In the NBA, there’s only room for the game’s truly elite to stand out in the public consciousness. With only five players per starting lineup, it’s easy to see why there’s limited space for stars to develop. This has a distinct trickle-down effect to the young players in the league. Sometimes, circumstances can prevent them from fulfilling their potential, even as a highly-touted draft pick. Unfortunately, the idea of the draft bust exists just as much in the NBA as any other league, and it forces once-promising players to come crashing down to Earth.
Some young NBA players have such an inflated projection attached to them, that living up to it is an insurmountable challenge. It’s difficult to win in such a star-oriented league, when you’re competing against teams who have had their marquee players for years on end. Sometimes, young players just aren’t able to live up to the hype, and go toe-to-toe with the league’s best. Let’s take a look at some players who failed to fully achieve their star potential, even if they were able to stick around for a while.
Ranked below are 15 NBA players who were supposed to be stars, but ended up failing miserably.
15. Darius Miles
Few prospects were hotter than Miles was when he was taken with the 3rd-overall pick in 2000. The Clippers had been struggling for years, and he was seen as the catalyst that was going to turn the franchise around. He was expected to make an impact straight out of high school, and be one of the marquee players in the game in short order.
Miles didn’t outright bust, but he never lived up to the high expectations that everyone had for him. He was middling in just about every category, and was never able to develop a signature style to his game. His development may have been hurt from not playing in college, but either way, the Clippers would have to wait another decade or so to become a viable team. Miles’ career ended up lasting just eight seasons, and he never came close to reaching his potential.
14. Robert Traylor
A standout at Michigan, which led him to becoming the 6th-overall pick in 1998, Traylor was supposed to be a transformative NBA big-man. With a frame resembling an absolute tank, he was considered to be a future elite rebounder at the next level. Drafted by the Bucks, Traylor was immediately slotted as a starter, but his deficiencies were present from the very beginning.
His ability was pedestrian at best, and it wasn’t long before he started ceding minutes to other players. It was evident that Traylor didn’t have it took from the early going, and he soon left Milwaukee to bounce around the league to several other teams, before retiring early at the age of 27.
13. Antonio McDyess
To McDyess’ credit, he stuck around the league for a long time, and was even an upper-tier player for a few years during his prime. There’s no question that he was a useful NBA player, but as a 2nd-overall pick, his ceiling was figured to be much higher than it ended up being. Injuries certainly played a role, but his ability also wasn’t the top-tier, elite level that was projected for him coming out of Alabama.
His best years came with the Nuggets in the first half of his career, before he essentially became a bench player, and soon faded into anonymity. McDyess was a solid player all in all, but his career was a far cry from the Hall Of Fame-level that he was supposed to sustain.
12. Jonathan Bender
Another player who would have benefitted heavily from playing in college, Bender wasn’t ready for NBA action when he was taken out of high school, playing his rookie year at the age of 19. The Pacers figured he would pair well with Reggie Miller, but he never ended up being more than a marginal presence on the roster. He played seven seasons in Indiana, but his production never reached a level that was notable in any way.
It was pretty much a waste of a 5th-overall pick. Once Bender started having injury issues that kept him out of action for three seasons, his career was all but finished. He remains a prime example of why players are now forced to play at least one season at the collegiate level, and the rawness of his game really showed itself in a negative way.
11. Dajuan Wagner
Wagner was a standout at Memphis, and after one college season was taken by the Cavaliers in the 2002 draft, with the 6th-overall pick. In what was actually a very good rookie season, Wagner seemed to be on the rise as a future star. He was a backcourt player with an all-encompassing skill set, but his career soon came crashing down.
Due to injury and general health problems, he was never able to capitalize on his stellar rookie campaign. Wagner’s career was one a downward trajectory from 2003 onward, and he was forced into an early retirement just a few years into the league. Unfortunately, we never got to see the development of what would-have-been a surefire future NBA star. In contrast to many other NBA busts, Wagner’s failures were out of his control, to a large degree.
10. Michael Olowokandi
Just another in a line of late-90s Clippers 1st-round picks that never panned out, Olowokandi was probably the biggest bust of them all. Any time a player is taken 1st-overall, they’re expected to be a generational-type talent. Olowokandi was given every opportunity to become the next dominating center in the NBA, but never ascended past a middling level. The Clippers simply couldn’t catch a break back then.
It wasn’t long before Olowokandi was rendered completely anonymous as an NBA player. After a fallout with the Clippers, he became a journeyman player, never to make a real impact again. He’d end up retiring at the age of 31, then a member of the Celtics, and still stands to this day as one of the bigger disappointments in the history of the league.
9. Darko Milicic
As European players began to become in vogue, Milicic was one of the game’s most inspiring prospects. He was projected to have a dominating career, but it was evident that he just didn’t have what it took, from the early going. The Pistons took him at 2nd-overall, and from the beginning, Milicic couldn’t register starter-minutes. He struggled to say the least, and he ultimately became nothing more than a journeyman big-man.
Milicic just wasn’t the kind of prospect that should have been playing in the NBA at the age of 18. He didn’t have the necessary development to hone his skills, and come into the league with legitimate ability. The natural talent was there, but he was raw. He would retire at the age of 27, riding the bench for the Celtics.
