This list is a tragic ensemble of players who all share one thing in common. They had exceptional talent. For multiple reasons each one managed to waste their God-given ability and never fulfil their potential. Some were lazy. Some just had a bad attitude. Some turned to drugs and alcohol as a way to escape. Others had their life changed in a split second from one stupid decision. It’s easy to judge and mock someone who has been gifted fame and fortune and tell them to get real problems.
But we fail to realize the immense pressure heaped on the shoulders of these men. We forget how young they are when they join the NBA. We forget they have led completely different lives to the ones we lead. From their earliest memory they are told they have a special gift. When you’ve been born into nothing to suddenly be handed insane fame and fortune it’s impossible to know how that will affect your maturity and personal development.
The reason why the Kobe Bryant's, LeBron James', and Michael Jordan's of this world achieved their success is not because of their talent. Thousands have talent. It’s because they had the right mental attitude, focus, character, and an insatiable desire to win and to improve. The players on this list failed to evolve this mind-set in their personal development, and as a result threw away their chance at greatness.
15 Joe Hammond
Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond (Pictured Third Right) never played high school or college basketball, yet at the age of 19 he was on the radar of NBA scouts from across the country. Hammond made his name on the Harlem playground of the late 1960s early 70s. He was the star of the Rucker Tournament, a summer league composed of college All-American and pro-players looking for game time during the summer. Known for high flying dunks, Hammond once dropped 82 in a game.
In 1971 Hammond was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers. Amazingly Hammond turned down the chance to play in the NBA along with a $50k contract because he didn’t want to leave the streets, where he was making hundreds of thousands of dollars selling drugs. Inevitably Hammond became addicted to drugs himself and spent time living on those same streets and in and out of prison. Those lucky enough to see him play have no doubt that, had he chosen a different path, he would have been a star of the NBA.
14 Steve Francis
The Vancouver Grizzlies knew he didn’t want to come. But still they drafted Steve Francis second overall in the 1999 draft. Francis made it as far as the airport, but he was immediately put off by Vancouver when asked if he was rap star playing in town. A trade to the Rockets ensued, and to his credit Stevie “Franchise” became one of the stand-out young talents at the turn of the century, memorably duelling with Vince Carter in the epic 2000 NBA Dunk Contest. When Yao Ming arrived at Centre, Houston were reckoned to be a major force in the NBA.
Instead Francis clashed with coach Jeff Van Gundy and was traded to the Magic where he quickly developed a reputation for being difficult to work with. Francis had the talent to win championships and be a true star in the NBA. Instead, his poor attitude was a regular contributor to his team’s poor performances, and he played in just five playoff games his entire career in a 4-1 first round series loss to the Lakers in 2004.
13 Michael Olowokandi
“Talented but uncoachable” were the words Kareem Abdul Jabar used to describe Michael Olowokandi as head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers. If you’re not going to listen to arguably the greatest Centre of all time, you’re probably not going to be much of a Centre yourself. And thus “The Kandi Man” now enjoys the reputation of being one of the biggest first overall draft busts of all time.
Part of Kareem’s frustration was that Olowokandi clearly had exceptional athletic ability for such a big man. If he was willing to put in the work he could be one of the dominant Centres in the league. But he refused to work on his weaknesses and errors and constantly cost his team games throughout the course of his NBA career.
12 Isaiah “JR” Rider
Fans love a brash player who can back it up on the court. The first thing Isaiah "JR" Rider said when he was drafted fifth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves was that he would win the Slam Dunk Contest. Which he did, nailing the legendary “East Bay Funk Dunk” to claim the title. Immediately Rider announced himself as a talented prospect with an ability to get the crowd on their feet.
After a promising rookie year, however, Rider’s numbers immediately started to decline, with multiple incidents of bad behaviour off the court, most seriously when he was convicted of fifth-degree assault to a female manager of a sports bar.
Rider had erratic spells playing for the Atlanta Hawks and the Portland Trail Blazers, regularly reprimanded for turning up late for practice and numerous drug-related incidents. He had a short stint with the Lakers where he actually got a championship ring in 2002 despite not featuring in the playoffs.
