At the start of the decade, NCAA.com analyzed the name of every single DI men's college basketball player and found that the most common names in the sport sounded a lot like the 1990s.
In sequential order, the two most popular first names were as follows: Jordan, Michael.
While Michael is annually one of the most popular names among boys born in the U.S., we speculated that there could have also been a correlation between arguably the best player to ever play the sport — former national champion at North Carolina and Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan — and the rise of so many college players who are named either Michael or Jordan, a little over 20 years after the prime of Jordan's career.
I ran the numbers for every current DI men's basketball player — all 5,637 of them, including players who are injured or who are redshirting this season — and found that the "Jalen" generation has officially taken over.
As the story goes, former Michigan star Jalen Rose was believed by many to be the first person ever to be named Jalen. In 2017, the Wall Street Journal covered the popularity of the name in the sport and then in May 2021, the ESPN Daily podcast had an entire episode dedicated to the mystery of whether Rose was truly the first Jalen.
The popularity of the name and Rose's impact on its rise in popularity have arguably reached a crescendo, as Jalen — and variations of the name — is the most popular name in DI men's basketball this season, potentially for the first time ever. Nearly two percent of all DI players have the name, as I found 102 players with the first name of Jalen, or another spelling of the name:
- Jalen: 63 players
- Jaylen: 15 players
- Jaylin: seven players
- Jaylon: five players
- Jalin: three players
- Jaylan: two players
- Jalon: two players
- Jaelin: one player
- Jailyn: one player
- Jae'lyn: one player
- Jaellan: one player
- Jhaylon: one player
Based on my research, using rosters from Sports Reference, variations of the names Michael (including Mike: 81 players, or roughly 1.4% of all DI players), Jordan (70, 1.2%), Trey (62, 1.1%) and Isaiah (60, 1.1%) round out the five most-popular first names in DI men's basketball. There are 10 more players named some variation of Trey than there were in the 2020 season, as the name climbed from tied for the seventh-most popular name two seasons ago to the third-most popular name this season.
With 358 Division I teams this season, the average DI roster has roughly 15.7 players, including walk-ons and players who aren't actively playing this season due to injuries or redshirt seasons. With more than 100 Jalens (or Jaylens, Jaylins, Jaylons, etc.) in the sport, that means, on average, there's roughly two players with some variation of the name for every seven DI teams.
The rise in popularity of the name is significant. While Jalen, plus its variations, was the third-most popular name in DI men's basketball during the 2019-20 season with 77 players with the name, there are 25 more players with the name just two seasons later. Yes, there are five more teams competing at the DI level during the 2022 season than the 2020 campaign, but even that increase in teams would only be expected to add one or two more Jalens overall, based on the relative frequency of the name among players in the sport.
It's also worth acknowledging that the average roster size is roughly 0.35 players greater than it was two seasons ago, due to the 2019-20 season not counting against players' eligibility. There are 217 more players in the sport now than there were in the 2020 season — a number that includes the five aforementioned programs that are DI newcomers — and an increase of 200-some players would only be expected to add, say, four or five more Jalens from the 2020 total, not 25.
This suggests that the name Jalen became much more popular over the course of time, from sometime around 1996 or 1997 (when the oldest seniors in the 2020 season were born) and 2003 or 2004, when current college freshmen were born.
Using the Social Security Administration (SSA) database, which tracks the most common baby names by year, we're able to back up that assumption with national data. Here is where the name Jalen ranked among baby names for newborn boys in the U.S. by year, during the time span in which current and recent former men's basketball players were born:
1997: No. 277
1998: No. 204
1999: No. 172
2000: No. 106
2001: No. 127
2002: No. 145
2003: No. 155
2004: No. 190
For reference, the name Jalen wasn't among the 1,000 most popular baby boy names in the U.S. in 1991. Jalen Rose was a freshman at Michigan during the 1992 season and that calendar year, Jalen made a fairly lofty debut on the SSA's list of the 1,000 most popular baby names for boys at No. 378.
Rose's best season in the NBA, defined here as the one in which he had his best Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and highest win-shares-per-48-minutes average, was in the 2000-01 campaign and the year 2000 marked the peak popularity for the name Jalen among newborn American males.
In fact, the data shows that the name Jalen has almost certainly reached its peak, given that it almost cracked the 100 most popular baby names among U.S.-born boys in 2000 and the name became noticeably less popular in the years that followed. Jalen is currently the most popular first name in DI men's basketball — potentially for the first time ever, if it didn't earn the distinction during the 2021 season — and there's a chance it will never be the most popular name again, based on national trends.
At the very least, the name is unlikely to be the most popular name in the sport by, say, the 2024 or 2025 season, when the current wave of Jalens born in the early 2000s phases out of college. While Jalens certainly won't go extinct — the name has seemingly leveled off as one of the 500 or 600 most popular names for baby boys born in the U.S. — they're likely to become gradually less common in men's basketball.
While some names will almost always be popular in men's basketball — because they're simply always popular names, period — the potential social and cultural effects of a player like Jalen Rose isn't unique to him.
The name Kobe cracked the list of the 1,000 most popular baby boy names in the U.S. at No. 553 in 1997, the year when Kobe Bryant finished his rookie season and embarked on an All-Star campaign as a second-year player. When the Los Angeles Lakers won three consecutive NBA titles from 2000 to 2002, Kobe was among the 250 most popular names each year, and after Bryant's tragic death in a helicopter crash in January 2020, the name made a drastic return to level of popularity it had 20 years earlier.
There are 18 Kobes in DI men's basketball this season — double the amount from the 2020 season. This season, there are also three players with the first name of Koby, plus one Cobe, for a grand total of 22 players with some variation of the name Kobe — which is the same number of players named either Anthony, or some variation of Jackson.
While the name Zion has consistently been among the 350 most popular names for baby boys in the U.S. this century, the name has become noticeably more popular in the last three or four years, and the national player of the year campaign for former Duke star Zion Williamson is one possible explanation for the rise in popularity. After being featured in viral mixtapes in 2017 and 2018, Williamson averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks per game in the 2019 season.
The first name had seemingly plateaued with a popularity ranking somewhere between No. 220 and No. 260 from 2007 through 2015, and last year, it cracked the top 150. There are nine Zions (including one Zyon) this season and there were 10 in 2020. Based on the recent rise in popularity of the name, there could be double that amount in the 2036 or 2037 seasons. If Zion Williamson ever wins an NBA MVP award or an NBA title, there could be even more.
From Jalen Suggs' all-time great buzzer-beater to Villanova's transformation to a modern-day blue blood with two national championships in a three-season span, thanks in large part to Jalen Brunson, Jalens have shaped the landscape of the sport and they may not be done. The rosters of Duke and UCLA each feature a Jaylen (Blakes and Clark, respectively), and Kansas has two Jalens (Wilson and Coleman-Lands).
While Jalen Rose may not be the first Jalen ever, through the game of basketball, he was certainly the one who popularized the name nationally, first at Michigan with the Fab Five and then in the NBA, and after three of the last five men's basketball national championship games have featured a Jalen, the name — for now — is the most popular in the sport.