Which legendary basketball star at BYU was better: Jimmer Fredette or Danny Ainge?

Yes, in these times when sportsdom is rehashing historic moments, remembering players, delving back into history books because professional, collegiate and high school sports have been stopped due to COVID-19, this is one of those stories.

“Who was better? That’s a Batman vs. Superman or Green Lantern against the Flash kind of thing. It’s like asking me to pick between my favorite actors, Charlton Heston and Clint Eastwood.” — Dick Harmon

If you chiseled a Mount Rushmore of BYU basketball, there would be three faces that would have to be etched in the granite. They are Kresimir Cosic because he is in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Danny Ainge and Jimmer Fredette because they were both named National Player of the Year their senior seasons.

This past week on ESPN 960 radio, host Ben Criddle asked me who was better. That’s a Batman vs. Superman or Green Lantern against the Flash kind of thing. It’s like asking me to pick between my favorite actors, Charlton Heston and Clint Eastwood. There is no way to make that comparison unless you narrowed it down to very specific criteria.

Ainge was the better athlete because he was taller, faster, a better defender. While both have a competitive fuel that is remarkable, Ainge was nastier, a guy you would not want to fight for the last doughnut in the box.

Both were All-Americans. Both were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and both are legends. Ainge has his jersey retired, Fredette does not as of yet.

Both were outstanding high school stars, but Ainge is believed to be the only athlete to ever earn first-team All-America honors in football, basketball and baseball in high school when he played at North Eugene in Oregon.

Fredette is simply the best high volume scorer I’ve ever seen. Facing double, triple and sometimes quadruple defenders, he consistently found a way to deliver from seemingly limitless range. He did it against some pretty good defenders, including one of the NBA’s current best in Kawhi Leonard. Against a top-10-ranked SDSU/Leonard, who had helpside defense, Fredette still helped BYU win two of three games by scoring 43, 25 and 30 points in 2011.

Ainge could shoot from deep too, but he was an outstanding mid-range shooter who could consistently finish at the rim. Both were outstanding at the line, although Fredette had better numbers.

Although Fredette set a school record with 296 made 3-point goals, 31 more than the Brazilian Bomber Jonathan Tavernari, Ainge was credited with zero.

When Ainge played, the NCAA did not have the 3-point shot. Had Ainge had the 3-pointer, he would likely have held on to the career scoring record at BYU, which is now held by Tyler Haws (2,720 points) followed by Fredette (2,599), then Ainge at No. 3 (2,467).

Both Haws and Fredette got their career totals in 139 games. Ainge got his in 118 career games. That is 41 fewer opportunities to pad his career total. Since he still holds the school record for field goals made at 987, significantly more than No. 2 Haws (917) and No. 3 Michael Smith (886),  there is little doubt that Ainge, who became the second NBA player to ever make 900 treys, would have put up a lot more points. 

The other matrix to be considered with Ainge is that he averaged more points in his 118 games (20.9) than Haws (19.6) and Fredette (18.7) in their 139. In fact Ainge is still BYU’s record holder for most consecutive games scoring in double figures with 112, some 37 more than Smith.

Ainge had range, he just never got to show it. In high school, his 75-foot made shot in a state playoff game is considered the longest made field goal ever at McArthur Court, home of the University of Oregon in the Pac-12.

If I seem to be slanting things toward Ainge, it is because the lack of 3-pointers in his career puts him at a big disadvantage if you go by total points. The 3-pointer has made a huge impact on the game at every level and was Jimmer’s bread and butter and what made him famous.

Of Jimmer’s 1,843 attempted field goals, 752 were from 3-point land. Of Jimmer’s 838 made field goals, 296 were from deep territory.  

Then there’s the fame thing.

As a freshman, Ainge led the nation’s freshmen in scoring almost the entire season and when he exploded against Oral Roberts in the Marriott Center a few games into his college career, I remember ORU coach Lake Kelly in the press room saying, “Ainge is the best white player I have ever seen.”

Ainge had iconic games, the rebound back deliberate miss against UCLA that led to his free throw and subsequent BYU win, and his breathtaking March Madness length of the court dribble and buzzer-beater layin in an NCAA regional win over Notre Dame. He had so many other clutch games, performances and moments that few people saw.

On the other hand, Fredette completely demolishes Ainge in the amount of hype created by his game. He caught the imagination of a nation, including players in the NBA on social media, another thing Ainge never had.

Fredette’s nationally televised contests in which he simply took games over with obscene scoring and highlights on SportsCenter made his name an actual verb in Americana.  

I remember the night in the Thomas & Mack when Fredette set a BYU scoring record of 52 points against New Mexico in the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference tournament. At halftime, after he had easily scored about 40, reporters I’d worked alongside for decades from all over the region were stunned; they’d never seen anything like it, and he wasn’t through.

Fredette might be the most beloved, most-recognized BYU basketball player in the world, even today. Cosic may be a close second because of his international reputation and Olympic medals as a coach and player.

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So, if Criddle had put a gun to my head and made me choose, I’d hope the game was a little Russian roulette and the cylinder had only one cartridge because I’d have to recklessly take more time to make the argument.

With Ainge, he did score nearly 12,000 points in the NBA and he’s still drawing a check from a league franchise, the Boston Celtics,  after about four decades.

But, Jimmer … if you put him and Ainge behind the arc for a game of H-O-R-S-E in their prime, I would not bet against Fredette.

On the other hand, in his prime, Ainge had no motivation to practice shots from distance because that was not the game.

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