Rider’s life out of the NBA continued to be filled with drug use and criminal charges as the obviously talented Rider was unable to channel these issues into performances on the court.
11 Kwame Brown
“If you draft me, you’ll never regret it.” These were the words Washington Wizards coach Doug Collins heard from high school sensation Kwame Brown. Michael Jordan, Wizard’s executive at the time, agreed. And in 2001 Brown became the first player to be drafted first overall straight out of High School. Brown had everybody convinced but himself.
Billy Donovan who was set to be Brown’s coach at the University of Florida, before Brown opted to head straight to the pros, had a feeling Brown wasn’t comfortable with his decision: “Brown was a high-schooler with high school problems,” Donovan said in an ESPN Interview. “Brown concerned himself with the prom and his grades - not about fast-tracking his way to fame and fortune.” Physically Kwame was built to be a superstar, similar to Lebron James who would enter the league in 2003. Unlike Lebron, Brown was not mentally equipped or mature enough to make the jump straight from high school. Ultimately for Brown, who had a difficult childhood growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, the huge guaranteed fortune was too great for him to turn down, not jut for himself but for his family as well.
Brown faltered with the Wizard’s despite flashes of brilliance and fell out with his teammates and fans. When he returned to Washington while playing for the Lakers he was booed every time he touched the ball. Brown never found love in LA either, despite support from Kobe Bryant. Brown's career was rounded off with lacklustre stints with the Memphis Grizzlies, Detroit Piston, Charlotte Bobcats, Golden State Warriors, and Philadelphia 76ers. How different his career may have turned out had Billy Donovan been given a few years to work with him in Florida.
10 Stephon Marbury
When Stephon Marbury entered the league in 1996, selected fourth overall by the Timberwolves, he looked like the real deal. Explosive speed, incredible handling skills, everyone expected his partnership with Kevin Garnett to blossom and make the Timberwolves genuine championship contenders. In what would become a common trend in Marbury’s career he soon became unsettled, became jealous of Garnett, and complained that he wanted to play for a more “lucrative” franchise.
When he was traded to the New Jersey Nets, Marbury became an All-Star, but the Nets never made the playoffs. He spent three years with the Phoenix Suns where he again displayed strong personal performances, but his team never prospered (his replacement at Point Guard would be Steve Nash who would win two MVP awards and the Suns excelled beyond expectations). Five tumultuous years followed in New York where he had very public feuds with coaches Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas leading him to be dubbed “the most reviled man in New York.” When the man who traded him from the Suns, Mike D’Antoni took the helm at Madison Square Garden, he banned Marbury from games and practices.
Surprisingly Marbury seems to have found a home in China where he is a huge celebrity. He has won two championships, and he even starred in a musical based on his life entitled: “I Am Marbury: The Evolution of the Lone Wolf.” I’m not sure how his spats with the various coaches throughout his career were portrayed through song and dance.
9 Derrick Coleman
Every year the NBA Draft produces busts and surprises. Derrick Coleman, the first overall pick of the New Jersey Nets in 1990, is considered one of the biggest busts of all time. When you look at his stats however, you see a player who in a 15-year career averaged 16.5 points per game and made the ’94 All-Star Team. How can this player be considered a bust?
It’s because Coleman could have been one of the greatest Power Forwards of all time. Unfortunately Coleman appeared to prefer playing the game while exerting as little effort as possible. This meant he had no trouble being a superstar in college, but was always going to disappoint in the NBA. Every team he played for he seemed to make worse, regularly making sure he and his teammates had some extended time off during the summer. A constant headache for coaches, Coleman was involved in many unsavory incidents off the court, including two DUI’s and a charge for public urination at a restaurant.
Coleman, a Detroit native, was back in the news in 2016 where he was reportedly turning up at people’s houses in Flint, Michigan with bottles of clean water.
8 Michael Beasley
This list provides many cautionary tales of the corrupting power of money. Almost everyone on this list was a star in high school and college, and Michael Beasley is no exception. He is the holder of 30 Kansas State individual records, despite only playing for one year in Manhattan, KS. Entering the draft in 2008, Beasley was picked by the Miami Heat. He made a promising start but was traded to make room for Lebron and Chris Bosh to the Timberwolves where his career and personal life began to derail.
