NBA Players Who Created Their Own Legends

Sean Hojnacki@@TheRealHojnackiFeatured ColumnistJanuary 7, 2015

NBA Players Who Created Their Own Legends

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    MICHAEL CONROY/Associated Press

    Some NBA players ascend to greatness as if claiming their birthright—the Michael Jordans and LeBron Jameses of the world—but other players have to carve out their niche using a mixture of hard work and skill along with a dash of luck sprinkled in. 

    These eight players did not seem destined for greatness, either because of their low (or nonexistent) draft position or struggles early in their careers.

    From Willis Reed's ire at being drafted with the first pick of the second round to the undrafted Ben Wallace winning an unprecedented four Defensive Player of the Year Awards in a five-year span, each of these guys attained heights no one could have predicted, and they authored their own enduring legends on the court. 

Willis Reed (1964-75)

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    Dick Raphael/Getty Images

    With nine teams in the league for the 1964 NBA draft, two teams opted to surrender their draft picks and instead used territorial selections to draft a player from near the franchise's location.

    The Knicks, the league's worst team, liked Jim "Bad News" Barnes enough to spend the first-overall draft pick on him. They took Willis Reed with their second selection as the eighth overall pick.

    As Reed told Harvey Araton, author of the book When the Garden Was Eden: "[Knicks coach] Eddie Donovan called to tell me I was the first pick of the second round. Boy, was I pissed." (This story is relayed in the similar fashion via B/R's Vincent Thomas.) Reed never forgot that slight, and it may have helped turn him into one of the toughest players in NBA history. 

    Reed claimed the 1970 NBA MVP and led the Knicks to two championships in '70 and '73. Both times, he won NBA Finals MVP. However, with the Knicks facing Game 7 at Madison Square Garden against the Los Angeles Lakers, the team's hopes for a first title hung in the balance.

    With Reed not expected to play due to a torn thigh muscle and no announcement up until game time, he suddenly limped out of the locker room in uniform to a raucous chorus of cheers from the MSG crowd.

    Reed scored the team's first two buckets, and though he exited soon after, his teammates and the crowd were so riled up, they handily dispatched a Lakers squad that included Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. That iconic act of playing through injury has become synonymous with courage and self-sacrifice across the sporting world.

    As if hobbling on a badly injured leg and inspiring a city to championship greatness weren't enough, Reed also fought the entire Lakers team one time. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982 and named one of the top 50 players in history. Not bad for a second-round pick. 

Nate "Tiny" Archibald (1970-1984)

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    Dick Raphael/Getty Images

    Nate "Tiny" Archibald stood at just 6'1", but he was a giant on the court. 

    The Cincinnati Royals drafted Archibald No. 19 overall during the second round of the 1970 draft. The kid from The Bronx proved his prowess during the 1972-73 season by becoming the first and still the only player to claim the scoring and assists titles in the same season, averaging 34.0 points and 11.4 dimes per game. 

    An Achilles injury robbed him of the 1977-78 season, and he never returned to the form he had enjoyed previously. However, he still offered creditable skills to the Boston Celtics, and 1981 saw him win both the All-Star Game MVP and his only NBA championship.

    A member of the NBA's 50th anniversary team, Archibald was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1991, confirming the massive accomplishments of "Tiny" Archibald.

Alex English (1976-1991)

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    Brian Drake/Getty Images

    Drafted in the second round 23rd overall in 1976, Alex English began his career as a backup for the Milwaukee Bucks, a fledgling team that had just lost Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the L.A. Lakers. His career prospects did not appear to be very significant.

    Traded by the Indiana Pacers in 1980 for George McGinnis, the swap would prove fortuitous for English and the Denver Nuggets as they struck gold with an under-utilized scorer in the lopsided swap. English enjoyed a stellar decade in Denver, earning eight All-Star nods and leading the team to nine straight playoff appearances.

    The Nuggets consistently ran an up-tempo offense that generated more possessions per game than average, and as the leader of the offense, English rapidly rose up the league's all-time list of scorers and retired with more points than all but five players in NBA history. 

    English became a Hall of Famer in 1997 and he remains the Nuggets' leading scorer of all time

Dennis Rodman (1986-2000)

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    JOHN ZICH/Associated Press

    It's a parallel situation to the chicken and the egg: Did Dennis Rodman become a great player by playing on great teams, or did his existing greatness elevate those squads?

    The Detroit Pistons spent their No. 27 pick on Rodman during the second round of the 1986 draft. He joined a team eventually known as the "Bad Boys," alongside Isaiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Bill Laimbeer.

    Rodman averaged just 7.3 points per game for his career, but his role as a voracious rebounder and fearless defender had tremendous impact and even helped change the rules of the game with his penchant for drawing charges underneath the basket.

    Rodman claimed back-to-back NBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards in 1990 and '91. He led the league in rebounding for every season from 1992 through 1998, and he retired with five championship rings, two from Detroit and three from his time with Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson on the Chicago Bulls. 

    The ever-mercurial Rodman also became widely known for his antics off the court. From marrying Carmen Electra and wearing a wedding dress with makeup on at a book signing to engaging in professional wrestling and befriending North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, Rodman has often proven to be as perplexing off the court as he was punishing on it. 

Robert Horry (1992-2008)

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    Chris Birck/Getty Images

    Robert Horry was a promising young prospect when he was drafted out of Alabama by the Houston Rockets with the 11th pick of the 1992 draft. However, Horry failed to make a significant impact once he hit the pros.

