10 NBA Draft Busts Whose Careers Could Still Be Resurrected
As NBA epithets go, it doesn’t get much worse than this monosyllabic basketball barb, used to denote a “can’t miss” prospect that, well, missed very badly.
Sam Bowie, Michael Olowokandi, Darko Milicic: The list of NBA busts may not be long, but every name on it will ring tragi-familiar to the jaded fans of whatever franchise was unfortunate enough to draft them.
Today, the league boasts more than a few lottery-bred disappointments in real danger of being the next to wear the scarlet B, cursed to a lifetime of tough judgment and endless top-10 lists.
At the same time, plenty of these busts-in-waiting boast enough in the way of youth, talent and untapped upside to give them a puncher’s chance of resurrecting their careers—and their legacies.
Follow along as we look at 10 current NBA players who stand the best chance of avoiding one of the league’s most mendacious monikers.
For our purposes, we’re only considering players for whom the “bust” label has already been levied. It’s a longer list than you might think.
One year ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers—flush with the No. 1 pick for the second time in three seasons—shocked the NBA world by selecting Anthony Bennett, a raw but promising 6’8” power forward out of UNLV.
Why are we including a guy with but a single season under his belt? For the simple reason that there’s never been a first overall pick who performed this poorly this immediately.
Fear not, Cavs fans, for this slide comes with the shiniest of silver linings. At just 21 years old, Bennett has arguably the biggest leap to make of anyone on this list. Call it a case of first-year jitters, but Cleveland has plenty of reason to believe the future will be one where “Anthony Bennett: Bust” graces precisely zero headlines.
When Twitter reacts to your logging garbage time in an NBA Finals game as if Gregg Popovich just started his own account, you know your career has fallen on hard times.
One year after Kevin Durant took the Big 12 Conference by storm en route to a stellar rookie campaign, Michael Beasley authored his own spectacular season for the Kansas State University Wildcats, averaging 26.2 points and 12.4 rebounds.
Beasley was subsequently taken second in the 2008 draft, one spot behind future All-Star Derrick Rose. Since then, it’s been a steady southward spiral for the 6’10” forward, who played for three franchises in five seasons before returning to the Miami Heat—the team that first drafted him—on a veteran’s minimum, non-guaranteed contract ahead of the 2013-14 season.
Beasley’s off-court issues certainly haven’t helped his reputation. But the rudiments of a solid rotation player are there, buried beneath the aloof facade and flawed basketball instincts of a player who too often looks like he quite frankly doesn’t care.
Let’s face it: There are just certain players who, in hindsight, could’ve really, really used a second year of college ball. Austin Rivers, the No. 10 pick of the New Orleans Pelicans back in 2012, is one of those players.
After a promising but spotty freshman year at Duke, Rivers entered the NBA ranks awash in hype and pedigree—the product, perhaps, of his being the son of a longtime league stalwart. Some guy named Glen “Doc” Rivers.
Then the 2012-13 season happened. Let’s not beat around the bush: Rivers’ rookie campaign—6.2 points and 2.1 assists on 37 percent shooting—was one of the most woeful of any lottery pick in recent memory.
The good news: Rivers rebounded by nearly doubling his first-year PER (from 5.9 to 11.6) in his second season. And while his raw numbers only improved marginally, his shot-making and decision-making abilities were worlds superior.
In sum, there’s plenty of skill and pedigree to believe Rivers can gradually grow into a solid second or third guard.
When you’re the 11th overall pick, the last thing you want is for your year-two production to go down. Like, significantly.
Such was the case for Meyers Leonard, a 7’1” center for the Portland Trail Blazers who put in two impressive seasons at the University of Illinois before declaring for the 2013 draft.
After logging nearly 18 minutes a game during his rookie campaign, Leonard’s role was drastically reduced during 2013-14 season, and his numbers suffered accordingly.
However, there’s one crucial caveat to Leonard’s credit, namely Portland’s acquisition of Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson to round out one of the weakest benches in the league.
When he plays, Leonard’s per-36 productivity is nothing if not encouraging: 9.9 points and 11.3 rebounds—not bad for a 22-year-old whose game is still presumably developing.
Whether he can carve out a niche in a front court logjam will go a long way in determining whether Leonard’s future will unfold in Portland, or somewhere else entirely.
You may have heard of the word “tweener.” Essentially, it denotes a player too big to play one position, but too small to play another.
Coming off a stellar junior year at Syracuse University, Wesley Johnson’s single biggest knock was whether his NBA destiny would be as shooting guard or small forward. Four years later, we’re still trying to figure that out.
To say Johnson’s productivity has been one big, disappointing flat line would be an understatement. Still, Johnson managed to parlay a one-year minimum contract with the Los Angeles Lakers into arguably his most efficient stint to date, highlighted by career highs in both field-goal (43 percent) and three-point percentage (37 percent).
