Ranking the 10 Best Walk-Ons in NCAA Basketball History

Doug Brodess@DougbrodessCorrespondent IJuly 4, 2013

Ranking the 10 Best Walk-Ons in NCAA Basketball History

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    College basketball walk-ons usually fill out rosters and supply practice fodder for the "regular players."

    But sometimes walk-ons contribute more than being warm bodies for drills and cheerleaders on the bench.

    Sometimes these hard-working athletes provide much more.

    Here is a list of the 10 best walk-ons in NCAA basketball history.

    This group covers a wide range of backgrounds, abilities and circumstances.

    Some of these players helped their teams win championships. A few of these hard-working individuals have become NBA stars or Hall of Famers.

    All of them made their mark in memorable ways.

    Stats for this article provided by Sports Reference.com

    Also, thanks to fellow Bleacher Report featured columnists Scott Henry, Josh Schoch, Dantzler Smith and Rollin Yeatts for their input.

10. J.D Simpson, Duke

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    Sometimes the greatest contributions from walk-ons do not show up in the box score.

    Duke’s J.D. Simpson (1997-2001) may be one of the most noteworthy walk-on players who only scored 41 points in his collegiate career.

    For his senior year, Simpson was named a full-fledged team captain alongside Shane Battier and Nate James on Duke’s 2001 NCAA championship team.

    Everyone involved in the decision claims that his leadership roles was authentic and entirely earned. Brody Greenwald of DukeChronicle.com quoted Blue Devils assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski: "J.D. earned it just as much as any captain before him."

    Greenwald also cited head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s endorsement of Simpson’s role on the title-winning team: "J.D. has the respect of everybody even though he doesn't play, which is indicative of his leadership ability."

    A walk-on captain cutting down the nets...not too shabby.

9. Jarrod Polson, Kentucky

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    Jarrod Polson was a Kentucky kid who just wanted to be a Wildcat.

    His University of Kentucky bio states that he turned down a scholarship from Liberty University to walk on for head coach John Calipari’s Cats. It also states that he has now earned a scholarship.

    During his freshman and sophomore years, the 6’2” guard saw virtually no playing time, with just 62 total minutes in two years. But as the Wildcats struggled this past season, Calipari turned to Polson for his steadiness and composure.

    Polson put up double-figure scoring games against Maryland (10 points), Tennessee (11) and Robert Morris (10).   

    With the Wildcats’ legendary 2013 recruiting class arriving, we can only predict that Polson’s role will be diminished again this coming season.

8. Clayton Hanson, Wisconsin

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    Wisconsin’s Clayton Hanson (2001-2005) must have been destined to play for head coach Bo Ryan.

    As a high school player from Reedsburg, Wis., Hanson was heavily recruited by Ryan while he was the coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Then, Ryan was hired by the Wisconsin Badgers in the spring of 2001.

    Ryan still wanted Hanson but now as a walk-on. Hanson took the opportunity and began a four-year journey that began with him playing a minor role as a freshman and sophomore, a rotation regular as a junior and a starter as a senior.

    Hanson was a marksman who was known for his shooting from beyond the arc. As a senior, Hanson, a 6’5” guard, hit 55-of-121 three-pointers for a sizzling 45.5 percent.

7. C.J. Lee, Michigan

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    Sometimes life seems to go in reverse.

    Michigan’s C.J. Lee started off his collegiate career as a scholarship player at Manhattan.

    While he received limited minutes and had limited success in his two years in the program, the Jaspers head coach Bobby Gonzalez said, “C.J. was a winner. He was going to be our point guard and captain.”

    Instead of continuing there, Lee transferred to and walked on at Michigan. After sitting out a year, Lee played in all of the Wolverines' 2007-08 games as a redshirt junior and started in seven games.

    The following year, Lee, because of his hard work, dedication and improving performance, was offered a full-ride scholarship and selected as a team captain. He also became the full-time starting point guard for the final 14 games of the 2008-09 season.

    Lee’s leadership down the stretch helped the Wolverines get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 10 seasons.

    Lee currently serves on Michigan head coach John Beilein’s staff as director of program personnel.

6. Cameron Mills, Kentucky

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    Kentucky’s Cameron Mills’ collegiate playing career (1994-98) reads like a movie script.

    Mills, the son of a former Kentucky player, grew up locally in Lexington dreaming of playing at Rupp Arena. The 6’3” guard had a scholarship offer from SEC opponent, Georgia, but he wanted to be a Cat, not a Dawg.

    He decided to walk on at Kentucky.

    Mills played a total of 48 minutes in his first two seasons for Rick Pitino. However, everything changed his junior year, when he hit 42-of-79 three-pointers in the regular season. He followed that up with knocking down 10-of-16 shots from beyond the arc in the SEC tournament and 17-of-27 threes in the NCAA tournament.

