What makes the difference between the guy in your weekly pick-up game who can hit every three pointer and Stephen Curry? What makes the difference between your uncle who can see the entire floor and find amazing passing lanes and Steve Nash? It’s not always the size of the dog, but the fight in the pup. True: basketball players on the professional level need to have a certain amount of pure athleticism to succeed. But what is often overlooked is players’ ability to use their determination, grit, IQ and poise to rise above and become the greatest. For this reason alone, it’s not always so easy to determine how players will perform at the NBA level, for scouts or for fans! So let’s get into it and break down the NBA players who rose from the ashes to become some of the greatest ever!
15 Kobe Bryant
Hold on, now, Kobe Bryant lovers! Let’s not get bent out of shape until we hear the facts. Especially for your millennials who may not remember, the Black Mamba actually came into the league putting up pretty pedestrian stats. Yes, it’s true. The man who is now a fixture in the perpetual “Greatest of All Time” argument averaged a mere seven points per game in his rookie year. Even if it took him a year to figure out how to play with the big boys, that’s pretty impressive considering he came into the league straight out of high school. For an 18 year old, and for one of the greatest of all time, he get’s a pass! (Too late for a “Kobe doesn’t pass the ball” joke?)
14 Kawhi Leonard
This is a textbook example of the Spurs doing what the Spurs do best: making mountains out of molehills. Yes, it’s also true, All-NBA, Defensive Player of the Year, NBA Champion and perpetual MVP threat Kawhi Leonard was once a “raw project”, drafted fifteenth overall by the Indiana Pacers back in 2011. Leave it to the Spurs to dangle their then-starting point guard of the future, George Hill, in exchange for the young Leonard. Not even a few years later, Kawhi’s potential was widely realized by fans and basketball minds all around the association, but none as early as the great Gregg Popovich.
13 Paul Millsap
The versatile US Olympic Gold Medalist Paul Millsap is now anything but a run of the mill player. But for many years, that was simply not the case. After three years at Louisiana Tech, “Do-it-All Paul” was the 47th overall selection by the Utah Jazz! And despite appearing in all 82 games in his rookie season, the now-Denver Nugget All Star only managed to average a measly 6.8 points per game. Now with four all star appearances to his name, he is one of the most consistent and team-friendly big men in the league.
12 CJ McCollum
Now considered one of the most lethal shooting guards in the game, CJ McCollum’s presence in Portland as a franchise cornerstone is truly an unlikely story. Believe it or not, CJ started his freshmen year of High School standing at just five feet four inches! His Sophomore season he grew five inches, and four more in his Junior year, where he stunned the crowd on opening night, putting on a fifty four point clinic! But height wasn’t the only hurdle he has to leap over. During his college career at Lehigh University, his body still lacked the maturity to get him noticed by NBA scouts. By his Junior year however, he had worked hard to put on 30 pound of muscle, and decided to complete his college career with a Journalism Degree, eventually being selected with the tenth overall pick in the 2013 draft. Even once in the NBA, CJ still had to prove himself every step of the way, as he struggled for minutes and touches in his first two seasons, averaging a mere 5 and 6 points respectively. Now on the cusp of being a bonafide star, the six foot four guard has truly come a long way!
11 Steve Francis
Famously nicknamed Steve “Franchise,” Francis had to climb out of community college irrelevancy in order to gain a nod to transfer to University of Maryland for his sophomore season. Coming out of nowhere, the lightning quick guard almost averaged six steals a game! Seriously! It is actually amazing to think just two years after playing for Allegany Community College, Steve Francis was making headlines being drafted second overall by the Vancouver Grizzles in the 1999 NBA Draft! The irony of it all? He thought he was too big-time to play for Vancouver, eventually forcing a blockbuster trade to the Houston before even playing a minute of NBA basketball.
10 Manu Ginobili
Only now, years after being a key player in winning four rings with the San Antonio Spurs, do fans truly appreciate what a historic draft day steal Manu Ginobili was. In 1999, the incredibly athletic and savvy Argentinian was actually taken 57th overall, meaning he was three picks away from not even being drafted at all. The fact that such an incredibly talented wing was not on the radar of 29 other NBA franchises only further proves that the intangible elements that make for NBA talent and eventual champions is way harder to detect than most realize. Nonetheless, Manu is still one of the most overlooked talents ever to get drafted to the league.