While failing to deliver on his promise on the court, Beasley has had multiple arrests including some for marijuana possession. After two more stints for the Heat and two spells in China, Beasley joined Houston in March 2016 and played well enough to help the Rockets finish strong and claim a playoff place. At 27 there is time for Beasley to make-up for the disappointing start to his NBA career but many assumed Beasley would have already reached superstar status.
7 Darius Miles
Darius Miles is possibly the archetype of the modern, pampered, immature young star rushed into the pros too early. To be fair to Miles, who was selected third overall straight out of high school by the Clippers and had a series of bad injuries that have hampered his career. But he also showed an immaturity and unwillingness to work on his game that has frustrated coaches alike. He received a two game suspension for verbally abusing Maurice Cheeks, his coach in Portland.
Miles played his last NBA game at the age of 27. During this time he was involved in a series of incidents including being arrested for bringing a gun onto a plane, and a suspension for violating the league’s anti-drug problem. Such a waste of talent. The example Miles set is one of the reasons players are no longer allowed to go straight to the NBA from high school.
6 Chris Washburn
During a court case for a stolen stereo it was revealed Chris Washburn entered the University of North Carolina in 1984 with an SAT score of 470, just 70 point above the minimum score of 400, where the ability to sign your name correctly earned you 70 points. In court Washburn admitted he had been told he was already a guaranteed a place at UNC, so the test was meaningless. Later reports revealed that Washburn’s grades in college were doctored to ensure he was still eligible to play college games. How Washburn must wish the same thing could be done with his NBA stats.
One of the 1980s brightest young talents with one of the worst attitudes, Washburn barely lasted three years in the league after being drafted third overall by the Golden State Warriors. He was finally given a life-time ban in 1989 for failing a third drug test.
Washburn has since tried to rebuild his life and get involved in drug addiction programs. Few players offer a better example that talent alone will not get you very far in the tough world of professional basketball.
5 Vin Baker
Vin Baker was once one of the more uplifting NBA stories. Four outstanding years at Hartford University, a school not known for their basketball program, saw Baker enter the league in 1993 dubbed by Sports Illustrated as “America’s Best-Kept Secret.” Putting in countless hours alone in the gym, Baker was praised for his work ethic on and off the court. Modelling himself on Celtics legend Kevin McHale, Baker was a three-time All-Star in his first five years, and looked set to become one of the league’s elite Power Forwards.
It all started to go wrong for Baker shortly after joining the Sonics in 1996. His performances on the court started to decline rapidly and it became clear to his teammates and coaches that he was battling alcohol addiction. At the time nobody would have expected this of the hard-working Baker. A decade of bad decisions followed and Baker is believed to have squandered every cent of the $100 million he made during his career. He also joined Dennis Rodman on his trip to coach the North Korean basketball team.
Looking to get his life back on track, there were reports in 2015 that Baker was training to be a manager of a Starbucks Franchise.
4 John Lucas II
Joining the league as the first overall pick by the Houston Rocket in 1976, John Lucas II had it all. Beloved by teammates and fans, rich beyond his wildest dreams, and tipped to be one of the leagues stellar Point Guards. Inexplicably two years into his career he pressed the self-destruct button.
Lucas by no means had a terrible career. And he helped the Rockets reach the NBA Finals in 1986. Shortly after he tested positive for cocaine and was released from his contract. It was the final straw for the Rockets who had watched Lucas waste his potential through drug addiction.
Lucas was different from other players who didn’t care about the game and just wanted to party. On the contrary he had a near obsessive drive for perfection. In an interview for the LA Times he said, “I always wanted to be perfect…When I was in college, I went out every day and tried to make 25 straight free throws. I never made more than 23. It used to drive me crazy then that as good as I knew I was, David Thompson (of North Carolina State) was better. Just plain better than me. I couldn't understand that. How could anyone be better than me?" A familiar story in sports, Lucas’s addiction was a release from the relentless pressure he put on himself to achieve unattainable perfection.
