The NBA’s quality of play has evolved in recent years. Rule changes, styles of play going in and out of vogue and the seemingly ridiculous amount of coaching changes (I’m looking at you, Sacramento) mean consistency is a thing of the past.
One element that is always needed though for a successful team is the experienced veteran, the player who has seen it all and heard it all before. Often, they are not the players so highly regarded on mock draft boards. They are the ones who take their time to find their feet in the league. They develop and often become the foundations of championship winning franchises and line-ups. They are the players with solid fundamentals and intelligent basketball brains, but often not the sheer athleticism of a lottery pick.
The following is a list of 15 players over the years who fit this mold, players that can be called, in one form or another, “late bloomers.” These are the players who maybe experienced some initial hurdles (whether personal or physical), blossom under different systems later in their career, or are just given a chance by a visionary coach. They are a valuable presence on their team and certainly add something to the NBA that fans can appreciate.
15 Kyle Korver
“Threezus” (one of the more ridiculous nicknames you’ll hear in the Association) is famous for his record-setting streak of consecutive games in which he made at least one three-pointer (127) and for finishing a regular season with the highest ever three-point FG percentage (.536 in 2009-10 when he was with the Utah Jazz).
Despite a somewhat distinguished college career at Creighton, Korver was made only the 51st overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft by the then New Jersey Nets (who promptly moved his draft rights to the Philadelphia 76ers). He has always been regarded as a great shooter, but never made his name until the 2014-15 season with the Atlanta Hawks, making it to his first All-Star game at the age of 33.
Korver’s aura as an elite shooter seemed to dim last season though, and one can only ponder if his brief time in the sun is now coming to an end.
14 DeMarre Carroll
Carroll has proven to be a great example of the current era of late bloomers whose progress was more than likely hindered by bouts of unlucky injury and unfortunate illness. Prior to being drafted in 2009 by the Memphis Grizzlies at the back end of the 1st round, it was revealed that Carroll had a debilitating liver condition that would eventually require a transplant (although likely after his retirement).
After finally settling with the Atlanta Hawks, Carroll seems to have emerged as a well-regarded two-way player, especially on the defensive end, proving to have his best season in 2014-15 at the age of 28.
He is not exactly an All-Star or household name yet, but Carroll certainly has done enough for teams so far to take notice of his talents, namely the Toronto Raptors who signed him to a four-year deal worth $60 million in 2015. His skills took some time to shine but he seems to have passed that period.
13 Doug Christie
Christie suffered from quite a few instances of bad luck with injuries earlier in his professional career, and at one point was simply not played by his coaches. However, by age 30, Christie would emerge as an integral part of a mercurial Sacramento Kings (or the somewhat hyperbolically named “The Greatest Show on Court” by Kings fans. This is the team that really should have won an NBA title in the 2001-02 season (*cough… match fixing… *cough).
Known for his silky defensive abilities, his battles with Kobe Bryant in that particular Western Conference Final series made for enthralling basketball viewing. Because of those battles he garnered the attention of fans around the league, but ultimately his career would fizzle out.
Christie, in quite bizarre fashion, reemerged on people’s radars back in 2012 when he stated in an interview that he and his wife would make a video of their, shall we say "romantic adult activities." But that’s none of my business.
12 Bruce Bowen
Bowen only really made himself known to fans when he arrived in San Antonio at age 30, going on to win three NBA Championships with the Spurs thereafter. He would be an integral part of a famed line up that would include such greats as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
Known for being a serial pest on the defensive end of the floor, Bowen through often-questionable tactics (notably sticking his foot underneath a shooter for said shooter to coincidentally, and rather awkwardly, land on it thus rolling an ankle) gnawed away at opponents.
Bowen would become a perennial member of All-Defensive Teams, making the First Team for six years straight (from 2003-2008). He was certainly worthy of the label of a genuine perimeter lock-down defender.
If he were playing in the NBA currently, Bowen would, ironically, most likely be made a max contract player, and is definitely an example of a late bloomer.
11 John Starks
Starks is normally famous with the New York Knicks faithful for one of two reasons. Either they remember him spectacularly dunking on what seemed like the whole Chicago Bulls team (well… maybe just Horace Grant and Michael Jordan) in the 1993 playoffs, or he is remembered for his seemingly endless amount of 2-for-17 type shooting performances throughout his career (despite being listed as a Shooting Guard).
