hart shot 10-of-14 from the field and a perfect 14-of-14 from the line.
Hart’s performance came in front of 30 NBA personnel.
“He’s as good as anybody [in the country],” said Irish coach Mike Brey, whose team (9-1) lost for the first time this season. I definitely have a special spot for seniors. But here’s a guy who already set the tone on a national championship team, so I give him the benefit of the doubt.
“I think he’ll be a great pro, a great NBA player. He’s going to play a long time in the league because he’s physical and tough and you’re going to get it every day. Same thing every day.”
Being a great college player and being a great pro prospect are often different things.
Consider that the last three Wooden Award winners were all seniors — Doug McDermott (Creighton), Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin) and Buddy Hield (Oklahoma) — yet none were close to being the No. 1 overall pick.
McDermott went 11th in the 2014 NBA Draft, the same year Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins went No. 1.
Kaminsky went No. 9 in 2015 when Kentucky freshman Karl-Anthony Towns was No. 1.
And Hield went No. 6 in 2016 when LSU frosh Ben Simmons was chosen No. 1.
After testing the waters last season and then returning to campus, Hart is currently projected at No. 44 by DraftExpress.com. Washington freshman Markelle Fultz is projected at No. 1 in a draft top-heavy with freshmen (although he could be headed the Simmons’ route in terms of missing the NCAA Tournament).
“He’s a second-rounder,” one NBA scout said. “He has played very well so far this year. Wooden Award candidate.”
Said a second NBA scout of where Hart could fit in the league: “He has value on a second unit.”
Could he be a first-rounder?
“If he plays like that,” a third scout said.
Hart tested the NBA waters last spring, realized he wasn’t going to be a first-round pick and opted to come back.
And Jay Wright and the Villanova faithful can thank their lucky stars for that.
Now he still views himself as an underdog and he has one goal in mind.
“I always do,” he said. “Everyone has to have that mentality, that chip on your shoulder to be great. I want to be great. I want to be as good as Josh Hart can be. And I have no idea how good that is, but I’m going to try to figure it out. And I’m going to have that mentality until the day I lace up my sneakers and I retire.
“My mentality is keep getting better, keep getting better, just keeping putting your foot on the pedal and just go.”
Right now it sure looks good enough to lead Villanova to another Final Four.
“I love this team, I love the guys, I love the coaches, we love each other,” Hart said. “I think you can tell on the court. I came back for the potential of this team and how good I think these guys are.”
Hart said at Big East Media Day he could’ve used more time to evaluate his NBA decision, and Wright said he thinks players should be able to hire agents and still return to campus depending on the feedback they get.
In the end, Wright thinks Hart handled the process perfectly.
“He’s as good as any player in the country, he really is,” Wright said. “And he’s so complete. He will do whatever it takes to win a game. And he’s got the ability to do it, and at the right time.
“He scored, he made passes, he got free throws, he defended. He did everything. He is as complete a player as we’ve ever had.
“He’s a really humble guy He’s a simple guy. I’ve never seen anybody handle that [NBA] process like he did last year so cleanly, simply, intelligently. He’s just really a special kid.”
And now, in the Year of the Freshmen, Hart may not be the projected No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
But he sure looks like the best college basketball player in the country.
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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.