The 25 Greatest NBA Players Who Never Were
The annals of NBA history are littered with would-be great players whose careers didn't go according to plan.
A lot has to fall in a young man's favor in order to even make it to the NBA, let alone thrive.
It takes thousands of hours of practice and the proper mentorship to be a star, but it also takes a hefty dose of God-given ability. When circumstances sidetrack that skill, though, it casts an inauspicious shadow over your entire competitive legacy.
We're not talking about a guy like Grant Hill, who displayed his stardom before injuries undercut him. Nor are we talking about Darko Milicic, a guy who was probably never going to be as good as misguided scouts made him out to be.
This list isn't just for the future stars who never got the chance to shine—who squandered their talent—but also for the ones who had it untimely ripped away from them.
Out of respect for the men who lost more than a game, we will look at them in alphabetical order rather than determine a single greatest. Though there are some historical punch lines here, the most tragic examples deserve that bit of dignity as we look back on what might have been.
Few players pulled off the transition from pre-draft sensation to NBA afterthought more seamlessly than Joe Alexander.
In a solid junior year at West Virginia, Alexander wowed scouts with his athleticism and explosiveness. With high expectations to match his high ceiling, the Milwaukee Bucks made Alexander the eighth pick in the 2008 NBA draft, hoping to help the forward refine his physical gifts.
However, those gifts simply did not translate to the next level, where Alexander was too unpolished to ever be a factor.
He came off the bench for 59 games as a rookie before the Bucks sent him to the D-League a year later. Save for eight miserable games with the Chicago Bulls after being thrown into a John Salmons-Hakim Warrick swap, Alexander has not sniffed an NBA court since.
Andrea Bargnani is still getting paid big bucks to prove how wrong those Dirk Nowitzki comparisons were.
The prospect once known as Il Mago was supposed to give the Toronto Raptors what Dirk is for the Dallas Mavericks: A matchup nightmare of a big man who could produce both around the basket and beyond the arc.
He turned out to be a decent three-point shooter, but the rest of Bargnani's game is a mess. Though he kept growing, he never bulked up enough to compete on the interior at the highest level. That's how we ended up with a 2006 first overall pick who can't defend and averages 4.8 rebounds per game for his career.
This isn't a case of unjust hype for a poorly scouted product; Bargnani had all the tools to be the next Dirk—he just busted.
Speaking of disappointing small forwards from 2008...
As great of a prospect as Derrick Rose was, don't forget that Michael Beasley had a legitimate case to be the first pick after turning in one of the greatest freshman seasons in NCAA history.
Carrying the Kansas State Wildcats on his back, Beasley stepped in and immediately averaged 26.2 points and 12.4 rebounds per game. Though that scoring touch has accompanied him to the NBA, his efficiency has dropped in each season; he is currently shooting below 40 percent from the field for the Phoenix Suns.
Beasley has been an entirely one-dimensional pro, though. He lacks the size or motor to rebound at this level, and he's both apathetic and clueless on the defensive end. Any points he does produce are offset by the opportunities he allows.
Here's our first cautionary tale from the prep-to-pro era of the NBA draft.
When the Indiana Pacers saw an opportunity to turn Antonio Davis, a serviceable big man, into Jonathan Bender, a seven-footer with athleticism to boot, they pulled the trigger on the 1999 draft-day deal.
After easing young Bender along for two years, Indiana saw flashes of what he could be in 2001-02. Bender parlayed 78 games played and more room to grow into a four-year extension, at which point he promptly succumbed to injuries.
The onetime prodigy played in 57 games over the next two seasons and just nine in the two following that. Aside from a brief comeback attempt with the New York Knicks in 2009-10, Bender's career fizzled, with little return on that early promise.
Len Bias will always be remembered as a lost legend of the NBA.
When he was drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics in 1986, he represented the future. Bias could jump out of the gym at 6'8" and had the refinement in his game to put his physical gifts to good use. He was going to take the torch from Larry Bird in Boston and become the new face of Red Auerbach's team.
What happened next shocked the sports world like few things else ever have.
Cocaine overdose, two days after the draft. Just like that, Bias was gone, the 22-year-old's bright future snuffed out just as he was beginning to celebrate it.