9 James Harden
Despite being taken third overall and only playing two years of college ball for Arizona State, the Beard makes this list simply because of how much greater he became after being traded away from the Oklahoma City Thunder in the summer of 2012, which inevitably went down as one of the most lop-sided trades to ever happen. Now granted, Harden did have a less-than inspiring Finals appearance in 2012, but for the Thunder, losing Harden (and eventually Durant as well) may be one of the biggest “What Ifs?” in the history of the game. Many made the argument that given the record of the Rockets this season, and the lack of supporting cast Harden had, that he was a much stronger MVP candidate than the triple-double king, Russell Westbrook. Harden is a scoring machine, shattered all kinds of records this season, nearly averaged a triple-double along the way, and shows no signs of slowing down. OKC GM Sam Presti will forever be haunted by that trade...
8 Isaiah Thomas
“With the final and 60th pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, the Sacramento Kings select... Isaiah Thomas!” Yes, he was the last pick in the draft. Thomas, like Manu Ginobili, was wildly overlooked, and that is not just because of his five foot nine inch stature. Perhaps the craziest part of IT2’s unlikely rise to stardom is the fact that he posted great numbers in his third season in Sacramento, only to be shipped off the Phoenix to play limited minutes in a log-jammed back court. He was nearly undrafted, put up averages of twenty points, six dimes and three boards, Sacto didn’t believe in him, Phoenix didn’t believe in him enough to give him the minutes, and only finally when Boston gave him a chance did he prove to the world that he was one of the most clutch fourth quarter performing guards in the history of the game. Seriously. Not only did he almost single-handedly run the offense for the #1 seeded Boston Celtics this season, the Pizza Guy delivered when it mattered the most. Crunch time. At his size, and considering how many teams discarded him, he is truly one of the best feel-good stories the NBA has to offer.
7 Draymond Green
Draymond Green is truly a testament to what a player can accomplish with competitive edge, vocality, and basketball IQ... and with some of the best shooters of all time surrounding him. True: he has had his share of help, padding those assist numbers never looked so easy. But what Draymond Green has broken out to do defensively in the past three seasons can not be overlooked, although it was overlooked, specifically by thirty four other NBA teams in 2012. Look: He is not the most athletic player. He isn’t an offensive juggernaut... hell, he doesn’t have a knack for scoring at all. But to be so focused on the court, to be the vocal leader behind the winningest regular season squad of all time, and behind what will certainly be regarded as one of the most dominant teams of all time in general, well... it’s special. Only a player like Draymond Green can only need to take six shots to put up the most unique triple double of all time this season: twelve rebounds, ten assists and ten steals, while also swatting five shots! Depending on how many more rings the Warriors get, Draymond’s second round draft position will be all the more painful for GMs to fathom.
6 Scottie Pippen
True story: Scottie Pippen was flat out not invited to play basketball for college. He had to walk on to University of Central Arkansas men’s basketball team, and literally had to be the team’s manager. He didn’t play many meaningful minutes his freshmen year, and was essentially held on to by luck. Despite his intense athleticism, he was a mere six foot one inch. An NBA great trapped in a pedestrian body. He was destined to be a YMCA pick up game hero at best. But then something happened... he grew. Seven inches in a summer to be exact. Now, standing at an NBA-ready six foot eight inches, Pippen went on to play exceedingly well for the remainder of his college career, drafted by Seattle, traded to Chicago, yada, yada, yada... and just like that, he was one of the greatest of all time. Even the casual NBA fans know how tremendous of a player Pippen was, despite playing next to the greatness that was Michael Jordan. Nonetheless, the big-name colleges must have been very sorry they didn’t see Scottie’s growth spurt coming... but then again, who would have?
5 Tim Duncan/Michael Jordan
Two of the top five greatest players to ever step foot on the hardwood will have to share this position in the countdown, as they are both on here for similar reasons. Despite being fully realized as franchise cornerstone talents by the time they had any sort of professional scouting, what makes these two so enigmatic is the contrast between how great they were versus how disregarded they were at the high school level. Although Tim Duncan was highly scouted for his college career at Wake Forest, what most don’t know is that he never even touched a basketball until the age of fourteen. It was then that his father took the slight six footer to a court to learn some basics. To call that a good decision would be an understatement. Timmy quickly blossomed into a fundamentally sound NBA frame power-forward, far exceeding his family’s expectations in skill and height growth. Of course, with Michael Jordan, the famous story that will never be forgotten is when he was cut from his High School team when he was fifteen years old. Yea, and the Beatles were once told they would never make it in the music industry, insert your own inspirational quote here. Nonetheless, MJ’s rise to stardom has to be a lifetime thorn in the side of his High School coach, wherever he is now.
