College Basketball Superstars Who Flopped in the NBA
The best college basketball players don't necessarily become the best NBA players.
Sometimes, they barely make an imprint in the NBA at all.
Be sure to note we're only interested in college basketball superstars. That means guys who played NCAA basketball for at least three years and who would at least be considered in—if not a mortal lock for—a ranking of the 100 greatest men's college basketball players of all time.
That means this won't be your typical list of draft busts like Kwame Brown, Michael Olowokandi and Darko Milicic. It also means you won't find guys like Jahlil Okafor, Markelle Fultz, Anthony Bennett, Greg Oden or Thomas Robinson, either because they didn't play enough college seasons or because they weren't top-100 players.
Adam Morrison, though? Oh yeah. That guy still qualifies.
Players are ranked in ascending order of how badly they flopped in the NBA.
Doug McDermott, Creighton
We're keeping McDermott off the list because his NBA career scoring average of 8.2 points per game isn't that horrid, and he's still playing. In fact, he was at a career-high 10.4 points per game when the pause button was pressed on the 2019-20 season. He'll probably never be an All-Star, but he could hang around for quite some time in a Kyle Korver-type role.
Scott May, Indiana
May was the linchpin of Indiana's undefeated campaign in 1975-76, averaging 23.5 points and 7.7 rebounds while earning AP Player of the Year honors. He was subsequently taken No. 2 overall in the NBA draft, only to have a career marginally better than Darko Milicic's. He averaged 10.4 points per game, but he was out of the league within seven years.
Kent Benson, Indiana
Another key member of that undefeated Indiana team, Benson stayed in Bloomington one year longer than May and went No. 1 overall in the 1977 draft. He was OK for a couple of years, topping out at 15.7 points per game in his fourth NBA season. However, he ended up averaging 9.1 points and 5.7 rebounds during a career in which getting his jaw broken by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the most noteworthy achievement.
Rick Mount, Purdue
Mount was the first high school player to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated, and he went on to average better than 32 points per game in his three seasons at Purdue. But he never played in the NBA. Instead, he went to the ABA, averaged 11.8 points per game and retired after just five seasons due to a dislocated shoulder. We decided not to include him in part because he technically didn't flop in the NBA. It's hard to believe he flamed out so quickly, though.
Jay Williams, Duke
The No. 2 pick in the 2002 draft had a brutally brief run in the NBA, playing just one season before suffering what proved to be career-ending injuries in a motorcycle accident. He had a respectable rookie year, though, averaging 9.5 points and 4.7 assists, and he seemed to be on his way to a nice run in the pros. The draft pick ended up being a bust, but I have a hard time putting him in the same category as these other flops.
Lionel Simmons, La Salle
Christian Laettner, Duke
Simmons was the 1989-90 AP Player of the Year who put La Salle back on the map for the first time in decades. Laettner won the same award two years later and was the biggest (and most hated) contributor en route to the first and second national championships in Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski's career.
Their stars weren't nearly as bright in the NBA, but they were adequate. Each guy averaged 12.8 points per game in his career, Laettner doing so for 13 years while Simmons only lasted seven before retiring at the age of 28 due to injuries. Most of the guys on this list didn't even average half that many points, and none of them played in as many games as Simmons (454), let alone Laettner (868).
9. Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina
College Stats: 142 G, 20.2 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 1.1 APG, 28.5 WS
Drafted: No. 13 in 2009
NBA Stats: 428 G, 6.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 20.2 WS
Tyler Hansbrough was a consensus first-team All-American in each of his four seasons at Chapel Hill. He averaged at least 18.4 points and 7.8 rebounds in all four years, finishing his college career with 2,872 and 1,219 total points and boards, respectively.
Love him or hate him, Psycho T was one of the greatest college basketball players of the past two decades and an all-time great at getting to the free-throw line.
But there were always concerns about whether his style of play would work in the NBA. It's one thing to out-muscle and out-hustle college opponents, but battling grown men like Zach Randolph, Pau Gasol, Kevin Garnett and Tyson Chandler for more than twice as many games per season is another story.
The lack of any semblance of a perimeter game didn't help matters, either. He was a power forward trying to play center, and the game was evolving to eradicate those players.
That's why he almost wasn't taken in the lottery, and that's why he never found much of a role in the NBA. It wasn't until his 425th game that he matched his point total from 142 games in college. And he played the final* regular-season game of his NBA career less than a week later.
*Hansbrough has been playing in China for the past three years and, theoretically, could still return. It has been more than four years since his last NBA game, though.
8. Shelden Williams, Duke
College Stats: 139 G, 13.9 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 3.0 BPG, 1.2 SPG, 29.2 WS
Drafted: No. 5 in 2006
NBA Stats: 361 G, 4.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 0.5 BPG, 9.9 WS
It was a tough call on whether to include Shelden Williams. There's no question he was a bust in the NBA, but was he a good enough college player to warrant consideration here?
