Underground Talents That Made Their Way to the NBA
A year or two at a Division I school, followed by a selection in the draft, is the traditional path to the NBA. It isn't available for everyone, though. And some underground talents have shown you can still reach the league without walking that path.
The reasons people go unnoticed are varied. Among other things, they might not have found the right situation in high school or college, or their skills may have been underappreciated around the time they tried to advance to the next level.
But going unnoticed or underappreciated at one time or another wasn't enough of a reason to stop the players discussed here from reaching their dream.
Some of the players who are currently enjoying careers in the NBA without hearing their names called on draft night include Gary Neal, Ish Smith, Kent Bazemore, Matthew Dellavedova, Tyler Johnson and Anthony Morrow (just to name a few). All are important rotation players (and, in some cases, starters) for their respective teams.
In the following slides, we'll take a closer look at five of the most notable undrafted players the NBA has ever seen.
Jeremy Lin may have settled into a seldom-heralded reserve role over the last few seasons, but his entry into the league drew as much or more attention as that of any undrafted player.
Linsanity, a term that was eventually trademarked by Lin, captured the attention of basketball fans all over the world in 2012. Over an 11-game stretch (which included the first 10 starts of Lin's career), he averaged 23.9 points, 9.2 assists and 2.4 steals. The New York Knicks went 9-2 in those 11 games.
"It’s real," teammate Steve Novak said of Linsanity in 2012, per Time magazine's Sean Gregory. "I’m saying in the next game, he might score 50. I feel like I’m a part of history.”
Lin's historic run with the Knicks was preceded by a solid career at Harvard University, where he averaged 17.1 points over his last two years. He didn't do quite enough to get drafted, though. And he couldn't avoid the chopping block during his first NBA stint with the Golden State Warriors, which cut him after 29 appearances in the 2010-11 season.
Perseverance and a stint in the D-League led to Lin's opportunity with the Knicks. It was an opportunity of which he took full advantage.
Long before Avery Johnson played an integral role in the San Antonio Spurs' first title run in 1999, he was a draft-night snub in 1988. This, despite leading the NCAA in assists during the 1987-88 season with a whopping 13.3 per game.
"Seventy-five players were taken in the three-round draft and Johnson was not one of them," Sheridan Hoops' Jan Hubbard wrote in 2012. "He was not deterred. He managed to sign as a free agent with Seattle. That began a career that featured him being traded three times, waived twice (including once on Christmas Eve), and not re-signed when his contract expired five times."
It wasn't until the 1993-94 season that Johnson found a consistent role with the Warriors, where he averaged 10.9 points and 5.3 assists in 28.4 minutes per game. That was good enough to entice the San Antonio Spurs to sign him as an unrestricted free agent in '94.
Over the next seven seasons, Johnson started 465 games at point guard for the Spurs, averaging 10.9 points and 7.3 assists. His time in San Antonio culminated in the '99 Finals win with Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
John Starks, the electrifying Knicks point guard who once dunked on seemingly half of the Chicago Bulls, somehow went from the checkout line to an NBA starting lineup in just a few short years.
The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry shared some of the particulars of Starks' path in a 2011 piece titled, "NBA or bust: John Starks was determined to make it."
A product of Tulsa Central High, Starks didn't play basketball as a senior. He worked as a bagger at a local grocery store. Following high school, Starks attended Rogers State College in Claremore but was a replacement player on the basketball team. The next year, Starks enrolled at Northern Oklahoma College in Tonkawa, where he made the basketball team and averaged 11 points. A year later, Starks transferred to Tulsa Junior College.
While playing for Ken Trickey, Starks was discovered by then-OSU coach Leonard Hamilton. The next season, in his final year of eligibility, Starks played at OSU and averaged 15.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists during the 1987-88 season. His performance was good enough to garner a training camp invitation from the Warriors.
Starks would appear in just 36 games for the Warriors during the 1988-89 season, before spending an entire year out of the league.
After brief stints in the Continental Basketball Association and the World Basketball League, Starks was signed by the Knicks in 1990. He went on to play eight seasons in New York, making an All-Star team in the 1993-94 season, when he averaged 19.0 points and 5.9 assists.
In the summer of 2015, Nevada men's basketball coach Eric Musselman summed up Starks' career in a tweet, saying, "John Starks went undrafted after playing at 4 different JUCOs. 13 yrs in NBA. Knicks all-time 3-pt leader. Success is a process #NeverGiveUp."
Wesley Matthews seemingly had his path to the NBA paved. He averaged double figures in three of his four years at Marquette, a major-conference program, including 18.3 during his senior campaign. Plus, his father, Wes Matthews, played eight-plus seasons in the league in the '80s.
And, yet, everyone drafting in 2009 passed on Matthews. He signed a training camp deal with the Utah Jazz that summer, and sharpshooter Kyle Korver was impressed. Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy shared Korver's thoughts in a 2015 profile of Matthews:
When we first came in [to Utah], he wasn’t drafted – I think they kind of brought him in for training camp and everyone just kind of thought, ‘Man, Wes is a good player.’ He worked hard, he was really strong, he was trying to be a better shooter, he asked a lot of questions about defense and just fundamentals of the game, and you really liked him as a guy. He’s just a really good dude, you know? Then, he just kept on getting better and better and better. He was just so solid; he didn’t make many mistakes.
That desire to work has served Matthews well throughout his seven-season career in the NBA. Over that time he's developed into one of the game's great floor spacers.
He's just over halfway through this season and is already fourth all time in threes made during the first seven seasons of a player's career.
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In 2015, Matthews ruptured his Achilles' tendon, an injury that can permanently alter a basketball player's career. It's too early to tell if that's what will happen to Matthews. What we do know is that the work ethic that helped Matthews make it in the NBA also helped him return from this injury months before anyone expected.
Leading up to the retirement of Ben Wallace's jersey by the Detroit Pistons, Michigan native Draymond Green wrote a letter that appeared in the Detroit Free Press to one of his favorite players growing up:
The day came where I was able to build a relationship with Ben and, to this day, he continues to be a big brother to me. Here we are about 10 years later and a common story line has surfaced --- how am I able to do what I do while undersized, just like Ben. I refuse to be outworked and I consider myself to have the heart of a lion.
It was that heart that led to Wallace's dominance at a junior college in Cleveland, Division II Virginia Union, and, eventually, the NBA.
He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Washington Bullets in 1996. He played for sub-million-dollar salaries for each of his first four seasons, before being acquired by Detroit in 2000.
During the ensuing six-season stretch with the Pistons, Wallace averaged 12.9 rebounds, 7.9 points, 2.8 blocks and 1.6 steals. He won four Defensive Player of the Year awards (tied with Dikembe Mutombo for the most ever) and made four All-Star teams. And, most importantly, he anchored the defense for the 2004 Detroit squad that won the NBA Finals.
Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him @AndrewDBailey.