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Andy Wittry | | June 1, 2020

The most popular names in college basketball in 2020 sound a lot like the 1990s

The most popular names in college basketball in 2020 sound a lot like the 1990s

Michael Jordan, the most famous basketball player ever, won his fourth, fifth and sixth NBA titles (and his fourth, fifth and sixth MVP awards) in succession from 1996 to 1998. Twenty-two years after Jordan and his Chicago Bulls won their last world championship, Jordan is the most popular first name in Division I men's college basketball.

The second-most popular first name in the sport?

Michael, and variations of it.

Inspired by a 2017 Wall Street Journal story that investigated why there are so many Jalens (and Jaylens and Jaylans) in college basketball, I decided to analyze the most popular names in the sport at the turn of the decade in an effort to see what popular names in the 2020 college basketball season may have been inspired by 1990s and early 2000s influences.

The methodology used

Using Sports Reference, I compiled a list of the 5,420 men's basketball players listed on the rosters of the 353 Division I men's basketball teams. This includes walk-ons, players who are redshirting and those who aren't playing this season due to injury.

It didn't take long to for the most popular names to separate from the crowd. Through the first 50 rosters examined, Michael and Jordan (and variations of each name) were tied for the most popular name.

After analyzing every Division I roster, that data held up. You can view our complete database here.

There are 85 Jordans, Jordyns or Jordens in the sport this season. Fun fact: MJ won NBA Rookie of the Year in '85.

There are 84 Michaels, Mikaels, Mikals, Mikails, Mychaels, Mikkels, Mikels, Michals, Mykayles, Mikes and Mikeys.

(For the record, there are also two players named M.J.)

The third-most popular first name in the sport?

That'd be all 77 of the Jalens, and their variants, so whatever societal factors that were at play, inspiring the Wall Street Journal story, are still active.

By the way, that WSJ study found that there were just four Jalens (including other spellings of the name) in college basketball in 2011, so there are nearly 20 times as many Jalens in the sport this season as there were nine years ago.

One spot behind Jalen is another name with a heavy dose of 1990s basketball influence: Isaiah.

Well, technically the influence comes from Isiah, but close enough.

Former Detroit Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas (note that there's only one "a" in his first name) was a 12-time NBA All-Star from 1982 to 1993 so while there aren't any current Isiahs or Isaiahs in college basketball who were alive while Thomas was at the peak of his cultural influence, it's not unreasonable to think that the combination of his talent and the spelling of his first name inspired the parents of some of today's college basketball players.

There are 61 Isaiahs, Isiahs, Isiahas, Izaiahs or Iziahs — note the "z" in place of the "s" or the second "a" coming after the "h," continuing the trend of unique variations of the name — in the sport this season, making it the fourth-most popular first name in college basketball.

While we'd have to learn the origin story of all of these players' names to understand how much impact Michael Jordan, Jalen Rose or Isiah Thomas had on current college basketball players' names, it's not unreasonable to suggest there's a cultural link. In total, the four names (and the variations of) Michael, Jordan, Jalen and Isaiah add up to 308 college basketball players, or roughly 5.6 percent of the entire sport.

That's roughly one in every 18 Division I players that have one of those four first names and since there's an average of 15.4 players per roster (5,420 Division I players across 353 Division I teams), that means that on average, there's almost one player per team named Michael, Jordan, Jalen or Isaiah.

Some teams are doing heavy lifting, too, with multiple players with those names.

No. 3 Duke has Jordan Goldwire, Mike Buckmire and Michael Savarino.

No. 6 Kansas has Isaiah Moss and Jalen Wilson.

Turn on your television on any week night and you won't have to look too hard to find a player with one of the sport's most popular names.

Of course, it'd be quite a leap to suggest that Michael Jordan, Jalen Rose and Isiah Thomas — or any of the other celebrities mentioned in this story — were responsible for each and every one of the players who share their name or a variation of it. Michael was the most popular name for boys in 1997 and 1998, according to the Social Security database, so even someone as popular as Michael Jordan can't take sole credit for the wave of Michaels in the 2019-20 college basketball season.