Williams was clearly the second fiddle to JJ Redick throughout their four years in Durham, but he had one heck of a two-year run as Duke's upperclassman big man. Hell, he's the only player since 1997 to average at least 18.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in a single season, doing so as a senior (18.8, 10.7, 3.8).
He was, at the very least, a key figure for a Duke team that won 116 games in his four seasons and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament in each of his final three years on the roster.
Though he's a far cry from Tyler Hansbrough on the list of guys you first think of when reflecting on men's college basketball in the 2000s, we've decided it's OK to rank him higher in "flop factor."
At least Hansbrough put up respectable numbers as a rookie before quickly dissipating. Williams never even flashed potential. He averaged 5.5 points per game in his first season, and that was the best mark in his six years. And that elite shot-blocking was nowhere to be found. He swatted away 137 shots in 1,198 minutes as a senior, but after five years and 4,310 minutes played in the NBA, he was only at 125.
He was never able to adjust to a league with defensive three-second violations.
7. Joe Holup, George Washington
College Stats: 104 G, 21.4 PPG, 19.5 RPG
Drafted: No. 5 in 1956
NBA Stats: 192 G, 7.0 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 4.2 WS
During Adam Morrison's soon-to-be-mentioned amazing 2005-06 season, George Washington had one heck of a year of its own, going 26-1 during the regular season and climbing all the way to No. 6 in the AP poll. It was the first time the Colonials were ranked in the Top 10 in half a century, dating back to when Joe Holup had them in the national spotlight on an annual basis.
Holup put up 19.4 points and 18.0 rebounds per game in 1952-53. And that was just his freshman year. By his senior year, he was up to 25.0 and 23.2, respectively, and surely would have been in the running for some National Player of the Year awards if such a thing had existed back then.
He ended up with 2,226 points and 2,030 rebounds in his college career.
But like Tyler Hansbrough, Holup quickly found out the NBA was a completely different animal. The 6'6" small forward was eaten alive by the likes of Bill Russell, Bob Pettit and Clyde Lovellette. And during a time at which there were only eight NBA teams, those guys were owning him about a dozen times per year.
Holup only managed to last three seasons, and he only averaged 64 games per year at that. Others on this list had even shorter runs in the NBA, but it's hard to believe a guy who was this dominant in college made no impact in the pros.
6. Shawn Respert, Michigan State
College Stats: 119 G, 21.3 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2.5 APG
Drafted: No. 8 in 1995
NBA Stats: 172 G, 4.9 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 1.0 APG, 2.1 WS
In the final few years before Tom Izzo's reign as head coach of Michigan State began, Shawn Respert dominated for the Spartans. He averaged 20.1 points as a sophomore, 24.3 points as a junior and 25.6 points as a senior. That last year, he and point guard Eric Snow carried an otherwise subpar roster to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, during which they immediately lost to Weber State.
He racked up more than 2,500 points in his college career, which was nearly triple the amount he scored in the NBA.
It came out well after the fact that Respert was diagnosed with stomach cancer late in his rookie season. He went through radiation treatment that summer, told almost no one about it and came back the following season. But he battled injuries while playing sparingly/poorly for the next three seasons. He spent a couple of years in Europe after that, but his career was effectively over before age 30.
We considered leaving him off this list entirely because of the stomach cancer, but he wasn't performing well before that. (Granted, he was unknowingly playing through it prior to the diagnosis.) Respert didn't even average 5.0 points as a rookie, nor did he start a single game.
Maybe he could have developed over the next few years, but we'll never know.
5. Steve Alford, Indiana
College Stats: 125 G, 19.5 PPG, 3.1 APG, 2.8 RPG, 1.4 SPG
Drafted: No. 26 in 1987
NBA Stats: 169 G, 4.4 PPG, 1.0 APG, 3.2 WS
On one hand, no one was expecting Steve Alford to be great in the NBA. The 6'2", 183-pounds-soaking-wet shooting guard wasn't even a first-round pick during a draft in which hardly anyone taken outside the top 12 amounted to anything.
On the other hand, what happened to one of the silkiest shooters in college basketball history?
Alford finished his career with a then-Indiana record 2,438 points despite playing his first three seasons without a three-point line. Once that was added, he shot 53.0 percent and made 107 triples as a senior, leading Indiana to the 1987 national championship. He shot 21-of-34 (61.8 percent) from downtown in that NCAA tournament, including a 7-of-10 effort in the 74-73 title game against Syracuse.
(Alford also made 89.8 percent of the 596 free-throw attempts in his college career, so it's not like he just got hot while teams were still figuring out how to defend the arc. He was clearly a gifted shooter.)
Were it not for David Robinson dominating that same year as a senior at Navy, Alford probably would have won some National Player of the Year awards.
In the NBA, though, he shot 32.4 percent from three-point range and only had one stint (less than a full season) with the Golden State Warriors in which he was even one of the first few guys off the bench. The Dallas Mavericks never even gave him a chance to make an impact, and he was out of the league within four years.
