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Zion Williamson Is Already a College Legend. Can He Join the Triple Ones Club?

How many players have won the AP Player of the Year award and a national championship in the same season before being picked no. 1 overall in the NBA draft? The list is shorter than you think.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

My current pro comp for Zion Williamson is an Airbus A380. He weighs 1.2 million pounds, which you’d think would limit his basketball abilities, but he’s also capable of jumping 40,000 feet in the air and can move at speeds of up to 750 miles per hour. Those born before the industrial revolution would look at the size of an Airbus or a Zion Williamson and say, “There’s no way that thing can fly, it’s impossible!” But science can explain heavier-than-air flight, and maybe someday it will be able to explain Williamson’s basketball exploits, too.

Now that we know he is unbreakable, we can chuckle when looking back on Zion Williamson’s injury. Now that he’s returned to the court and been just as dominant as before, now that Nike has dispatched its shoe engineers to China to construct Zion-proof shoes, now that he is no longer at risk of losing millions upon millions of NBA dollars, we can think about how the six games Williamson missed with a knee sprain may tell us more about his importance than all of the absurd things he’s done while healthy.

When Williamson got injured in Duke’s first matchup with North Carolina on February 20, the Blue Devils were 23-2 and ranked no. 1 in the country. With Williamson out, Duke went 3-3 and nearly lost a fourth game to 11-18 Wake Forest, only beating the dismal Demon Deacons when a last-second putback attempt rimmed around and out. The two games the team lost with Williamson came by a combined six points; the three games it lost without him came by a combined 30. On the season, Duke scores 112.9 points and allows 91.3 points per 100 possessions. Without Williamson, Duke scored 101.1 points and allowed 98.6 points per 100 possessions. Zion’s absence didn’t leave a hole—it left a meteoric crater. Even a team as talented as Duke couldn’t come close to filling it.

And after he returned, Duke won the ACC tournament, with Williamson going 13-of-13 from the field during a victory over Syracuse and hitting the game-winning shot to down a UNC team that twice defeated Duke in his absence. The selection committee essentially ignored the losses the Blue Devils took while Williamson was out, giving Duke the no. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. Las Vegas took a similar approach, as the Blue Devils are favorites to win the championship.

It is impossible to overstate Williamson’s significance. He is simultaneously the best college basketball player, the one whose skills will best translate to the pros, and the one whose team has the best chance to win the event that defines every college basketball season—a combination that is extremely rare. What Zion does over the final few weeks of his brief and spectacular Duke career may vault him from the likes of the great college basketball players to the ranks of the iconic ones.

Let’s investigate the rarity of what Zion Williamson could accomplish this season. For the purposes of this investigation, we’re going to say that the most talented player in college basketball is the one taken first overall in the NBA draft, that the best player in college basketball is the one who wins the AP Player of the Year award, and that the best team in college basketball is the one that wins a given NCAA tournament. If someone secures all three of these achievements, he becomes a member of the Triple Ones Club.

It might seem odd to make a big fuss about a single player garnering all three of these honors. Like, duh, of course the best player is also the most talented and the one whose team wins the title. But it’s almost never that simple. Often, the AP Player of the Year award goes to a pure scorer who is asked to carry his team but lacks the supporting cast necessary to win a title or the all-around talent required to become the top overall draft pick. This was the case with Doug McDermott in 2014, Jimmer Fredette in 2011, and others. Often, the best college basketball team is the one with the most depth, not the team with the superstar likely to win an AP Player of the Year award or be picked first. Take Villanova in 2015-16, Louisville in 2012-13, or Kansas in 2007-08. And NBA scouts are solely concerned with how talented a player is, and don’t care about how prodigious his college career was. This explains why Ben Simmons went no. 1 in 2016 despite not playing in the tourney. (And, uh, Markelle Fultz in 2017 too.)

