Illinois Basketball: All-Time Greatest NBA Players

Ryan CuriFeatured ColumnistDecember 5, 2012

Illinois Basketball: All-Time Greatest NBA Players

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    The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has produced 49 NBA players all-time, but only 10 make our greatest U of I NBA players list. Despite only having two current ex-players that dress for NBA teams, in Deron Williams and Meyers Leonard, expect to see both current and future Illinois players in the league assuming John Groce can continue the success he has already achieved during his short time in Champaign.

    Although I am a lifelong Illinois basketball fan and 2012 graduate, I did not have the fortune of seeing many of the players listed here during their time as an Illini, or while in the NBA. Despite that, I've heard enough about each one of these 10 to make what I believe is a solid list of players that formerly wore the orange and blue.

10. Nick Weatherspoon

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    Nick Weatherspoon came to Champaign-Urbana via Canton, Ohio in 1969, while staying until 1973 before being drafted 13th overall. The 6'7" small forward was selected as an All-American as a member of the Fighting Illini basketball program. Weatherspoon died in 2008 at only 58 years old in his hometown Canton.

    As an NBA player, "Spoon" played seven seasons for four teams. He averaged nine points and 4.9 rebounds for his career, but had 12.8 and 13.8 point average seasons in 1977 and 1979, respectively. Weatherspoon represented the Washington Bullets, Seattle SuperSonics, Chicago Bulls and San Diego Clippers during his NBA tenure. 

9. Ken Norman

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    Ken Norman came to Illinois after transferring in from Wabash Valley College, where he played one season. Norman would spend the remainder of his eligibility, three seasons, as a member of the Illini. The 6'8" small forward hailed from Crane in Chicago, and was later selected 19th in the 1987 NBA Draft.

    Norman's NBA career lasted a decade, from 1987 to 1997. During that time, Norman averaged 13.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists, while playing for the Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks. Norman's career season came in 1990-91, when he posted 17.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per night.

8. Kendall Gill

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    Kendall Gill was a junior as a member of the Flyin' Illini, but came back to school following that Final Four season, unlike Nick Anderson. Also a wing player, the 6'5" Gill had a smooth outside shot as evidenced in this video, which helped him gain the seventh slot on the all-time scoring list at U of I. Gill led the Big Ten in scoring his senior season, before being drafted fifth in 1990.

    Gill had a lengthy NBA career, from 1990 until 2005. During that time he dressed for seven different organizations, but had his most success in the 1996-97 with the New Jersey Nets, averaging 21.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and four assists. As far as career averages, Gill totaled 13.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and three assists.

7. Nick Anderson

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    Nelison Anderson, otherwise known as Nick, was a two year star at U of I and member of the 1988-89 Flyin' Illini squad. The 6'6" swing man is the key player in the above video, hitting a last second prayer against Indiana and Bobby Knight, which still stands as one of the most famous shots in Illinois basketball history.

    Anderson's NBA career lasted from 1989 until 2001, spending 10 of those seasons with the Orlando Magic where he played alongside Shaquille O'Neal. For his career, Anderson averaged 14.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists. His best season came in 1992-93, when the former Illini star averaged 19.9 points per contest.

6. Derek Harper

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    Harper played under Lou Henson at Illinois for three seasons, between 1980 and 1983. The former point guard led the Big Ten in assists as a sophomore, before being named a second team All-American in his final season in Champaign. Harper went on to be the 11th overall pick in the 1983 draft class.

    While in the NBA, Harper was a member of four teams, but spent 12 of his 16 years as a Dallas Maverick. For his NBA career, Harper averaged 13.3 points, 2.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists. Although he never had the honor of being selected for an All-Star team, Harper averaged an impressive 19.7 points and 7.1 assists in 1990-91.

5. Eddie Johnson

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    Eddie Johnson spent the four year duration of his college career at Illinois, coming from Chicago Public League powerhouse Westinghouse in 1977. A fun fact about the 6'7" small forward is that he scored the most career points of any NBA player that never had the opportunity to play in an All-Star Game.