But for a bad decision, he could have been the next in a long line of Celtics greats. Instead, Len Bias went down as one of the greatest to never take the court.
It's not just that Sam Bowie was drafted one pick ahead of Michael Jordan; he could have become a historic bust all on his own.
With Clyde Drexler already in town and the team looking to replace the chronically injured Bill Walton, the Portland Trail Blazers passed over MJ to pick Bowie. In drafting for need, there was a method to the madness, though it set the Blazers on a soberingly familiar path.
After a promising rookie season, Bowie broke down.
The young center had been struggling with leg injuries since high school, only to break his left leg, his right leg and his right tibia in three consecutive seasons. Bowie was a serviceable center for the rest of his career, but he never approached his rookie promise.
With that injury record, Bowie could have been considered a bad pick in any draft. The Jordan comparison simply adds a degree of infamy to his legacy.
We all know now that being 7'6" is not enough on its own to be an NBA great.
If only Shawn Bradley had developed any facet of his game, he could have been the dominant center people dreamed he could be.
Unfortunately, Bradley was a twig. He was a naturally gifted shot-blocker, but he could be bullied out of rebounding position by smaller, stronger players. The same problem plagued him on the offensive end, where a lack of a polished post game left him with few options if he couldn't get right to the rim.
That's how the No. 2 pick in the 1993 draft turned into the NBA equivalent of a sideshow. Every once in a while, Bradley could take over a game with his size and defensive presence, but more often than not he was just a deeply flawed player.
The first high schooler to go first overall in the draft, Kwame Brown is living proof why raw talent isn't everything.
Brown had the tools to succeed at the NBA level when Michael Jordan's Washington Wizards took him in 2001, but he had previously been using them to abusing lesser high school players. Forced to pick on players his own size, Brown came up short.
In his third season, he averaged 10.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game; though he is still playing today, both marks remain career highs. The only reason Brown is sticking around is because he has accepted his role as a bench player.
With age and humility came some maturity, which has been enough for Brown to carve out a career. Perhaps if he'd played college ball and honed his skills some more, it wouldn't have had to be so difficult for him.
Eddy Curry was picked just three spots after Brown after going prep-to-pro in 2001, and his career certainly has had higher highs and lower lows.
With the Baby Bulls back in the early 2000s, Curry used his strength and his bulk to control the interior. That attracted the attention of the New York Knicks, for whom Curry peaked before his size began to work to his detriment.
Due to poor conditioning and lax work ethic, Curry's weight ballooned in New York, resulting in him falling out of the starting lineup and out of the rotation altogether. The weight gain also brought on some nagging injuries, rendering Curry a nonentity for the remainder of his career.
Curry rode the bench to a 2012 NBA title with the Miami Heat, but he's still facing those same problems. At this point, coattail riding is the only way he'll achieve professional basketball success.
"Never Nervous" Pervis Ellison played four great years at Louisville before coming to the NBA. He only had one as a pro before his body betrayed him.
After the Sacramento Kings made him the first overall pick in 1989, Ellison played just 34 games due to injury, prompting his teammates to change his nickname to "Out of Service" Pervis. Two years later, he averaged 20.0 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.68 blocks per game with the Washington Bullets, but his Kings nickname proved prophetic.
Over the rest of his career, Ellison developed issues with his knees, reducing him from a budding star to a backup who was rarely even available. The final straw was a broken toe suffered in a moving accident, which sidelined Ellison for all but 39 games between 1996-97 and 1998-99.
He has a Most Improved Player award to show for that impressive season, but he could've had much more hardware if he'd had his health.
In the 1988-89 season, 6'7" Hank Gathers of Loyola Marymount led the nation in both scoring and rebounding. On March 4, 1990, he suffered a heart attack on the court and passed away.
It was not the first time that Gathers had collapsed on the court; team trainers knew he had an abnormal heartbeat. He had previously been prescribed Inderol to treat it, but Gathers hated how the drug lowered his energy and hurt his game, per ESPN.
