Ranking the Best Men's College Basketball '1-and-Done' Seasons of All Time

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 9, 2020

Ranking the Best Men's College Basketball '1-and-Done' Seasons of All Time

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    Zion Williamson
    Zion WilliamsonSean Rayford/Associated Press

    It feels like only yesterday that Greg Oden and Kevin Durant were among the first players required to wait a year after graduating high school to declare for the NBA draft, but the 2020-21 men's college basketball season is the 15th year of the "one-and-done" era.

    During that decade and a half, we've seen some incredible work from guys who clearly had more than enough talent to jump straight from high school to the pros.

    But which seasons were the best of the best?

    Be sure to note we're only focused on what these players did in college. Durant has been a much better pro than Michael Beasley, and Kevin Love has had a much more successful run in the NBA than Oden, but those details are irrelevant here.

    We're also primarily focused on individual statistics and accolades, but it's hard to ignore how these guys and their teams fared in the NCAA tournamentif they got there at all.

    Also, one-and-done guys from before the one-and-done era are permitted. There weren't many freshmen declaring for the NBA draft prior to 2007, but this list would be incomplete without Carmelo Anthony.

    Now, let the debating begin.

Honorable Mentions

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    John Calipari and Tyreke Evans
    John Calipari and Tyreke EvansWade Payne/Associated Press

    Derrick Rose, Memphis (2007-08)
    Tyreke Evans, Memphis (2008-09)
    John Wall, Kentucky (2009-10)

    John Calipari has been the primary benefactor of the one-and-done model since its inception, but even by his standards, this three-year run on lead guards was ridiculous. None of those teams won the national championship, but Calipari went 106-9 during this stretch, demonstrating how successful the approach could be.

    Rose and Wall were both selected No. 1 in their draft class, but Evans might have been the best college player of this trio. Per 40 minutes, he averaged 23.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.9 steals and 1.1 blocks. Aside from the assists, he had higher marks than both Rose and Wall in all those categories.

           

    Joel Embiid, Kansas (2013-14)

    Even Bill Self didn't seem to realize what he had with Embiid until a month into the season because the big man didn't break into the starting lineup until Kansas' ninth game. To be fair, he was a raw talent with minimal range and a propensity for committing fouls and turnovers. But once he started sanding down the rough edges and putting it all together, Embiid was special.

    It's a shame he suffered that stress fracture in early March because that Kansas team could've won it all.

            

    Karl Anthony-Towns, Kentucky (2014-15)

    Towns' numbers (10.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game) leave something to be desired, but that was a product of both Kentucky's deep rotation and a season in which it wasn't often challenged. But when the going got tough for the Wildcats, they almost always turned to the big man who would eventually become the No. 1 pick in the draft.

           

    Jahlil Okafor, Duke (2014-15)

    Big Jah was the heart and soul of a seven-man Duke rotation that won a national championship. He sputtered to the finish line (10.8 points and 6.3 rebounds in his last four games) and has been a bust in the NBA, but the "Jahlil Okafor or Frank Kaminsky" debate for National Player of the Year was probably the best in the past decade.

           

    Lonzo Ball, UCLA (2016-17)

    Say what you will about his dad, but that Lonzo Ball-led UCLA team was a blast to watch. He didn't play a lick of defense, but Ball's vision and shooting made the Bruins virtually unguardable.

          

    Deandre Ayton, Arizona (2017-18)

    Ayton was statistically impressive, but perhaps most amazing is how he was able to thrive throughout a season in which he was constantly being mentioned in connection with the ongoing FBI/shoe companies scandal. He somehow blocked out all that noise to average a double-double and become both a first-team All-American and the No. 1 pick in the draft.

10. Ben Simmons, LSU (2015-16)

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    Mic Smith/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 19.2 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 4.8 APG, 2.0 SPG, 0.207 WS/40

    Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Ben Simmons has to be one of the best players to never play in college basketball's ultimate showcase. Damian Lillard and Paul George also feature prominently on that list, but as far as guys who went to major-conference programs go, it's Simmons, Chris Bosh (Georgia Tech) and Klay Thompson (Washington State) jockeying for that dubious crown.

    But we didn't need Simmons playing into late March or early April to recognize him as one of the best in recent history.

