The top 25 most valuable college basketball players (pre-NIL) since 2000

ByMyron Medcalf ESPN logo
Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The name, image and likeness (NIL) rules have allowed college stars to excel in different lanes outside of their sports. While they're all making a push toward national titles this season, they can also enjoy the spoils of their hard work with sponsorships and endorsements.

Nearly two years into the NIL era, college basketball is changing.

Iowa star Caitlin Clark had reportedly made more than $1 million in endorsement deals before she signed with Nike earlier this year. Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe and Gonzaga's Drew Timme are reportedly earning seven figures, too. And Miami's Cavinder twins, Haley and Hanna, have turned their millions of followers into millions of dollars.

It's about time.

For years, college athletes lobbied for the opportunity to benefit from NIL opportunities, but the NCAA blocked those ambitions.

That's why it's fair to wonder how the past generations of college basketball players might have fared if they would have had the chance, so we decided to rank former stars according to the NIL value they might have had during their time in college.

We can only imagine what Lisa Leslie, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Sheryl Swoopes, Cheryl Miller, the Fab Five and other 1980s and 1990s stars might have generated during their careers. But we've decided to confine this list to the last 20 or so years. Any athlete who played from the 2000-01 season until 2020-21 is eligible.

Criteria included a combination of each player's achievements and popularity in college. Then, we used their current social media followings and post-collegiate endorsements as a barometer (not in all cases, of course) to calculate their potential brand power during their respective time as Division I college basketball stars. It's not an exact science, but we tried.

Here are the top 25 most valuable college basketball players (pre-NIL) since 2000:

1. Sabrina Ionescu (G, Oregon Ducks, 2016-2020)

The stats: 26 triple-doubles (NCAA career record), 3-time AP first team All-American (2018, 2019, 2020), No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft (2020)

Social media following: 701,000 (Instagram), 135,000 (Twitter), 264,000 (TikTok)

Post-NCAA endorsements: BodyArmor, Nike, State Farm, Xbox

NIL potential: As a superstar at Nike's flagship school, Ionescu would have spent her days with the Ducks sifting through lucrative NIL offers that would have made her a young millionaire.

2. Zion Williamson (F, Duke Blue Devils, 2018-19)

The stats: Wooden Award winner (2019), AP first team All-American, No. 1 pick in the NBA draft (2019)

Social media following: 5.3 million (Instagram)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Gatorade, Mountain Dew, 2K Sports, Nike

NIL potential: When Williamson's shoe broke with President Obama sitting in the front row during a game against the Tar Heels in 2019, Nike's stock value dropped $1 billion -- a sign of what his NIL influence on the market might have been.

3. Candace Parker (F, Tennessee Lady Volunteers, 2004-2008)

The stats: Two-time NCAA champion (2007, 2008), two-time Wooden Award winner (2007, 2008), No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft (2008)

Social media following: 1 million (Instagram), 395,000 (Twitter)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Adidas, CarMax, Capital One

NIL potential: You can't make a list of the greatest college players of all-time without mentioning Parker, who would have made a lot of NIL money off that fact alone.

4. Kevin Durant (F, Texas Longhorns, 2006-07)

The stats: Wooden Award winner (2007), No. 2 pick in the NBA draft (2007), Big 12 player of the year (2007)

Social media following: 21 million (Twitter), 13 million (Instagram)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Nike, Gatorade, 2K Sports, Beats by Dre

NIL potential: He only spent one year at Texas, but Durant was must-see TV every time he stepped onto the court.

5. Trae Young (G, Oklahoma Sooners, 2017-18)

The stats: No. 5 pick in the NBA draft (2018), All-Big 12 first team (2018), AP first team All-American (2018)

Social media following: 4.8 million (Instagram)

Post-NCAA endorsements: State Farm, Adidas, BodyArmor, eBay

NIL potential: NBA stars sent him text messages and showed up to his games during his one magical season at Oklahoma, where the point guard would have left with a lot of money in his pocket if NIL rules had been in place.

6. Diana Taurasi (PG/SG, UConn Huskies, 2001-2004)

The stats: Three-time NCAA champion (2002, 2003, 2004), No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft (2004), 2003 AP national player of the year

Social media following: 95,000 (Twitter), 280,000 (Instagram)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Nike, BodyArmor

NIL potential: Taurasi is one of the greatest players in women's college basketball history, which is why the former UConn star -- nearly 16 million people watched her three national championship victories -- would have appealed to major brands when she was in college.

