College basketball maintains the essence of the game in ways the NBA often forgoes. The best college basketball players take the lessons from their coaches, elevate their teams to greatness, and prepare for the next step into the professional ranks. Some of the best college basketball stars ever turned into NBA legends, while others remained firmly ingrained in NCAA culture instead!
1. Lew Alcindor (UCLA)
Lew Alcindor (better known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after changing his name in 1971) often took over college basketball games for the UCLA Bruins like an NBA superstar. During his time in Los Angeles, Alcindor averaged over 24 points every season while leading the team to the championship three times. Alcindor only lost two games during his college career.
2. Bill Walton (UCLA)
Bill Walton carried on the tradition set by Lew Alcindor at UCLA by winning two championships and losing only four games. Walton didn’t bring the same athleticism to the center position that Alcindor did, but the goofy, fun-loving Hall-of-Famer revolutionized passing and playmaking from the post.
3. Pete Maravich (LSU)
Pete Maravich represents the pinnacle of offensive brilliance in college basketball. The Pistol was granted full creative control of the LSU attack by his father, Press, and he produced points at a rate that will never occur again. Maravich averaged an astounding 44 points per game while shooting from distances that Steph Curry and Damian Lillard imitate over five decades later.
4. Oscar Robertson (Cincinnati)
Oscar Robertson’s NBA career often overshadows the damage he doled out on opponents while at Cincinnati. Robertson’s statistical wizardry was only matched by his profound athleticism and novel prowess playing combo guard. Even back in the 1950s, nobody knew quite what position the Big O was playing. He was a pure hooper, plain and simple.
5. Bill Russell (San Francisco)
Bill Russell’s winning ways are traced back to his days in San Francisco, where he led the Dons to multiple championships while averaging nearly 20 points and 20 rebounds per game. Russell’s defensive prowess and intelligence were evident from a young age, and not many college basketball players led with integrity and maturity like him.
6. Wilt Chamberlain (Kansas)
Wilt Chamberlain arrived at Kansas in the 1950s as the most impressive athlete in basketball history. Wilt averaged almost 30 points and 20 rebounds per game during his time on campus before moonlighting with the Harlem Globetrotters. Chamberlain’s array of jump shots, dunks, and fast break sprints made other players look like they didn’t belong.
7. Elvin Hayes (Houston)
Averaging 31 points and 17 rebounds per game, Elvin Hayes was the best statistical player of his generation. Hayes didn’t win like Lew Alcindor, but he propelled Houston into NCAA relevance without nearly as much talent around him as other stars.
8. Tyler Hansbrough (North Carolina)
Tyler Hansbrough stands out as the best college basketball player ever who didn’t translate to the NBA. The gritty, hard-nosed Hansbrough couldn’t be stopped in the paint for the Tar Heels. He won a title as a senior and averaged 20 points per game and nearly nine rebounds per contest in his career.
9. Christian Laettner (Duke)
Christian Laettner symbolized Duke’s values in college basketball to a tee. Laettner annoyed his opponents with dirty plays and fundamental yet boring post moves and shooting. He teamed with Grant Hill to win two championships before an average NBA career with the Timberwolves and Wizards, among other teams.
10. Ralph Sampson (Virginia)
Ralph Sampson was the first player over 7’3’’ to have an impact on basketball history. Sampson’s time at Virginia resulted in many frustrated peers who had no idea how to combat his skills at the towering height he was pulling them off from. He won Naismith College Player of the Year trophies while with the Cavaliers.
11. David Thompson (NC State)
David Thompson glided through the backcourt and soared over centers to the tune of almost 27 points per game at North Carolina State. Thompson mesmerized coaches and players with a level of leaping ability never before seen in the 1970s.
12. Larry Bird (Indiana State)
Larry Bird almost played for Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers team before switching to the lesser-known Indiana State Sycamores. Bird’s shooting, passing, and defensive skills created a once-in-a-lifetime mix of talents that elevated his teammates. In many ways, Bird jolted college basketball to life with his rival, Magic Johnson. Bird averaged 30 points and 13 rebounds per game.
13. Magic Johnson (Michigan State)
Magic Johnson’s college career at Michigan State indicated the 6’9’’ point guard’s ability to alter a game with his magnetic charisma and surgical passing skills. Magic won the 1979 National Championship with the Spartans and established the college as a premier team for decades to come.
14. Jerry Lucas (Ohio State)
Jerry Lucas averaged a preposterous 24 points and 17 rebounds per game while establishing Ohio State as a basketball school in the 1960s (most people only think about OSU for football prowess.) Lucas never rushed any of his shots and applied his intelligence on defense to become a legendary rebounder.
15. Jerry West (West Virginia)
Jerry West was a natural scorer at West Virginia, where he also rebounded the ball with vigor. Standing at only 6’3’’, West maintained a 13 rebounds per game average despite being one of the smallest players on the floor. West was always a perennial runner-up during his career, and he started that status quo when West Virginia lost the title game in 1959.
16. Austin Carr (Notre Dame)
Austin Carr stands as perhaps the second-best scorer in college basketball history due to his two seasons averaging 38 points per game. Carr was a big guard during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a trait that allowed him to overpower his peers and shoot over smaller defenders.
17. Tim Duncan (Wake Forest)
Tim Duncan’s legendary San Antonio career might not have happened without his patience and practice at Wake Forest. Duncan developed his signature consistency with the Demon Deacons and averaged 16 points and 12 rebounds per game while playing all four seasons with the team.
18. Patrick Ewing (Georgetown)
Patrick Ewing ended up as the third-best center of the 1990s in the NBA, but he established himself as the best college prospect at the position in the 1980s. Ewing’s jump shooting and agility helped Georgetown win a title and go to three title games in the middle of the decade.
19. Tom Gola (La Salle)
Tom Gola created one of the best resumes in college basketball during the 1950s. Gola averaged about 21 points and 19 rebounds per game for four years at La Salle. Before Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell came around, Gola’s career measured up to anybody who ever played.
20. Michael Jordan (North Carolina)
Michael Jordan planted the seeds for his legendary Chicago Bulls professional career while with North Carolina. Head coach Dean Smith helped Jordan by teaching him to share the ball and play within a team concept, but many analysts feel that this approach hindered Jordan’s true singular potential.
21. Grant Hill (Duke)
Grant Hill supported Christian Laettner at Duke, usually slotting in as the second option on offense. Despite this setup, most scouts knew that Hill would turn into a more well-rounded star throughout their careers. Hill’s unselfish nature and adaptability made him a college basketball legend.
22. J.J. Reddick (Duke)
J.J. Reddick’s feisty personality and pure shooting stroke ushered in a new era for Duke in the 2000s. Reddick’s size and skills were difficult for other college basketball guards to stop. Reddick eventually became a key role player in the NBA for the Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans.