While there are many examples of great athletes in other sports slipping through the cracks (the NFL’s Tom Brady, MLB’s Matt Holliday and NHL’s Henrik Lundqvist were each taken in the sixth or seventh round), the vast majority of NBA stars were taken early in their respective draft classes.
There are 30 players averaging at least 20 points per game this year; Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics is the only one who wasn’t a first round draft pick.
Few second-round picks in basketball truly stick in the league; Dennis Rodman is the only one to begin his career in the last 40 years who eventually made it to the Hall of Fame. Only 13 of the 30 second-rounders taken in 2015 even entered a game last year.
For those players who don’t get selected at all, the uphill climb is even more daunting. With only five starters and three or four bench players who get regular minutes per team, the NBA does not offer many job openings each year.
The following 15 players represent the best of those who were never drafted by the NBA or ABA. And while none of them ever won an MVP award, they all had very productive careers on the court.
15 Jeremy Lin
When Jeremy Lin signed with the Golden State Warriors out of Harvard University in 2010, nobody could have predicted the perfect storm that would create “Linsanity” 18 months later in New York. Lin played sparingly for the Knicks until a game against the New Jersey Nets in early February, 2012, in which he inexplicably exploded for 25 points, seven assists and five rebounds off the bench. He followed that performance up with a 28-point night against the Utah Jazz two nights later. When Lin scored 38 points in a home game against Kobe Bryant and the L.A. Lakers, the entire league took notice. In 25 starts that year, he averaged All-Star caliber numbers of 18.2 points and 7.7 assists per game. Lin’s big season landed him a huge free agent contract with the Houston Rockets in the offseason, but he has bounced around the league since then as a solid, but unspectacular player.
14 Reggie Evans
To say Reggie Evans wasn’t much of a scorer would be an understatement. Over a 13-year NBA career, he averaged just 4.1 points per game more than anyone reading this article. But Evans played extremely hard and very few players outhustled him. Though he was only 6’8”, he twice led the NBA in rebound percentage, a measure of how many available rebounds a player grabs while he is on the floor. In fact, his 21.87% career mark in that stat is second all-time behind Dennis Rodman. As a function of time on the court, Evans pulled down 13.3 boards per 36 minutes played (Dwight Howard’s career mark is 12.9 per 36 minutes). However, he was a one-dimensional player, particularly on offense; he didn’t score much and rarely passed (0.6 assists per game). But his ability to rebound the basketball certainly earns him a spot on this list.
13 Chucky Atkins
Though he bounced around the league, playing for eight teams in 11 years, Chucky Atkins was a solid contributor on the court. In four different seasons, he averaged at least 12 points and three assists per game. Per 36 minutes, Atkins posted career averages of 14.3 points and 5.0 assists. And his value as a strong role player was high enough for him to be included in separate trades that involved stars such as Grant Hill, Rasheed Wallace and Gary Payton. Specifically, the deal that sent Rasheed Wallace to Detroit was probably a bit of a sore spot for Atkins; the Pistons went on to win the NBA championship that year. Atkins appeared in only three more playoff series after that trade and his team was swept, 4-0, each time.
12 Damon Jones
Though their games were different, Damon Jones posted similar career numbers as Atkins (#13 above), with 11.6 points and 4.8 assists per 36 minutes. Jones was more of a three-point specialist, though; 64.7% of his career field goal attempts were from downtown. He gets the slight edge over Atkins on this list because he was a major contributor on a 59-win Miami Heat team that fell one game short of the 2005 NBA Finals. That year, Jones was 23rd in the league in Win Shares, with 8.7, and led the NBA in True Shooting Percentage (minimum: 20 minutes per team game played) at .625. Over 11 years, he signed a free agent contract with a dozen teams and appeared in over 100 regular season games with just one of them (Cleveland Cavaliers).
11 Raja Bell
Raja Bell’s first contract in the NBA was with the San Antonio Spurs in August, 2000. Unfortunately, he didn’t stick with the team, which went on to win three of the next seven league titles. But Bell did go on to have a solid career. He was a good long-distance shooter, making 40.6% of his career three-pointers during the regular season and 46.6% of them in 68 playoff games. This represented a fairly significant improvement from his college days, when he shot just 35% from downtown. He also led the league with 205 made treys in 2006-07. And Bell excelled defensively, as well. He made the NBA All-Defensive Team twice (1st team in 2006-07 and 2nd in 2007-08) and was often asked to guard the opponent’s best scorer.
10 Bruce Bowen
A three-time NBA champion with the Spurs, Bruce Bowen was one of the game’s top defenders. He was named to the NBA’s first (five times) or second (three times) All-NBA Defensive Team in all eight of his seasons with San Antonio. Though he was a good three-point shooter (39.3% for his career and led the league at 44.1% in 2002-03), he contributed little else offensively. Bowen’s per-game averages were 6.1 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.2 assists over his career. He was a late bloomer; Bowen played only one NBA game before turning 26 years of age and didn’t make his 15th start until he was 29. But once he got to the Spurs, he was a perfect fit for them and eventually had his number retired by the team.
9 Wesley Matthews
Currently in his eighth NBA season, Wesley Matthews has been a model of consistency since signing with the Utah Jazz as an undrafted free agent in 2009. He has averaged right around 14 points, three rebounds and two assists for all but his rookie campaign. Matthews has increasingly relied on the three-point shot recently; over 60% of his field goal attempts since 2014-15 have been from beyond the arc. At .568, his career True Shooting Percentage ranks 80th all-time, just ahead of Paul Pierce. And he takes care of the basketball, as well; he has committed just 9.64 turnovers per 100 plays, which is the 27th-best rate in NBA history. Still only 30 years old, Matthews looks to have a few more productive years in the league.