    Though he somehow never did manage a triple-double, Simmons had 23 double-doubles while at LSU. That included a 21-point, 20-rebound, seven-assist game in a loss to Marquette, 14 rebounds and 10 assists the following night in a loss to NC State and one of the most ridiculous stat lines I've ever seen: 43 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists, five steals and three blocks against North Florida on a night LSU's defense allowed 108 points and needed that Herculean effort from Simmons.

    Suffice it to say, it wasn't his fault LSU lost 14 games. But it was all sorts of fun to watch this 6'10" forward finish well ahead of each and every one of his teammates in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.

9. Trae Young, Oklahoma (2017-18)

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 27.4 PPG, 8.7 APG, 3.9 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 36.0% 3PT, 0.201 WS/40

    Perhaps the most compelling part of the Trae Young Experience is how unexpected it was.

    Young was a 5-star recruit, but barely. 247Sports had him ranked as the No. 23 player in the 2017 class. The previous year's No. 23 recruit was Sacha Killeya-Jones. Going backward from there, it was Jalen Adams in 2015 and Dwayne Morgan in 2014. Not exactly a common spot for one-and-done talent. Conversely, every other player in this top 10 was a consensus top-five recruit expected to dominate for one season.

    What's more, Young went to Oklahoma, which had put together a dreadful 11-20 campaign the year before his arrival.

    While Blake Griffin and Buddy Hield proved it's entirely possible to attract the national spotlight while with the Sooners, the overall situation didn't fit the profile for a magical season. It was pretty much the exact same situation Jaylen Hoard was in two years ago when the No. 24 recruit went to 11-20 Wake Forest...and ended up never getting an ounce of national attention.

    Nevertheless, Young was a must-watch-every-night sensation on par with Jimmer Fredette's final season at BYUwith similarly limitless three-point range to boot.

    The Big 12 gauntlet eventually wore him down a bit, but Young was averaging 30.1 points and 10.0 assists through his first 16 games.

    He had a points-assists double-double in each of the first two games of his career. In his fifth game, he went for 43 points and seven assists in a win over Oregon. And he was particularly lethal against TCU, averaging 41.0 points, 10.5 assists and 7.5 rebounds in two wins over the Horned Frogs.

8. Kevin Love, UCLA (2007-08)

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 17.5 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.4 BPG, 35.4% 3PT, 0.391 WS/40

    Nowadays, big men are almost expected to have some perimeter range. A dozen years ago, though, Kevin Lovea center who owned the glass and was a threat to score from anywhere within 25 feet of the hoopwas a rare commodity.

    During his one season at UCLA, Love wasn't anywhere near as dependent on the deep ball as he has been over the past six years of his NBA career. He averaged 2.1 three-point attempts per game for the year. But that rate spiked to 3.9 during the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments as he increasingly accepted what defenses were giving him.

    What else were opponents supposed to do, though?

    The best perimeter defender had to deal with Darren Collison, who shot 52.5 percent from downtown in 2007-08. And you couldn't send your primary rim-protector out to the arc to contest Love's shots. Not only would Love simply dribble around the defender playing out of his comfort zone, but vacating the lane also wasn't a wise approach with Russell Westbrook ready, willing and able to drive for a rim-rattling dunk.

    Love scored in double figures in all 39 games, but he was a key asset on defense, too. He wasn't nearly on the level of an Anthony Davis or a Zion Williamson, but there's no question he was valuable on that end of the floor. In fact, he ranked second in the nation in defensive win shares as the anchor of a team that rarely fouled and seldom allowed second-chance opportunities.

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

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 15.7 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 3.3 BPG, 0.355 WS/40

    NBA fans view Greg Oden as one of the biggest busts of all time, in large part because the Portland Trail Blazers took him instead of Kevin Durant.

    From a purely collegiate perspective, though, he had easily one of the best freshman seasons ever.

    Oden missed the first seven games of Ohio State's season while recovering from offseason surgery on his right wrist. Not only did he get a late start because of that, but he had to shoot free throws with his non-shooting hand for the vast majority of the season.

    He was just efficient enough (62.8 percent) as a lefty at the charity stripe that it didn't become a full-blown Hack-an-Oden problem, and it clearly didn't diminish his impact in the paint. Oden blocked five shots in each of his first three games while shooting 17-of-19 (89.5 percent) from the field.

    But let me tell you one thing about Oden that Ohio State fans will never forget: The referees in the NCAA tournament either didn't like him or didn't know how to call a game with such an imposing force in the paint. In his first 26 appearances, Oden did not foul out once and averaged just 2.5 fouls per game. But he was whistled for at least four fouls in each of his final five NCAA tournament games.

