Earning national Player of the Year recognition is an impressive feat, but there’s a big difference between being the best in any given season and being a great player in a historic sense. Some Player of the Year honorees have stood the test of time, whereas others stand as monuments to the ease with which a great season can turn out to be a mirage.
The latest addition to the pantheon, Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, gives plenty of reason to believe that he’ll land on the favorable end of that spectrum. One of the rare freshmen to lead a national title winner, Davis also put up such remarkable individual numbers that he’s unlikely to turn out to have been a flash in the pan.
Herein, a look at Davis and his 24 most recent predecessors, evaluated as both college and (where possible) NBA players, with an eye to picking the best Player of the Year winners in the last quarter century.
Note: The various awards that cover this territory have largely agreed with each other in recent years, but in cases where multiple winners existed for a given season, the Wooden Award winner is the one being considered for this list.
A mobile 6’8” PF, Ed O’Bannon was the best individual player on UCLA’s 1995 national champion team but hardly a typical Wooden Award-winning icon.
O’Bannon posted solid but not overpowering averages of 20.4 points and 8.3 rebounds per game as a Bruins senior, finishing his career with a respectable total of 1,815 points.
A lottery pick of the Nets, O’Bannon was a dismal failure as a pro. He lasted just two seasons in the league, averaging five points and 2.5 rebounds a game.
Perhaps as a measure of how shaky O’Bannon’s star status was—even at the college level—he won the 1995 Wooden Award but not the Naismith. That honor went to Maryland’s Joe Smith, who went on to a long and fairly productive NBA career while O’Bannon floundered.
Ohio State basketball has seen just three triple-doubles in its illustrious history, and Evan Turner has two of them. He played his point-forward role to the hilt as a junior in 2009-10, averaging 20.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.7 steals a night.
The 6’7” Turner jumped into Philadelphia's starting SG job in the 2012 postseason after spending most of his first two NBA seasons coming off the bench.
If he stays in the Sixers' starting lineup next year, he could well top his 2012 playoff averages of 11.2 points and a team-leading 7.5 rebounds per game.
A year after becoming the first freshman ever to lead the nation in assists, T.J. Ford became one of the few sophomores to win the Wooden Award.
Although he was a notoriously poor shooter (23 three-pointers in two seasons), Ford averaged a dazzling 8.0 assists and 2.1 steals a night in his Texas career.
Ford retired this season after a long-running battle with neck injuries. Though he never lived up to his potential as a pro, he did average 6.1 assists per game or better in each of his first four NBA seasons (split between Milwaukee and Toronto).
In an era when few genuine seven-footers even make it as far as their sophomore years, Andrew Bogut was in prime position to control every phase of the game for Utah.
The Australian import averaged 20.4 points, 12.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game, though he only managed to lead the Utes as far as the Sweet 16.
Bogut might have blossomed into a legitimate NBA star by now if he could have stayed healthy in Milwaukee.
At his best, the Warriors’ trade-deadline prize has averaged 15.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, not to mention leading the league in blocks just two seasons ago.
One of the most celebrated mid-major players in recent memory, Jimmer Fredette became a national sensation by racking up exorbitant point totals.
The nation’s leading scorer as a senior (28.9 points a night), Fredette finished his career with 2,599 points to top even Danny Ainge’s lofty school record.
Fredette’s NBA career isn’t exactly off to a rousing start, as he spent his rookie year coming off the bench for a Kings team that’s firmly entrenched among the league’s worst.
Even Isaiah Thomas, basketball’s version of Mr. Irrelevant as the last draft pick a year ago, got more playing time and turned it to better effect than Fredette—although Jimmer did, at least, preserve his marksman's reputation by shooting .361 from beyond the arc.
A first-class distributor with a devastating three-point shot, Jason (later Jay) Williams is among the best in Duke’s rich tradition of point guards.
He racked up 2,079 points and 644 assists in just three seasons, a tenure that included running the offense for the 2001 national champs.
Williams turned in a shaky rookie year with the Bulls, then destroyed his knee in a motorcycle accident in the offseason. The closest he came to returning to the NBA after the injury was a mediocre three-game trial in the D-League back in 2006-07.
Kenyon Martin’s Cincinnati career ended as one of the great what-might-have-been stories in college hoops history.
Martin suffered a broken leg in the Conference USA tournament that cost the Bearcats his 18.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, and without the nation’s most dominant post presence, top-seeded Cincinnati fell to Tulsa in the Round of 32.
Martin’s best pro seasons came with the Nets, where he made an All-Star appearance and was a key contributor on two Eastern Conference champions.
Injuries have stripped away the outstanding speed that characterized those performances, but he was still an effective reserve behind Blake Griffin with the 2011-12 Clippers.
Few players in the last quarter-century have put a program on the map quite as forcefully as Jameer Nelson did for St. Joseph’s as a senior.
The attacking point guard averaged 20.6 points and 5.3 assists per game in leading the Hawks to a 27-0 regular-season record and their first Elite Eight finish since 1981.
