Where Zion Williamson Ranks Among CBB's Best Freshman Seasons of All Time

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2019

Where Zion Williamson Ranks Among CBB's Best Freshman Seasons of All Time

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    Lance King/Getty Images

    The athletic marvel that is Zion Williamson has been the biggest story of the 2018-19 college basketball season.

    However, the Duke standout was left facing the question of his enduring legacy when he suffered a scary knee injury in the opening minute of Wednesday night's matchup with rival North Carolina.

    Luckily, the injury wound up being just a Grade 1 knee sprain, and he's day-to-day, according to the Duke men's basketball Twitter account.

    Nevertheless, the injury has led some to wonder whether he'd be better off wrapping up his college playing days immediately to turn his attention to his impending NBA career.

    For now, it looks like he'll have the option to suit up for the Blue Devils again in the near future. But If he doesn't play another college game, where would his performance thus far rank among the greatest freshman seasons in college basketball history?

    That's what we set out to decide.

    Ahead, you'll find the 15 greatest rookie seasons in NCAA basketball history. Statistics, impact on the team and NCAA tournament success all factored into a player's ranking.

    Let's get started with a few honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions

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    Chris Webber and the Fab Five
    Chris Webber and the Fab FiveAnonymous/Associated Press


    • Bernard King, Tennessee (1974-75)
    • Mark Aguirre, DePaul (1978-79)
    • Ralph Sampson, Virginia (1979-80)


    • Alonzo Mourning, Georgetown (1988-89)
    • Bobby Hurley, Duke (1989-90)
    • Shaquille O'Neil, LSU (1989-90)


    • Chris Webber, Michigan (1991-92)
    • Jason Kidd, California (1992-93)
    • Allen Iverson, Georgetown (1994-95)


    • Jason Conley, VMI (2001-02)—first freshman to lead D1 in scoring
    • Kevin Love, UCLA (2007-08)
    • Derrick Rose, Memphis (2007-08)
    • John Wall, Kentucky (2009-10)


    • Brandon Knight, Kentucky (2010-11)
    • Jared Sullinger, Ohio State (2010-11)
    • Jabari Parker, Duke (2013-14)
    • Lonzo Ball, UCLA (2016-17)
    • Deandre Ayton, Arizona (2017-18)
    • Marvin Bagley lll, Duke (2017-18)

15. Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina (2005-06)

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    Associated Press

    Stats: 18.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG

    Accolades: AP Third Team All-American

    Team Record: 23-8

    NCAA Tournament: Second-round loss 

    There have been plenty of freshmen through the years with better numbers than the 18.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game that Tyler Hansbrough put up during his first season at North Carolina.

    However, few freshmen have made a bigger impact.

    After losing all five starters and standout sixth man Marvin Williams from the team that won a national championship in 2005, little was expected of the Tar Heels heading into the 2005-06 season.

    They began the season unranked but steadily climbed, closing out the regular season with a seven-game winning streak that was punctuated with a win over No. 1 Duke. 

    While they were ousted in the second round of the tournament, the Hansbrough-led squad exceeded expectations, and the Third Team All-American was the biggest reason.

14. Patrick Ewing, Georgetown (1981-82)

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    Stats: 12.7 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 3.2 BPG

    Accolades: None

    Team Record: 30-7

    NCAA Tournament: NCAA final loss

    Patrick Ewing was just scratching the surface of his vast potential as a freshman on a Georgetown team led by senior Sleepy Floyd during the 1981-82 season.

    Still, he was the team's second-leading scorer (12.7 PPG) and an absolute force on the defensive end with 119 blocks and a team-high 7.5 rebounds per game.

    He continued to make an impact during the NCAA tournament, officially announcing himself as a future star during the national title game when he filled up the stat sheet with 23 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and two blocks in a 63-62 loss to a stacked North Carolina team led by future Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and James Worthy.

    It was the first Final Four appearance of the John Thompson era at Georgetown. Two years later, Ewing led the Hoyas to a national championship.

13. Michael Beasley, Kansas State (2007-08)

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Stats: 26.2 PPG, 12.4 RPG 1.6 BPG

    Accolades: AP First Team All-American

    Team Record: 21-12

    NCAA Tournament: Second-round loss

    Michael Beasley didn't make it out of the opening weekend of March Madness in his lone season at Kansas State, but his lofty regular-season statistics are still enough to earn him a spot on this list.