    That didn't stop him from putting up 25 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks while shutting down Joakim Noah in the national championship game against Florida, though. Unfortunately, Oden's teammates shot 4-of-23 from three-point range while Noah's teammates made 10 of their 18 attempts. But Oden won that one-on-one battle with Noah so convincingly that Ohio State hung around until the bitter end.

    That was the sort of singular impact he could have on a game when he was healthy. It's a shame the NBA never got the chance to witness that.

6. DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky (2009-10)

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    Dave Martin/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 15.1 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 1.0 SPG, 1.0 APG, 0.290 WS/40

    During Kentucky's 2014-15 "Platoons" season, we were all amazed at what Karl-Anthony Towns was able to accomplish while barely playing half the time. In just 21.1 minutes per game, the No. 1 pick in the subsequent NBA draft managed 10.3 points and 6.7 rebounds. On a per-40 basis, those numbers translate to 19.5 and 12.7, respectively.

    But half a decade before Towns, DeMarcus Cousins was about 30 percent more dominant in a similar setting.

    Playing on a Kentucky roster that featured six players 6'6" or taller who eventually made it to the NBA, Cousins only logged 23.5 minutes per game. In that limited time, though, he racked up 25.8 points and 16.8 rebounds per 40 minutes. He ranked second in the nation in offensive rebound percentage and had the third-best rate of fouls drawn that season.

    He was like a bull in a china shop. Cousins would wreak havoc until the first media timeout, and then he'd often sit on the bench until the second one. But as soon as he was unleashed again, the paint would become his personal playground.

    Had he been able to play with that level of intensity for 34 minutes per night, it would've gone done as one of the greatest individual seasons in the history of the sport.

    John Wall got all the attention and the accolades and the No. 1 draft pick, but the analytics suggest Cousins was Kentucky's most valuable freshman that yearand by a fairly wide margin.

5. Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse (2002-03)

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    KEVIN RIVOLI/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 22.2 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.6 SPG, 33.7% 3PT, 0.183 WS/40

    Carmelo Anthony wasn't the first one-and-done player in college basketball history. Multiple freshmen had entered the draft pool in each of the five years before he arrived at Syracuse.

    However, Anthony was arguably the first person to normalize the practice, and he was the first one to do it as the leader of a national champion. So even though his WS/40 rate was the worst of the 25 candidates I fully vetted for this list, we've got to give him some bonus consideration for the amount of success he had as the first of his kind.

    And it's not like he was inefficient. Frankly, I don't know why his WS/40 ratio was so mediocre. Anthony averaged better than 10 points per turnover and 10 rebounds per game while shooting nearly 50 percent from inside the arc. He was also a solid defender, drew a ton of fouls and was on the floor for more than 90 percent of Syracuse's minutes played.

    It's impressive that he wasn't out of gas by the end of the season, but it's almost unfathomable that he actually saved his best for last.

    Anthony shot 47.6 percent from three-point range in the NCAA tournament, averaging 20.2 points and 9.8 rebounds in those six victories. And in the big showdown with Texas' T.J. Ford in the Final Four, Anthony went for 33 and 14 with three steals in leading Syracuse to an unusually high-scoring victory (95-84).

    After all that, the Detroit Pistons decided, "No thanks, we want Darko Milicic with the No. 2 pick."

    Whoops.

    Because he was only the No. 3 pick and because he was only a second-team AP All-American, we're limiting Anthony to No. 5 on this list. He's the sentimental No. 1, though, for being the only one who played college basketball when he wasn't required to do so.

4. Kevin Durant, Texas (2006-07)

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 25.8 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 1.9 SPG, 1.3 APG, 40.4% 3PT, 0.280 WS/40

    Part of the allure with Kevin Durant was the sheer fact that he was forced to pioneer this new path to the pros.

    Had he been born a year earlier, Durant would've had the option to go straight from high school to the NBAan option he said in 2018 he probably would have exercised. But his senior class was the first one required to wait at least one year before declaring for the draft.

    That gave this freshman a before-he-stepped-on-campus national buzz unlike anyone who came before him.

    To put it lightly, he did not disappoint.

    Durant ranked third in the nation in total points, as well as third in the nation in total rebounds. And through it all, he just made everything look so effortless.

