The label Big 12 Player of the Year carries with it significant lineage.
Past Big 12 Players of the Year include NBA stars Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin. All but two recipients since 2011 went on to become lottery-round selections in the NBA draft. Two of the last three winners — Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield in 2015 and 2016, and Kansas guard Frank Mason III in 2017 — also won national Player of the Year awards.
By being named 2018-19 Preseason Big Player of the Year, Kansas State forward Dean Wade is expected to contribute to an impressive legacy. But expectation and reality aren’t always one in the same; Wade set a lofty standard in 2017-18, averaging 16.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game that will be challenging to repeat, if not improve upon.
“The legacy will be if we have a successful season. That's anything,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said at last month’s Big 12 media day. “People remember if you win.”
K-State’s winning pursuit takes an important, early step with the Wildcats in the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam. The Wade-led Wildcats command the spotlight among a field heavy with other veteran-laden teams.
Should the 6-foot-8 forward Wade meet the lofty standard expected of him and win Big 12 Player of the Year, he’ll buck a few trends. First, it’s been 11 years since the last K-State Wildcat won the award: Michael Beasley in 2007-2008.
Second, no post player has been named Big 12 Player of the Year since Kansas’ Thomas Robinson in 2011-12. Perimeter-position dominance of the honor reflects the current trend around basketball, with emphasis on dribble-drive penetration, often resulting in kick-out passes for 3-point looks.
It’s not as if Wade is a throwback to Big 8/12 predecessors like Raef Lafrentz and Stacey King, who operated entirely in the paint: The K-State forward attempted 89, 97 and 91 3-pointers in his first three seasons in the Little Apple.
Sure, he’s averaging 12 rebounds per game through the Wildcats’ first two of 2018-19, but Wade’s hardly glued to the low block. He’s just unique from other recent Big 12 standouts in that he can work effectively with his back to the basket.
Offenses built around volume-scoring guards, like Hield, Mason and Devonte Graham, are all the rage, however. Even last season, with 1st Team All-Big 12 honoree Wade as its standout throughout the campaign, Kansas State gained national attention playing small-ball on its run to the Elite Eight. Wade logged just eight minutes the entire NCAA Tournament due to a foot injury.
“I think it was a driving force for him coming back,” Weber said. “If there was indecision of putting his name in [the NBA draft] ... he wanted to be part of [an NCAA Tournament run].”
K-State is indeed expected to make another impression come March, based on the Wildcats’ preseason ranking of No. 12, and Big 12 coaches’ projection to finish second in the conference. K-State even garnered two first-place votes.
Never mind becoming the first post player to win Big 12 Player of the Year in seven years, or even the Wildcats representing the award for the first time in more than a decade: If Wade leads Kansas State to a conference championship and ends rival Kansas’ 14-year stranglehold on the crown, that might be the most impressive trend he can buck.
The weeks leading up to Big 12 competition will prove vital in K-State developing its rhythm, striking the balance between the tenacious, small-ball defense that buoyed the Wildcats in March; and feeding off the capable scoring and rebounding presence they have in their star forward Wade.
First order of business to that end at the Paradise Jam: finding the touch from behind the 3-point line. K-State opened the season with wins over fellow Paradise Jam participant Kennesaw State and Denver, but the Wildcats shot a combined 17.5 percent from deep.
“If it continues to be like this, it has got to be a little concerning,” Wade said following the win over Denver on Monday. “[But] I have no doubt in my mind that we're going to start hitting shots again.”
Wade added that embarking on the next challenge, the Paradise Jam, is “a basketball player’s dream.”
If the Kansas State forward lives up to his preseason billing, Wade won’t have to wake from his dream any time soon.
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Kyle Kensing is a freelance sports journalist in southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.