The best players in the game right now.
May 26, 2023 by Ultiworld in Opinion with 0 comments
Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2023 college ultimate season is presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author(s). Find out how Spin can get you, and your team, looking your best this season.
There’s no shortage of talent in the USA Ultimate Club men’s division. We look a lot at team success, and often see familiar names and faces in those discussions. But who are the best individual players? Who brings the most value to winning a championship? Figuring out which stars shine the brightest is more art than science, but perhaps there’s democratic power in numbers.
So who are the best players in the division right now? To try to clear away as much of the white noise created by circumstance as possible and get to the heart of each individual’s value and contribution, we asked a diverse group of twelve members of our coverage team, as well as an anonymous group of elite players, and new this year, coaches, to weigh in on the following prompt:
If you were starting a club team today with the singular goal of winning a theoretical College Championship, how would you rank the players within the division? You aren’t building a team of all of your selections, so don’t worry about how the players complement each other. Consider each pick the first pick of a team, drafting in order, only you can’t pick the players you’ve already ranked above. All players who were on a 2023 D-I College men’s division roster of a team that reached Regionals are eligible to be drafted. With regards to injuries an absences, we will include all rostered players unless there is confirmation a player will not be competing, or would not be able to compete, at Nationals.
In order to improve how representative our rankings are of the opinions of our voters, we each listed out our top 35 players — up from a cap of 25 in past years — to iron out some of the gradations on the fringes and then combined our lists to create a composite ranking. In addition, we included the ballots of a few anonymous participants from different regions. We used a weighted scoring system for votes, with Participants’ Ballots counting as 60% of the value of Staff Ballots.1
We’ll start with our top 10, and discussion about that group. Then we’ll reveal the entire top 25, followed by the complete ballots, and additional conversations about the rankings.
The Top 10
|Rk||Player||Pts.||Staff Rankings||Participant Rankings||Edward||Rubin||Thorne||Patrick||Keith||NW Participant 1||AC Particpant 1||SW Particpant 1||NE Participant 1||NC Participant 1||GL Participant 1|
[Editor: There are some sorting issues with the table that cannot be altered at the time. Our apologies for the inconvenience.]
Which ranking from someone else’s list are you most befuddled by?
Alex Rubin (Senior Staff Writer): Pat putting Wyatt Kellman (UMass) in the top five deserves an explanation. Kellman is good and almost certainly will get to top five level by his senior season, but what does Pat see in him now that we don’t?
Pat, sorry to pick on you, but you’re the only one with Aaron Bartlett (Michigan). He’s good but is he really the 20th best player in the country?
Keith is the only one to put John McDonnell (North Carolina) on his list. Hasn’t he been usurped by Smith as the ball-mover in that offense? Is it enough to basically run the red zone set (albeit the best red zone set in the country) to make the top 25?
Jake Thorne (Staff Writer): Alex, you’re about 16 spots ahead of the field on Josh Singleton (North Carolina)? I like his game and all but I think Pignone and McKnight are better at this stage of their career. You’re also quite low on Dexter Clyburn (California), which I’m surprised by because you saw him burgeoning last season covering the Southwest. It’s tough for me to rank the UCLA guys over him as you did because both teams were similarly deep and Cal showed that they were the better team at Regionals.
Rubin: Ranking any of the UNC players is so tough because they can be featured in a pull play on one point and walking up the field in a side stack the next as others move the disc. The depth of talent they have is so large.
All of that is to say I think Singleton’s talent is bigger than his role. He’s a big receiver, a thrower with good range (and lefty throwing angles which are still befuddling defenses), and a great leader. I think back to the U20 team he starred on—he was a featured player on a team of the best of his peers. I agree his play in college may not have him as high on this list as I rank him, but I think his talent does.
Thorne: Also, you have Declan Miller (Carleton) lower than any of us. He should certainly be over Singleton. As he’s looking like the best player in that U20 class (Tobias brooks incoming though) and absorbed way, more targets than Singleton this year.
Rubin: Yeah, Miller is a clear miss from me. I didn’t watch as much CUT as other teams and I definitely am guilty of over-valuing players I’ve seen in person. I’m ready to be proven wrong about Miller at Nationals.
