Compared to most other sports, or even college basketball, the NBA is fairly predictable. Yes, injuries sometimes make us wonder “what-if”, and every so often a Cinderella story will emerge, but by-and-large the league is ruled by a select few elite talents who have been touted as such since their college, or sometimes even high school days. These players take center stage in starring roles, making All-Star teams and contending for championships while the remaining spots on the league’s rosters are filled with stock characters.
Still, every so often a player will emerge from the ranks to defy the odds and shatter expectations, if only for a brief moment in basketball history. The complex dynamics at work in the NBA mean that players are subject to a whole host of factors that can influence their performance. A coaching change, trade, injury, or matchup can wildly swing a player’s fortune and give them an opportunity to shine like never before. Sometimes it takes a wild combination of several factors before a player gets that shot, and even then their chances of taking advantage are about fifty-fifty.
However, for those that do manage to break through to the next level, their new found glory is all too often short lived. The unique combination circumstances that earned them their brief spotlight is almost always too volatile to sustain and most quickly revert back to their previous ways. After all, this is a league that obeys the law of averages, and regression to the mean can mean a swift plunge right back into anonymity.
Nevertheless, these players’ 15 minutes of fame granted them a spot in the annals of NBA history as curiosities, one year wonders who thrilled fans and their teams with a flash of brilliance, only to fail at living up to new, higher expectations.
15 Erick Dampier
One of the last of a dying breed of role players, Dampier was a hulking space-eating center, a rim protector and enforcer whose job was basically to park himself in the paint on both ends of the floor and clean up any mess made by his teammates. For most of his career he filled the role perfectly, with career averages of 7.4 points, 7.1 rebounds. That changed in his eighth season, at the age of 28 when he exploded for 12.3 points and 12.0 rebounds, both career highs. But if fans thought he might just be a late bloomer finally coming into his own, it was not to be. He only ever cracked double figures in scoring average one other time in his career, and never came within a million miles of matching his rebounding prowess that season, with his next-best performance on the boards being 8.7 per contest in his sophomore year.
14 Tyreke Evans
When Sacramento drafted a young Memphis freshman with the fourth overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, they probably realistically hoped they were getting a starting quality combo guard two or three years down the line. Evans quickly fast-forwarded and then shattered those expectations with each fearless drive and pinpoint pass. Thanks to his tremendous all-around play and relative consistency, Evans was able to assert himself as the favorite for Rookie of the Year despite a very strong crop of fellow first year guards like Steph Curry, James Harden, and Brandon Jennings. He famously became the first rookie since LeBron James to average better than 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game.
With numbers like that from a 20-year-old, fans were predicting multiple All-Star appearances and perhaps an MVP award in the future. My, how times have changed. While Evans is still putting up well-rounded stat lines, injuries have limited his time on the court, and he hasn’t cracked the 20-point scoring average barrier since his much-ballyhooed rookie season. He still can’t shoot, so he’s basically exactly the same player he was seven years ago, a complete contrast to his draft-mates Curry and Harden.
13 Larry Hughes
One of the most infamous examples of the “contract year phenomenon”, Hughes spent the first half of his career as a promising but inconsistent combo guard, a long and rangy defensive specialist who couldn’t shoot but had decent court vision and could points on the board (if you gave him enough shots). After stints with the 76ers and Warriors, Hughes headed to Washington where he would eventually team up with Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison. In the third and final year of his contract, he went from being a passable starter to a borderline star, thanks to career highs in points (22.0), rebounds (6.3), assists (4.7), and a league-leading 2.9 steals per game. The Cavaliers foolishly rewarded him with a huge contract, desperately hoping he could be the Pippen to LeBron James’ Jordan.
Though the Cavaliers would make it to the Finals in Hughes’ second year, it was more in spite of him than because of him, with the injuries and volatile decision making that plagued him earlier in his career returning in full force. He’d last less than three seasons with the Cavaliers before spending the rest of his playing days having his terrible contract passed around the league like a hot potato.
12 Antoine Carr
I’m cheating a bit here because Carr really had a one and a half season stretch of good basketball, but I’m counting it anyway. The forward’s turn of good fortune started after a midseason trade to the Sacramento Kings. After averaging a lacklustre 7.6 points for the Atlanta Hawks to start the year, that number skyrocketed to 18.6 after his trade to the Kings. Prior to joining the Kings, Carr’s best scoring season was a measly 8.8 points per game. He upped the ante even further the following season, scoring 20.1 points per game in his only full season with the Kings.