    His 26.2 points per game paced the Big 12 and ranked third in the nation, as he recorded a Big 12-record 13 30-point games on his way to conference Player of the Year honors.

    Aside from his scoring prowess, he was also a monster on the boards, leading the nation with 12.4 rebounds per game while recording a freshman-record 28 double-doubles in 33 games.

    While his 6'9", 235-pound frame made him a beast in the paint, he could also stretch the floor, knocking down 36 three-pointers at a 37.9 percent clip.

    The No. 11 seed Wildcats were able to pull off a first-round upset of O.J. Mayo and USC, with Beasley tallying 23 points and 11 rebounds. That was the end of the road, though, as No. 3 seed Wisconsin gave them the boot in the second round, with Beasley putting up 23 points and 13 rebounds in what would be his final college game.

12. Trae Young, Oklahoma (2017-18)

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Stats: 27.4 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 8.7 APG

    Accolades: AP First Team All-American

    Team Record: 18-14

    NCAA Tournament: First-round loss

    Yes, he was a volume shooter with the green light to pull from anywhere on the floor. And yes, he led the nation with 167 turnovers.

    Still, when all was said and done, Trae Young was the first freshman to ever lead the nation in points per game (27.4) and assists per game (8.7). That's worthy of recognition on this list.

    Young racked up 40-plus points four different times, including a 48-point outburst against Oklahoma State, and he eclipsed 30 points a total of nine times.

    He also handed out double-digit assists in 11 games, including a ridiculous 26-point, 22-assist game against Northwestern State at the beginning of the season.

    The No. 10 seed Sooners were bumped in the first round of the tournament last year, but Young still went out with a bang, scoring 28 points and dishing out seven assists.

11. Kenny Anderson, Georgia Tech (1989-90)

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Stats: 20.6 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 8.1 APG

    Accolades: AP Third Team All-American

    Team Record: 28-7

    NCAA Tournament: Final Four loss 

    On a Georgia Tech team that boasted two other 20 PPG scorers in future NBA standout Dennis Scott (27.7 PPG) and senior Brian Oliver (21.3 PPG), Kenny Anderson was the catalyst.

    Serving as the floor general for a high-powered offense that averaged 88.5 points per contest, Anderson finished fourth in the nation in assists (285). He also led the ACC in assists per game (8.1) while ranking second in steals (2.3).

    The Yellow Jackets entered the tournament as a No. 4 seed and advanced all the way to the Final Four before they were ousted by Larry Johnson and the juggernaut UNLV squad that went on to win the national title.

10. Zion Williamson, Duke (2018-19)

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Stats: 21.6 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.2 APG, 2.2 SPG, 1.8 BPG

    Accolades: ???

    Team Record: 23-3

    NCAA Tournament: ???

    Zion Williamson has one of the most dynamic skills sets college basketball has ever seen, and it allows him to impact the game in a multitude of ways.

    He's a dynamic scorer—he has least 20 points in 16 of his 25 games and three 30-point games on his resume.

    He's a beast on the glass—his 8.8 rebounds per game rank third in the ACC, and he had a 17-rebound game against Boston College earlier this month.

    He's a disruptive defender—his 57 steals lead the ACC and his 48 blocks are good for sixth in the conference.

    He can step back and facilitate when needed—he had a seven-assist game against Pitt last month.

    Williamson is not even the leading scorer on his own team, a mantle that belongs to fellow freshman RJ Barrett (23.1 PPG), but he's such an impactful force on both sides of the floor that he's already earned a spot among the best freshman seasons in NCAA history.

    There's still time for him to climb higher up this list if he returns to action and makes an impact during the NCAA tournament. Regardless, he's already been a transcendent enough talent to warrant a top-10 spot.

9. Magic Johnson, Michigan State (1977-78)

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    Stats: 17.0 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 7.4 APG

    Accolades: AP Third Team All-American

    Team Record: 25-5

    NCAA Tournament: Elite Eight loss

    A local kid from Lansing, Magic Johnson was a transformative player at the point guard position from the moment he stepped onto the floor at Michigan State.

    His unique combination of size, ball-handling ability, scoring touch and court vision allowed him to fill up the stat sheet night in and night out.

    That was never more evident than during the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament when he had 13 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds in a 90-69 shellacking of Western Kentucky.