But it'd also be wrong to discount the potential cultural effect that basketball icons, especially ones with greater reaches on pop culture and society such as a Michael Jordan or Jalen Rose, could have on future naming practices.

The following chart shows where the primary spellings of these four names ranked on the Social Security popular names database for the years in which current college basketball players were born.

  1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002
Jordan 26 27 30 36 39 37
michael 1 1 2 2 2 2
jalen 277 204 172 106 127 145
isaiah 61 59 51 47 43 45

Maybe Michael would've only been the fifth-most popular name in 1997, and not first on that list, if Michael Jordan never existed. We'll never know.

Jordan was only the 26th-most popular name for boys in 1997 (and that ranking declined in the years after, as the Chicago Bulls star retired), so perhaps part of Michael Jordan's legacy, in addition to his Hall of Fame playing career, shoe empire and ownership of an NBA franchise, should include a bullet point about the number of future players who now share his name — first or last.

Jordan, Isaiah (No. 61 most popular boys name in 1997) and Jalen (No. 277) show an even greater contrast than the name Michael between the popularity of a name for the general population compared to population of 2020 college basketball players.

It might come as a surprise that there are only 10 Kobes or Kobis and just one Shaq, one Shaquille and one Shaquillo.

That means there are as many Zions (or Zyons) in the sport, 10, as there are Kobes/Kobis.

So while 2019 consensus National Player of the Year Zion Williamson wasn't the only college basketball player with his name last season, he quickly achieved mononymous recognition as Zion, as many of the great basketball players do — Magic, Kareem, LeBron, Shaq, Kobe, Melo, to name a few.

If Williamson, the best Duke player of last decade, maximizes his potential in the NBA, don't be surprised if the first name Zion takes a Jalen-esque spike among the college basketball populace in 17 to 22 years.

College basketball names with the same sound, different spelling

As we've referenced throughout this story, many of the most popular names in college basketball don't have a singular spelling.

Jalen, the name that inspired the Wall Street Journal story, which then inspired this story, has 13 different spellings among active Division I players. We found Jalen, Jaelen, Jaylen, Jae'lyn, Jaylin, Jaylon, Jalon, Jayln, Jailyn, Jaelin, Jaylan, Jalin and Jy'lan, and there's always the chance that a pronunciation guide in a team's media guide could help us find one or two more that we missed.

There are nine variations of Michael: Mikael, Mikal, Mikail, Mychael, Mikkel, Mikel, Michal and Mykayle and eight versions of Tre: Tre', Trey, Tra, Tray, Tres, Trae and Trhae.

I found six types of Keyshawns (Keeshawn, KiShawn, Keyshaun, Keshawn and Keishawn), Devontes (Devontae, Devonnte, Davonta, Deovaunta, DeVante), Camerons (Kameron, Camron, Camren, Khameron and Kamron) and Maliks (Maleeck, Mileek, Melik, Malek and Mylik).

We already mentioned the five spellings of Isaiah (also, Isiah, Isiaha, Izaiah and Iziah), but there's also five variations to spelling Jared (Jarred, Jarod, Jarrod and Jarryd), Aaron (Aaryn, Eron, Aron and Ahren), Juwan (Juhwan, Jawaun, J'Wan and Jihaun) and Antoine (Antwuan, Antwon, Antwann and Antione).

Sherif can also be spelled Shereef, Shareef and Chereef. Khalil could be spelled Kalil, Kahliel or Khalyl.

The unique names in college basketball

What if we shift our focus to the other end of the spectrum?

We're talking about the unique names in the sport, not just in spelling but in sound, too.

There's only one Udoka (Azubuike), Ochai (Agbaji), Yoeli (Childs), Kofi (Cockburn) and Boogie (Ellis) — nationally known players who have a unique name to match.

You'll only find one of Alimamy, Blaze, Cossy, Fatts, Golden, Guglielmo, Harlond, Junior, Maddox, Oddyst, Othello, Rainers, Shyquan, Vito, Webster, Wilfried and Zep.

If any of them become a First Team All-American or an NBA champion down the road, or even reach a similar level of fame elsewhere in pop culture, they might inspire an entire generation of future players named after them.

Just ask Jalen Rose.

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