7. Brittney Griner (C, Baylor Bears, 2009-2013)

The stats: NCAA champion (2012), two-time Wooden Award winner (2012, 2013), No. 1 pick 2013 WNBA draft

Social media following: 112,000 (Twitter), 674,000 (Instagram)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Nike

NIL potential: Griner was a 6-foot-9 force in women's college basketball during her four years at Baylor -- she has the NCAA's all-time record of 748 career blocks, and dunks (18).

8. Maya Moore (G/F, UConn Huskies, 2007-2011)

The stats: Two-time Wooden Award winner (2009, 2011), two-time NCAA champion (2009, 2010), No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft (2011)

Social media following: 273,000 (Instagram), 234,000 (Twitter)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Jordan Brand, Pepsi Max, United Airlines

NIL potential: After her decorated collegiate career ended, Moore became the first woman to sign a deal with Jordan Brand, but the money would have arrived sooner had Moore been allowed to sign NIL deals in college.

9. Stephen Curry (G, Davidson Wildcats, 2006-2009)

The stats: No. 7 pick in NBA draft (2009), AP first-team All-American (2009), NCAA record for most 3-pointers in one season (162 in 2008)

Social media following: 48 million (Instagram)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Under Armour, Chase Bank, Nissan Motor

NIL potential: LeBron James sat courtside as Curry starred in the 2008 NCAA tournament, the same year the future NBA superstar would have made a hefty sum on NIL deals if he'd had the opportunity.

10. Jimmer Fredette (G, BYU Cougars, 2007-2011)

The stats: AP first team All-American (2011), No. 10 pick in the NBA draft (2011), Wooden Award winner (2011)

Social media following: 135,000 (Instagram), 144,000 (Twitter), 100,000 (TikTok)

Post-NCAA endorsements: 361 (Chinese shoe brand)

NIL potential: "Jimmer Mania" was so big BYU had to sneak Fredette in and out of its arena whenever he played.

11. Carmelo Anthony (F, Syracuse Orange, 2002-03)

The stats: NCAA champion (2003), No. 3 pick in the NBA draft (2003), Most Outstanding Player in the 2003 NCAA tournament

Social media following: 7.9 million (Instagram)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Jordan Brand, Foot Locker

NIL potential: His run through the 2003 NCAA tournament changed Syracuse basketball.

12. Sue Bird (PG, UConn Huskies, 1999-2002)

The stats: Three-time winner of Nancy Lieberman Award (nation's best point guard), led team to 39-0 record and national title in 2001-02 season, No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft (2002)

Social media following: 194,000 (Twitter), 704,000 (Instagram)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Nike, State Farm, American Express

NIL potential: More than 5.68 million people watched Bird lead UConn to an 82-70 win over Oklahoma in the 2002 national championship game. That's strong sponsorship-generating numbers.

13. Tyler Hansbrough (F, North Carolina Tar Heels, 2005-09)

The stats: Wooden Award winner (2008), NCAA champion (2009), No. 13 pick in the NBA draft (2009)

Social media following: 28,000 (Instagram), 75,000 (Twitter)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Panini

NIL potential: Before Oscar Tshiebwe, Hansbrough had been the only Wooden Award winner in the one-and-done era to return to school for another season.

14. John Wall (G, Kentucky Wildcats, 2009-10)

The stats: No. 1 pick NBA draft (2012), AP first team All-American (2010), SEC player of the year (2010)

Social media following: 4.5 million (Instagram)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Reebok, Adidas

NIL potential: Wall created the "John Wall dance" that captivated the college basketball landscape during his lone season at the Division I level.

15. Skylar Diggins-Smith (G, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 2009-2013)

The stats: AP first team All-American (2012, 2013), 2-time Nancy Lieberman Award (2012, 2013), No. 3 pick in the WNBA draft (2013)

Social media following: 1 million (Instagram)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Puma, Nike, Sprint, BodyArmor

NIL potential: Jay-Z (her first agent) gave her a Mercedes when she graduated from Notre Dame.

16. Anthony Davis (F, Kentucky Wildcats, 2011-12)

The stats: Wooden Award winner (2012), No. 1 pick in the NBA draft (2012), Most Outstanding Player in the 2012 NCAA tournament

Social media following: 7.2 million (Instagram)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Nike, Frito-Lay, Red Bull

NIL potential: Davis became the face of the one-and-done movement after leading Kentucky to a national title more than a decade ago.

