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Zion Williamson Packed A Lot Of Greatness Into A Short College Career

College basketball’s biggest weekend will be missing college basketball’s biggest star. After Michigan State knocked off Duke 68-67 on Sunday to advance to the Final Four, the Blue Devils are out of the NCAA Tournament — and that means we won’t see forward Zion Williamson again until the NBA draft. (Presumably.) CBS had invested a lot in following Williamson’s every move during the tournament, and with good cause. By at least one metric, Williamson had the best season in recent college history. But that’s all in the past now. So how weird is it that Zion won’t be present for the tournament’s finale in Minneapolis? And what can we make of his brief, brilliant stay in the college game, possibly as one of the final megastars of the one-and-done era?

Williamson has spent most of the season as the heavy betting favorite to win the men’s Naismith college player of the year award. His money-line odds were as high as -700 (that’s roughly 88 percent without removing the vig) before his midseason injury, and they currently sit around -300 (75 percent). Other players could potentially take the honor when it is announced April 7, but it would be a surprise if Williamson were not the winner.

If Zion does pick up the award, he will become only the third freshman (joining Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis) and 12th underclassman to do so in the history of the honor. It’s an elite award to earn, having been won by the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Michael Jordan, in addition to KD and AD. But it hasn’t exactly been out of the ordinary for the Final Four to move on without the nation’s best player. Through 2018, the Naismith award winner has seen his team make the Final Four just 48 percent of the time — meaning roughly half of college basketball’s very best stars since 19691 have watched the Final Four from home. Williamson wouldn’t be the first to fit that description, and he likely wouldn’t be the last.

But even among players of the year, Williamson would be unusually good — particularly by the standards of some recent winners:2

Zion’s place among Naismith Award winners

For Zion Williamson and Naismith College Player of the Year winners since 1996, team Final Four status and win share statistics

Win Shares
Year Player College Pos. Class Final four? Total Per 40
2000 Kenyon Martin Cincinnati F Sr. 9.0 .398
1997 Tim Duncan Wake Forest C Sr. 10.4 .367
2005 Andrew Bogut Utah C So. 10.9 .358
1999 Elton Brand Duke F So. 10.0 .350
2019 Zion Williamson Duke F Fr. 8.3 .335
2009 Blake Griffin Oklahoma F So. 9.7 .332
1996 Marcus Camby Massachusetts C Jr. 8.1 .320
2012 Anthony Davis Kentucky C Fr. 9.9 .310
2015 Frank Kaminsky Wisconsin F Sr. 9.8 .299
2001 Shane Battier Duke F Sr. 10.1 .298
2007 Kevin Durant Texas F Fr. 8.8 .280
2008 Tyler Hansbrough North Carolina F Jr. 8.7 .272
1998 Antawn Jamison North Carolina F Jr. 8.3 .271
2014 Doug McDermott Creighton F Sr. 7.7 .261
2011 Jimmer Fredette Brigham Young G Sr. 8.5 .256
2013 Trey Burke Michigan G So. 8.6 .249
2010 Evan Turner Ohio State G Jr. 6.8 .247
2004 Jameer Nelson Saint Joseph’s G Sr. 6.6 .243
2018 Jalen Brunson Villanova G Jr. 7.7 .241
2006 J. J. Redick Duke G Sr. 7.8 .233
2016 Buddy Hield Oklahoma G Sr. 7.6 .232
2017 Frank Mason III Kansas G Sr. 7.5 .230
2002 Jason Williams Duke G Jr. 6.3 .213
2003 T. J. Ford Texas G So. 4.3 .155

The 2019 Naismith winner will be announced April 7

Sources: Wikipedia,

On a per-40-minute basis, Williamson would have the most win shares of any Naismith winner since Andrew Bogut in 2005 (Bogut went No. 1 overall in the NBA draft that summer) and the fifth-most since 1996, period. And unlike some of the other names on the list above, Williamson wasn’t a one-man show dragging a bunch of weak teammates along. Duke ranked fourth in our pre-tournament Elo ratings — higher than the team of anyone ranked ahead of Zion in win shares per 40 minutes except Elton Brand (whose own Blue Devils ranked first going into the 1999 tourney).

In that regard, maybe the best comparison for Williamson’s freshman season was that of Davis on the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats — a stellar, standout individual year on a highly ranked squad full of other elite NBA prospects. But while Davis got to the Final Four and ultimately won the NCAA championship, Williamson and Duke fell short, relegating him to a separate list of freshman phenoms — one including Durant and Michael Beasley, whose individual efficiency in 2008 was (amazingly) even greater than Zion’s this year — on teams that couldn’t get to the tournament’s third weekend.

The end of Duke’s season won’t diminish the personal success Williamson had during his one NCAA season, nor will it affect his presumptive status as the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. And few fans outside Durham will be crying for Duke, which had its chances to close out Michigan State late on Sunday but was unable to do so (in large part because Williamson took only one shot in the game’s final six-and-a-half minutes). Even so, the Final Four won’t be quite the same without Williamson’s dizzying array of highlight-reel drives, dunks and swats. Instead, the Season of Zion Williamson will come to an end with Zion Williamson nowhere in sight.

From ABC News:

Duke’s Zion Williamson dominates in 1st March Madness game

Check out our latest March Madness predictions.


  1. The first year the award was given out.

  2. We went back to 1996 in the table below because that’s the earliest season for which calculates its win shares player-value metric.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.