Had he finished his college career by climbing a ladder in Minneapolis next Monday night, Duke’s Zion Williamson might have cemented himself as college basketball’s greatest all-time one-and-done.
Where does Duke’s transcendent freshman rank among the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and Michael Beasley? Below is our attempt to rank college basketball’s all-time best one-and-dones based on what they accomplished in their lone seasons at their respective schools.
T-10. Trae Young, Oklahoma, 2017-18
T-10. Derrick Rose, Memphis, 2007-08
We couldn’t separate Young and Rose, largely because they occupy opposite – and equally compelling – sides of the debate that underlies this entire list: Individual exploits and numbers vs. team success.
Rose led John Calipari’s best Memphis team to 38 wins, and to within one magical Mario Chalmers three of a national title. His talent was undeniable. Yet he averaged 14.9 points per game, the fewest of anybody in our top 10. Young, on the other hand, poured in 27.4 per game, plus 8.7 assists (Rose dished out 4.7 per game). For portions of the season, he was a must-watch one-man show. But he sputtered late, won just one game in February, and bowed out in the first round of the tourney.
So do we penalize Young for not having Chris Douglas-Roberts, Joey Dorsey and others supporting his cause? Or do we penalize Rose for pedestrian numbers because he had others to share the wealth? Neither is fair. Which is why we left this as a dead heat. — Henry Bushnell
9. Jahlil Okafor, Duke, 2014-15
You want high-usage efficiency and individual brilliance? Check. You want team success? Check. Specifically, you want the best player on a national championship squad, one who wowed with his combination of size, touch and feel? That’s Okafor.
Now, he was far from a force throughout that NCAA tourney run, held to 10 or fewer points in three of Duke’s last four games. And his 17.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game don’t jump off the page. But he was the second-best player in the country and won a title. You can’t leave him out of the top 10. — Henry Bushnell
8. Greg Oden, Ohio State, 2006-07
It’s easy to forget how good Oden was before injuries derailed his NBA career. Oden displayed so much promise in high school and in his lone season at Ohio State that it wasn’t even all that controversial when Portland selected him ahead of Kevin Durant. At Ohio State, Oden was the national defensive player of the year, a chiseled 7-foot, 260-pound center who altered shots at the rim, dominated the glass and possessed the agility to guard in space. He averaged 15.7 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in his lone season with the Buckeyes, teaming with Mike Conley to take his team to the 2007 national title game. Ohio State lost to Florida that night, but Oden was nothing short of spectacular. He hung 25 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocks on a Gators frontcourt that featured Joakim Noah and Al Horford. — Jeff Eisenberg
7. John Wall, Kentucky, 2009-10
If Anthony Davis is the most revered of John Calipari’s many one-and-dones, then Wall is not far behind. He announced his arrival in college basketball with a signature dance move at Big Blue Madness in October 2009, sending 24,000 fans into a frenzy just by flexing his arm and twisting his wrist. He then validated the hype, averaging 16.6 points and 6.5 assists, earning consensus first-team All-American honors and becoming Kentucky’s first-ever No. 1 draft pick. The only blemish on Wall’s otherwise terrific college résumé is that he did not lead Kentucky to the Final Four. A 35-win Wildcats team that also featured future NBA standouts DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe fell to West Virginia in the 2010 Elite Eight amid a hail of missed jump shots. — Jeff Eisenberg
6. Kevin Love, UCLA, 2007-08
Here’s a partial list of the future NBA standouts in the Pac-10 during Kevin Love’s lone season at UCLA: James Harden, Russell Westbrook, OJ Mayo, Ryan Anderson, Taj Gibson, Brook and Robin Lopez, Darren Collison and Jerryd Bayless. That gives you an idea how good Love was in outplaying all of them to earn league player of the year honors. A bit doughier in college than as an NBA player, Love was a force on the low block at UCLA, averaging 17.5 points and 10.6 rebounds. He teamed with Collison and Westbrook to lead the best UCLA team of the Ben Howland era to a 35-4 record, a Pac-10 title and a berth in a third consecutive Final Four. Maybe his most underrated skill at UCLA was his outlet passing. He was the rare big man who could launch a fast break with one flick of his wrists. — Jeff Eisenberg
5. Michael Beasley, Kansas State, 2007-08
Beasley’s numbers were absurd. He arrived at a program that hadn’t made the NCAA tournament in over a decade, immediately took its reins, and put up 26.2 points and 12.1 rebounds per game. He took 35.7 of his team’s shots while on the floor and still posted a 119.8 offensive rating. With fellow frosh Bill Walker and Jacob Pullen by his side, he made K-State relevant again. He told boosters “we’re going to beat Kansas,” and did just that on a memorable night at the Octagon of Doom.
