May 25, 2024

Where Jalen Brunson’s blossoming NBA career ranks among Naismith Award winners of the 21st century


Naismith Award winners are recognized as the best players in college basketball, but in recent years earning the Naismith trophy has translated poorly to NBA stardom. The 2021 and 2022 winners — Oscar Tshiebwe from Kentucky and Luka Garza from Iowa — are struggling to latch on in the NBA. Obi Toppin, winner of the award in 2020, is just a role player for the Pacers.

Even 2019 winner Zion Williamson has been something of a disappointment in the NBA — relative to expectations anyway — because of a bad run with injuries and the lack of a playoff series victory by the Pelicans with Williamson on their roster. NBA inconsistency has been a theme for many Naismith Award winners in the 21st century.

Against that backdrop, the accomplishments of New York Knicks star Jalen Brunson stand out all the more.

A second round pick of the Dallas Mavericks in 2018 after winning the 2018 Naismith Award, Brunson is ascending to superstardom as the Knicks prepare to begin an Eastern Conference semifinals series with the Pacers on Monday. Aside from Williamson, the 6-foot-2 guard is the only Naismith Winner since Anthony Davis (2012) to be named an NBA All-Star.

Naismith winners of the 1980s routinely went on to enjoy stellar NBA careers. Among them were North Carolina‘s Michael Jordan (1984), Georgetown‘s Patrick Ewing (1985) and Navy‘s David Robinson (1987). That trio alone accounted for 35 All-Star Game appearances and eight NBA titles. But over the last 35 years, the standout pro careers of Naismith winners have been fewer and farther between. 

In light of Brunson’s incredible breakout season and postseason, here’s a ranking of the best NBA careers had by Naismith Award winners in the 21st century. 

Note: The parenthesized year denotes when the player won the Naismith Award. PER stands for Performance Efficiency Rating, which is an all-encompassing metric used to judge player performance.

Kevin Durant was a force in his only season as a Longhorn.
Getty Images

1. Kevin Durant, Texas (2007)

All-Star appearances: 14
NBA titles: 2
Best PER: 29.8 (2013-14)

Durant averaged 25.8 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game while shooting 40.4% from 3-point range in his lone college season at Texas, guiding the Longhorns to a 25-10 record and No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. He was the second pick in the 2007 NBA Draft behind Ohio State‘s Greg Oden but won Rookie of the Year in 2008 and never looked back. Durant is a 14-time NBA All-Star and two-time NBA champion. In terms of all-time great NBA careers among Naismith winners, only Michael Jordan (1984) and Tim Duncan (1997) can compete when it comes to Durant’s combination of All-Star appearances and titles (Jordan and Duncan have a combined 29 All-Star appearances and 11 NBA titles).

2. Anthony Davis, Kentucky (2012)

All-Star appearances: 9
NBA titles: 1
Best PER: 30.8 (2013-14)

Davis averaged 14 points, 10.4 rebounds and a stunning 4.7 blocks per game in 2011-12 for a Kentucky team that went 38-2 and won the national title. The New Orleans Hornets selected him No. 1 overall in the 2012 draft, and he’s proved to be one of this century’s top professional bigs. A nine-time All-Star and 2020 NBA champion with the Lakers, Davis still isn’t done. At 31, he still has time to add to his resume, although catching Durant for the best NBA career of 21st century Naismith winners will likely require that he win a couple more championships.

3. Blake Griffin, Oklahoma (2009)

All-Star appearances: 6
NBA titles: 0
Best PER: 23.9 (2013-14)

Brunson could catch Griffin on this list in the relatively near future, or even in a few weeks if the Knicks make a legendary playoff run. For now, though, Griffin comes in at No. 3 after a 13-year NBA career highlighted by six All-Star appearances. The ultra-athletic forward and 2011 dunk competition winner was the first overall pick of the Los Angeles Clippers in 2009 after averaging 22.7 points and 14.4 rebounds on 65.4% shooting for Oklahoma as a sophomore. Griffin led the Sooners to a 30-6 record and Elite Eight appearance in the 2008-09 season while edging DeJuan Blair (Pitt), Hasheem Thabeet (UConn) and Tyler Hansbrough (North Carolina) in the Naismith voting.