    It's incredible that Johnson never was given that honor, considering he averaged 21.5 points or more in three seasons in the NBA. He was also a journeyman, playing for six teams in the league, and won the 1989 Sixth Man of the Year award while with the Phoenix Suns. For his career, Johnson averaged 16.0 points in 1,199 games played. 

4. Don Ohl

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    Don Ohl came to U of I from Edwardsville, Illinois. Standing 6'3", Ohl was a shooting guard who was given the nickname "Waxie" because of the crew crut that he is shown pulling off in the above picture. Ohl was a fifth round draft pick to the Philadelphia Warriors after his collegiate career, while nowadays the NBA Draft is only two rounds, although there are many more teams nowadays.

    Ohl had a 10-year NBA career, during which he averaged 15.9 points, three rebounds and 3.1 assists. Ohl averaged at least 12.1 points per game every season, until his final one in 1969-70. Ohl was a member of the All-Star team each year from 1962 until 1967, while averaging 20-plus points in two of those seasons on the Baltimore Bullets.

3. Johnny Kerr

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    Johnny "Red" Kerr helped Illinois advance to a Final Four in 1952, the first of his three varsity seasons at the Illini's center. Kerr, who stood 6'9", came from Tilden Technical High School in Chicago, before later returning to his hometown as a coach of the Chicago Bulls as both a player and then a broadcaster during the Michael Jordan era. 

    Kerr played for the Syracuse Nationals (later the Philadelphia 76ers) and the Baltimore Bullets during his 12 season career. For his career, Kerr averaged a double-double at 13.8 points and 11.2 rebounds, while being selected to the All-Star squad three teams. Kerr passed away in 2009, but his legacy is not forgotten in Champaign-Urbana.

2. Andy Phillip

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    Andy Phillip, a member of Illinois' Whiz Kids, played at Illinois from 1941 to 1943. At that time, Phillip was required to serve in World War II, but came back to Champaign to play one more season in 1946-47. Phillip stood 6'2" and was listed as a guard/forward, before passing away at age 79 in 2001.

    Phillip happens to be a member of the NBA Hall of Fame, playing 11 seasons, while being a part of five consecutive All-Star games. Phillip averaged 9.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists for his career, although it would be unfair to compare his numbers from 1947 to 1958 to now since both basketball as a whole, as well as the NBA, has changed so much.

1. Deron Williams

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    While Nick Anderson's shot earlier in the slideshow is loved because of Illinois' hate for Indiana and Bob Knight, there's no denying the impact of Williams' shot in the above video. As all of you remember, Illinois erased a 15-point deficit in the final four minutes of the Elite Eight contest against Arizona in 2005, capped off by Williams' game-tying three-pointer that essentially sent the game into overtime.

    From there Illinois would win, before falling just short in the National Championship against North Carolina. Williams lasted three years in Champaign, leaving early after that 2005 season, before being selected third overall to the Utah Jazz. Williams came to Champaign from The Colony, Texas to play for Bill Self, and was high school teammates with former Indiana star Bracey Wright.

    Williams averaged over six assists per game as an Illini, along with 11.0 points and 3.3 rebounds. He, Dee Brown and Luther Head, formed one of the best backcourts in college basketball history, leading the orange and blue to a 37-2 record in 2004-05. Although it was a team effort all season, Williams was the key factor in the Arizona comeback.

    Since being in the NBA, Williams has made three straight All-Star games, and was twice named second team All-NBA. A two-time Olympic gold medalist, Williams' NBA career averages are as follows: 17.6 points, 3.3 rebounds and 9.2 assists. Prior to last season, Williams averaged double-figure assists and points in four straight years.

    While Williams does not yet have the NBA Hall of Fame association that Andy Phillip was given, it really only is a matter of time if Williams keeps it up. Williams recently signed a five-year $98.7 million contract with the Brooklyn Nets.