POY? It's nearly unanimous

Updated: January 19, 2004, 8:03 PM ET
ESPN.com

At the midway point of the season, we asked ESPN's experts to choose their player of the year. While Jameer Nelson is the favorite at this point, it's still open to debate as to who'll walk away with the hardware in March.

Andy Katz Fran Fraschilla
Andy Katz Jameer Nelson,
Saint Joseph's

It's a tough choice. Emeka Okafor was ESPN.com's preseason selection, and ultimately, he could be the most dominant player at the end of the season. But Okafor has more offensive choices with Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Denham Brown, and on occasion Rashad Anderson, Taliek Brown and Josh Boone. Nelson only has Delonte West. While he can throw the ball to Pat Carroll and Dwayne Jones, he relies mostly on West to help him win games. Nelson carries the Hawks, has become a better leader and is the guy you want with the ball at the end of the game. Remember, someone has to get the ball to Okafor. Nelson can take the inbounds pass and run the length of the court and make something happen by himself. Guards usually win games, though they don't always win player of the year awards. This year, a guard should, barring a collapse in the final six weeks. Nelson elevated the Hawks into national prominence, and gives them a chance to make the Final Four. You could argue that the Huskies could get there even without Okafor. As crazy as that sounds, the Huskies could patch together an inside game with Boone and Villanueva, guards Denham Brown and Taliek Brown and Gordon and still have one of the best starting fives in the country. Nelson is too important to the Hawks. He is the reason they're undefeated. He is the player of the year, so far.
Andy Katz Jameer Nelson,
Saint Joseph's

Obviously, I won't be in the minority in selecting Jameer Nelson. After all, St. Joe's is undefeated and Nelson is finishing up a brilliant four years on Hawk Hill. He'll shatter numerous school and conference records and should take St. Joe's deep into the NCAA Tournament. But numbers don't tell the whole story for me. Nelson is more about winning than about statistics. When he had to get 34 points to help St. Joe's win at Gonzaga two years ago, that's what he did. This year, he followed up that performance with 20 points, 8 rebounds and 10 assists when the country "discovered" him in the season-opening win over the Zags in Madison Square Garden. When Nelson has to play second banana, he'll do that as well. In Saturday's win at Xavier, he had a quiet 28 points, while Delonte West's 33 points was the lead story. All that matters to Nelson is that the Hawks are 15-0. Great players have a presence that inspires teammates and coaches to have confidence in them. Nelson has that presence. Yes, I considered UConn teammates Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon for this honor. They have both been terrific on a team that may have the most talented roster in the country. So, while they may split the vote with each other, I don't think Jim Calhoun is disappointed that he has two POY candidates.

Jay Bilas Dick Vitale
Jay Bilas Emeka Okafor,
Connecticut

You can make a strong case for either Emeka Okafor or Jameer Nelson, but I just feel that Okafor has been more dominant to this point. It's a two-horse race and other players have been great, but Okafor has been the most valuable player to his team. Okafor can be so dominate in so many categories -- scoring, rebounding, blocking shots, defense -- and he's shooting 60 percent from the field. The only deficiency you can point to is Okafor's free-throw shooting, but he's been the most dominating player in the country. But both Nelson and Okafor can win it. And when a race for player of the year is this close, it often comes down to how a player's team performs. As unlikely as it may be, if Saint Joseph's can go undefeated into the NCAA Tournament, it could decide things. Nelson will be right there at the end, but right now, my vote goes to Okafor.
Dick Vitale Jameer Nelson,
Saint Joseph's

It has been a wide-open race for the best player in America during the first half of the season. As for my pick, I have to go to Hawk Hill. Phil Martelli's team has been superior and the key has been the little general, Jameer Nelson. I really enjoyed watching him in person opening night when Martelli's Hawks defeated Gonzaga. Nelson is such a positive force and he has a winner's mentality. I love the way he smiles on the court and enjoys the game of basketball. He was so smart to say no to the NBA and return to St. Joe's this season. Forget his size, because pound-for-pound, inch-for-inch, he is the best pure talent in America. Nelson is awesome with a capital A! Among the other players in the race, don't forget about Andre Emmett at Texas Tech, or Emeka Okafor over at Connecticut. Devin Harris has been special for Wisconsin and so have Ike Diogu (Arizona State), Francisco Garcia (Louisville) and Matt Freije (Vanderbilt).

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