The National Basketball Association is home to 420 or so of the best basketball players on the planet. Getting there is no small task, involving hard work and even harder decisions every step of the way. Making an NBA roster means competing at the highest possible level, and those who do should be proud of that accomplishment.
However, the NBA is not a forgiving place. Players face a gruelling 82 game schedule and many hours of tiresome travelling, not to mention all the training and dietary discipline that goes into being a professional athlete. Winning is the bottom line, and if you can’t make yourself useful, you’ll find yourself jobless faster than a John Wall fast break.
Players can fall out of favor for any number of reasons. Some catch the injury bug, and just can’t regain the old magic they once had. Others fail to progress as much as teams had hoped, or simply get lost in the shuffle and overlooked. When this happens, every player takes a different approach depending on their unique situation and career arc. Many quietly retire from basketball and pursue other interests. Some enter the D-League to stay close to home, with an eye on getting called back up to the big leagues as soon as possible.
However, many players choose to explore their options overseas, where they can get paid decent coin, receive ample playing time and instant star status, and, if they play well enough, remain on NBA scouts’ radar. Some even fall in love with the lifestyle and remain out of the NBA by choice, especially European players who may dabble in the NBA lifestyle before returning to more familiar territory with money in their pocket and stories to tell. So, if you’ve ever wondered “whatever happened to that guy?” there’s a good chance he’s featured below as one of the most talented ex-NBAers making paychecks abroad.
15 Byron Mullens
A consensus top-10 recruit coming out of high school, Mullens failed to deliver the goods at Ohio State, but nonetheless felt compelled to go pro after his freshman season. Widely praised for his size, athleticism, and shooting touch, Mullens was seen as a raw but high upside talent with the perfect tools for the modern NBA. His high school production and potential made him a first round pick, but unfortunately it was his reputation for disinterested play that ended up carrying over to the NBA, where he failed to make an impact with any of the four teams he played with over five years.
After spending last year in the D-League, Mullens is putting his NBA dreams on hold for the moment, signing with Turkish club Konyaspor for the 2016-17 season.
14 Joe Alexander
Alexander first caught the attention of scouts as a sophomore at West Virginia, thanks to his ideal frame and freakish athleticism. Despite having only played organized basketball for about five years, an even stronger junior season catapulted him all the way to Milwaukee’s eighth overall pick in the strong 2008 draft. Surprisingly, despite a reportedly outstanding work ethic, Alexander was written off by the Bucks after just one season, and subsequently dropped by his new team, the Bulls, after just eight games. Injuries further diminished his stock, and he hasn’t sniffed NBA playing time since, instead plying his trade overseas and in the D-League.
Ironically, despite spending much of his childhood in China, Alexander hasn’t yet made a stop there in his professional career unlike many of the other players on this list. This is due in part to the fact that he is still relatively young and able to play at a high level against better competition, as evidenced by his recent signing with Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv.
13 Patrick O’Bryant
Entering the league in 2006 after two years at Bradley University, O’Bryant was selected ninth overall by the Golden State Warriors thanks to his outstanding physical tools and almost limitless potential. A legit seven-footer with arms for days, he could be a force in the paint at both ends of the floor. Unfortunately, it very soon became apparent that criticisms about his work ethic were well founded, and he found himself out of a job after playing just 90 games over four seasons.
He has since bounced around the D-League and overseas, most recently with the Taiwan Beer (yes, that is a real team name). Though he still possesses imposing size and length, his alarming fall from grace leaves little hope that he’ll ever find his way back onto an NBA roster, particularly now that he’s on the wrong side of 30.
12 Sean Williams
Williams was selected by the New Jersey Nets with the 17th pick in the 2007 draft after averaging an astonishing 5.0 blocks per game in his junior year at Boston College (albeit in only 15 games). Though this one clearly defined NBA skill allowed him to make an immediate impact as a rookie, his progress in other areas of the game stalled and he was released by the Nets after just three seasons. After a year playing overseas, Williams briefly returned stateside to the D-League, earning call-ups to the Mavericks and Celtics.
Unfortunately, he didn’t manage to stick, and played his last NBA game in 2012. He now plays in the Turkish Basketball League, spending last season with Konyaspor as a teammate of the first player on this list, Byron Mullens.
11 Julian Wright
A jack of all trades, Wright as a college prospect was touted for his versatility, but inconsistency and lack of a single NBA-ready, bread-and-butter skill kept scouts hot and cold on his draft stock. While he had top five talent, the Hornets made Wright the 13th pick of the 2007 draft after he helped the Kansas Jayhawks to the “Elite Eight” of the NCAA Tournament. Though he played reasonably well in very limited minutes as a rookie, Wright failed to crack the rotation over the next two seasons and was traded to the Raptors. He lasted just one year there before being relegated to the D-League, and then overseas.