When trainers refused to lower his dosage, Gathers did it himself. He regained the energy to play in Paul Westhead's breakneck system at LMU, but after connecting on an alley-oop against Portland State, Gathers collapsed again. He did not get back up.
When LMU went to the NCAA Tournament, Gather's teammate Bo Kimble used his off hand to sink a lefty free throw as a tribute to his fallen friend. It's a bittersweet way to remember Gathers; it honors his memory, but he is not on the court himself.
We know by now not to christen players "the next Michael Jordan." We did not know that in 1987.
As a senior for the Ohio State Buckeyes, Dennis Hopson dominated from the shooting guard position. He averaged 29.0 points per game while hitting over half of his shots from all over the court. Due to his superb scoring and his ability to carry his team, Hopson became the first heir to His Airness' throne.
Though he led the New Jersey Nets with 15.8 points per game in 1989-90, he could not regain his efficiency against NBA defenders and became a volume scorer. His athleticism also did not translate, as his knack for rebounding at Ohio State disappeared at the next level.
Hopson immediately assumed his role as a journeyman after that last gasp at greatness. The very next season he was on the bench as the Chicago Bulls won the NBA title, Michael Jordan's first of six.
On-court injuries robbed many guys on this list of their shots at greatness. DerMarr Johnson wasn't so lucky.
The sixth overall pick in the 2000, Johnson struggled with his jump shot for the Atlanta Hawks but kept enticing them with his explosive leaping ability. Even if he was slow in adjusting to the next level, Atlanta couldn't turn its back on a rookie who could posterize Theo Ratliff.
In the 2002 offseason, Johnson's Mercedes hit a tree and caught fire. Police could not determine whether Johnson or one of his two friends had been driving when the car crashed, per ESPN, but that information could not change the outcome: Johnson suffered a broken neck just before his third season.
It's a miracle that he was alive and able to walk, but Johnson one-upped that, returning to the NBA in 2003. His physical gifts were diminished and he was largely a bench player for the rest of his career, but Johnson was an inspiration just for stepping back on the floor.
His magnificent college career earned him a spot on the Dream Team before he ever played in the NBA. For that, Christian Laettner will always be a professional disappointment.
Before riding the pine for Team USA, Laettner won every player of the year award as a senior and hit one of the most famous shots in basketball history. Though he was selected third in the 1992 draft, he beat out top pick Shaquille O'Neal for the final Dream Team spot, setting his stock high for his rookie year.
In his prime, Laettner was certainly a good player, averaging at least 16.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game in each of his first five seasons. That said, he never even sniffed the greatness he seemed destined for, falling off into mediocrity thereafter.
With such an unmemorable pro career, Laettner's Duke and Dream Team reputations are fitting: Legend at the college level, an afterthought around NBA players.
Shaun Livingston was going to revolutionize the point guard position. Instead, he became a medical marvel.
At 6'7", Livingston could see the court from angles that smaller point guards could not, and he still had the quickness and instincts to guard them. That's what convinced the Los Angeles Clippers to pick him fourth overall in 2004—the earliest selection of a high school guard in NBA history.
Like many other prep-to-pro players, Livingston was still a project in his third year, but he was showing sure signs that he could be L.A.'s point guard of the future. Then he suffered one of the most catastrophic knee injuries in sports history.
Note: Do not click this link if you are squeamish.
Per Grantland, the injury initially appeared so bad that amputation—though obviously a worst-case scenario—was mentioned. Facing irrevocable damage to his body, Livingston rehabbed and missed just one full season, returning with the Miami Heat in 2008.
Like DerMarr Johnson, Livingston is by no means the same. Though this happened on the court, it's a freak accident just the same, and Livingston's return was every bit as improbable.
Though definitely a power forward, Donyell Marshall did the most damage away from the basket. That turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.
In his college days at UConn—when he was more physical and the competition was less imposing—Marshall was able to play more inside, but his offensive range set him apart. He had the skill set of a Derrick Coleman, with a little less athleticism but a lot less baggage.
The Minnesota Timberwolves picked Marshall fourth in 1994, but traded him to the Golden State Warriors midway through the season. Once there, it was clear that Marshall did not have the post game or the defensive ability to play the post in the pros.