Keith Raynor (Senior Editor): I don’t view this as an exercise in measuring output, like we do for our College Awards. To me, this is a forward-looking exercise, although if we want to look backwards, McDonnell’s winning history and him convincing this panel last year are good reasons to believe he has taken steps forwards, not backwards.
He looks even more confident this season, and while he doesn’t have the power of Nissen or Calvin Brown, his edge control is in their league.
The top five was a clear tier: Ing, Nissen, Landesman, Dameron, and Stoughton. How’d you order those? Is someone fraudulent?
Edward Stephens (D-I Men’s Editor): Ing and Nissen were a pretty clear 1-2 for me, a tier by themselves. Stoughton and Dameron (with Rutledge Smith (North Carolina) — not a huge reach considering he finished top-10 overall — in between) are two of the most accomplished, athletic, polished cutters in the division and stand comfortably ahead of the rest of the field.
Not to sidetrack the discussion with dissent — but where I differ considerably from the group is on Landesman. I don’t see quite the same impact. He’s a clear top-20 player and does every last little thing right, but for me he doesn’t do enough of the big, takeover things to be ranked with the others.
Michael Lee (Participant AC 1, NC State Coach): I have Stoughton, Ing, and Nissen as tier one college guys for all different reasons. I had Stoughton at 1 because he’s so plug and play: he can exist on a field with a bunch of big cutters, he can exist on a field with a bunch of squirley handlers. But he and Ing and pretty interchangeable to me. Dameron’s versatility has him at 4 for me, but I agree with Edward on Landesman. I’m way higher than Edward is on him, but he was the third handler on my list, and I think could have been placed even lower. I would have loved to see him be “the guy” this year for Colorado, but I haven’t felt like he’s taken over and let it be his team. He’s simply been a cog, albeit an elite one.
Raynor: I have Ing in a tier of his own, he’s simply too good at too many things.
After that, my list goes Landesman, Nissen, Stoughton, Rutledge Smith, Dameron.
Landesman is so unshakeable. He’s a very strong thrower at all ranges, and arguably the best reset cutter in the division. He doesn’t take anything off the table defensively and has a vast energy store. Some of the turnovers we have seen from him during the regular season look like just him experimenting. I dunno if a team can two The Guys, by definition, but he has way too many touches to say he’s taking a back seat.
And I dunno who conceptualized the Rutledge Smith build, but maxing the finesse attribute created a unique way to attack the meta. And the only other player with a sense of space this good is Nissen. He’s fascinating to watch and defenses just cannot figure him out, either. I feel like his turnovers almost never come as opposing blocks, which might usually be a demerit but I think is indicative of the fact that he is still generating high quality looks. But even though he gets tons of quality contact, nobody bats .1000.
David Hoffman (Participant GL 1, Notre Dame Coach): Ing could definitely be a tier of his own, but I put Nissen in that tier, as well. The two are such game changers that teams have to do stuff just to try to slow them down. Ing has more depth in his abilities but Nissen can completely take a game over with his throws and great vision he has. Although, not as game changing as the first two on my list, my next three are Landesman, Dameron, Rutledge Smith all just seem like rocks for their teams. They just get it done consistently. All five play with a poise in big games that, as a coach, I love to see.
I’m very interested to watch some players in person this weekend that from what I’ve seen have that game changing ability. Players on teams that don’t have as much top tier depth as say UNC & Colorado so they are put in a position to take chances and really try to make the big plays. Aidan Downey (my #6), he’s done it before in games and fun to watch. Calvin Brown (my #8), Itay Chang (my #10), Zach Slayton (my #12), Theo Shapinsky (my #15), and Paul Krenik (my #20). All amazing players from what I watched so I’m looking forward to seeing how they play in these big moments at nationals. If any of their teams were to make a semifinal or better run then I’m guessing it would be because one of these guys just went off.
Thorne: I agree that Rutledge is undervalued in our rankings, but I gotta say I really don’t know how I feel about you putting him over Dameron.
I wish we had more stats and metrics to utilize when using our rankings but I think Landesman would likely be the highest +/- with how efficient he is. He might not get the most highlight plays but he’s an impressive thrower, keenly aware of spacing, and will consistently get open on you without understanding quite how he is so unguardable. Stoughton might be the more exciting pick and fits the storyline better (Club BPOTY, Callahan finalist, etc.) but it’s been some inconsistencies from him that give Landesman the edge.