4. Jimmer Fredette, BYU
College Stats: 139 G, 18.7 PPG, 3.7 APG, 2.6 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 23.0 WS
Drafted: No. 10 in 2011
NBA Stats: 241 G, 6.0 PPG, 1.4 APG, 1.0 RPG, 2.2 WS
That career scoring average in college doesn't even remotely do justice to what a phenom Jimmer Fredette was by the end of his four-year run at BYU. He played sparingly as a freshman with nowhere near the green light he had as a senior. In three years, he went from 7.0 points per game with a modest three-point percentage (33.6) to a 40 percent shooter with "Jimmer Range" who put up 28.9 points per night.
You would think that ability to make jumpers from more than 30 feet away would fit nicely in the modern NBA. Guys like Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard and James Harden drain shots from way downtown on a regular basis.
But those guys can pass, they can drive, they can rebound, and they can occasionally play defense.
Fredette...not so much.
And because he was playing fewer minutes and no longer had that permanent green light—Fredette averaged 32.5 field-goal attempts per 100 possessions as a senior in college and 20.4 in the NBA—he struggled to get into a shooting rhythm.
There were a few "Jimmer Mania" moments during the first half of his second season in the Association, but he never got a strong enough foothold, starting just seven games in his NBA career. He had quite a bit of success with the Shanghai Sharks, though, averaging 37.0 points per game during his three seasons in China (2016-19).
3. Ed O'Bannon, UCLA
College Stats: 117 G, 15.5 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.2 SPG
Drafted: No. 9 in 1995
NBA Stats: 128 G, 5.0 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.1 WS
These days, Ed O'Bannon is best known as the guy leading the charge against the NCAA's refusal to allow players to profit off their name, image and likeness. Back in the mid-'90s, though, he was the star who led UCLA to a national championship.
Most people probably remember Tyus Edney going coast-to-coast for the game-winning layup in the second-round win over Missouri, but it was O'Bannon who led those Bruins in both points and rebounds without a close runner-up.
It's only because of O'Bannon's 24 points in that game that UCLA had a chance to win it at the end. And his 30 points and 17 rebounds in the title game against Arkansas made him the easy choice for Most Outstanding Player.
But the 1995 Wooden Award winner was unable to make that type of impact at the next level. He wasn't big enough to play in the post, and he wasn't quick enough to live on the perimeter.
In today's game, he might have thrived as a 6'8" three-and-D wing. Aside from Scottie Pippen, though, that role didn't really exist back then, so O'Bannon was gone within two years.
2. Bo Kimble, Loyola Marymount
College Stats: 104 G, 22.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 1.7 APG
Drafted: No. 8 in 1990
NBA Stats: 105 G, 5.5 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 0.1 WS
Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers were a dream pairing.
They both began their college careers at USC, transferred to Loyola Marymount, sat out a year and then completely dominated for head coach Paul Westhead. The Lions went 12-16 in the season the duo sat out and 28-4 in their first campaign on the floor.
After Gathers died (abnormal heartbeat) during the 1990 WCC tournament, Kimble almost willed LMU to the Final Four, averaging 35.8 points in four tournament games. That wasn't much different than his usual production that year, though. He put up 35.3 points per game in 1989-90.
He initially got out to a solid start in the NBA, scoring in double figures during each of his first 15 games.
But then he just vanished.
Not literally. He started each of the subsequent seven games, but he only averaged 5.4 points in those contests and never started another game. After putting up 14.9 points per game in those first 15 outings, he plummeted to 3.9 points per contest for the final 90 appearances of a brief, injury-plagued career.
We expected so much more from the college basketball star who had the highest single-season scoring total of the last 35 years.
1. Adam Morrison, Gonzaga
College Stats: 95 G, 19.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 2.0 APG, 14.1 WS
Drafted: No. 3 in 2006
NBA Stats: 161 G, 7.5 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.4 APG, minus-1.4 WS
Most people know Adam Morrison for three things:
- The mustache
- Sobbing into his jersey after Gonzaga blew a huge lead and lost in the 2006 Sweet 16
- Failing miserably in the NBA
Well, he's also an NBA champion, so jot that down.
And his 2005-06 battle with Duke's JJ Redick for National Player of the Year was one of the best races ever. Morrison averaged 28.1 points per game and won the Wooden Award for it. He scored 43 points against Michigan State in the Maui Invitational, had another 43-point effort two weeks later at Washington and carried the Zags to a top-three seed in the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season.
That guy never materialized at the next level.
He was OK as a rookie, averaging 11.8 points per game, but he bounced in and out of the starting lineup because his defense was downright deplorable. He tore his ACL the following fall, missed the entire 2007-08 season and never came close to amounting to anything again.
He did appear in two 2010 postseason games with the Los Angeles Lakers, so at least he got a championship ring out of his brief career.