8 Darrell Armstrong
Though Darrell Armstrong spent several seasons at the beginning and end of his career coming off the bench, he was a very effective starter for several years in Orlando. During his best three-year stretch, he averaged 14.8 points, 6.2 assists and 3.9 rebounds in 239 games (236 starts) for the Magic. Twice, Armstrong finished among the top 15 in NBA MVP voting. Defensively, he was very good, finishing in the top 10 in steals four times. In fact, he had a steal on 3.0% of his opponents’ possessions while he was on the floor, which ranks 19th all-time in league history. An interesting side note: Armstrong was the CIAA Slam Dunk Champion while attending college at Fayetteville State, but only had 22 dunks in 840 NBA games.
7 John Starks
John Starks made a name for himself while playing for the New York Knicks in the 1990s. His most famous moment, perhaps, occurred in the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals when he dunked over Horace Grant and Michael Jordan in a game against the Chicago Bulls. In 1993-94, he had his best season, averaging 19.0 points, 5.9 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. The Knicks won 57 games that year and fell a game short of winning the NBA Finals. In Game 7 of that series, Starks shot a horrific 2-18 in a six-point loss. The following year, he became the first player in league history to make 200 three-pointers in a season. Starks was eventually traded to Golden State in the deal that brought Latrell Sprewell to N.Y. During his career with the Knicks, Starks made one All-Star team, was on an NBA All-Defensive Team (2nd) and won a Sixth Man of the Year Award.
6 Udonis Haslem
This is Udonis Haslem’s 14th year in the league, all with the Miami Heat. He’s actually the only remaining player from the 2006 championship squad. Though Haslem “only” made the NBA All-Rookie Second Team in 2004, making the First Team would have been tough in a rookie class that included LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. In this second season, Haslem averaged 10.9 points and 9.1 rebounds for a 59-win Heat team that lost the Eastern Conference Finals in seven games. At 36 years old, he doesn’t play much anymore, but he is the team’s all-time leading rebounder (over 800 more boards than Alonzo Mourning) and has won three NBA titles. Not a bad run for a guy who played in France for a year after college.
5 Jose Calderon
An underrated player throughout his career, Jose Calderon came over from Spain prior to the 2005-06 season. Now in his 12th season, he has amassed over 4,800 assists, placing him 63rd all-time among NBA players. But Calderon is best-known for his shooting ability. During his career, he has shot 41.2% from downtown, which is the 16th-best percentage in league history. He also has a .575 True Shooting Percentage, which is right on par with Dirk Nowitzki’s rate of .580. And in 2008-09, Calderon’s 98.1% free throw percentage (151-154) shattered the record set by Calvin Murphy (95.8%) 28 years earlier. The big knock on Calderon’s game has been his slow-footed defense. He also has never played for a team that made it out of the first round of the playoffs. But offensively, Calderon has been a very productive and efficient NBA point guard.
4 Avery Johnson
As a general rule, 5’10” players from Southern University don’t get drafted in the NBA. Avery Johnson was no exception. Initially signed by the Seattle Supersonics prior to the 1988-89 season, he later became a key cog with the Spurs during the 1990s. Johnson’s best two years came in 1994-95 and 1995-96 when he averaged 13.2 points, 8.9 assists and shot over 50% from the floor in 164 games. He finished among the top 10 in assists four times and ranks 37th all-time with 5,846 of them in his career. The one area of Johnson’s game in which he struggled was shooting. Making only 14.5% of his field goal attempts from downtown, he wisely attempted only 2.5% of his shots from beyond the three-point line. The highlight of Johnson’s career came in 1998-99, when he was the starting point guard on San Antonio’s first championship team.
3 David Wesley
During his final year at Baylor University, David Wesley scored 20.9 points per game and chipped in 4.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 2.0 steals. But despite those impressive numbers, he was not drafted and instead, signed a free agent deal with the New Jersey Nets. Over 14 NBA seasons, Wesley started nearly 84% of the games he appeared in, averaging 12.5 points, 4.4 assists and 1.3 steals. He posted double-figure scoring in 10 straight years and had more points over his career (11.842) than anyone else on this list. Wesley ranks among the top 100 all-time in assists, steals, and three-pointers made and attempted. Sadly, he was involved in an off-court incident in which his teammate, Bobby Phills, was killed in an accident. Wesley was driving at the time of the crash.
2 Brad Miller
Brad Miller played for six franchises during his 14 years in the league, but his best seasons came as a member of the Sacramento Kings. He averaged 13.3 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists over 385 games with the team. Offensively, Miller was a very efficient player; in 2004-05, Miller led the NBA in Offensive Rating, an estimate of points produced per 100 possessions. His .564 True Shooting Percentage is among the 100 best in league history. As his career progressed, Miller became a very good long range shooter for a big man. After making only 10 three pointers combined during his first five seasons, he drained an average of over 20 per year after that. Miller earned over $90 million during his career, which is the most of any undrafted player in NBA history.
1 Ben Wallace
Ben Wallace was one of the best defensive players the league has seen in a long time. Five times, he made the All-NBA Defensive Team (1st) and took home four NBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards (tied for the most in league history). Wallace’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus of 5.5 is the best ever and he is among the top 20 all-time in offensive rebounds (3,444), blocks (2,137), Defensive Win Shares (70.6) and Defensive Rating (95.6). He twice led the league in rebounding, including a personal-best 15.4 per game in 2002-03. The following year, Wallace won a championship with the Pistons and his jersey number is now hanging from the rafters in Detroit. Basketball Reference rates his Hall of Fame probability at 45.3%; no one else on this list is above 0.5%.