The Naismith Player of the Year Award goes to the best player in all of college basketball over the course of the regular season. While not as notable as the Heisman, the Naismith Award is a prestigious honor and still carries weight as the highest individual award a college basketball player can receive.
Despite this, the award recently went to players who are not regarded as top NBA prospects. Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe won the award in 2021, as the Kentucky forward averaged 17 points per game for the 2-seed Wildcats. Tshiebwe’s physical game is not expected to translate well in the NBA, and 2020 winner Luka Garza is struggling to stay in an NBA rotation.
So what Naismith Award winners did have success in the professional game? This article will reveal my top ten list, with a familiar name at number one.
10. Anthony Davis, Kentucky
One of the most dominant college single-season performances in recent memory, Anthony Davis ruled all of college basketball back in 2012. The former Kentucky Wildcat averaged fourteen points a game for the eventual national champions, however it was defensively where he was most impactful.
He averaged 4.7 blocks per game, and individually swatted more shots than most teams total. Davis is now having a phenomenal NBA career even with the Lakers’ recent struggles, winning a title and being named a member of the NBA 75 team.
9. Pete Maravich, LSU
If the Naismith Award criteria was based on what each player did in college, “Pistol Pete” would sit comfortably in the top three. Maravich is the all-time leader in college basketball points per game, averaging a disgusting 44(!!!) points per game.
The guard was known for his innovative handles and scoring ability, and carved out a Hall-of-Fame NBA career with the then-New Orleans Jazz.
8. Bill Walton, UCLA
There may be no bigger what-if story in the history of basketball than Bill Walton. Attending the most prestigious program at the time, Walton’s UCLA career ended with two championships and three Naismith Awards.
Walton dominated NBA play as well, at least when he was healthy. The center led the Trail Blazers to their lone championship in 1977, but struggled to stay off the injury report for the remainder of his career.
7. David Robinson, Navy
Fans will likely never see a player at a service academy win the Naismith Award again, but that does not mean Robinson did not deserve it. This seven-foot center is best known for his defensive prowess, but also developed into one of the best scorers from the position in NBA history while playing for the San Antonio Spurs.
6. Patrick Ewing, Georgetown
The current coach of the Georgetown Hoyas happens to be the greatest player to ever come out of the program. Ewing was the face of college basketball during his tenure, winning a national championship and appearing in another while with the team.
In the NBA, Ewing brought excitement and championship aspirations to Madison Square Garden, even leading New York to an NBA Finals in 1994. If only he did not have to play at the same time as Michael Jordan.
5. Kevin Durant, Texas
By far the best active player with the Naismith Award, Durant is already a bonafide top fifteen player in NBA history. The 2x champion and 2014 MVP was a silky-smooth scorer even back at Texas, averaging 25.8 points per game with the Longhorns.
4. Tim Duncan, Wake Forest
No matter how boring fans think Tim Duncan was on the basketball court, it is hard to find many players with more accolades than “The Big Fundamental”. The 5x champion was one of the faces of college basketball during his four-year tender at Wake Forest, winning the award after averaging over twenty points per game in his senior season.
3. Larry Bird, Indiana State
A 3x MVP and 3x champion, Larry Bird was already one of the best basketball players in the world during his final season at Indiana State. The Boston legend averaged thirty points per game during his college career, and even led the small school to the national championship game in 1979.
2. Lew Alcindor, UCLA
Before changing his name to Kareem, Lew Alcindor established himself as the greatest college basketball player of all time. The skyhook master won two national championships and averaged 26 points per game while being the face of the best college program in history.
His NBA career was somehow better, finishing with six championships and MVPs, along with still being the league’s all-time leading scorer.
1. Michael Jordan, UNC
I mean, who else? While it is easy to forget the college career of a professional legend like Jordan, it is nothing to glance over. In 1982, Jordan exploded onto the scene by hitting the game-winning shot in the national championship game, and won the Naismith Award two years later in 1984.
In the NBA, Jordan turned out ok. Not sure if you have heard about what he has done.