4. Jalen Brunson, Villanova (2018)

All-Star appearances: 1
NBA titles: 0
Best PER: 23.4 (2023-24)

Brunson seemed destined to be just another forgettable pro in a long line of  them from the ranks of 21st century Naismith winners when he opted to turn pro after three seasons at Villanova. Though his career included a pair of national titles, Brunson’s relatively limited size and lack of explosive athletic ability left him teetering on 2018 draft boards. His first two NBA seasons also offered few hints of the stardom that was coming as he ceded the spotlight to megastar Luka Doncic in Dallas. But since landing in New York for the 2022-23 season, Brunson has exploded, culminating with his first-ever All-Star appearance this season at age 27.

5. Zion Williamson, Duke (2019)

All-Star appearances: 2
NBA titles: 0
Best PER: 27.1 (2020-21)

Williamson is no failure as a pro, but he’s still finding his way through the physical rigors of a league that have taken a toll on his 284-pound frame. The strong but freakishly athletic and versatile forward averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks while shooting an obscene 68% in his lone season at Duke in 2018-19. A rough run with injuries have hampered Williamson from realizing his full potential so far. But he’ll be just 24 next season with plenty of time to move up this list.

Other Naismith Award winners

Here’s a rundown of the other Naismith Award winners that did not make the rankings.

2000 | Kenyon Martin, Cincinnati

All-Star appearances: 1
NBA titles: 0
Best PER: 18.7 (2003-04)

2001 | Shane Battier, Duke

All-Star appearances: 0
NBA titles: 2
Best PER: 15.3 (2003-04)

2002 | Jay Williams, Duke

All-Star appearances: 0
NBA titles: 1
Best PER: 12.2 (2002-03)

2003 | T.J. Ford, Texas

All-Star appearances: 0
NBA titles: 0
Best PER: 20.3 (2007-08)

2004 | Jameer Nelson, Saint Joseph’s

All-Star appearances: 1
NBA titles: 0
Best PER: 19.5 (2005-06)

2005 | Andrew Bogut, Utah

All-Star appearances: 0
NBA titles: 1
Best PER: 20.7 (2009-10)

2006 | JJ Redick, Duke

All-Star appearances: 0
NBA titles: 0
Best PER: 17.5 (2015-16)

2008 | Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina

All-Star appearances: 0
NBA titles: 0
Best PER: 16.4 (2010-11)

2010 | Evan Turner, Ohio State

All-Star appearances: 0
NBA titles: 0
Best PER: 13.6 (2015-16)

2011 | Jimmer Fredette, BYU

All-Star appearances: 0
NBA titles: 0
Best PER: 14.6 (2012-13)

2013 | Trey Burke, Michigan

All-Star appearances: 0
NBA titles: 0
Best PER: 16.5 (2018-19)

2014 | Doug McDermott, Creighton

All-Star appearances: 0
NBA titles: 0
Best PER: 15.6 (2020-21)

2015 | Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

All-Star appearances: 0
NBA titles: 0
Best PER: 16.8 (2018-19)

2016 | Buddy Hield, Oklahoma

All-Star appearances: 0
NBA titles: 0
Best PER: 17.5 (2018-19)

2017 | Frank Mason III, Kansas

All-Star appearances: 0
NBA titles: 0
Best PER: 13.0 (2017-18)

2020 | Obi Toppin, Dayton

All-Star appearances: 0
NBA titles: 0
Best PER: 18.3 (2021-22)

2021 | Luka Garza, Iowa

All-Star appearances: 0
NBA titles; 0
Best PER: N/A (yet to appear in 50 games during an NBA season)

2022 | Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky

All-Star appearances: 0
NBA titles: 0
Best PER: N/A (appeared in eight career NBA games)

2023 winner: Zach Edey, Purdue
2024 winner: Zach Edey, Purdue





Source