5 Current Players Whose Rise to NBA Stardom Began with March Madness
The NCAA men's basketball tournament isn't always a stepping stone to NBA stardom.
Some collegiate stars never take off the in the Association. Some don't even reach it. But every once in a while, the pieces all fall into place for the March Madness darlings of today to become the NBA's hardwood heroes of tomorrow.
We can't tell you who might rise to prominence this year, or if it anyone will at all.
We can, however, look back at some of the NBA's biggest stars who can thank their NCAA tournament runs for boosting their draft stocks and laying the groundwork for their ascensions. Their respective runs are ranked in ascending order by their impact on these players' NBA stocks.
Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse
No, Anthony isn't a star anymore, and we're not sure he'll even be an NBA player again. But since he hasn't walked away just yet, it still feels appropriate to spotlight his incredible run to the 2003 national championship.
Anthony dominated that tournament, and his play kept picking up the deeper the Orange advanced. He double-doubled in each of their final three wins and followed a 33-point, 14-rebound effort against Texas in the Final Four with a 20-point, 10-rebound, seven-assist masterpiece to beat Kansas in the title game.
Dwyane Wade, Marquette
If we're throwing it back to 2003 for Anthony, why not extend the favor to another Banana Boat crew member?
Wade got two cracks at the tournament, and he never disappointed. His one-game freshman cameo in 2002 featured 18 points on 13 shots to go along with seven rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks.
The next year, he embarked on a five-game trip highlighted by a 24-point, eight-rebound, seven-assist gem in the second round and a win over top-seeded Kentucky in which he recorded a triple-double with 29 points, 11 boards, 11 dimes, four blocks and a steal.
Derrick Rose, Memphis
Did Rose need his 2008 tourney heroics to become that year's first overall pick? That's hard to say. But he certainly didn't hurt his stock by leading Memphis to the national championship game.
Over those six outings, the explosive lead guard averaged 20.8 points, 6.5 rebound and 6.0 assists on 51.8 percent shooting from the field.
5. Blake Griffin, Oklahoma
Once the 2009 tournament rolled around, Blake Griffin may have been running unopposed for top billing in the upcoming NBA draft.
If anyone remained on the fence, he converted them over four showcases of basketball brilliance. His worst game that March probably came in the Elite Eight. He still had 23 points and 16 rebounds on 9-of-12 shooting against top-seeded and eventual champion North Carolina, which swarmed him with multiple defenders early and often.
It's worth repeating: That was the low point.
"There's nothing that concerns me more than Blake," UNC coach Roy Williams told reporters before that clash. "He's a guy that can get 40 [points] and 20 [rebounds]. There's not many of those guys around very often."
Griffin didn't quite hit those marks in the previous rounds, but he came close. After opening the Big Dance with 28 points and 13 boards in just 31 minutes of action against Morgan State, he delivered 33 points, 17 rebounds and three assists during the second-round victory over Michigan.
When his Sooners bowed out after four contests, his per-game averages stood at 28.5 points, 15.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists on 78.0 percent shooting.
4. Anthony Davis, Kentucky
It seems impossible to fathom now, but Anthony Davis wasn't always a shoo-in for 2012's top pick. An inordinate number of 2011's top prospects opted to stay in school due to the NBA's impending lockout, and Davis' own teammate, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, had buzz just as big as The Brow's.
Davis spent most of the season separating from the pack. In his first collegiate outing, he had 23 points, 10 boards and five blocks in just 23 minutes against Marist.
But even if he'd ascended to the No. 1 spot by March, his tournament trip helped lengthen the lead.
His offensive averages weren't jaw-dropping: 13.7 points and 3.0 assists over his six-game climb to the title. But considering six of his teammates would later suit up in the Association, the Wildcats simply had too many mouths to feed for any one player to hog the spotlight.
The defensive end told a different story. That's where he sewed up the tournament's Most Outstanding Player award, averaging 12.3 rebounds (9.5 on the defensive end) and a face-melting 4.8 blocks.
"He may be the best player to [ever] play at Kentucky," former Wildcats coach Tubby Smith said, per ESPN's Myron Medcalf.
3. Draymond Green, Michigan State
Draymond Green spent four seasons at Michigan State. Naturally, he lived in the NCAA tournament.