    The Spartans were bumped in the Elite Eight by Jack Givens and a Kentucky team that went 30-2 on their way to a national title, but Johnson had made his mark as a future superstar.

    He returned for his sophomore season and led Michigan State to a national title over Larry Bird and Indiana State, before going No. 1 overall in the 1979 draft.

8. Jahlil Okafor, Duke (2014-15)

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    Lance King/Getty Images

    Stats: 17.3 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.4 BPG

    Accolades: AP First Team All-American, ACC POY

    Team Record: 35-4

    NCAA Tournament: Won NCAA title

    Plenty of freshmen have contributed to a national championship.

    However, the list of first-year players who have led their team to a title is considerably shorter, and Jahlil Okafor is among the select few.

    The No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class, Okafor led the Blue Devils in points (17.3 PPG) and rebounds (8.5 RPG) while shooting 66.4 percent as the focal point on a young team that featured three freshmen and a sophomore as part of a regular seven-man rotation.

    That earned him AP First Team All-American and ACC Player of the Year honors, and his excellent play continued into the NCAA tournament where he averaged 15.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks en route to a national championship.

    Being the leading scorer on a title-winning team was enough to vault Okafor into the top 10 in these rankings.

7. Greg Oden, Ohio State (2006-07)

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Stats: 15.7 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 3.3 BPG

    Accolades: AP First Team All-American, NABC Defensive POY

    Team Record: 35-4

    NCAA Tournament: NCAA Finals loss 

    The consensus No. 1 recruit in a stacked 2006 class, Greg Oden stepped onto campus with a 7'0", 270-pound, NBA-ready body.

    His sheer physical dominance in high school left him with an unrefined offensive game, but that didn't stop him from leading Ohio State in scoring (15.7 PPG) and shooting an efficient 61.6 percent from the field.

    However, his defensive prowess made him a game-changer. He led the Big Ten in rebounds (306, 9.6 RPG) and blocks (105, 3.3 BPG) and was an unrelenting presence in the paint.

    That was enough to make him the first freshman to win NABC Defensive Player of the Year honors.

    Joined by fellow freshmen Daequan Cook and Mike Conley, Oden helped lead the Buckeyes to a 35-4 record and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. They advanced all the way to the title game before a stacked Florida team upended them.

    Oden averaged 16.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks during the NCAA tournament, including a 25-point, 12-rebound performance in the title game.

6. Wayman Tisdale, Oklahoma (1982-83)

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Stats: 24.5 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 2.4 BPG

    Accolades: AP First Team All-American, Big Eight POY

    Team Record: 24-9

    NCAA Tournament: Second-round loss

    Generally speaking, if you have an award named after you, you've probably done something right.

    Starting in 2010, the USBWA named its freshman of the year award after Wayman Tisdale, the former Oklahoma standout who claimed AP First Team All-American honors during his first season in a Sooners uniform.

    Tisdale poured in 24.5 points and 10.3 rebounds per game as a freshman, shooting at an extremely efficient 58.0 percent clip.

    The 6'9", 240-pound forward won Big Eight Player of the Year honors and was named an AP First Team All-American during each of his three seasons on campus before the Indiana Pacers took him No. 2 overall in the 1985 draft.

5. Pervis Ellison, Louisville (1985-86)

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    RON HEFLIN/Associated Press

    Stats: 13.1 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 2.0 APG, 2.4 BPG

    Accolades: None

    Team Record: 32-7

    NCAA Tournament: Won NCAA title, NCAA Tournament MOP

    "Never Nervous Pervis" Ellison earns a spot on this list for leading Louisville to an NCAA title during his freshman campaign.

    The 6'9" center upped his averages to 15.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per contest during the NCAA tournament and capped the Cardinals' run with a 25-point, 11-rebound effort in a 72-69 victory over a Johnny Dawkins-led Duke in the final.

    With that, Ellison became just the second freshman to win the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player award, following Arnie Ferrin, who did it for Utah in 1944.

    Ellison stayed at Louisville all four years, winning Metro Conference Player of the Year as a junior and averaging 17.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game as a senior before the Sacramento Kings selected him No. 1 overall in the 1989 draft.