Having just finished his eighth season with the Magic, Nelson is well-established as a steady but rarely spectacular NBA point guard.
He did make one All-Star appearance in 2009, when he averaged a career-high 16.7 points per game (and shot .453 from beyond the arc) to go with his usual 5.4 assists a night.
On the list of great teams that came up short of an NCAA title, the 1998-99 Duke squad is near the top.
In addition to Coach K’s usual collection of deadly outside shooters—Trajan Langdon, William Avery—the Blue Devils boasted sophomore PF Elton Brand, who led the team with 17.7 points and 9.8 rebounds a night.
Brand’s biggest contribution to the current 76ers is his leadership, now that injuries have robbed him of the mobility that had made him a two-time All-Star as a Clipper.
At his best in L.A., the former No. 1 pick of the Bulls averaged 24.7 points and 11.6 rebounds a night.
Calbert Cheaney grabbed an awful lot of rebounds for a 6’7” wing player (710 in four college seasons), but he’ll always be remembered as an overpowering pure scorer.
Cheaney, who led Indiana to the 1992 Final Four as a junior, holds the Hoosiers’ career record with 2,613 points.
Cheaney briefly became a solid NBA swingman, though never anything like the star he’d been in Bloomington—not least because he didn’t have the range for the NBA trey.
He averaged a career-high 16.6 points per game in his second season with Washington but spent the bulk of his career in a reserve role with a variety of (mostly mediocre) teams.
A star on Dean Smith’s last Tar Heels team as a sophomore, Antawn Jamison led UNC to a second straight Final Four appearance as a junior. The lightning-quick PF finished his career with 1,974 points and 1,027 rebounds in just three seasons
Even on the downside of his career at age 35, Jamison averaged 17.2 points a night in Cleveland this season.
A two-time All-Star with the Wizards, the well-traveled Jamison has also been named Sixth Man of the Year for Dallas and scored as many as 24.9 points per game with the Warriors—though that was small consolation after Golden State gave up Vince Carter to acquire him in a draft-night deal.
The leader of the first Final Four run in Arizona history, Sean Elliott remains as great a star as that powerhouse program has seen.
Elliott holds the Wildcat record with 2,555 career points, and he averaged 6.1 rebounds per game over four seasons for good measure.
Though Elliott was mostly a role player as a pro, he was a very good one, making two All-Star appearances and shooting .375 from long range in a 12-year career with San Antonio.
He averaged as many as 20 points per game, though that figure had dipped to 11.2 by the time he won his only championship ring in 1999.
Elliott is one of just two players on this list who didn’t sweep the Wooden and Naismith Awards, with the 1989 Naismith going to epic NBA bust Danny Ferry of Duke.
The ranks of Wooden Award winners have plenty of impressive shot-blocking big men, but there isn’t a perimeter defender in the bunch who can outclass Shane Battier.
In addition to his charge-taking and turnover-creating skills, the versatile Battier racked up 1,984 points (on .416 three-point shooting) and capped his four-year career by leading Duke to the 2001 national title.
In his first year with the Heat in 2011-12, Battier is providing the same steady contributions he has made throughout his NBA career: stout defense and spot-up three-point shooting.
He’s drained 38.2 percent of his treys over 11 pro seasons, with the first 10 split between the Grizzlies and Rockets.
Marcus Camby has the dubious distinction of being the first player to get a John Calipari Final Four appearance wiped from the record books, due to premature dealings with an agent.
On the court, though, Camby was the heart and soul of the best UMass team since Julius Erving, carrying the Minutemen to the 1996 Final Four with 20.5 points (many on thunderous dunks), 8.2 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per game.
Camby has lost nearly all of his remarkable leaping ability, but he’s still (when healthy) a valuable rebounder and defender at age 38.
Camby's best seasons came in Denver, where he led the league in blocks three times, though his first such season was with the Raptors, for whom he was an early draft success.
Even with La Salle unable to advance past the Round of 32 in his four-year career, Lionel Simmons made an indelible mark with his college performance.
The 6’7” forward averaged 24.6 points per game over four seasons as an Explorer, and his career tally of 3,217 points is the third-highest in Division I history.
The L Train didn’t have a natural position at the NBA level, though he did turn in a few solid seasons (18 points, 8.8 rebounds and four assists per game as a Kings rookie).
After four years as a respectable starter, though, a series of injuries ruined his productivity and had him out of the league by age 29.
Despite being saddled with a collection of teammates whose most recognizable name is current Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, Glenn Robinson managed to carry Purdue to the Elite Eight in 1994.
The 6’7” forward—who also averaged 10.1 rebounds a night—made Big Ten defenses look like the Big South, averaging 30.3 points per game to become the most recent power-conference player to lead the nation in scoring.
The Big Dog had some injury issues in the NBA, but over 11 pro seasons—mostly as a Buck—he made two All-Star teams and posted an enviable career average of 20.7 points per game.
He was especially dangerous as a three-point marksman, shooting as high as .392 (and .340 for his career) from beyond the arc.
Even at a program renowned for its outside shooters, J.J. Redick stood out.
The Duke star lost a terrific battle to Adam Morrison for the national scoring title (26.8 points per game to Morrison’s 28.1) as a senior but still set a Duke record with 2,769 career points and a Division I record with 457 career three-pointers made.
Suspect defense has hampered Redick since he joined the Magic, but he’s managed to carve out an increasing role for himself over the last couple of years.
He averaged a career-high 11.6 points per game this season while posting absurd shooting percentages of .418 from beyond the arc and .911 from the free-throw line (also career bests).
Blake Griffin’s pro stardom came as no surprise after a meteoric Oklahoma career. Respectable as a freshman, he exploded as a sophomore with 22.7 points and 14.4 rebounds per game while leading the Sooners to the Elite Eight.
Knee surgery delayed Griffin’s NBA debut by a year, but he was more than worth the wait.
The 2011 slam dunk champion—and leader of the Clippers’ sudden rise to relevance—has made two All-Star games in as many seasons and is averaging 21.7 points and 11.5 rebounds for his young career.
The case can be made that Larry Johnson won his Wooden Award a year too late, having brought home the 1990 national title but came up short in the 1991 Final Four.
Either way, the player who made UNLV a household name averaged 21.6 points and 11.2 rebounds over two seasons while serving as the undisputed leader of one of the greatest college teams ever assembled.
A natural power forward, the 6’6” LJ evolved into a perimeter player over 10 pro seasons.
The Hornets drafted him No. 1 overall and got the benefit of his best seasons, including a Rookie of the Year campaign, two All-Star appearances and career highs of 22.1 points and 11 rebounds a night.
There’s no question that Anthony Davis had plenty of talent around him at Kentucky, but the mere fact of having led his team to a national title—a task at which many flashier Player of the Year honorees came up short—says a lot about the 6’10” center.
Of course, so does the way in which Davis shaped the Wildcats.
Kentucky set a Division I record for blocks in a season, an effort spearheaded by Davis’ 186 rejections—the fourth-best season total ever.
That overpowering defense let Davis’ team pull off another first: a 38-win season, a feat for which Davis himself deserves a large share of credit.
It takes some doing to rewrite the record books at a program like North Carolina, but Tyler Hansbrough pulled it off. The emotional leader of the 2008 national champs finished with 2,872 points—the 12th-most in Division I history—along with another school-record total of 1,219 rebounds.
Psycho T has been reduced to a bench player as a pro, though he’s been a good one so far. In his third season as a Pacer in 2011-12, he averaged 9.3 points and 4.4 rebounds per game as a reserve.
The first freshman ever to win either the Wooden or Naismith Awards, Kevin Durant managed a well-deserved sweep of both.
In his lone season as a Longhorn, Durant averaged 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per contest, recording a double-double in more than half of his 35 collegiate games.
As of this writing, Durant’s Thunder trail Miami in the NBA Finals but are still very much alive in pursuit of the franchise’s first championship since 1979.
Durant himself made his third straight All-Star appearance and won his third straight scoring title, leaving no doubt of his status as one of the elite franchise cornerstones in today's NBA.
The greatest college player ever to wear a Kansas uniform, Danny Manning carried the sixth-seeded Jayhawks to one of the most improbable national titles in history in 1988.
Manning’s career numbers as a Jayhawk defy description: He holds the school records for both rebounds (1,187) and points (2,951), with the latter total placing ninth all-time for all of Division I.
Although he never approached that level of success in the NBA, Manning’s reputation as a disastrous draft bust (for the unlucky Clippers) is ill-deserved.
For all that he was unable to salvage a floundering franchise, he did make two All-Star games for L.A. and averaged as many as 22.8 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game in the prime of a 15-year pro career.
One of the few pro superstars of his generation who stayed four years in college, Tim Duncan carried Wake Forest to its most recent Elite Eight appearance in 1996.
His offensive game took its time developing—though he still finished with 2,117 career points—but he was an overpowering defender from the get-go, finishing 16th in Division I history in rebounds (1,570, the second-best total since 1974) and fourth in blocks (481).
Of course, Duncan’s lofty place on this list is just as much the product of an NBA career that will make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer whenever he finally retires from the Spurs.
The two-time MVP has four championship rings, 13 All-Star appearances and the ninth-most blocks in NBA history.
Christian Laettner won two national titles and made a third Final Four appearance at Duke, and he hit last-second, game-winning shots for the Blue Devils in all three of those tournaments.
Though his clutch heroics are what made him a legend, he was awfully impressive the rest of the time, totaling 2,460 points and 1,149 rebounds in a Blue Devil uniform.
Laettner is on the short list of the greatest college players ever, but he was merely good in the NBA. A one-time All-Star (as a Hawk), the much-maligned PF did average as many as 18.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game in his 13 pro seasons.