The Spartans danced all four years, twice reaching the Final Four and once advancing to the championship game. As Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers later relayed, Green's winning background is part of what drew the Dubs to him with the No. 35 pick of the 2012 NBA draft.
To hear Green tell it, even that fails to capture the significance of his March Madness experience.
In 2009, the then-freshman was still getting his feet wet. He sat more than he played and barely impacted the box score. But by the Elite Eight, he had worked his way deeper into the rotation and drew the defensive assignment of Louisville forward Earl Clark, who'd be selected at No. 14 just a few months later. That's when Green realized he'd have his own NBA future.
"Every great player has that moment when he realizes, I can play at this level," Green wrote for the Players' Tribune. "... My moment—when I realized the pressure was never too great and I could keep up with the best in the game—came in that Elite Eight win over Louisville. Everything I've done since comes from the confidence I built during that run."
By Green's senior season, he looked an awful lot like the version we see now. He averaged 17.7 points, 13.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.3 steals over three games at the 2012 tournament.
2. Kemba Walker, Connecticut
Kemba Walker's first taste of March Madness was bittersweet.
In 2009, his Huskies advanced all the way to the Final Four before falling to Draymond Green's Spartans. But Walker, then a freshman sixth man, only had so much to say about his squad's fate. Despite shooting a blistering 55.2 percent for the tournament—as a 6'1" point guard, mind you—he averaged just 22.4 minutes and 5.8 shots.
UConn missed the dance during Walker's sophomore season, but he seized complete ownership of the team as a junior and forever cemented his name in college basketball lore.
It just took a ton of time to get started.
The Huskies went 9-9 in Big East play and entered the conference tournament as a ninth seed. But once Walker began postseason play, he would not be denied. He powered UConn to five wins in five days at the Big East tournament while averaging 26.0 points, 6.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.8 assists.
Then, he found the wind to do it all over again at the real tourney. He nearly triple-doubled against Bucknell in the opener (18 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds), and he kept the pedal floored the rest of the way. His averages through six games landed at 23.5 points, 6.0 boards, 5.7 dimes and 1.5 steals, and the Huskies captured their third national title.
"Kemba became special," then-UConn head coach Jim Calhoun said, per Boston.com's Nicole Yang.
1. Stephen Curry, Davidson
Other than having an NBA father, there wasn't an obvious reason to have Stephen Curry on your radar when he opened his career at Davidson. Even after he excelled throughout a freshman campaign that featured averages of 21.5 points and 3.6 three-pointers—a year capped by a 30-point performance in Davidson's round-of-64 loss to Maryland—many weren't taking note.
Then 2008 happened.
The entire year was incredible, as Curry poured in 25.9 points per night, buried 162 triples at a 43.9 percent clip and sent several scares into blue bloods—24 points in a four-point loss to North Carolina and 20 in a six-point defeat against Duke.
Curry was a great college basketball story before the Big Dance. But once the baby-faced gunner with the baggy uniform and lethal long-range stroke stepped onto that stage, he became a national phenomenon.
Curry's 10th-seeded Wildcats bounced tournament regular Gonzaga in the opener as the scoring guard went 14-of-22 from the field and 8-of-10 from distance en route to 40 points. He followed with a 30-spot against second-seeded Georgetown, converting another five triples and nine of his 10 free-throw attempts. Next up was third-seeded Wisconsin, which Curry helped dispatch with 33 points, six triples, four assists and four steals.
Top-seeded Kansas, Davidson's Elite Eight opponent, proved too tough a test. But only barely.
The Jayhawks were crowned champions two rounds later, but they first had to scratch out a 59-57 win as Curry added another 25 points and four triples to his tournament tally. His final averages came in at 32.0 points, 5.8 treys and 3.3 steals while he shot 46.7 percent from the field and 44.2 percent from outside.
But maybe the most surprising part is that Curry didn't bounce to the NBA immediately after, instead opting for another year at Davidson and telling reporters, "I don't think I'm ready."
Davidson didn't make the tournament in Curry's final year, but his March Madness—March Magic, really—story had already been scripted and foreshadowed what's becoming one of the most decorated careers in NBA history.
Statistics used courtesy of Sports Reference
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA