The best of the class
From A(D) to Z(ion), this list breaks down the Top 10 players in NCAA basketball since the 2000-01 season. Whether it has been athletic scoring machines or electrifying shooters or dominating defenders, the last two decades of college basketball has given fans plenty of thrills. We look at the most impressive careers over that time.
Talk about difficult tasks … how do you rank the Top 10 college basketball players over the last 20 years? How do you compare 18-year-old freshmen to 22-year-old seniors? What about stars from big schools against those from smaller colleges? And what about success? Well, this is the list we came up with … now, enjoy the trip down memory lane.
10th Place: Doug McDermott (F, Creighton Bluejays, 2010-2014)
Stats: 21.7 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 45.8 3P%
Three-time All-American, three-time selection as the best player in the conference and consensus National College Player of the Year: “Dougie McBuckets” really filled up his trophycase during his collegiate career. The wing was unstoppable with his mix of size and elite shooting touch. As a freshman, McDermott scored 14.7 points a game and hit 40.5 percent of his three-point shots. The McDermott Show really took off starting with his sophomore season, averaging at least 22 points per game and picking up true-shooting percentages between 64 and 67 percent in the following three seasons. He helped the Bluejays to the second round of the NCAA Tournament each season from 2012 to 2014.
9th Place: Blake Griffin (PF, Oklahoma Sooners, 2007-2009)
Stats: 18.8 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 2.1 APG
Blake Griffin was a walking highlight machine. Before his arrival, the NCAA had not seen a frontcourt player punish opposing zones with such power and leaping ability. Griffin operated either from the post-up or supplied vertical spacing in the open court where he was always ready to fly to the rim.
After an impressive freshman season, in which Griffin totalled 14.7 points and 9.1 rebounds, he exploded in his second campaign with the Sooners, picking up 22.7 points while hitting 65.4 percent from the field. He also picked up 14.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 blocks. The future NBA number one overall draft pick led the Sooners to a 30-9 record in 2008-09 and a spot in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
8th Place: Kemba Walker (PG, Connecticut Huskies, 2008-2011)
Stats: 16.1 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 4.1 APG
From Sixth Man to best player in the country: Looking back, the collegiate career of the four-time NBA All-Star is defined by his unbelievable performance as a junior. Walker led the UConn Huskies to the 2011 NCAA title with 23.5 points (54.3 TS%), 5.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.9 steals.
The combo guard unleashed some true scoring fireworks during March and April of 2011. One of Walker’s most well-known scenes was his buzzer-beater against Pitt in the quarter-finals of the Big East tournament as he broke his defender’s ankles with a crossover and then drained the stepback jumper for the win. And from that moment on, Walker could not be stopped.
He poured in 33 points against the Syracuse Orangemen and then took the Big East crown as he picked up 19 points, 3 assists and 3 steals against Louisville. During March Madness, Walker twice scored 30 points and finished off one of the best tournament runs of all time by beating the Duke Blue Devils.
7th Place: Jalen Brunson (PG, Villanova Wildcats, 2015-2018)
Stats: 14.4 PPG, 3.7 APG, 62.8 TS%
The Villanova Wildcats dominated college basketball from 2015 to 2018 with two NCAA titles in three years and a 103-13 record. Head coach Jay Wright used a modern, positionless style with multiple ball handlers and shooters. And its leader was Jalen Brunson.
From his first season on, the playmaker was both the driver and conductor of the Wildcats’ offense and influenced his team’s play in so many ways. When it mattered most, Brunson took over with his scoring – such as collecting 27 points in the Sweet Sixteen win over West Virginia in 2018. Or he called the right plays and created for his teammates.
Playing alongside future NBA players Ryan Arciadiacono, Josh Hart and Daniel Ochefu as well as Final Four hero Kris Jenkins, Brunson averaged 9.6 points and 2.5 assists as an efficient freshman role player. Two years later, he advanced to the primary ball handler and best player on the team. He tallied 18.9 points, 4.6 assists, 3.1 rebounds and a three-point shooting average of 40.8 percent in 2018 and was named the Player of the Year, solidifying his stats as one of the most successful college guards of the new millennium.
6th Place: Stephen Curry (Guard, Davidson Wildcats, 2006-2009)
Stats: 25.3 PPG, 3.7 APG, 412 3P%
Before Stepen Curry became the catalyst of the “Skillball” Warriors and the modern style of the NBA, the guard was a spectacular college phenom. Curry ranked a lowly 256th on the recruiting lists of his high school senior class (52nd among point guards) which meant very few college offers and the reason he landed with the Davidson Wildcats in the small Southern Conference.
But Curry showed from day one there that a primary ball-handler can also lead his team with excellent shooting. In his second college game, he scored 32 points against the Michigan Wolverines, giving a hint at the immense talent he possessed.
Curry finished his freshman season averaging 21.5 points with shooting splits of 53.6/40.8/85.5. The following season, his scoring average jumped to 25.9 points and he connected on 162 three-pointers – still an NCAA record. And he exploded in the NCAA Tournament, tallying 40 points against Gonzaga then 30 versus Georgetown and 33 points against Wisconsin. In his third season, he led the NCAA in scoring at 28.6 points.