    He averaged 10.1 points per game as a rookie, never posted a scoring average above 12.0 points per game and never put up a double-digit scoring average after his fourth season. He retired averaging 7.0 points per game and never made an All-Star team.

    But a torch was passed to Horry during his felicitous career. L.A. Lakers great Jerry West earned the nickname "Mr. Clutch," and Horry would come to be known as "Big Shot Bob" (or "Big Shot Rob" according to Basketball-Reference, but the alliteration sounds slightly better). 

    Horry collected an amazing seven championship rings by the time he retired—two with the Rockets ('94 and '95), three with the Lakers ('00, '01 and '02) and two with the San Antonio Spurs ('05 and '07).

    Horry's clutch resume included a litany of memorable shots that helped deliver key victories in the playoffs. With Houston, he canned a go-ahead jumper in Game 1 of the 1995 conference finals against the Spurs, and he hit the game-icing three-pointer in Game 3 of the NBA Finals against the Orlando Magic that year. 

    As a Laker, he splashed a crucial triple and numerous foul shots in the final minute of Game 3 of the 2001 NBA Finals versus the Philadelphia 76ers. In Game 4 of the 2002 conference finals against the Sacramento Kings, when Vlade Divac's attempt to clear the rebound caromed to Horry, he promptly drilled the game-winning buzzer-beater, tying the series 2-2 instead of the Kings taking a 3-1 lead.

    And Horry etched his name into Spurs lore by hitting the go-ahead three-pointer with just six ticks left in Game 5 of the 2004 NBA Finals, devastating the Detroit Pistons.

Ben Wallace (1996-2012)

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    J PAT CARTER/Associated Press

    Ben Wallace played junior college basketball before transferring to D-II Virginia Union. He went undrafted and landed with the Washington Bullets (soon renamed the Wizards) as a small-time role player.

    Wallace moved to the Orlando Magic where he proved his capability as a starter in the frontcourt, but his career took a fateful turn when the Magic traded him in 2000 to the Detroit Pistons as part of a deal to land All-Star Grant Hill. It appeared to be a one-sided trade in favor of Orlando, but Hill was plagued by injuries there, and no one could have foreseen Wallace would become the league's most dominant defender. 

    In his first season with the Pistons, "Big Ben" averaged 13.2 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. The next year, he posted 13.0 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game, both of which led the league. He followed with a league-leading average of 15.4 boards the next season. 

    Ben played alongside the hot-headed hilarity known as Rasheed Wallace, and he became known for alternating his hairstyles from game to game between a massive blown-out afro or tightly braided cornrows. 

    Wallace became the only player to win Defensive Player of the Year four times in five years (2002-06) since the award's introduction in 1983. (Dikembe Mutombo won four in a seven-year span.) While Wallace did not win DPOTY in 2004, he did help power the Pistons to a surprising NBA title that year, beating the L.A. Lakers in five games.

Manu Ginobili (2002-Present)

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    D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

    The San Antonio Spurs selected Argentine prospect Manu Ginobili with the 57th overall pick of the 1999 draft. They stashed him abroad as he furthered his development playing in Argentina and then Italy, finding success in the Euroleague as well. 

    The Spurs introduced Ginobili in 2002, and he has averaged double-digit scoring in every season since his rookie campaign. Beyond merely bringing to the NBA a foreign style of play replete with Eurosteps, Ginobili has been a stuffer of Spurs stat sheets for over a decade. 

    He's collected four NBA titles, and his play in the postseason has proved indispensable to the mighty Spurs again and again. For his playoff career, Ginobili has averaged 15.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.4 steals over 180 games. That's more than two full seasons of All-Star caliber play, and it not only came in the clutch, but also against the league's toughest defenses by virtue of being in the postseason.

    However, the twilight of his career appeared to be turning to night during the 2013 playoffs. In Games 2, 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, Ginobili averaged just 5.7 points per game on 33 percent shooting. During the crucial Game 6 loss in that series, he committed eight turnovers.

    After Ginobili looked like toast during those 2013 NBA Finals as the Spurs narrowly fell to LeBron James and the Heat, the veteran returned the next season and proved he still has plenty left in the tank. 

    In 2014, he raised his playoff scoring average to 14.3 points per game and brought his shooting percentage up to 44 percent, proving the 37-year-old still has plenty left to give in 2015 and perhaps beyond that.

Marc Gasol (2008-Present)

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    The L.A. Lakers selected Marc Gasol 48th overall in the 2007 draft, but he never played for them due to being traded for a very familiar player. In 2008, the Lakers traded his rights to the Memphis Grizzlies as part of a package to land his brother Pau Gasol, who had been selected at No. 3 in the 2001 draft. 

    Pau won two championships with the Lakers, but Marc has blossomed into a superior player compared to his older brother because of his unique two-way skills. In addition to being one of the finest passers among NBA big men, he claimed the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Award. 

    Now in his seventh NBA season, the 29-year-old Gasol now leads a Grizzlies team that ended the 2014 calendar year leading a very competitive Southwest Division over the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs. 

    With Gasol heading for unrestricted free agency in 2015, he should be in store for a massive payday regardless of whether he chooses to stay in Memphis and keep playing ball at the "Grindhouse" or looks for opportunities on the open market.

    Granted, Marc Gasol still has a long way to go before he can fully cement his own legacy, but he's already moved from out of his older brother's shadow and distinguished himself as one of the toughest and most valuable centers in the league.

    That's not too bad for a 48th pick in the draft who was selected 42 picks after Chinese forward Yi Jianlian, 30 picks after Italian Marco Belinelli and 24 picks after fellow Spaniard Rudy Fernandez.

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