After being release by the Rockets he began a slow path towards the recovery, offering his time to help others with drug issues, and had spells as Head Coach for the San Antonio Spurs, 76ers and Cleveland Cavaliers.
3 Jay Williams
Post-Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls were looking for a new saviour. After an exceptional career at Duke, many believed second overall pick Jay Williams to be that man. However, the two-time NCAA Player of the Year struggled in his first year at Chicago, battling Jamal Crawford for time on the court. Many were wondering how Williams would respond in his second year.
In his incredible candid memoir released earlier this year Williams describes how hard he trained during that off-season. How he and Crawford started to click and how people were telling Williams he was going to dominate the league that year. Then one day that summer, without a license or wearing a helmet, Williams took his motorcycle out for a ride and crashed head-on into a street light.
“So many people look at what happened that afternoon through the prism of a ruined NBA career, but that’s not how I think about it today…The way I see it, it’s a reminder of how things can change in a flash.” Williams writes.
Williams suffered a fractured pelvis, multiple dislocated ligaments, and nerve damage from which he would never recover. In a split second one of the most promising NBA careers was over. Williams’ story is a reminder that we cannot take the future for granted. Today Williams is a man determined to prove that while his NBA career never happened, his life will not be a waste.
2 Eddie Griffin
Eddie Griffin captured the attention of the nation in high school on his way to winning the Philadelphia Catholic League Championship. Three weeks from Graduation a lunch room fist fight caused Griffin to be expelled. It was supposed to teach Griffin a lesson of taking responsibility for his actions. Unfortunately in his first year of College at Seton Hall, Griffin was again involved in a fight with teammate Ty Shine.
Griffin should have been a number one pick, but was seen by many as too much of a risk. He was selected seventh overall in 2001 by the Nets before being traded immediately to the Rockets. It became clear to many that Griffin had significant personal issues and was probably battling severe depression. One general manager bleakly describes watching Griffin shortly before draft day in 2001, “The court always looked like the last place he wanted to be.” Suffering alcohol addiction throughout his NBA career, Griffin was traded to Timberwolves in 2004 before being eventually being released from his contract in 2007.
That summer, without a team, Griffin with more than three times the legal alcohol limit in his system, drove his vehicle through a rail barrier into an oncoming train. It took four days for the autopsy to identify Griffin as the casualty.
How could a high school star with fame, fortune, and all the talent in the world manage to throw away his life in such a devastating way at only 25-years-old? We failed to recognize how serious Griffin's personal demons were, and his short, tragic life is a reminder how we as a country continue to struggle to help the mentally ill.
1 Len Bias
Autopsy report No. 86-999: "a 22-year-old Black male, died as a result of cocaine intoxication, which interrupted the normal electrical control of his heartbeat, resulting in the sudden onset of seizures and cardiac arrest."
Days earlier he had been drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics.
Len Bias somehow seems out of place on this list. The story is much, much more than a player who wasted his chance to play in the NBA. His death of a cardiac arrest from an overdose of cocaine in 1986 shocked America. For those who watched him play college at the University of Maryland will tell you he was the next superstar. Many believe he could have been a genuine rival to Michael Jordan’s dominance of the era. The fact he was drafted by the Boston Celtics poses all sorts of questions about how that great dynasty of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale could have been extended with Bias leading the team.
Bias was impressionable and sensitive. His High School coach said, “If you put him with bums, he’d be the best bum. Put him with the good people, and he’d be the best there, too.” It was his misfortune that he played at a time when college basketball was spiralling out of control. Corruption and match-fixing was rife. Drug-fuelled problems plagued the league and many of the players that joined Bias at the ‘86 draft suffered from issues. Bias was not known as a huge partier, he wasn’t even known to be much of a drinker. But in that era it is no surprise that the next big superstar would be peer-pressured into celebrating his new NBA contract by going on an extended cocaine binge.
For young sports fans in the 1980s Lian Bias’ story was a morality tale. His inclusion on this list is because it is important to keep his memory alive. Sadly it cannot be denied that the fact we never got to see Len Bias play in a Celtics jersey is a terrible, heart-breaking waste for the game of basketball.