Only four times since 2000 has an AP Player of the Year gone on to become the no. 1 pick in the NBA draft. That list is as follows:

Won AP Player of the Year and Went No. 1 in NBA Draft

Player Year College Program NBA Team
Player Year College Program NBA Team
Kenyon Martin 2000 Cincinnati New Jersey Nets
Andrew Bogut 2005 Utah Milwaukee Bucks
Blake Griffin 2009 Oklahoma Los Angeles Clippers
Anthony Davis 2012 Kentucky New Orleans Hornets

Only three times since 2000 has an AP Player of the Year been on the team that won that season’s NCAA tournament. That list is below:

Won AP Player of the Year and NCAA Title

Player Year College Program
Player Year College Program
Shane Battier 2001 Duke
Anthony Davis 2012 Kentucky
Jalen Brunson 2018 Villanova

And Davis is the only national champion since 2000 to be the first pick in the subsequent NBA draft. Going back further, here’s the complete list of every player to win AP Player of the Year and the NCAA tournament in the same season before being selected first overall. Presenting the full Triple Ones Club:

The Triple Ones Club

Player Year College Program NBA Team
Player Year College Program NBA Team
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1969 UCLA Milwaukee Bucks
Bill Walton 1973 UCLA Portland Trail Blazers
David Thompson 1975 NC State Atlanta Hawks
Anthony Davis 2012 Kentucky New Orleans Hornets

You probably know a lot about Abdul-Jabbar and Walton, who are both producing entertaining television in the modern era, albeit in very different ways. Younger fans may be less familiar with Thompson, in part because his NBA career sputtered due to substance abuse and a freak injury suffered at a nightclub called Studio 54. But he was a baller in his prime. All three men are in the Basketball Hall of Fame and the College Basketball Hall of Fame. (They’re different, although the Basketball Hall of Fame takes college accomplishments into account.) Davis is a three-time All-NBA first-teamer, so he should someday be in both, too.

The nature of the Triple Ones Club accomplishment has changed over the years. Abdul-Jabbar, Walton, and Thompson all won individual parts of the criteria involved multiple times. Kareem won three national championships and two AP Player of the Year awards; Walton was also named Player of the Year twice and won two titles. (This might shock recent college hoops fans, but once upon a time UCLA was good.) Thompson was Player of the Year twice, too. That’s not happening in the one-and-done era—Williamson is as likely to be drafted in the second round as he is to stick around at Duke long enough to win multiple college championships.

Williamson has the first two parts of this wrapped up. He’s going to be drafted first overall, and he’s going to win AP Player of the Year. Yes, he missed roughly 17 percent of his team’s games, which should theoretically be a detriment to his Player of the Year chances. As laid out above, though, it’s almost an argument in his favor. And it should be noted that neither of these races is particularly close. I haven’t seen anybody other than Zion slotted at no. 1 in a mock in months, and I can’t even fathom who could supplant Zion as Player of the Year. (Tennessee’s Grant Williams? Marquette’s Markus Howard? Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke or Rui Hachimura? None seem right.)

Williamson has a legit shot to join the Triple Ones Club, which makes his upcoming NCAA tournament run absolute must-watch material for any basketball fan. I mean, every Zion game should already be must-watch material—the range of ways that he’s capable of creating highlights is so diverse, from explosive dunks to skyscraping blocks to pinpoint passes. His stats are literally off the charts. But watching Williamson is more than just the opportunity to get a preview of the SportsCenter Top 10. (Sometimes, the whole thing.) We’re watching the birth of a basketball legend.

If Duke wins the championship, it will cement Williamson’s status as a generational star. If the Blue Devils falter, it will be a college basketball moment for the eons—not just a dominant superstar failing to accomplish his goals, but a dominant Duke superstar. And unlike with Davis, the only other Triples Ones Club member of the past 43 years, we know exactly how much Zion means to his program. Duke barely looked like a tournament team without him—that’s not hyperbole, since the Zion-less Blue Devils almost lost to a Wake Forest team that went 0-9 with eight double-digit losses in its nine other games against tourney teams. Duke looks like a potential champion with Zion—again, not hyperbole, since sportsbooks say that the Blue Devils are three times more likely to win the championship than anyone else.

The earliest members of the Triple Ones Club had multiple years in school to pull off their accomplishment; for Williamson the only time is now. Let’s see how high this 1.2 million-pounder can fly.