    As a senior under Tubby Smith, Mills played more minutes and a bigger role on the 1998 NCAA championship team. He hit two clutch three-pointers in an eight-minute span in the title game to help ensure the Cats victory.  

5. Jim Boeheim, Syracuse

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    Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim has been around the upstate New York campus for a long time. He has been the head coach since 1976. He was also an assistant coach there from 1969-1976.

    But even before his coaching days, Boeheim was an outstanding player for the Orange (1963-66) who began his lifelong connection as a walk-on.

    Boeheim, a 6’3” guard, was a good shooter off the bench for his first two years of varsity ball. But as a senior, he started every game, averaged 14.6 PPG and shot a sizzling 56.5 percent from the floor.

    After graduating, Boeheim played for the Scranton Miners of the American Basketball League.

    In an era of short commitments and rapid change, Boeheim is a stellar exception.

4. Adam Emmenecker, Drake

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    Drake’s Adam Emmenecker may not be a household name, but the 6’1” guard has a great Cinderella story.

    Emmenecker, according to his Drake bio, was a two-sport star from Saginaw, Mich. In high school, he showed as much promise in baseball as he did in basketball.

    As a pass-first point guard, he did not receive any Division I scholarship offers. Because he was an excellent student, he received a partial academic scholarship from Drake and decided to walk onto the basketball team.

    For his first three years, Emmenecker played sparingly off the bench. As a senior, he was granted a full-ride scholarship and moved into a starting role as the team’s point guard.

    Emmenecker’s leadership and overall contribution extended beyond his stats. He averaged 8.5 points and 6.5 assists, which led the Missouri Valley Conference by more than one assist per game. For his all-around play, he was named the MVC player of the year and the conference tournament MVP.

    On top of all that, Emmenecker was named the 2008 ESPN The Magazine Academic All-American Player of Year for the University division.

3. Andre Drummond, UConn

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    Usually 5-star recruits do not have to worry about their scholarship status.

    Because of unique circumstances that left Connecticut without any scholarships at the time of his commitment, Andre Drummond played his one and only Huskies season as a walk-on.

    Drummond was supposed to lead Jim Calhoun’s crew back into the national limelight. Instead, the 6’10" center had a solid, if not disappointing, freshman season, averaging 10 points and 7.6 rebounds. The team was knocked out of the first round of the NCAA tournament.

    His UConn bio indicates that he was selected to the Big East All-Rookie team.

    Because of his upside, Drummond was the No. 9 selection in the 2012 NBA draft.

    The young big man averaged 7.9 points and 7.6 rebounds off the bench as a rookie for the Detroit Pistons this past season.

2. Jeff Hornacek, Iowa State

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    Great careers sometimes start with humble beginnings.

    Before Jeff Hornacek’s 14-year NBA career of more than 1,000 games, he walked on at Iowa State.

    The 6’3” guard from the Chicago suburbs played a big role for the Cyclones for his four years in Ames. He played more than 20 minutes per game off the bench as a freshman.

    Hornacek became a starter as a sophomore and never looked back. He averaged 10.7 points, 3.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game over his four years at ISU.

    His NBA bio states that he “set the Big Eight Conference career assists record, and was an Associated Press honorable mention All-American and UPI First-Team All-Big Eight selection.”

    In a way, he had to prove his worth again when he was a second-round pick in the 1986 NBA draft. Hornacek was up to the task, scoring more than 14,000 points and dishing out more than 5,000 assists while playing for the Phoenix Suns, Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz.

    In May 2013, he was named the head coach of the Phoenix Suns.

1. Scottie Pippen, Central Arkansas

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    It is hard to believe that one of the NBA’s all-time great players did not even start his college career as a walk-on player but as a walk-on manager.

    That is exactly how Central Arkansas’ Scottie Pippen started his collegiate career (1983-1987). Adam Fluck details how history happened on NBA.com.

    Pippen’s high school coach, Donald Wayne, contacted the UCA head coach, Don Dyer, to ask him if he would take Pippen as a walk-on manager who could potentially earn his way onto the team.

    Dyer liked what he saw and brought Pippen onto the team. He played in 20 games as a freshman, scoring a total of 85 points.

    Pippen hit a growth spurt, going from 6’2” when he arrived in Conway to 6’7” before he left.

    As a sophomore, everything exploded for Pippen, as he averaged 18.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. As a senior, Pippen notched a double-double, putting up 23.6 points and pulling down 10 rebounds per game.

    Pippen was a two-time NAIA All-American at UCA (1986, 1987).

    Even after such a flourishing college career, no one could have predicted the trajectory of Pippen’s Hall of Fame NBA career.

    He was a six-time NBA champion and seven-time All-Star—not to mention being named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. Not too bad for a one-time walk-on manager.