4 Marc Gasol
Now boasting one of the most well-rounded games for big-men in the NBA, Marc Gasol used to only boast one of the roundest frames, especially during his days playing professionally in Spain. Chubby would be an understatement. Playing for Spain in the Euroleague from ages twenty one through twenty four, no one saw this fringe prospect turning into the Grizzle’s franchise centerpiece that he is today. Putting up far-below-par stats aside, his time playing ball for Spain as well as his early years in Memphis had doubters wondering what if he would be able to maintain the shape to keep up with the NBA pace. Thanks to a vegan diet, his eventual weight loss has made him the perennial and versatile three-time all star that he is today. Not bad for a guy who hung around until the forty-eighth overall selection in the 2007 draft!
3 Bruce Bowen
On paper, Bruce Bowen makes no sense. The three time NBA champion played an integral role for the Spurs’ dynasty, and yet he had never averaged a double digit in any stat category. Not in college, not in the NBA, not in the playoffs, never. So him being undrafted made a ton of sense in 1996. And still, he averaged minutes in the 30s straight through the dominant Spurs championship runs. This seems almost like a riddle. Well, here are the facts: what sends Bowen to the top of this list is the fact that despite all of that, all of his stats came at the clutchest moments, three pointers, steals, blocks. Additionally, he is the undisputed king of non-stat sheet impact: shot altering, defense drawing, mental disrupter, fatigue causer. Bowen enjoyed an unlikely and highly accomplished NBA career after a full-four years of college ball, and four years of bouncing around in semi-pro and overseas organization. In the end, he was an eight time all-NBA defensive team, and that is really not easy to do!
2 Gilbert Arenas
Agent Zero had a rough exit from the NBA, and despite his locker-room gun antics, he is was once one of the most overlooked players in the NBA. When Arenas arrived to college at University of Arizona, his jersey number twenty five was off-limits because it belonged to NBA champion Steve Kerr. Arenas loved proving people wrong, especially the expert consensus that he would be a bust as a Wildcat, so he took the number 0 (the amount of minutes they predicted he would play). Come NBA draft night, after clearly far surpassing those expert opinions, he was once again passed on by all thirty teams, and ended up getting drafted thirty first overall by the Golden State Warriors. True, he wasn’t that much of an underdog, but when he broke loose, especially in the early 2000s for the Washington Wizards, wow. He was unstoppable. Even though he only had two All Star selections to his name, during his peak years Arenas was a phenomenal ball player, dropping gaudy averages in most stat categories and leading Washington through several deep playoff runs. He never quite put it together as a team-player, but pound for pound, the fact that he went in the second round alone is shocking.
1 John Starks
It’s really a shame that John Starks is most remembered at being the Donkey to Ewing’s Shrek on the '90s Knicks that, despite being very exciting to watch, never really won anything. Sadder than that, for the educated fan, his historically bad shooting night in game seven of the 1994 Finals is perhaps the reason they couldn’t nab a ring out of that era. But his story, coupled with just how exciting he made NBA basketball for nearly a decade in the mecca of basketball, New York City, is what makes him the most overlooked product the NBA has seen. Facts: John Starks skipped his Senior year of High School to bag groceries and work on his game (it was a different time). He bounced around no-name Junior Colleges basically for all four years of his college eligibility. He went undrafted in 1988, and didn’t land himself a steady role until 1990 when the Knicks got forced to keep him on account of him twisting his knee while trying to dunk over Patrick Ewing in a practice. That twisted knee made all the difference. Starks made the team later that year, eventually turned in to a starter, and ushered in the physical basketball style of the 90s along with fellow bad-boy Knicks Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley and even Patrick Ewing. One of the most memorable and honorable nemeses of Michael Jordan, John Starks will go down as one of the most inspiring NBA players that nobody saw coming.
When a player laces up, the truth is nobody knows what he is capable of. Basketball requires a physicality that just can’t be taught, but it’s what players do with their skills, and how they go about leaving their mark on the game with intangibles such as grit, IQ, heart and determination, that makes the experts stunted in just what they can predict, and the next underdog kid willing to keep grinding.