Freshmen have led teams to national championships. They’ve won National Player of the Year honors and Defensive Player of the Year honors. Even more rookies have gone on to be top picks in the NBA Draft.
Kentucky’s Anthony Davis could be in position to do all those things this season. If he checks two or three of those boxes, he’ll be in the conversation for the best freshman season of all time. But where does Davis stand now, before he’s had a chance to make his mark in the postseason? Simply put, he’s already having one of the best freshman seasons in college basketball history.
Here are Athlon Sports’ picks for the top 10 greatest freshman seasons:
1. Kevin Durant, Texas 2006-07
Stats: 25.8 points, 11.1 rebounds
His case for top freshman: In the first season impacted by the NBA’s rule to require draftees to be a year removed from high school, Durant showed what a new breed of precocious freshmen could do in college. He swept the National Player of the Year awards and remains the only freshman to do so. In his only college season, Durant was the only player in the country to finish in the top 10 in scoring and rebounding – he finished fourth in both. Despite Durant’s prolific season, his play didn’t translate to postseason success. Texas lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to USC, led by another freshman, O.J. Mayo. The Longhorns also couldn’t solve Kansas, who won the Big 12 regular season title and defeated the Longhorns in the Big 12 Tournament final in overtime. Durant was the second pick in the 2007 NBA Draft behind the oft-injured one-and-done Greg Oden.
2. Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse 2002-03
Stats: 22.2 points, 10 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Some freshman-led teams have come close, but Anthony became the first rookie since Pervis Ellison in 1986 (Louisville) to lead his team to a national title. Anthony was a second-team All-American in his only college season, but none were better in the NCAA Tournament. Anthony was the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, helping Jim Boeheim to his first national championship. In the final against Kansas, Anthony scored 20 points with 10 rebounds and seven assists. A game earlier in the national semifinal against Texas, Anthony had 33 points and 14 rebounds. His elite play led Syracuse to a title, but it wasn’t limited to March. During the regular season, Anthony finished with 22 double-doubles, the most for a freshman since Virginia’s Ralph Sampson in 1980.
3. Anthony Davis, Kentucky 2011-12
Stats: 14.1 points, 9.8 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Carmelo Anthony won a national title, Durant was the consensus Player of the Year, Derrick Rose was the No. 1 overall draft pick, and Greg Oden was the National Defensive Player of the Year. Davis has a realistic opportunity to be the only freshman to do all of the above. If he does, the debate for best freshman season might be a race for No. 2. For now, Davis may be the best freshman to play for John Calipari, which is quite the statement. Davis’ 7’4” wingspan changes the game on both sides of the court, contributing to his nation-leading 4.7 blocked shots per game. As much as Davis is indiscriminate on the defensive end, he’s choosy on offense. He’s shooting 66.1 percent from the field, second only behind Missouri forward Ricardo Ratliffe’s potential record-setting rate.
4. Chris Jackson, LSU 1988-89
Stats: 30.2 points, 2.5 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Jackson, who later changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, turned in one of the all-time best freshman seasons nearly two decades before it became commonplace for first-year players to rewrite record books. Jackson averaged 30.2 points per game, which remains a Division I freshman record. It also remains the seventh-highest scoring average in SEC history. Since Jackson’s freshman season, only two SEC players have topped 25 points per game in a season – Jackson as a sophomore, and LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal in 1991-92. Jackson finished the season as a consensus All-American, but the Tigers lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to UTEP.
5. Wayman Tisdale, Oklahoma 1982-83
Stats: 24.5 points, 10.3 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Tisdale was the forefather to the great freshmen of the 2000s. It’s fitting, then, his name is on the National Freshman of the Year award. In 1983, Tisdale was the first freshman to be a first-team All-American while also earning Big Eight Player of the Year honors. He accomplished both feats again as a sophomore and a junior.
6. Kevin Love, UCLA 2007-08
Stats: 17.5 points, 10.6 rebounds
His case for top freshman: During better times for Ben Howland at UCLA, the coach relied primarily on veterans. Love was the exception during the Bruins’ run of Final Fours. Love led UCLA in scoring and rebounding in the Bruins’ last of three consecutive appearances in the national semifinal. He also finished the season with 23 double-doubles; Michael Beasley is the only other freshman to amass more. Love was a consensus All-American and the Pac-10 Player of the Year, one of only two freshmen to earn the honor.
7. Michael Beasley, Kansas State 2007-08
Stats: 26.2 points, 12.4 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Like Durant’s college career, some of his Big 12 records didn’t last long. A year after Durant lit up the Big 12, Beasley did the same a year later. Beasley set a Big 12 single-season record by averaging 26.2 points per game, breaking Durant’s record of 25.8. Beasley finished with 13 30-point games, the most for any Big 12 player in a season (Durant had 11). Beasley’s 28 double-doubles also remains a national freshman record. Unlike Durant, Beasley didn’t pick up any National Player of the Year awards – that hardware in 2008 went to North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough. Like Durant and Texas, Beasley and Kansas State failed to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, losing to Wisconsin in the second round.
8. Jared Sullinger, Ohio State 2010-11
Stats: 17.2 points, 10.2 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Ohio State has had more success with star freshmen in recent years than any other Big Ten team. Sullinger may have been the best of a group that includes Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. Unlike Oden, Conley and big men B.J. Mullens and Kosta Koufos, Sullinger elected to stay for his sophomore season. As a freshman, Sullinger was a consensus All-American and the Big Ten’s first National Freshman of the Year since Michigan’s Chris Webber in 1992. Though Ohio State spent the entire season ranked in the top four, Sullinger and the Buckeyes finished their season in the Sweet 16 with a loss to Kentucky.
9. Derrick Rose, Memphis 2007-08
Stats: 14.9 points, 4.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Hard to believe as it is, Rose wasn’t the most decorated player on his own team as a freshman. That distinction went to All-American and Conference USA Player of the Year Chris Douglas-Roberts. Rose belongs on this list, though, as the point guard of a team that played for a national title before falling 75-68 in overtime to Kansas. Rose averaged 20.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game in the NCAA Tournament, but his missed free throws late in regulation of the title game sealed Memphis’ fate. Months later, Rose was the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.
10. John Wall, Kentucky 2009-10
Stats: 16.6 points, 6.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds
His case for top freshman: John Calipari started at Kentucky the same way he finished his time at Memphis – with an elite one-and-done point guard. Wall followed in the footsteps of Rose and Tyreke Evans at Memphis and preceded Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague at Kentucky. In leading Kentucky to a 35-3 season, Wall was the National Freshman of the Year and the Associated Press and coaches’ pick for SEC Player of the Year (Oddly enough, teammate DeMarcus Cousins was the coaches’ pick for SEC Freshman of the Year). Wall was blocked for most National Player of the Year awards by Ohio State’s Evan Turner, but Wall did earn the Adolph Rupp Trophy. Go figure.
Honorable mention: Greg Oden, Ohio State 2006-07
Stats: 15.7 points, 9.6 rebounds
His case for top freshman: For a least a year, Oden vs. Durant was a heated debate. Durant was the consensus Player of the Year, but Oden and fellow freshman Mike Conley Jr. helped Ohio State reach the national championship game. Oden ended up going first in the NBA Draft, but it was the last time he’d have the edge over Durant, who became an NBA superstar while Oden’s pro career has been derailed by injuries. As a college player, Oden holds the distinction of being the only freshman to win National Defensive Player of the Year honors by averaging 9.6 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game.
—Story by David Fox