    Perhaps most impressive is that he did it as the leader of the least-experienced team in the nation.

    We've grown accustomed to seeing teams like this at Duke and Kentucky. But at the time, it was rather revolutionary that Texas started four freshmen and a sophomore for most of the season.

    There wasn't a single upperclassman who averaged so much as eight minutes per game. And that inexperience played a big role in Texas suffering 10 losses and getting smashed in the second round of the NCAA tournament despite having one of the best basketball players on the planet.

3. Anthony Davis, Kentucky (2011-12)

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 14.2 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 4.7 BPG, 1.4 SPG, 1.3 APG, 0.310 WS/40

    If you want to argue Anthony Davis deserves the No. 1 spot, I'll certainly allow it.

    Not only did he win just about every individual award possible for the 2011-12 season, but he single-handedly destroyed the narrative that you can't win a national championship with one-and-done players.

    He was so great at Kentucky that it changed the way Mike Krzyzewski built his teams nearly 500 miles away. Coach K was always able to lure highly touted recruits to Duke, but it wasn't until Davis' dominance that he went all-in on the "Reset with a bunch of McDonald's All-Americans every single year" approach.

    We've got to believe that would have eventually happened anyway, but in many ways, Davis was the catalyst who changed the sport into what it is today.

    While the Brow didn't score at anywhere near the same rate as the majority of the guys considered for this list, he was a complete game-changer on the defensive end of the floor. Davis recorded multiple blocks in all 40 games and probably impacted at least a dozen shots per game if you factor in the ones he altered and the ones he kept from even being attempted because of his presence in the paint.

    In the national championship against Kansas, Davis shot just 1-of-10 from the field and finished with six points. Most teams would be in trouble if their star player had a shooting performance like that, but Davis more than made up for it with 16 rebounds, six blocks, five assists and three steals.

    Not too shabby for an off night.

2. Zion Williamson, Duke (2018-19)

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 22.6 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.1 APG, 2.1 SPG, 1.8 BPG, 33.8% 3PT, 0.335 WS/40

    Throughout Zion Williamson's jaw-dropping few months with the Blue Devils, there were constant complaints that we were spending way too much time marveling over this phenom.

    But he was to college basketball what Patrick Mahomes has been to the NFL: a unique talent capable of doing things that shouldn't be physically possible. Moreover, Williamson was accomplishing those feats while spending the entire season ranked in the AP Top 5 for one of the most high-profile programs in the country.

    He was remarkable on both ends of the floor, ending up as the only player in the past 25 years to average at least 20.0 points, 2.0 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.5 blocks per game in a single season.

    His dunks were angry, flying works of art. And his shoe broke in the biggest game of the regular season with former President Barack Obama sitting courtside.

    What else would you have had us talk about?

    Joining Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, Williamson became just the third freshman to win the Wooden Award. Both his stats and his highlights were a bit more impressive than both of those legends of the recent past.

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

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    Rod Aydelotte/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 26.2 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 1.3 SPG, 1.2 APG, 37.9% 3PT, .413 WS/40

    Michael Beasley's lone year of college hoops was just plain absurd.

    He went for 32 points and 24 rebounds in his season debut against Sacramento State, and he didn't taper off much from there. Beasley had a double-double in 28 of 33 games played and racked up at least 30 points on 13 occasions.

    And while a lot of the guys on this list had a strong supporting cast, Beasley played for a mediocre Kansas State team that just barely made the NCAA tournament. He was one of the three freshmen who led the Wildcats in scoring, but the other two (Bill Walker and Jacob Pullen) didn't even combine to score as much as Beasley. He also had more than twice as many total rebounds and three times as many blocks as any teammate.

    He did just enough to carry the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament as a No. 11 seed, where they upset USC in the first round before getting crushed by Wisconsin. Even in that 72-55 loss, though, Beasley did what he could with 23 points and 13 rebounds.

    Beasley led the nation in rebounding and ranked third in points per game. He even outscored Stephen Curry, who led Davidson to the Elite Eight as a sophomore. He ended up going No. 2 in the draft, behind only Derrick Rose and ahead of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love.

    The NBA portion of his career certainly didn't pan out as well as most of these guys, but look no further than the .413 WS/40 rate for proof that this guy was uncommonly dominant. The highest such mark in the past decade was Stephen F. Austin's Thomas Walkup in 2015-16, and even he fell well short of Beasley at .346.