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The Best Freshman Seasons in College Basketball History

Author:
Jahlil Okafor

Jahlil Okafor

So much for the “Year of Readiness.”

As major conference commissioners float the idea of ending freshman eligibility — an idea deemed obsolete in the 1970s — freshmen are continuing to dominate the college basketball scene.

Kentucky, the national championship favorite, is filled with impact freshmen, as usual. And one of the two players in serious contention for National Player of the Year, Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, is also a freshman.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany spoke of this new push for freshman ineligibility as a “year of readiness.”

As far as we’re concerned, these freshmen — whether they were one-and-done or completed their four years of eligibility — were plenty ready from the moment they stepped on campus.

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1. Anthony Davis, Kentucky 2011-12

Stats: 14.1 points, 9.8 rebounds

His case for top freshman: John Calipari is known for his work with great freshman point guards, but the best player he coached in college may be a forward. Carmelo Anthony was an NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, 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 did all of that. Before Davis, the last player of the year, Tournament MVP and No. 1 draft pick was Kansas’ Danny Manning in 1988 — when he was senior.

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2. 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. 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.

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3. 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.

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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.

5. Jahlil Okafor, Duke 2014-15

Stats: 18.2 points, 9.6 rebounds

His case for top freshman: Okafor, another Chicago native, has a chance to pull off a similar season as Davis, and he’s in a two-man race for National Player of the Year with Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky. He’s a contender to be the top player taken in the NBA Draft. As for the national championship, Okafor may have to go through Kentucky to win it. Even if none of that happens, Okafor remains the best post player in the college game in years.

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6. 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, that 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.

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7. 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.

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8. Michael Beasley, Kansas State 2007-08

Stats: 26.2 points, 12.4 rebounds

His case for top freshman: 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 set a national freshman record. 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.

9. Patrick Ewing, Georgetown 1981-82

Stats: 12.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.2 blocks

His case for top freshman: Ewing’s arrival turned Georgetown into a power program and the Big East into a power league. Ewing blocked 119 shots as a freshman, leading the Hoyas to 30 wins and the first Final Four of the John Thompson era.

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10. Magic Johnson, Michigan State 1977-78

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Stats: 17 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.4 assists

His case for top freshman: The statline, of course, is ridiculous as Magic averaged 17-8-7 for a team that reached the Sweet 16. It was only the beginning.

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11. Kenny Anderson, Georgia Tech 1989-90

Stats: 20.7 points, 8.1 assists, 5.4 rebounds

His case for top freshman: Anderson was one of three 20-point scorers on a team that reached the Final Four. Oh, and he threw in 277 assists, too.

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12. 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.

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13. 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.

14. Jabari Parker, Duke 2013-14

Stats: 19.1 points, 8.7 rebounds

His case for top freshman: An all-time team of freshmen from Chicago would be mighty scary between Davis, Rose, Okafor and Parker. Unfortunately for Parker, the big takeaway from his lone season in Durham may be Duke’s loss to No. 14 seed Mercer in the round of 64. Parker, though, was the freshman of the year and runner-up to Creighton's Doug McDermott for National Player of the Year.

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15. 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).

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16. Greg Oden, Ohio State 2006-07

Stats: 15.7 points, 9.6 rebounds

His case for top freshman: For at 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.

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17. Pervis Ellison, Louisville 1985-86

Stats: 12.6 points, 7.8 rebounds

His case for top freshman: Never Nervous Pervis was Louisville’s third leading scorer as a freshman, but he made his impact in the NCAA Tournament. Ellison was the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player in 1986, the first time a rookie earned the award since freshman eligibility was re-established.

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18. Shaquille O’Neal, LSU 1989-90

Stats: 13.9 points, 12 rebounds, 3.6 blocks

His case for top freshman: Naturally, Shaq knew how to make an entrance. O’Neal was the first player in SEC history to record 100 blocks in a season at 115 as a freshman. That total remains 10th in SEC history, behind two of his own totals as a sophomore and junior. O’Neal also finished in the top 10 nationally in rebounding as a rookie.

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19. Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina 2005-06

Stats: 18.9 points, 7.8 rebounds

His case for top freshman: It’s easy to forget that Hansbrough’s first season brought no guarantees. Credit his overshadowed freshman season to the way his career finished with a national title and National Player of the Year honors. When Hansbrough was a freshman, he led a team that lost most of its top players from the 2005 national champions. An unranked team in the preseason finished No. 10 in the rankings.

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20. Brandon Knight, Kentucky 2010-11

Stats: 17.3 points, 4.1 assists

His case for top freshman: Knight wasn’t Calipari’s best point guard, and the 2010-11 team wasn’t one of his best at Kentucky. Yet the 2011 Cats were his first in Lexington to reach the Final Four before losing to the Kemba Walker-led UConn buzz saw.