Starks didn’t really make his mark in the league until he was 27. After his rookie season with Golden State, he was cut and would actually play in the CBA (Continental Basketball Association) and WBL (World Basketball League) for the 1989-90 season. After being given a tryout by the Knicks, he injured himself and the team was bound to hold on to Starks until he recovered. Fortunately for Starks, he made the most of the blessing in disguise.
He would go on to live in the hearts of Knicks fans for his tenacity, and for head-butting Reggie Miller.
10 Ben Wallace
“Big Ben” was a defensive colossus in for many seasons, terrorizing opponents who dared to enter the paint. Wallace started his career with the Washington Bullets after finishing at little known Virginia Union University. Wallace was never a force on the offensive end (a liability even), but was a four-time All-Star because of his outstanding defense (imagine that in the NBA now… defensive players being made All-Stars… blasphemy).
Wallace didn’t really hit his stride until he was 27 years old with the Detroit Pistons, where over five seasons, he would intermittently lead the league in rebounds and blocks, becoming a four-time Defensive Player of the Year Award winner, and, of course, getting that improbable championship in 2004 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
For me though, what stood out was that amazing ‘fro and chunky headband combination. That alone should be enough to get him into the Hall Of Fame one day.
9 Detlef Schrempf
Everyone’s favorite sports star cameo on Parks and Recreation (sorry Roy Hibbert, you just didn’t make me BELIEVE you were funny) didn’t make it to his first All-Star Game until age 30, which ended up being his final season with the Indiana Pacers.
The 6-foot 10-inch German (born in Leverkusen) would then move to the Seattle SuperSonics, creating a robust core with consummate point guard Gary Payton and the freakishly athletic Shawn Kemp. They would make the NBA Finals in the 1995-96 season, only to lose to a certain team from Chicago. Ever hear of them?
Schrempf’s experiences in the NBA almost certainly contributed to Dirk Nowitzki’s opportunity, and we all know the player he turned out to be.
The Washington Huskies product was a respected teammate, won the Sixth Man of the Year Award twice (in 1991 and 1992) and would later in his career develop into an efficient long-range shooter.
8 Stephon Marbury
Drafted as the 4th overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, “Starbury” was obviously a very highly touted prospect. He wouldn’t begin to show much return on the faith shown in him though until his 5th season while with the New Jersey Nets.
Capable of genuinely amazing displays, he was far too inconsistent and temperamental a player, especially when you consider the New York market he played in for four and a half seasons. He and Isiah Thomas clashed so often (once allegedly in quite violent fashion on a team flight) that his time in New York was always going to be unsustainable.
Marbury is a player who we could put in the "what might have been…" or "if only…" category.
He finished his NBA career as only a two-time All-Star but eventually made a name for himself in China… and also by making bad sneakers (could not resist mentioning that).
7 Hassan Whiteside
The Sacramento Kings drafted Whiteside in 2010 out of Marshall, despite offers from other schools in the South Eastern Conference. After bouncing around the D-League, China and even Lebanon for the best part of three years, he would end up with the Miami Heat in 2014, and would finally find his feet in the 2014-15 season at age 25.
Whiteside then exploded onto the media’s radar in January 2015, with a triple-double game against the Chicago Bulls.
He would emerge as a skilled shot blocker and tenacious rebounder, yet still in need of some polish in his post-game.
Despite much speculation about him moving elsewhere, Whiteside would sign a massive four-year, $98 million contract with the Heat and will likely be a crucial piece for Miami’s rebuild in the post-LeBron James/Dwyane Wade (Big 3) era.
Not a bad outcome for a player who was plying his trade in the obscurities of Lebanon only three years ago.
6 Sam Cassell
Cassell, it could be argued, was a more than respected player early during his career. He was an integral part of two NBA Championship winning Houston Rocket teams in 1994 and 1995 (and much later again in 2008 with the Boston Celtics, backing up Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen in the back court). Yet Cassell didn’t make an All-Star Game until age 34 when he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves. There, he would form a "Big 3" of sorts with a young Kevin Garnett and Latrell Sprewell.