4. Chris Jackson, LSU (1988-89)

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Stats: 30.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.7 SPG

    Accolades: AP First Team All-American, SEC POY

    Team Record: 20-12

    NCAA Tournament: First-round loss

    The most prolific scoring season ever by a freshman belongs to LSU star Chris Jackson.

    Later known as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf during his time in the NBA after he converted to Islam, Jackson led the SEC and finished second in the nation with 30.2 points per game during his freshman campaign.

    He also led the team in steals (55, 1.7 SPG) and finished second in assists (130, 4.1 APG), but it was all about his offense en route to SEC Player of the Year honors.

    Jackson scored 33 points in his lone NCAA tournament game during his freshman season, with the No. 10 Tigers knocked out early by No. 7 Texas-El Paso and future NBA star Tim Hardaway.

    He won SEC Player of the Year again during his sophomore season before the Denver Nuggets selected him No. 3 overall in the 1990 draft.

3. Kevin Durant, Texas (2006-07)

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Stats: 25.8 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 1.9 BPG

    Accolades: AP First Team All-American, Naismith POY, Big 12 POY

    Team Record: 25-10

    NCAA Tournament: Second-round loss

    Kevin Durant is one of just two freshmen to ever win the Naismith Award, and he earned it with a huge one-and-done season at Texas.

    He led the Big 12 and ranked fourth nationally in both scoring (25.8 PPG) and rebounding (11.1 RPG) as the only player that season to finish in the top 10 in both categories. He also led the conference in blocks (67) and ranked fourth in steals (66).

    A true floor-stretching threat, Durant knocked down 82 three-pointers at a blistering 40.4 percent clip, but he was just as adept at attacking the basket en route to making a Big 12-leading 209 free throws at an 81.6 percent rate.

    Simply put, he was an offensive dynamo.

    Unfortunately, his NCAA tournament stay was short. After he scored 27 points in a first-round win over New Mexico State, Durant and the fourth-seeded Longhorns lost to No. 5 USC and the future NBA duo of Taj Gibson and Nick Young.

2. Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse (2002-03)

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    Craig Jones/Getty Images

    Stats: 22.2 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 2.2 APG

    Accolades: AP Second Team All-American

    Team Record: 30-5

    NCAA Tournament: Won NCAA title, NCAA tournament MOP

    How big of an impact did Carmelo Anthony have during his lone season at Syracuse?

    The Orange began 2002-03 unranked after they lost leading scorer Preston Shumpert and point guard Deshaun Williams from a team that went 23-13 and failed to make the NCAA tournament.

    In fact, the Orange didn't enter the AP rankings until Jan. 14, using a 10-1 stretch to close out the regular season to earn a No. 3 seed in the Big Dance.

    There's no question Anthony was the driving force behind their surprise success.

    He finished fourth in the Big East in scoring (22.2 PPG) and third in rebounding (10.0 RPG) while knocking down 56 three-pointers and tallying 55 steals and 30 blocks.

    That said, his play in the NCAA tournament earned him the No. 2 spot in these rankings.

    Anthony averaged 20.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists to claim the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player honor. He poured in 33 points in a Final Four victory over Texas and then went for 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in the title game against Kansas.

1. Anthony Davis, Kentucky (2011-12)

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Stats: 14.2 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 4.7 BPG

    Accolades: AP First Team All-American, Naismith POY, NABC Defensive POY, SEC POY

    Team Record: 38-2

    NCAA Tournament: Won NCAA title, NCAA tournament MOP

    David Fox of Athlon Sports put it perfectly: "Carmelo Anthony was an NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player, [Kevin] 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. [Anthony] Davis did all of that."

    There's simply never been a more decorated freshman campaign than the one Davis authored for a 38-2 Kentucky team that steamrolled the field from start to finish during the 2011-12 season.

    Forget the points. Forget the rebounds. Davis blocked 186 shots in 40 games. That's absurd. That's "completely change your offensive approach because you're afraid of even going into the paint" level absurd.

    He averaged 13.7 points, 12.3 rebounds and 4.8 blocks per contest during the NCAA tournament.

    Even when he only scored six points during the title game against Kansas on 1-of-10 shooting, he still had a profound impact on the outcome with 16 rebounds, six blocks, five assists and three steals.

    It's going to take something truly special to knock Davis from the top spot on this list.


    All stats courtesy of Sports Reference, unless otherwise noted. Recruit ratings via 247Sports' composite rankings.