Rubin: Ing and Nissen were a clear 1 and 2 in my mind. We have a whole other thread about Ing so I’ll leave my comments on him there. Nissen has evolved into a field-shaping thrower and can single-handedly take over games. I haven’t seen other players on this list do that at such a high level, and his athleticism and defense has improved enough over the past few seasons that I feel good about him at 2.
3-8 were tough for me to order. Landesman and Stoughton; and Dameron and Smith were tough to rate given how interconnected their success has been in college as teammates. I ended up putting the two primary throwers (Landesman and Smith) just a spot ahead of the primary cutters (Stoughton and Dameron). In college good throwing matters so much that I felt that made up the minuscule difference. I’d have no qualms with anyone who stuck Leo Gordon in there too as another primary cutter who takes on a big throwing load for a top team.
The ordering of UNC players is tough because their entire O-line seems to take turns being the top player on any given point. That they most often hitch to Smith tells me that these elite players and coaches have a lot of trust in him. That’s good enough for me to rank him highest of the Darkside bunch. Dameron is next because he most often crosses over to defense when the team needs a break.
The top 10 consensus was pretty solid, too. But almost everyone had one person or so different than the rest. Who should have gotten in, and over whom?
Stephens: I’ve made my case against Danny Landesman’s ranking elsewhere, but I also have an outlier for who should be: sophomore Caelan McSweeney out of UMass, whom I have at 8 overall. I think I am highest on him because out of all our staff I have seen him the most. That will change at Nationals. He is already a top 3 handler in the division, with the potential to rival Rutledge Smith as the best depending on how things shake out.
Raynor: You’re early with McSweeney, though, Edward. I’m not sure I buy the versatility of his game or his ability to elevate teammates. Believe he’ll get there, but I don’t think it is there yet.
Stephens: I’m just sorry that you and the other voters don’t mind being late!
Gene Buonaccorsi (Participant NE 2, Tufts Coach): I’m with Edward and have actually have regretted not ranking Caelen higher than I did since I submitted my ballot. He’s the real deal, and very very hard to defensively game plan around.
Tristan Yarter (Pittsburgh) is my “should have been in” person. He is a driving force on both lines for Pitt and most of their important wins are when he’s playing his best. I see players above him on the list that have comps on their own team that could step into their role, but I don’t see many people that could cover the ground he does for Pitt this year.
Thorne: I’m definitely pretty off on my McSweeney rank but putting him over Leo Gordon (Brown) is so wild to me. There’s a strong argument for Leo in the top five and I don’t think I can say the same for McSweeney.
Lee: I had two in my top 10 that didn’t make the list that I’m pretty surprised about: Dylan Hawkins (North Carolina) and Brandon Van Deusen (UCLA). BVD seemed like clearly the most impactful player on a UCLA team that rank a bunch of dominator. He crossed more than RKD, and took more of a hucking load from what I’ve seen. He was a really calming presence to UCLA, although I am in the AC and maybe just didn’t have enough data points.
In terms of Hawkins, I understand there’s a bit of a name around him post U24 snub hype. Separate from AC bias, I’m not sure how you could watch UNC film, specifically from Easterns, and think that he’s any worse than the third best player on UNC. There hasn’t been a ton of crossing him to the D-line this year, and UNC’s offense is so clinical that it’s tough to pick out in those games where everyone else is clicking, but he’s their best deep receiver, their best cutter defender, while being a key throwing cog. I trust what I have seen enough from him defensively in the club/pro division to know that he could do that in college.
Raynor: I only have one guy on my list who wasn’t in the consensus, and I kinda wish it was more bold: Declan Miller. We don’t have to wait on this one, he’s the best player in a region with two top 15 teams. If you gave his resume to a junior, nobody would bat a lash. If he came down matched up with a returning All-American, it wouldn’t merit mention; it is to be expected.
The Top 25 and Beyond
Our experience has shown that participants’ ballots trend towards regional concentrations and emphasizing the strength of their teammates, as well as other quirks such as occasionally not ranking themselves, which is why their ballots are weighted in this manner. ↩
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