With the college basketball season just days away, we begin the first of five profiles by counting down the top-five basketball greats who would struggle to play in the modern NCAA. We start by looking at Ed O'Bannon from UCLA.
O'Bannon, a 6'8" power forward, is one of only seven men to have ever had their jersey hung from the rafters at UCLA, joining the likes of Gail Goodrich, Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
A 1990 McDonald's High School All-American, O'Bannon wouldn't see the court until the 1991-92 season—18 months after recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament tear that required reconstructive surgery.
His freshman season under head coach Jim Harrick saw little production, as he came off of the bench and played in only 23 games, averaging a scant 3.6 points per game.
In his final three seasons with UCLA, he started each year and averaged nearly eight rebounds and 18.4 points per game on just under 52 percent from the field.
O'Bannon had his best year as a senior averaging 20 points and eight boards while making 55 three-pointers on 43 percent shooting from deep. In doing so, he made the NCAA All-American First Team for the first time in his career.
He won the John Wooden Award and the USBWA College Player of the Year award en route to the 1995 National Championship, wherein he was named the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player.
So, why would O'Bannon struggle?
Not because of his health, although his knees contributed greatly to his inability to have a successful NBA career.
One major reason that he would struggle would be the level of competition.
High school basketball has evolved. With the growth of AAU leagues and all of the additional skills and leadership camps that players have access to now, kids can play year-round. This has greatly elevated the level of talent and skill entering the college ranks.
Additionally, there has been an influx of international players coming to the United States to play collegiate basketball.
Not only are more international players deciding to play in college, but the level of their play is much better. In the 20 years since the original Dream Team dominated the Olympics in 1992, the game of basketball has quickly become one of the most popular spectator sports internationally—second only to soccer.
Another knock on O'Bannon is his size. While he has an adequate height for his position, he is severely undersized. At only 222 pounds, he weighs as much—or, perhaps, as little–as most top-tier guards.
Kids these days are understanding more and more the value of strength–especially in the post. While you still have some wiry players in the post, they are generally either much taller than 6'8" or they are a lot more skilled around the basket.
While, O'Bannon had the advantage, especially in his senior year, of stretching the floor with his three-point shooting, that also means there is one less big body in the paint to gather rebounds. The game has evolved and players have changed.
Nowadays, if you're 6'8" and 220 pounds with a three-point shot, you're generally a small forward who is capable of taking your opponent off the dribble while penetrating the defense en route to the basket. That is the model that has been established for kids to follow by watching players like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony among others.
O'Bannon would not have the girth to handle the post, nor would he have the ball-handling skills to dribble-drive and penetrate zone defenses. In today's modern game, he might be relegated to becoming a three-point specialist.
One more factor that would most certainly contribute to O'Bannon struggling today, the decline of UCLA's basketball program under Ben Howland's leadership.
Over the past three seasons, UCLA has a record of 56-43 while finishing each season unranked.
The team's talent has diminished, as Howland has proven to be incapable of recruiting elite level talent.
Were O'Bannon to play for UCLA now, while he may have enough talent and ability to be good, the lackluster quality of talent around him would enable opposing teams to scheme defenses to stop him.
That is why Ed O'Bannon, one-time national champion and UCLA great, would struggle playing today.
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