Saturday, March 2, 2024

Ranking college basketball’s No. 1 prospects since 2006 based on their NCAA careers

Following the disappointing saga that led to the No. 1 prospect of the 2019 class, James Wiseman, playing only three college games, we were treated to a show last season by Cade Cunningham, who was 2020’s No. 1 overall prospect, according to 247Sports. The Oklahoma State guard produced countless highlights and helped his program to one of its best seasons in recent memory before getting selected No. 1 overall in the 2021 NBA Draft.

But how does Cunningham’s lone college season stack up against the collegiate tenures of previous No. 1 overall prospects? The legacy of Anthony Davis at Kentucky is a high bar to clear, but Cunningham certainly ranks among the most impactful No. 1 prospects of the 247Sports rankings era. 

More often than than not since age-minimum rules were implemented for the NBA Draft in 2005, the prospects with the top spot in the 247Sports rankings end up playing key roles on championship-contending college teams before they depart for the NBA. Chet Holmgren appears likely to continue that trend in the 2021-22 season as he prepares to play for a Gonzaga team coming off an appearance in the national title game.

Aside from Wiseman, Brandon Jennings is the most noteworthy exception, as he opted to play overseas for a season before entering the NBA Draft after he was ranked by 247Sports as the No. 1 prospect in the 2008 class.

Here is a ranking of how No. 1-ranked players in the 247Sports recruiting rankings have fared in college basketball since the NBA Draft’s age-minimum was implemented for the 2006 class.

1. Anthony Davis, Kentucky — 2011

When it comes to the class of 2011, Davis stands head and shoulders above the pack in all regards. There is no doubt he deserved his No. 1 ranking, and it’s unquestioned that his lone season of college basketball is the best played by a No. 1 prospect in the 247Sports era.

He was the driving force behind Kentucky’s 38-2 record and 2012 national championship. Davis led the Wildcats in scoring, rebounding, blocks and steals, and was voted Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. The Pelicans took Davis No. 1 overall, and he’s become a perennial NBA All-Star and MVP candidate. Other No. 1 ranked prospects have put up gaudier offensive numbers,  but few have been as impactful for title-caliber teams as Davis was in the 2011-12 season.

2. Jahlil Okafor, Duke — 2014

If you’re judging Okafor based on his NBA career, you will think he’s too high on this list. But it was just five years ago that he led Duke to a 35-4 record and national championship by averaging 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. He also made an incredibly efficient 66.4% of his shot attempts in his lone college season.

Injuries and a shift in the way the NBA game is played have kept Okafor from reaching stardom in the professional ranks. Karl-Anthony Towns, who was ranked No. 5 in the 2014 class, has clearly had a better pro career. But Duke got everything it could have wanted and more from Okafor during his time with the Blue Devils.

3. Greg Oden, Ohio State — 2006

Oden teamed with fellow freshman phenom Mike Conley to lead the Buckeyes to the national title game in 2007. Once there, Ohio State lost to Florida. Oden shined in that game, though, by finishing with 25 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks while outplaying Joakim Noah and Al Horford.

The Trail Blazers picked Oden first overall in the 2007 NBA Draft, though his NBA career never materialized because of injuries. But Oden’s averages of 15.7 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.3 blocks as a freshman at Ohio State proved his potential for stardom. In retrospect, Oden and No. 2 overall prospect Kevin Durant should have been flipped in the recruiting rankings. Still, the fact remains that Oden led the Buckeyes to the national title game as a freshman and played like a superstar on the big stage.

4. Marvin Bagley, Duke — 2017

Bagley averaged 21 points and 11.1 rebounds per game for a Duke team that went 29-8 and advanced to the Elite Eight. The stellar season earned him consensus All-American honors, ACC Player of the Year and more than justified his No. 1 prospect ranking.

Arizona’s Deandre Ayton ended up getting being selected first overall in the 2018 draft, but Bagley went No. 2 overall. Even though his NBA career has hit some early hiccups, he still has the makings of a future All-Star.

5. Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State — 2020

Cunningham earned first-team CBS Sports All-American honors and was named the CBS Sports Freshman of the Year after averaging 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.6 steals. The highly versatile wing also shot 40% from 3-point range while leading Oklahoma State a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which was its best seed since 2005. The Cowboys were bounced in the second round of the Big Dance, but Cunningham was taken No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft. The only thing keeping him from registering higher on this list is that his squad didn’t make a deep postseason run. 

6. Ben Simmons, LSU — 2015

It’s wild to think that LSU landed one of the most versatile players in the sport the season after snapping a five-year NCAA Tournament drought and somehow regressed. That’s what happened during Simmons’ lone college season. The do-it-all forward averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and two steals per game while shooting 56.1% from the floor for LSU. Yet the Tigers finished 19-14 and missed the NCAA Tournament.

Everything ultimately worked out fine for Simmons, who was taken No. 1 overall by the 76ers. But it’s unfortunate for the sport that he did not get to showcase his unique game on the NCAA Tournament stage. Still, his SEC Freshman of The Year performance proved he was deserving of the No. 1 prospect ranking.

