Ranking the Best Basketball Players from Los AngelesAugust 9, 2020
Ranking the Best Basketball Players from Los Angeles
Long before setting the (since-broken) NBA record for career three-pointers with the Indiana Pacers, Reggie Miller honed his shooting stroke as a high schooler in the greater Los Angeles area. He is arguably the greatest basketball player from the region, but there are quite a few active phenoms coming for that crown.
Apologies in advance if we include someone you think shouldn't be or vice versa. Interpretations of both "from" and "Los Angeles" can vary from one person to another. And I have yet to step foot in the state of California in my life, so I'm hardly an expert on its geography. As a general rule of thumb, though, we're searching for guys who played multiple years of high school basketball in one of the many cities that Crunchbase denotes as part of the greater Los Angeles area.
To further clarify, here are the most noteworthy products of California who were omitted for not hailing from Los Angeles: Bill Russell, Gary Payton, Paul Silas and Damian Lillard are all from Oakland, which is about 400 miles up the coast from L.A. Jason Kidd (Alameda), Kevin Johnson (Sacramento), Bill Sharman (Porterville) and Jamaal Wilkes (Santa Barbara) also missed the cut for growing up outside of L.A.'s ill-defined boundary lines.
Also worth noting: Kevin Love was born in Santa Monica, California, but he grew up and played high school ball in Oregon.
Even without including those NBA greats, there was no shortage of options. Byron Scott scored more than 15,000 career points. Trevor Ariza, Elden Campbell and Tayshaun Prince each eclipsed 10k in that category, and Prince was one of the best defensive players of the 2000s. Not one of those four players was anywhere close to cracking the top eight. The list could have been twice that long and they still all probably would have been left out.
L.A. isn't quite as loaded as NYC, but it sure has produced a ton of talent.
Players were ranked in ascending order of dominance in the NBA. It's not necessarily a ranking of career win shares, but that Basketball Reference statistic was the one primarily considered.
Gilbert Arenas: Most people primarily remember "Agent Zero" for the infamous locker room incident, but there was a three-year stretch in the mid-2000s when he was arguably one of the 10 most dominant players in the world.
Tyson Chandler: Chandler went straight from high school to the NBA, but he never quite lived up to the hype of being the No. 2 pick in the 2001 NBA draft. He has managed to stick around for nearly two decades, though, thanks primarily to his rebounding and defense.
Baron Davis: Similar to Arenas, there was a hot minute there in the mid-2000s when it seemed like Davis might be on the path to the Hall of Fame. In his age-24 season, he averaged 22.9 points, 7.5 assists and a league-best 2.4 steals per game. However, nagging injuries throughout almost his entire career kept him from reaching his ceiling.
DeMar DeRozan: Tough call to omit a four-time All-Star who has averaged 20 points per game in his 11-year career, but that's a testament to how much talent has come out of Los Angeles. There's a good chance DeRozan will belong in the top eight by the end of his career.
Marques Johnson: Speaking of 20-point scorers, that's what Johnson averaged in a career with five All-Star selections and three All-NBA teams. However, it was a career cut short by a neck injury suffered at the age of 30.
Klay Thompson: Even harder to omit Thompson than DeRozan, considering he was such a critical part of the Golden State dynasty and considering he had five consecutive All-Star seasons averaging at least 20 points per game. But as great as this Splash Brother has been, he has a long way to go to reach the career win shares totals of the guys in our top eight.
8. Paul Westphal
Paul Westphal's illustrious career began in Redondo Beach, California. He went to Aviation High School in the late 1960s and was a highly touted prospect who most everyone expected to sign with John Wooden and the local juggernaut UCLA Bruins.
Instead, he went to USC and led the Trojans to their most successful season in program history in his junior season. They went 24-2 in 1970-71 with Westphal averaging 16.3 points, 3.2 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game.
He was taken 10th overall by the Boston Celtics in the 1972 NBA draft, but it wasn't until he left Boston that his career took off. After averaging just 4.1, 7.2 and 9.8 points, respectively, in his first three seasons, Westphal was traded to Phoenix and immediately blossomed into a perennial All-Star. He put up at least 20 points per game in each of his five seasons with the Suns and was All-NBA for four of those years.
Following that half-decade run in the desert, he was traded to Seattle where his career began to derail because of repeated stress fractures in his foot. But those five peak seasons were so impressive that he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2019.
After his playing career ended, Westphal spent the next three decades coaching at both the collegiate and NBA levels.
7. Dennis Johnson
For most of the guys on this list, it was abundantly clear that they had a gift by the time they graduated high school. Dennis Johnson, on the other hand, barely even played during his four years at Dominguez High School in Compton.