8. Jay Williams
Williams was one of the foremost stars for Duke basketball in the early-2000s, and his 2nd-overall draft position ostensibly set him up to be a future star. The Bulls had been struggling since the end of the Jordan dynasty, and Williams was thought to be a player they could build around for the long term. He had a decent rookie season, but a motorcycle accident in 2003 put an immediate stop to his NBA career, and spurred a plethora of personal problems.
A bout with painkillers followed the accident, and Williams never was able to log another minute of NBA action. He would go into college basketball broadcasting, leaving his playing career in the dust. One of the ultimate “what if?” stories in NBA history, but one that ultimately turned out OK for Williams, who now works in finance.
7. Robert Swift
Another front-court player who was a bust almost immediately, Swift was another casualty of the system that sent high school players straight to the NBA. He clearly needed far more development, and he was rendered ineffective almost immediately for the SuperSonics. Several years into his career, he sustained injuries that would cut it short, and Swift retired at the age of just 23.
Swift may never have ended up fulfilling his career projection, but a year or two at the college level could have at least gotten him to the point where he wouldn’t have been a bust. While he had the size of an NBA player in spades, his skill set was unrefined, and he was soon exposed as an underdeveloped player.
6. Greg Oden
Oden’s failure in the NBA prompted many front offices to reconsider their draft strategy, and be wary of players cut from the same cloth. He had all the physical ability in the world, but a lack of basketball acumen, as well as severe injury problems killed any chance he had at becoming an elite NBA player. The Trail Blazers took the biggest hit, and essentially wasted a 1st-overall pick. In many ways, they’re still recovering from this loss.
After a stint playing overseas, Odeon is essentially done with the game now. One of the biggest NBA busts of all-time, he was one of the reasons why the traditionally dominant center is now largely a thing of the past in the league. For many of them, there’s too much risk, and Oden’s potential to be great was in perception only. Between Portland and Miami, he played in less than 100 NBA games.
5. Shawn Bradley
Once proclaimed to be “the great white hope,” Bradley was taken 2nd-overal by the Sixers in 1993, and at 7 feet, 6 inches tall, there was reason for optimism from the NBA community. Or at least they thought there was. For all of his size and intimidating presence, he played soft, and was never able to channel the kind of effort that an elite player needs to have.
Sure, he racked up points and rebounds throughout his career because of his sheer size, but as a basketball player in a vacuum, he never came close to living up to the hype. To his credit, he did last over a decade in the league, but even at his best, he was nothing more than a middling NBA center.
4. Kwame Brown
Brown’s initial failure may have had just as much to do with a haphazard Wizards team than it did with his own ability. Another player who made the jump from high school directly to the pros, Brown’s name was all over the prospect-world as a player to watch in the 2001 season. His 1st-overall selection cemented this, and everyone thought he would have the career of an all-time great.
But the Jordan-era Wizards team was certifiably a mess, with no direction to speak of, and Brown undoubtedly suffered from it. The fact that he was able to stick around the league showed that he had talent, but unfortunately the circumstances he played under didn’t allow him to full recognize his ability.
3. Eddie Curry
Before Jay Williams, Curry was the player that was supposed to supplant Michael Jordan as the team’s franchise player. He had a powerhouse of a frame, and was one of the most coveted high school prospects. He was one of the few to make the leap successfully to the pros, but the bulk of his career wasn’t spent in Chicago.
Curry was a quality player, in contrast to many on this ranking, but he still never made the transition to a certified NBA star. There was too much inconsistency involved, as well as a distinct lack of polish. Curry got by on his length and size. Time in a reputable college program would have helped him, and could have been the catalyst that would have helped him live up to his 4th-overall draft position. Instead, he only had a short prime of his career before fizzling out.
2. Sam Bowie
Few players had bigger hype coming into the league than Bowie did in the mid-80s. The Kentucky star had already made a name for himself in the college ranks, and was ready to take the NBA by storm. His ascent began in Portland, where he had several very good seasons at the beginning of his career. Then, out of nowhere, he got bit by the injury bug, missing large portions of several seasons.
From there on out, Bowie was never able to fully regain his ability in the NBA. His regression began with the Nets in the late-80s, and then when he eventually went to the Lakers, he was a shell of his former self. He would retire in 1995, and for a 2nd-overall pick, his career was underwhelming to say the least. The stars never aligned for Bowie, and he struggled his way though a 10-year NBA career.
1. Anthony Bennett
The foremost draft bust of the last five years, Bennett simply couldn’t play in the NBA to any adequate degree. This is made worse by the fact that he was considered a can’t-miss 1st-overall pick. Somebody who was supposed to be a generational talent. Unfortunately, he was just another failed Cavaliers draft pick, and spent only a single season with the team when it was all said and done.
The rest of his brief NBA career was just as underwhelming. In four seasons, Bennett started a combined four games, and played on four different teams. No matter the scenery, he was the same mediocre player. Recently, he’s been cast off to the G League, where he’s likely to spend the rest of his career, barring a stint overseas. Simply, Bennett is the biggest bust in recent memory, and perhaps the biggest one of all-time. A wholly incompetent player in every sense.
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