Only later in his career, however, did he really refine his three-point shot. He was inefficient early, only showing flashes of offensive consistency as he developed both inside and out.
Marshall was an attractive prospect for his ability to stretch defenses from the power forward position. However, if you can't score consistently or play the other end, that skill is rendered moot.
Darius Miles had natural ability, but he was not interested in anyone trying to teach him how to use it.
The third overall pick in 2000, Miles was an athletic freak who could run with anyone and had a nice handle for a small forward. That said, he was uninterested in defense and wasn't willing to work to make himself better—a major issue with a guy with raw talent and little idea of how to best harness it.
Unfortunately for all parties involved, he was a coach's nightmare. Maurice Cheeks got the worst of it when he coached Miles in Portland, where the petulant forward harried Cheeks with his insubordination.
Per ESPN's Chad Ford:
According to various accounts, on Thursday, head coach Mo Cheeks was criticizing Miles harshly in a film session when Miles lost his cool and began shouting obscenities at Cheeks. At one point, Cheeks said that Miles shouted something about not caring about losing 20 games in a row, because Cheeks is going to get fired anyway.
When Cheeks asked Miles to leave the building, Darius said something to the effect of "Make me." When Cheeks bolted for GM John Nash's office, Miles ran behind saying "That's right, run to your daddy."
It's no surprise that Miles fell far short of his considerable potential. Nobody achieves NBA success alone—especially not when they're pushing away the people who want to help them.
Hopson may have been the first "next Jordan," but Harold Miner was most famous for the unfortunate title.
Miner first picked up the nickname "Baby Jordan" in high school, when his dunking prowess already had people comparing him to the Chicago Bulls great. His electrifying play at USC earned him a consensus All-American First Team spot as a junior—his final collegiate season.
Though Miner went on to win the 1993 and 1995 Slam Dunk Contests, the NBA exposed him as a one-trick pony. Unable to simply jump over his competition, Miner floundered, averaging just 9.0 points per game in his career, which lasted all of four seasons.
It was an impossible task for anyone to outplay Michael Jordan in his prime, let alone a young player trying to figure out his own game. And as George Raveling told Mark Whicker of The Orange County Register, that truly took a toll on Harold Miner.
"He hated that 'Baby Jordan,' " George Raveling, Miner's USC coach, remembered. "It put a lot of pressure on him."
It's a testament to Kevin Durant's greatness that he even made it a competition for the first overall pick in 2007. Greg Oden was just that good.
Even the strictest opponents of the prep-to-pro jump had to admit that Oden was NBA-ready as a high school senior.
He was a true seven-footer who had already filled out his frame well, indicating to scouts that his physical prowess and two-way dominance would translate to the next level. Nonetheless, the powers that be dictated he spend a year at Ohio State, so he crushed the college competition, too.
Then the Portland Trail Blazers got unlucky for a third time—committing to yet another cornerstone center who crumbled before their eyes.
Microfracture surgery pushed Oden's debut back a year, a fractured patella took out most of the 2009-10 season and countless other procedures followed—including two more microfactures. He showed signs of greatness when he was on the court, but since 2007, he has played just 82 total games.
Bill Walton won an MVP and a title before he was diminished. Sam Bowie also salvaged a career out of it. Hopefully Greg Oden can still play in the NBA at this point, but the prognosis is uncertain.
Michael Olowokandi fell victim to his own inexperience.
According to Olowokandi's NBA bio, he began playing basketball at age 18 and ended up playing for Pacific University after he called the basketball offices and asked if they'd accept a seven-foot walk-on.
Given his physical maturity and his quick feet, it's no wonder he succeeded at Pacific, but he was still a totally undeveloped product when the Los Angeles Clippers made him the first pick in 1998. He was a specimen, but he looked a lot worse when he played helpless basketball at both ends.
Injuries eventually hastened the Kandi Man's decline, eliminating whatever slim chance he had of acclimating to the pros. That said, his limited basketball background and unreasonable expectations had already combined to give him an untenable task.
Make no mistake: Drazen Petrovic was a great player—the NBA just didn't get to appreciate him while he was there.