Unfortunately for Carr, he was traded after his lone brilliant scoring season, and his playing time, and consequently production, dwindled. On the bright side, he was subsequently able to enjoy more team success with the Spurs, and later the Jazz.
11 Devin Harris
After a solid and winning start to his career in Dallas, the Nets decided to take a chance on Harris, acquiring him in a blockbuster trade that sent aging star Jason Kidd to the Mavericks. Little more than a role player in Dallas where he deferred to stars like Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry, Harris’s potential was unlocked in New Jersey. In his first full season with the Nets, his scoring soared to 21.3 points per game, more than six points better than his previous career high. Harris’ excellent play earned him an All-Star spot, and it looked as though it might be the first of many for the lightning-quick point guard.
The perpetually frail Harris never repeated his exploits though, getting in a few more just-decent years before his body betrayed him and took away his greatest gift, speed. He’s now back in Dallas as a role player, his basketball journey coming full circle though never quite reaching the sustained heights he might have hoped for.
10 Bobby Simmons
As is typical for second round picks, Simmons spent the first few years of his career fighting just to get on the floor, appearing in 122 games in his first three seasons and averaging 17.2 minutes of playing time per night. However, a year after Simmons became a member of the Clippers, incumbent starter Quentin Richardson departed in free agency, opening up minutes at the wing spot. Simmons took full advantage, stunning the league by becoming a full-time starter and showing skills that his previous work had never even hinted at. After making just six total three pointers in his first three years, Simmons racked up 50 makes at a sterling .435 clip. He also recorded career bests in points (16.4), rebounds (5.9), assists (2.7), steals (1.4), and field goal percentage (.466).
So astonishing was his transformation that Simmons was voted Most Improved Player for the 2004-05 season. Unfortunately, he was unable to maintain an upward trajectory the following season in Milwaukee, seeing his numbers dip in almost every statistical category. An ankle injury then forced him to miss an entire season, and he was never the same player after.
9 Chris Gatling
Gatling was a late bloomer who didn’t play his first NBA game until the age of 24. As an undersized center he performed well in a limited role early in his career, but no one could have predicted his breakout season with the Mavericks. At the age of 29, Gatling had by far his best season, averaging 19.0 points and nearly eight rebounds per game (both career highs) and was selected to the All-Star team despite starting just one game. He barely had time to celebrate that accomplishment though, as just days after the game he was traded to New Jersey where he promptly got injured. Gatling was never able to recreate the success he’d had in Dallas, though he remained a reliable source of bench scoring and rebounding late into his career.
8 Michael Adams
Adams was a very good point guard of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and arguably one of the best players of his diminutive stature (5’10”) to ever play the game. But one season stands out like a sore thumb from all the rest: 26.5 points per game, 10.5 assists per game. Only five players in the history of the NBA have put up those kind of numbers, and two of them only just accomplished the feat this past season (Russell Westbrook and James Harden). None of Adams’ other seasons eclipse averages of 19 points or eight assists. One of the major factors for this statistical anomaly was another one: pace.
His team, the 1990-91 Denver Nuggets, played at the fastest pace the league has ever seen, a breakneck 113.7 possessions per game (compare that to this year’s leader, the Brooklyn Nets at 101.3). Because of this, Adams’ remarkable season comes with an asterisk beside it, and he received no league honours that year. Ironically, a change of pace (literally) on a new team the following year saw him earn an All-Star nod, despite putting up inferior numbers.
7 Dorell Wright
Among the last handful of players drafted straight out of high school, it’s easy to see what scouts liked about Wright, even at such a young age. The 6’9” forward had great size and a fluid stroke, with very similar tools to then-budding star Rashard Lewis who was a prep-to-pro success story. Unlike Lewis however, Wright struggled to make many strides in his first few years. Lewis was a starter by his third year in the league, but Wright didn’t break out until his seventh season and second team, when he left Miami to sign with the Warriors.
The fast-paced philosophy of the Warriors allowed his strengths to shine, and he led the NBA in three pointers while registering career highs in points (16.4), rebounds (5.3), and assists (3.0) while playing all 82 games. Still just 25, it seemed like the sky was the limit for Wright, but he regressed for the next four seasons until he was finally out of the league.