17. Jay Williams (G, Duke Blue Devils, 1999-2002)

The stats: AP first team All-American (2001, 2002), NCAA champion (2001), No. 2 pick in the NBA draft (2002)

Social media following: 566,000 (Instagram), 624,000 (Twitter),

Post-NCAA endorsements:Adidas

NIL potential: Long before he became a commentator, he was the young point guard for Duke everybody wanted to watch.

18. Breanna Stewart (F, UConn Huskies, 2012-2016)

The stats: Four-time Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA tournament, four-time NCAA champion (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016), two-time Wooden Award winner (2015, 2016)

Social media following: 122,000 (Twitter), 309,000 (Instagram)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Nike, Puma

NIL potential: One of the most decorated college basketball players, men's or women's, of all-time, Stewart would have spent her time in UConn with millions in the bank off NIL opportunities.

19. A'ja Wilson (F, South Carolina Gamecocks, 2014-18)

The stats: Wooden Award winner (2018), 3-time All-American (2016, 2017, 2018), NCAA champion (2017)

Social media following: 60,000 (TikTok), 142,000 (Twitter), 500,000 (Instagram)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Nike, Ruffles, Mountain Dew

NIL potential: Wilson was the star who helped Dawn Staley's South Carolina become a national powerhouse.

20. Nneka Ogwumike (F, Stanford Cardinal, 2008-2012) and Chiney Ogwumike (F, Stanford Cardinal, 2010-2014)

The stats: Six combined AP first- and second-team All-American appearances, five combined Final Four appearances, No. 1 pick in the 2012 (Nneka) and 2014 (Chiney) WNBA drafts

Social media following: Nneka (220,000 on Twitter, Instagram combined) and Chiney (388,000 on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok combined)

Post-NCAA endorsements:Adidas (both Nneka and Chiney)

NIL potential: The sisters, who led Stanford to the Final Four in 2011 and 2012, were known for their versatility, dominance and intellect while with the Cardinal.

21.Blake Griffin (F, Oklahoma Sooners, 2007-2009)

The stats: Wooden Award winner (2009), No. 1 pick in the NBA draft (2009), Big 12 player of the year (2009)

Social media following: 3.8 million (Instagram)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Kia, Jordan Brand, Subway

NIL potential: Griffin was a high-flying, dunking star during an electric two years at Oklahoma.

22. Elena Delle Donne (F, Delaware Blue Hens, 2009-2013)

The stats:Two-time AP All-American (2011, 2012), led her team to the 2013 Sweet 16, No. 2 pick in 2013 WNBA draft

Social media following: 270,000 (Twitter), 43,000 (TikTok), 464,000 (Instagram)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Nike, Gatorade

NIL potential: Delle Donne would have been a marketing superstar at Delaware, which finished top 25 nationally in attendance with the All-American on the roster in 2013.

23. J.J. Redick (G, Duke Blue Devils, 2002-2006)

The stats: Wooden Award winner (2006), No. 11 pick in the NBA draft (2006), 457 career 3-pointers (second all-time in NCAA history)

Social media following: 250,000 (Instagram), 241,000 (Twitter)

Post-NCAA endorsements:Adidas

NIL potential: As both an exceptional and polarizing player at Duke, Redick would have made the haters even more upset if he'd been allowed to sign major sponsorship deals.

24. Kelsey Plum (G, Washington Huskies, 2013-2017)

The stats: AP first team All-American (2017), No. 1 pick in WNBA draft (2017), Wooden Award winner (2017)

Social media following: 42,000 (TikTok), 101,000 (Twitter), 640,000 (Instagram)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Under Armour, Nike, GSTQ

NIL potential: The NCAA's all-time leading scorer (3,527 points) spent her time at Washington chasing history, and doing it in style.

25. Arike Ogunbowale (G, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 2015-2019)

The stats: NCAA champion (2018), Most Outstanding Player of the tournament (2018); ACC athlete of the year (2018), No. 5 pick in the WNBA draft (2019)

Social media following: 44,000 (Twitter), 158,000 (Instagram), 10,000 (TikTok)

Post-NCAA endorsements: Nike, eBay, Dick's Sporting Goods

NIL potential: Ogunbowale might have spent her offseason on the beach with all the NIL money she would have collected after she made the game-winning shots in both the 2018 national semifinal and championship games.

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