Beasley only got one tournament win – over Mayo’s USC – but that was one more than the program had over the previous 19 years combined. He compiled 28 double-doubles and 13 30-point games. He smashed Kansas State records. His body of work over four-plus months was remarkable. — Henry Bushnell
4. Kevin Durant, Texas, 2006-07
Durant doesn’t get credit for his glittering NBA career here. But he ranks in our top five anyway because his college numbers – as a skin-and-bones, ridiculously fluid 19-year-old – were eye-popping: 25.8 points per game, 11.1 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 1.9 steals … we could go on. They made him a clear-cut national player of the year, the first freshman to earn consensus first-team All-America honors since 1989.
Durant also played on a team comprising almost entirely underclassmen before such roster construction was in vogue. He nearly led it to a Big 12 tournament title. He couldn’t lead it to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend, but did set the record for most points by a freshman on the tournament’s opening weekend with 57 – a number matched only in subsequent years by a certain superhuman Dukie. — Henry Bushnell
3. Zion Williamson, Duke, 2018-19
Zion doesn’t have the counting stats of Durant or Beasley. Nor did he get to a Final Four like Love and Oden. He was, however, A) phenomenally efficient and B) transcendent. He averaged 22.6 points on just 13 shots per game. He had effective field goal and true shooting percentages in the 70s, plus an offensive rating pushing 130. More importantly, he was the first college player in a while who made you stare agape at a television screen every time he took the floor. Whether it was the effortless dunks or the ferocious blocks or, heck, the soaring rebounds, he was a never-ending human highlight reel. He’ll win every end-of-year award he’s eligible for. That he blew through a shoe and watched as his supposedly talented teammates lost three of six games without him only accentuates his case for the top spot on this list.
Yet he didn’t always grab games by the neck and exert his power like he so clearly could. R.J. Barrett did. Zion didn’t even have the highest scoring average or usage rate on his own team, and didn’t get that team to the Final Four. When there are others who have done all three of those things, somebody who did none can’t be considered the greatest one-and-done ever. — Henry Bushnell
2. Anthony Davis, Kentucky, 2011-12
At the beginning of Davis' junior year of high school, he was a 6-foot-3 guard with a solitary scholarship offer from Cleveland State. By the time he signed with Kentucky a year later, he had grown eight inches, evolved into an elite shot blocker and rebounder and attracted interest from just about every major program in the country. Davis wasn’t Kentucky’s leading scorer during the 2011-12 college season, but he was easily the best player on a 38-2 team that captured coach John Calipari’s lone national championship. The willowy 6-foot-11 center won national player of the year honors after averaging 14.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.7 blocks. In his most memorable NCAA tournament game, he led Kentucky past rival Louisville, missing only one of his eight shots and finishing with 18 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks. — Jeff Eisenberg
1. Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse, 2002-03
In his lone season at Syracuse, Anthony set the standard for future one-and-dones. The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 22.3 points and 10.0 rebounds, unanimously captured national freshman of the year honors and led the Orange to Jim Boeheim’s lone championship. There was little doubt Anthony would be named the 2003 Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player after he tallied a total of 53 points in Syracuse’s two games. He shredded Texas in the national semifinals for 33 points and 14 rebounds, then came three assists shy of a triple-double against Kansas in the title game. Anthony’s season at Syracuse was so memorable that his first name soon became a verb. When Malik Hairston committed to Oregon in 2004, he declared that he wanted to “Carmelo-ize” the Ducks, meaning lead them to a championship as a one-and-done freshman. — Jeff Eisenberg
Honorable mentions: Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury, Ben Simmons, OJ Mayo, D'Angelo Russell, R.J. Barrett