6 Don MacLean
A first round draft pick in 1992, MacLean followed up a mediocre rookie campaign with a sensational sophomore effort for the Washington Bullets. His minutes tripled, and most of his stats did too, improving his scoring from 6.6 to 18.2, rebounding from 2.0 to 6.2, and assists from 0.7 to 2.1. His overnight ascension won him the Most Improved Player award, but it was not a sign of more great things to come. Sadly, injuries plagued and cut short his career, limiting him to fewer than 40 games in six of the next seven seasons. His playing days essentially ended when he was suspended for five games after testing positive for steroid use in 2000, not exactly a great way to go out.
5 Aaron Brooks
Brooks might be one of the skinniest guys to ever step on an NBA court, tipping the scales at just 161 lbs. In a sport that favours giants, regularly playing against men half a foot taller and 50 lbs heavier, Brooks defied the odds by just making it to the league in the first place. In his third season however, he showed that he came to play, torching the league for nearly 20 points and over five assists per game on his way to winning Most Improved Player. He failed to maintain his output the following season, one in which he missed over 20 games and was traded.
During the 2011-12 lockout he was missing from the NBA completely, heading to China to play and deciding to finish out the season there. In the five seasons since he returned, he’s only averaged double figure scoring once, and it’s safe to say his days of being a miniature assassin are over.
4 Jamaal Magloire
I had to give a shoutout to my fellow Canadian Jamaal Magloire on this list. For most of his career he was the NBA equivalent of an enforcer in hockey, someone to do the dirty work without expecting to have his number called. However, for one glorious season Magloire wildly exceeded the modest expectations placed on him. With team star Jamal Mashburn missing most of the 2003-04 season with an injury, somebody on the New Orleans Hornets had to step up. Magloire readily accepted the challenge, playing big minutes and averaging a double double for the first and only time in his career. With the Eastern Conference thin on talent, and centers a dying breed, that was good enough to punch his ticket to the All-Star game.
That’s right, Jamaal Magloire had bragging rights –if only temporarily – over countryman Steve Nash, who was left off the Western Conference roster that year. Ironically, it was Magloire’s turn the following season to get hit with the injury bug. That seemed to kill whatever career momentum he had gained from his All-Star campaign, and he reverted back to his journeyman status for the rest of his career.
3 Dana Barros
Barros spent the first four years of his career in Seattle, where he was almost exclusively a backup, starting just 28 games total over that span. He received more playing time after being traded to Philadelphia, starting 70 games in his first year there, greatly improving his scoring and assist numbers while maintaining his excellent shooting efficiency. His second year is when he really blossomed, starting all 82 games and finishing with averages of 20.6 points and 7.5 assists. Always a deadly shooter, Barros’ spike in production coincided with the league’s decision to move the three-point line closer in an effort to promote more scoring. Consequently, Barros knocked in a career high 2.4 threes per game on .464 shooting, also a career high.
After making the All-Star team and winning Most Improved Player for his efforts that season, Barros decided to sign with his hometown Boston Celtics. There his role would be significantly reduced, and he would spend the rest of his career once again coming off the bench
2 Mike James
Even if I wasn’t a Toronto Raptors fan, I’d probably still remember James as one of the greatest out-of-nowhere stories I’ve ever seen. He went undrafted out of Duquesne University, not seeing his first NBA minutes until the age of 26. He bounced around a lot, but played well enough to keep earning playing time and even won a championship with Detroit in 2004. By the time his landed in Toronto, James was 30 years old and had played for six teams in the past four years. Expectations were understandably very modest, but James obviously didn’t get the memo. He was sensational, averaging over 20 points and nearly six assists per game while shooting a blistering .442 from three point range. Unfortunately, as quickly as James’ window of opportunity opened, it shut after he left Toronto for Minnesota. His scoring numbers were sliced in half, and just like that the writing was on the wall.
1 Don May
The Knicks selected May with a third round pick in 1968, and for the first two years of his career he performed like one. Averaging just 3.5 points on .370 shooting from the field, it’s clear May had some trouble adjusting to the NBA game. But then, fresh off winning a championship with the Knicks, May was picked by the newly formed Buffalo Braves in the expansion draft. Getting a fresh start was just what the doctor ordered for May, and he took full advantage of the wide open situation the newly assembled roster created. He quickly proved his worth, finishing the season with averages of 20.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.0 assists. Still only 25, it seemed like May had a lot of good basketball ahead of him. Alas, he was traded to the Atlanta Hawks where his minutes and numbers came back down to earth. Shockingly, he’d play just four more seasons, his minutes and production dropping with each year until he hit rock bottom, averaging a paltry 2.2 points in 4.8 minutes of action in his final season.