Then a scrawny 5'9" guard (he eventually grew to 6'3"), DJ spent most of his time on the bench and surely did not expect to have any sort of career in basketball. After high school, he worked various part-time jobs in between games of streetball with his brothers.
It was during these games that the head coach of a local junior college (Los Angeles Harbor) recognized Johnson's skill and potential as a defensive specialist and gave him an opportunity to flourish. After two years there, Johnson enrolled at Pepperdine for one season, where he led the Waves to the 1976 Sweet 16.
He still wasn't anything close to a sure thing, though, taken 29th in the subsequent NBA draft. But his hops and constant intensity on defense paid huge dividends.
Beginning with his third season in the NBA, he was named to the All-Defensive team in nine consecutive years. DJ never developed much of a shooting stroke, making just 80 three-pointers at a 17.2 percent clip in his career. He was a great facilitator, though, running the point for three NBA champions.
The five-time All-Star was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.
6. Paul George
"Calling Paul [George] a late bloomer would be an accurate description," said Palmdale Knight High basketball coach Tom Hegre to The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears.
It wasn't until his senior year that he started seriously getting attention from college recruiters. He averaged 23.3 points and 11.2 rebounds that season, but he was just barely a top-200 overall recruit in 2008 and ended up playing at Fresno State.
While with the Bulldogs, George suffered from the lack of a supporting cast. He put up 16.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.2 steals per game as a sophomore, but Fresno State still finished with a sub-.500 record. Personal anecdote: I've been covering college hoops for B/R since the 2012-13 season, and I barely knew a thing about George before he got to the NBA. That's how irrelevant Fresno State was even with him on the roster.
NBA scouts weren't deterred, though. The Indiana Pacers took George with the 10th pick in the 2010 draft, and he was an All-NBA by his third season in the Association.
George is easily one of the best two-way players in the game today, this despite suffering that horrific broken leg while with the U.S. national team during the 2014 offseason. Had it not been for that one-year setback, he might have been a no-brainer choice for the top five. As is, we're talking about a six-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA and four-time All-Defensive team star.
If he can maintain a good bill of health from here on out, he should at least bypass Paul Pierce for the title of "Best Paul from L.A."
5. Kawhi Leonard
Depending on whom you ask, high school Kawhi Leonard was either a middling prospect or a phenom destined for greatness.
He averaged 22.6 points, 13.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game as a senior at Riverside's Martin Luther King High School and was named the 2009 Mr. Basketball in the state of California. But as far as 247 Sports is concerned—based on evaluations largely conducted during a player's sophomore and junior years—Leonard was only the eighth-best recruit in California, not even rated in the top 50 nationally.
Leonard then spent two years at usually-off-the-radar San Diego State before entering the NBA with a similar degree of uncertainty. College basketball fans recognized Leonard's immense potential during a sophomore year in which he averaged a double-double, played immaculate defense and led the Aztecs to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
But he wasn't even a lottery pick in the 2011 NBA draft. And the Indiana Pacers didn't even wait until the end of that night to trade him to the San Antonio Spurs.
Under Gregg Popovich's tutelage, Leonard emerged as an indispensable asset and one of the best defenders in the NBA. He has already been named Defensive Player of the Year twice in his career and has continued to thrive while transitioning from San Antonio to Toronto to the Los Angeles Clippers. It only took him one season to lead the Raptors to their first NBA title, and The Klaw should get some sort of lifetime achievement award if he's able to do the same with the long-forlorn Clippers.
4. Paul Pierce
Like so many other all-time greats, Paul Pierce's basketball career began with a healthy dose of humility: He was cut from the varsity team at Inglewood High as a freshman.
A big part of Pierce's problem was that he simply wasn't big enough. Even when he made the team as a sophomore, The Truth was only 5'8" and looked nothing like your average college prospect. Fortunately, he hit a much-needed growth spurt—he was listed at 6'7" throughout his NBA career—before his junior year and was a McDonald's All-American as a senior.
Pierce was one of the most coveted recruits in the nation in 1995 and was certainly the biggest prize available in the state of California. However, he relocated to Kansas to play for Roy Williams and a team that was always in the mix for a Final Four appearance.
The Jayhawks won 29 games his freshman year, 34 his sophomore year and flirted with an NCAA record for single-season wins his junior year. They went 35-4 that season before bowing out in the second round of the NCAA tournament and never did reach a Final Four with Pierce on the roster.
He did finally win a title in the NBA, though. The 2007-08 campaign was one of his 10 All-Star seasons with the Boston Celtics and the one in which he earned Finals MVP honors for outdueling Kobe Bryant (with more than a little bit of help from Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.)
Pierce never came all that close to winning a regular-season MVP, nor was he ever named first-team All-NBA. Yet he had a long career as one of the 20 or so best players in the league. He racked up more than 26,000 points and over 7,500 rebounds in a career that will almost certainly earn him a spot in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in the near future.