That latter stat may be where Johnson’s NBA future lies: as a spot-up shooter capable of giving his team—be it the Lakers or someone else—a jolt off the bench.
At the very least, Johnson’s athleticism and slow but steady uptick in shooting efficiency should be enough to pull his career out of the dustbin of historic busts.
It is a sad state of affairs indeed when no one—not even the most bright-eyed and bushy-tailed of our basketball youth—is asking to be taught how to Jimmer.
To be sure, there were plenty of red flags on Jimmer Fredette when the scoring dynamo from BYU was taken with the 10th pick in the 2011 draft by the Sacramento Kings: too slow, too flat-footed on defense, not versatile enough offensively—the standard slings hoisted upon many a collegiate shooting sensation.
After two-and-a-half disappointing seasons, Fredette was waived by the Kings on February 27. And while he quickly found a home with the Chicago Bulls, Fredette’s role plummeted even further under the defense-first tutelage of Tom Thibodeau.
And while getting more burn will certainly help Jimmer's cause, as Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney underscores, it's the quality of minutes, not the quantity, that will mean the most to his development:
Don’t get me wrong: Every bit of playing time will help. The only way for Fredette to play better basketball is for him to play more basketball — to experience a wider variety of in-game situations and to have more repetition in reading and reacting. But overall, a developmental prospect like Fredette needs more than bits of playing time whenever things go awry for some other player. What he needs to succeed is a commitment on even the most basic level: an arrangement that would give him a window to work out his growing pains.
Someone will take a flyer on the fourth-year guard—that much is clear. And they’ll no doubt point to Fredette’s tremendous per-36 numbers as proof that Jimmer’s best days as NBA player may well be ahead of him.
As you can probably tell by now, the 2011 draft class—in which Derrick Williams was the No. 2 overall pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves—has definitely yielded its fair share of potential bust bait.
Like Wes Johnson, the biggest knock on Derrick Williams coming out of the University of Arizona was where, exactly, he fit positionally.
With the Sacramento Kings having picked up his 2014-15 option, Williams has a chance to prove he belongs on a team that stands to be much improved going forward. But until Williams can develop a reliable stroke from deep, he risks being cast forever into the annals of tweener flops.
*Looks at Basketball-Reference page*
Really, 2011? Really?
Every few years, one NBA team decides to let its draft-day hopes ride on a raw, unproven product with upside for days. In 2011, that team was the Charlotte Hornets (nee Bobcats), and that player was Bismack Biyombo.
In four seasons, Biyombo’s development, like his overall production, hasn’t exactly followed the trajectory the Hornets had hoped—even with low-post luminary Patrick Ewing on hand to impart his basketball wisdom.
At 6’9”, Biyombo will most certainly never be a starting center in the NBA. But if he can somehow become a poor man’s Serge Ibaka—once similarly raw, now positively versatile—it would be enough to preclude his becoming a certified bust.
In Al-Farouq Aminu, the New Orleans Pelicans were hoping—with the No. 8 pick in 2010—to land their small-forward of the future: an athletic, two-way specimen with room to grow and talent to spare.
Sadly, Aminu’s productivity has remained steadfastly mediocre. And with Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson poised to be the team’s forwards of the future, it seems unlikely that Aminu’s role will be anything more than a mere backup—at least with the Pelicans.
At the same time, Aminu’s solid efficiency (a 13.5 PER the last two seasons) suggests the versatile small forward could grow into a serviceable starter on the right team.
Let’s be Frank (or Jim): You don’t set the all-time single-season assist record at the University of North Carolina without being a really, really good point guard.
The fact that Kendall Marshall accomplished this feat as a sophomore gave instant pause to all those who believed the floor general’s game lacked proper NBA polish to translate at the next level.
But after a disastrous rookie year with the Phoenix Suns split between languishing on the bench and pulling duty with the team’s D-League affiliate, Marshall appeared every bit the bust in waiting.
Then, something (somewhat) miraculous happened: Marshall was called to assume the reins of the Los Angeles Lakers. And while the team sputtered to a lottery finish, Marshall’s renaissance year showed everyone that you don’t have to have Steve Nash’s jumper to be an effective NBA point guard.
In an interview with the Boston Globe's Gary Washburn, Marshall lent some insight into the struggles of a once-promising lottery pick fallen on hard times on the hardwood:
You start questioning yourself, without a doubt. You start wondering if it’s a fluke that you’re here. But again, it goes back to having confidence in yourself and realizing what you can do and realizing that you’re here for a reason. When you put the work in, it validates to yourself that you could play at this level.
Marshall's play may have yet to justify his No. 13 billing, but last year's impressive run with the Lakers will certainly warrant him a harder second look than most would-be busts.
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