5th Place: Zion Williamson (PF, Duke Blue Devils, 2018-19)
Stats: 22.6 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 70.2 TS%
From an über-hyped high school dunker to an entertaining college scorer and superstar: Zion Williamson playing for the Duke Blue Devils was like a real basketball cheat code. Going into the 2018-19 NCAA season, there were some quiet concerns if he had the basketball skills alongside his athleticism and power.
Williamson’s first NCAA game ended all doubts as he scored 28 points (on 10-of-12 shots) as Duke blew out helpless Kentucky, setting up a taste of what was to come for the rest of the NCAA competition in the coming months. “Zanos” scored more than 20 points in 22 more games during the season and connected on 68 percent from the field for an offensive rating of 133.1 – the second-highest value for a freshman in the current millennium.
The Blue Devils lost only three games during the season, though one of them came in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament against Michigan State. Even without winning the NCAA crown, the to-be number one pick in the 2019 NBA Draft will go down in the NCAA history books as one of the most dominant freshmen of all time.
4th Place: Kevin Durant (F, Texas Longhorns, 2006-07)
Stats: 25.8 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 58.7 TS%
What Kevin Durant did as a freshman for his team was unheard of in the NCAA as he collected 25.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 1.9 steals and 1.3 assists for the Longhorns. He became the first freshman to win the Wooden Award Player of the Year. The Big 12 Conference officials also selected him as the top rookie, best defender and best player.
“Durantula” connected on more than 40 percent of his three-pointers and more than 50 percent from inside the stripe. The 2.08 meter freshman could take threes off the dribble, hit fadeaways and relentlessly score around the basket – making him just as unfair to defenses 13 years ago at the NCAA level as he remains today. The one downer was Texas’ early departure in the NCAA Tournament, losing to USC in the second round despite Durant scoring 30 points.
3rd Place: Tyler Hansbrough (PF, North Carolina Tar Heels, 2005–2009)
Stats: 20.2 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 61.3 TS%
Because of the self-determined criteria, the top players on this list were predominantly freshmen who put up superstar stats and led their teams to a lot of victories. And then there is “Psycho T” – the player whose UNC career numbers even eclipse those of Michael Jordan.
Tyler Hansbrough was the real GOAT in Chapel Hill – a power forward who was one of the last college superstars whose name immediately draws associations to collegiate sports. Hansbrough became the first freshman in the ACC conference to earn First Team All-America honors. He was named to the All-ACC First Team all four seasons at UNC and was national Player of the Year during his junior season.
As a low post scorer, “Psycho T” was feared in opposing arenas. He enjoyed his role as popular antagonist who had no support outside of Chapel Hill. Even though his game really didn’t possess a lot of finesse, nobody can deny his success. Hansbrough won 124 games with the Tar Heels, twice reaching the Final Four and winning his final college game as NCAA champion in 2009.
2nd Place: Anthony Davis (C, Kentucky Wildcats, 2011-12)
Stats: 14.2 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 4.7 BPG
It was really tight but in the end, “AD” will have to make do with second place on this list. Davis had the arguments for the top spot: guiding the Kentucky Wildcats to the 2012 NCAA title and winning the award as Most Outstanding Player.
The “Unibrow” lost only twice in his 40-game college career, was a member of the All-American team and became the first Kentucky player to win the Wooden Award as the country’s top performer. In addition, the NCAA coaches voted him as the best defender in the country. The big man in John Calipari’s team was both a defensive anchor and highly efficient on offense with a 139 offensive rating.
And in contrast to other defensive centers in college basketball, Davis was not a massive giant but rather an agile athlete. Thanks to his size, wingspan and mobility, he protected the rim at an elite level while also defending the pick-and-roll in the half-court just as well as the opposing team’s post-up attacks.
He showed just how much he can influence a game even without his scoring in the 2012 NCAA title game. Against the Kansas Jayhawks, Davis hit just 1-of-10 shots from the field but he grabbed 16 rebounds, blocked 6 shots, dished out 5 assists and snatched 3 steals.
1st Place: Carmelo Anthony (F, Syracuse Orangemen, 2002-03)
Stats: 22.2 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 53.7 TS%
In the end, this was a decision for the offensive player. Carmelo Anthony was the first one-and-done player to lead his college team to the title as the primary offensive option. What Anthony Davis did for Kentucky’s defense, “Melo” accomplished for Syracuse at the offensive end of the court.
He poured in 33 points in the 2003 national semi-finals against the Texas Longhorns and added 20 points in the championship game against Kansas to equal the freshman record for more points in a Final Four. It was the triumphant climax of a phenomenal but short college career. Anthony scored at least 20 points in his first nine NCAA games, finishing the season with 22 double-doubles and he proved to be unstoppable from the wing.
The combo forward was dangerous on the break thanks to his athleticism while he could also overpower smaller defenders in the post or drive to the basket while also featuring the ability to hit mid-range shots in isolation. “Melo” was the key offensive player for a team that started the season outside the national top 25 rankings. Anthony was always reliable as he averaged 22.2 points a game and showed the public that a freshman can also carry a team to the highest success.
by FIVE Magazine #170 – NCAA Top 10 – Text: Torben Adelhardt