3. James Harden
James Harden was the highest-rated player out of California in the 2007 recruiting class, but UCLA somehow let this homegrown phenom get away.
As a then-beardless junior at Artesia High School in Lakewood, Harden averaged 18.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 3.0 steals per game, per MaxPreps. He was one of the most heavily recruited players in the country. But it was Arizona State's Herb Sendek who wisely recruited Harden's former high school coach, too. Sendek hired Scott Pera as his basketball operations director in June 2006. Harden committed to the Sun Devils two months later.
The year before Harden arrived in Tempe, ASU was an 8-22 disaster. He and the Sun Devils immediately thrived, though. He averaged 17.8 points per game as a freshman while improving the team to 21 wins. His sophomore year, he ratcheted up to 20.1 points per game while almost leading ASU to a program record for wins. The Sun Devils went 25-10 and made the NCAA tournament.
He was subsequently selected No. 3 overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2009 draft, where he gradually blossomed into a star. In his third and final season with OKC, Harden averaged 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists off the bench en route to Sixth Man of the Year honors.
Then the Thunder traded him to the Rockets, he got out of the shadow of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and became a god.
Harden has been an All-Star in each of his eight seasons in Houston and is almost certainly going to finish top 10 in the MVP vote for an eighth consecutive year. He won that vote in 2017-18 and has finished No. 2 three other times. He's also well on his way to a third straight scoring title—a streak that was preceded by an assists title in 2016-17.
Along with the next person on our list, Harden will have a great case for No. 1 by the time his career comes to an end.
2. Russell Westbrook
Give it another three or four years and Russell Westbrook will have a virtually undeniable claim for the No. 1 spot on this list. He's already one of just 14 players in NBA history with at least 20,000 points, 5,000 assists and 5,000 rebounds, and at 31 years old, he should still have several good years left in the tank.
Before ascending to No. 2 on the NBA's all-time triple-doubles list, though, The Brodie was just a 5'9", 140-pounds-soaking-wet point guard from Lawndale with a ton of fire.
"He was this rugrat who played like a bat out of hell," then-UCLA assistant coach Kerry Keating told Chris Palmer for a B/R feature on Westbrook in 2015. "He was like a crazed dog."
He has since grown to 6'3" and packed on a solid 60 pounds, but he never lost that tenacity of an undersized kid trying to prove he belongs on the court—even though he has never been a great shooter.
Westbrook was merely a 3-star recruit, but after a sophomore season in which he guided UCLA to its third consecutive Final Four, the Seattle SuperSonics (R.I.P.) took him with the fourth pick in the 2008 NBA draft. Though he never played a game in that city, what a fortuitous pick for that franchise, just one year after it got Kevin Durant with the No. 2 pick.
Westbrook wasted little time in asserting his dominance, averaging 15.3 points, 5.3 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game as a 20-year-old rookie. He only got better from there, earning NBA MVP honors in 2016-17 for the first of his three consecutive seasons averaging a triple-double. He has been named All-NBA eight times and has two scoring titles and two assist titles in his remarkable career.
1. Reggie Miller
My formative years of basketball viewing coincided perfectly with Michael Jordan's complete dominance with the Chicago Bulls. But while everyone else my age adored MJ, Reggie Miller was my favorite player. It was probably mostly because we share a last name. That makes as much sense as any other decision a 6ish-year-old kid would make. But it was also at least partially because of the fact that I too loved to shoot three-pointers as often as possible.
Obviously, I never came close to being as good at that craft as Reggie was. Aside from Ray Allen, Steph Curry and maybe a half-dozen others, not many on this planet have ever shot the ball as well as Miller did. And that's quite the accomplishment for someone who could barely walk as a child because of hip deformities.
By high school, though, those supportive leg braces were long behind Miller, and he flourished as a sweet shooter at Riverside Polytechnic. He then attended nearby UCLA, where he averaged 25.9 points per game (without a three-point line) as a junior. The NCAA adopted the three-point arc prior to Miller's senior year, and he shot 43.9 percent from distance while leading the Bruins in points, rebounds and steals.
The Indiana Pacers selected Miller with the 11th pick in the 1987 draft, and he never left. In 18 seasons with the Pacers, he scored 25,279 points, made a record 2,560 three-pointers, was named All-NBA three times and had a knack for annoying the New York Knicks and their superfan, Spike Lee. The time he scored eight points in nine seconds against the Knicks in the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals is still one of the wildest moments ever.
From both the three-point and free-throw lines, Miller was one of the best shooters in NBA history. And with a mark of 174.4, he ranks 18th in career win shares and is substantially ahead of every other player who went to high school in Los Angeles.