Already a bona fide star in his native Yugoslavia, Petrovic was instrumental in opening up the NBA to European players. Though he came off the bench behind Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter in Portland for his first two seasons, he parlayed a starting job with the New Jersey Nets into consecutive seasons averaging 20 points per game and shooting over 50 percent.
Between his burgeoning NBA success and his Olympic play for Yugoslavia and Croatia, the world was convinced of Petrovic's ability.
On June 7, 1993, that glowing career came to an abrupt end. Petrovic was asleep in the passenger seat on a drive from Germany to Croatia when the car was cut off on the Autobahn. The sleeping Petrovic was not wearing a seatbelt and was killed in the accident at age 28.
It's impossible to say how much more Petrovic would have accomplished in the NBA. What is undeniable is that he had the talent to show Americans that a European player could sustain greatness.
Stromile Swift played as though he knew he couldn't coast on athleticism alone, but had no other option.
According to nbadraft.net, one of the knocks against Swift heading into the 2000 draft was that he was not aggressive enough on the offensive end. Even while accurately predicting that he'd be selected second overall, that scouting report portends how Swift would struggle without a post game.
Though he was explosive enough to compete in the 2001 Slam Dunk Contest, Swift was an ineffective scorer in the NBA and displayed little defensive awareness to back it up. He failed to develop with the relocated Memphis Grizzlies, eventually accepting his role as a rotation guy rather than a starter.
Swift's is a quieter story, but it ends the same as the rest. He had all the natural skills to be a great player; he just never had the support to put them all together.
Kenny "Sky" Walker was never ambiguous about what he did on the court: He dunked.
For that reason, Skywalker was a crowd pleaser for the Kentucky Wildcats and later the New York Knicks—who picked him fifth in the 1986 draft—but only in college could he excel with an incomplete game.
That's the paradox of predicting greatness; though less consequential to NBA success, it's possible to teach a pure athlete how to shoot, but not to teach a stiff to win a Slam Dunk Contest.
Walker used his 6'8" frame and leaping ability as well as he could, but he did not develop a midrange game or sound defensive fundamentals. It wasn't enough to stay in the NBA but a few years, but Walker could reliably produce an exciting play when given the opportunity.
It's a shame that more guys like Skywalker didn't have the technique to succeed in the pros. They would have made the NBA that much more amazing, raising the bar for the guys like LeBron James who came after them.
Picked right behind Len Bias in the 1986 draft, Chris Washburn is yet another cautionary tale of cocaine abuse.
Even as he starred at NC State, Washburn already had a worrying attitude problem. His effort waned on the court and he was arrested for stealing a stereo off it, though what scouts recognized most was the 26 points he put up against UNC and Brad Daugherty, the first pick in 1986.
When he joined the Golden State Warriors, though, Washburn's personal issues could not be helped. He checked into rehab for cocaine addiction midway through his rookie season, eventually drawing a lifetime ban from the NBA after failing three drug tests in as many years.
According to Yahoo! Sports, Washburn is sober and using his experience to try to help others suffering from drug addiction. It's noble work that he's certainly qualified for; he has seen how far you can fall.
Jay Williams' accident is more layered than others we've looked at because of the question of liability.
After three sterling seasons at Duke, Williams was the second overall pick in the 2002 draft. With the Chicago Bulls, Williams pressed to fit on a dysfunctional team, though he did demonstrate poise on both ends of the floor amidst shooting struggles in his rookie year.
The following offseason, however, Williams critically damaged his leg in a motorcycle accident—severing the main nerve, fracturing his pelvis and tearing multiple ligaments. He was not wearing a helmet, he was not licensed to drive a motorcycle and his contract forbid him from doing so.
Is it Jay Williams' fault that he never played another NBA game?
On one hand, it was a freak accident; on the other, it was a stupid and avoidable decision. That's all it takes to turn an NBA career into wasted talent.
Williams put himself in a dangerous position, and he deserves no sympathy for his recklessness. At the same time, it's hard to watch anyone lose his dream and his livelihood in one fell swoop, especially if you have a vested interest in watching him work.
For NBA fans and for Williams himself, there's no way to tell what greatness was lost.
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