He was shuffled around the league either because he clashed with coaches (once infamously with Cotton Fitzsimmons while with the Phoenix Suns), was part of trade packages (most notably with the likes of Jason Kidd and Stephon Marbury) or was injured, but would eventually gain recognition for his smooth command of the floor.
You’ll see him on the bench now as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers.
5 Chauncey Billups
Billups, a highly touted University of Colorado prospect, was drafted by the Boston Celtics (and totally wasted by then-coach Rick Pitino, but less of that said, the better, at least for Celtics fans) in 1997 as the 3rd overall pick. However, “Mr. Big Shot” would never really get going until he joined the Detroit Pistons in the 2002-03 season.
Prior to that, Billups was shuffled around by Toronto, Denver and Minnesota, all the while never having his talents recognized by coaches.
The five-time All-Star would go on to be famous for coming through in the clutch, epitomized by his commanding performances in the Pistons’ championship season of 2003-04, where he was named the Finals MVP.
Despite essentially being discarded by the Celtics as a rookie, Billups would go on to be adored around the league, have his number retired and represent the United States.
Not too shabby at all for someone with a slow start.
4 Gary Payton
It could be argued that calling “The Glove” a late bloomer is a bit of a stretch, especially since he made his first All-Star appearance in his fourth season at the age of 25.
But his reputation as an elite defender and consummate point guard took its time to garner recognition, often being overshadowed by the stunning athleticism of teammate Shawn Kemp. Payton would also become an elite scorer.
The career of this 10-time All-Star, 2006 NBA Championship winner (with the Miami Heat), 1996 Defensive Player of the Year, and Hall of Famer (both for basketball and prowess at trash talking) was remarkable when you consider he was hardly from a powerhouse college program (Oregon State University), and he certainly took his time to make his mark in the league. Charles Barkley would call him “the greatest player in the world” at one point. I wonder if Jordan heard that…
3 Dennis Rodman
Love him or hate him, “The Worm” barely played on his high school team and was working as a janitor prior to the 1986 NBA Draft, when he became the 27th pick for the Detroit Pistons. That's hardly the prototype of someone who would one day win five titles, become a Hall of Famer and have his number retired.
Rodman started his career at the age of 25, almost impossible when you consider the age of your average NBA draft entrant today.
He would become one of the greats on the defensive end of the floor, and probably the greatest rebounder of all time, remarkable when you consider he was only 6-foot-7.
His was a truly impressive career (both on and off the court) that was very close to never happening.
Oh… and he became a professional wrestler, a commissioner for the Lingerie Football League and a pseudo-ambassador to North Korea. You know, regular time filler stuff.
2 Steve Nash
Nash, a two-time league MVP and eight-time All-Star, came out of Santa Clara University in 1996 as the 15th overall pick to little acclamation.
The Canadian national seemed to be merely a decent backup point guard in the early stages of his career with the Dallas Mavericks, but would finally break out when he moved to the Phoenix Suns in 2004.
Mike D’Antoni’s famed “7 seconds or less” high tempo offense would more than fit Nash’s style of play, and he would emerge as the best point guard in a league flush with talent at that position. He was known for his amazing court vision, but was never a force on the defensive end.
His career would fizzle out with the Los Angeles Lakers and their flawed attempt at a "Big 3" (with Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard), and he suffered from back issues, but he is assured of Hall of Fame status when eligible.
1 Hakeem Olajuwon
Olajuwon?! But he was an All-Star in his Rookie season?!
Yes, at the NBA level, he’s pretty far from being considered a late bloomer. My argument is that he is a late bloomer because he would go on to become a Hall of Famer despite only picking up basketball at the age of 15. Therefore, in terms of skill acquisition he is one.
Prior to that, Olajuwon was a soccer goalkeeper, possibly a reason for why his defensive instincts in the paint were so awesome.
Olajuwon went from never playing the game at age 15 to being made the 1st overall pick in the 1984 Draft at age 22. That’s a remarkable achievement in only seven years. He would then become a 12-time All-Star, two-time Finals MVP on championship winning teams, and win the MVP in the 1993-94 season.
He’s definitely deserving of the moniker “The Dream” and the best "late bloomer" of all time, even if it’s on a technicality.