7. Eric Gordon, Indiana — 2007

To earn the title of No. 1 prospect in the 2007 class, Gordon had to beat out Michael Beasley, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin and others who have had long, productive NBA careers. You can argue, in retrospect, that Love, Rose or Griffin should have been the No. 1 overall prospect since all were stars on college teams that advanced further in the NCAA Tournament than Gordon’s. Each of those three have also been NBA All-Stars in multiple seasons.

But Gordon was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year for an Indiana team that started 20-3 before coach Kelvin Sampson’s resignation. Ultimately, that put a damper on an outstanding freshman season for Gordon, who was picked seventh by the Clippers in the 2008 NBA Draft. He remains one of the best active players to never make an NBA All-Star game.

8. RJ Barrett, Duke — 2018

It’s easy to forget that Barrett was ranked ahead of Zion Williamson in the 2018 recruiting rankings. Most years, Barrett’s 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game for a 32-win team would have made him the unquestioned top freshman in the game. But the 2018-19 season was unique in that Williamson ended up outshining a pair of teammates — Barrett and No. 2 prospect Cam Reddish — who were ranked ahead of him in the class.

Still, Barrett took on a huge role for a youth-laden team and continued to build on Duke’s strong, growing track record with top-ranked prospects.


RJ Barrett ranked ahead of superstar teammate Zion Williamson in the 2018 class.  USATSI

9. Harrison Barnes, North Carolina — 2010

A rare No. 1 prospect to play two seasons of college basketball, Barnes averaged 16.3 points and 5.5 rebounds while winning a combined 62 games and making a pair of Elite Eight appearances at UNC.

Kyrie Irving, who was the No. 2 player in the class, made it to the NBA as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft out of Duke and retrospect shows he was the top player in the class. Barnes was by no means a bust, however. The Warriors selected him seventh overall in 2012. He won a championship with the club in 2015 and has been a productive starter in all three of his NBA stops.

10. Josh Jackson, Kansas — 2016

The difference between Jackson at Kansas in the 2016-17 season and Andrew Wiggins at Kansas in the 2013-14 season was the amount of help on the roster. Of the Jayhawks’ top seven scorers in the 2016-17 season, Jackson was the only freshman, whereas four of the team’s top seven scorers were freshmen during Wiggins’ lone season.

Having star upperclassmen around helped Jackson mask the immaturity and offensive inefficiency that have kept him from living up to his billing in the NBA. He won the Big 12 Freshman of the Year award while averaging 16.3 points and 7.4 rebounds for a Jayhawks team that finished 31-5 and advanced to the Elite Eight. Several players from his class, including Lonzo Ball and Jayson Tatum, are having comparable or better NBA careers. But Jackson was good enough to justify his No. 1 prospect ranking during his lone college season, thanks largely to the veterans around him.

11. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas — 2013

Wiggins led a young Kansas team in scoring at 17.1 points per game and was taken first overall in the 2014 NBA Draft. Fellow Kansas freshman Joel Embiid has arguably turned out to be a better NBA player. But Wiggins was more deserving of the No. 1 prospect rating at the time.

The Jayhawks finished 25-10 and lost during the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. The season stands as one of only two 10-loss campaigns of Bill Self’s coaching tenure. That was not Wiggins’ fault, though. Some might argue he fell short of immense expectations, but he had a great freshman season while carrying a heavy load for a blue blood program.

12. Derrick Favors, Georgia Tech — 2009

His college career and professional stardom are not on par with that of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, who were ranked No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in the 2009 class. Favors, however, was part of the last Georgia Tech team to make an NCAA Tournament. Let that sink in. 

The Atlanta native stayed home for his lone season of college basketball and earned ACC Rookie of the Year honors while averaging 12.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. The Yellow Jackets made the second round of the NCAA Tournament and finished 23-13. The Nets selected Favors No. 3 overall in the 2010 draft, and he’s gone on to have a solid NBA career.

13. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky — 2012

It was always going to be tough for Noel to meet the sky-high expectations that came with being ranked the No. 1 prospect. It was a weak class, for starters, which may have unfairly inflated expectations for what he could accomplish. He also entered the Kentucky program on the heels of a national championship-winning season and was tasked with following Anthony Davis. Despite all that, he was having a great season until he tore his ACL in February.

Kentucky could not recover from losing Noel, and the Wildcats missed the NCAA Tournament for the only time in John Calipari’s coaching tenure. Noel averaged 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocks in the 24 games he played at UK, and was selected sixth overall in the 2013 draft. He’s continued to battle injuries in the NBA while serving as a role player when healthy.

14. James Wiseman, Memphis — 2019

Wiseman played only three games for Memphis before deciding to withdraw from school to prepare for the NBA Draft amid a suspension over NCAA eligibility issues. It marked the first time in over a decade that a No. 1-ranked prospect did not play at least 20 games of college basketball.

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