His last stop was Dolomiti Energia Trento in Italy for the 2015-16 season, but he’s committed to playing in Turkey this year for Trabzonspor, making it look increasingly likely that he’ll remain in Europe for the rest of his professional career.
10 Rodney Carney
Carney’s calling card has always been his incredible athletic ability, and it earned him a selection just outside the lottery in the 2006 draft. However, Carney was already a senior when he was drafted, which caused some to question his upside. These fears proved to be well founded, as the swingman never really developed a good enough handle or shot to justify a roster spot.
By 2011, teams became impatient with his lack of discernible progress, and he was pushed out of the league's fringes into NBA purgatory, picking up paychecks from the D-League and countries across the globe, just hoping to stay above water and earn a shot at redemption. Unfortunately for Carney, that shot has yet to come, and he’ll instead find himself suiting up for the Toyotsu Fighting Eagles Nagoya of the Japanese B. League.
9 Jordan Crawford
He may not have played NBA basketball for the last two years, but you might remember Crawford as the kid who dunked on LeBron James during a summer camp, causing a minor fiasco when it was reported that Nike officials attempted to confiscate the footage. At the time, Crawford was a soon-to-be sophomore at Xavier University, and wasn’t considered a serious prospect until the college season got under way. By the time it was over, Crawford had displayed such an uncanny knack for scoring that he decided to turn pro, and was rewarded by being picked in the first round. That began a saga which saw him split four seasons between four different teams, spending a full season with a single team (the Wizards) just once. Crawford’s scoring reputation proved accurate, and he averaged double figure points every year he played.
His exploits proved inadequate in the eyes of NBA talent evaluators however, and he’s split the last couple years between the D-League and China. Last season he resurfaced in headlines by scoring 72 points for the Tianjin Ronggang Gold Lions. Not quite Wilt Chamberlain, but I’m sure he’ll take it given his current career situation.
8 Al Thornton
A late bloomer, Thornton wasn’t considered a top-tier prospect until his senior year at Florida State when he averaged just a shade under 20 points per contest. Scouts were mainly drawn to his elite hops, quickness, and frame, which made him a matchup nightmare at the college level. His production and potential came with one big caveat however: By the time Thornton was drafted, he was already 23 years old, an advanced age for any prospect, let alone one chosen in the lottery. A good rookie season was followed by an even stronger sophomore outing, in which he averaged 16.8 points and 5.2 rebounds as the Clippers starting small forward.
Unfortunately, that would be the peak of Thornton’s NBA career, which lasted just two more seasons. He’s since plied his trade overseas, most recently in the Philippines where he’s been the star of the NLEX Road Warriors for the past two seasons.
7 Jan Vesely
There were high hopes for Vesely, who was chosen by the Wizards with the sixth pick in the 2011 draft. Unlike a lot of European prospects, he was seen as a versatile athletic specimen rather than pure shooter, more Andrei Kirilenko than Dirk Nowitzki. While Vesely clearly possessed a lot of natural talent, there were a lot of holes in his game that he never managed to address, namely his poor shooting and clumsy dribbling. Too unskilled to play on the wing, and not strong enough to body up NBA bigs, he was cursed with the ‘tweener label and shown the door after just three seasons.
Since exiting the league, Vesely has made himself at home with Fenerbahçe in Turkey, recently signing a deal to keep him there through 2019. However, his contract reportedly contains an opt-out clause every summer should an NBA opportunity arise for the 26-year-old. While he stands a good chance at an NBA return thanks to his young age and pedigree, don’t be surprised if Vesely eschews fame and prestige in favor of the comfort and stability of a European career.
6 Anthony Randolph
In terms of raw talent, few players over the past decade have generated as much buzz as Randolph did leading up to his selection in the lottery of the 2008 draft. He had it all: size, length, explosiveness, agility, and ball skills were all on display in his lone year at LSU. However, much like Vesely, questions remained about his true position, particularly on the defensive end of the floor where his lack of strength became particularly glaring against NBA power forwards. None of the four teams he played for seemed to be able to answer these questions and unlock his potential, and he was waived for the last time by the Orlando Magic without ever playing a game for them.
Taking his game out of the country was a natural next step for the German-born Randolph, and he’s been there ever since, signing for the upcoming season with Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid.
5 Andray Blatche
A highly skilled offensive talent, Blatche was one of the last high school players ever taken in the draft before the NBA instituted its “one and done” rule. Unfortunately, being selected by the notoriously talented but dysfunctional Gilbert Arenas-led Wizards did little to discourage his immaturity. The power forward seemed to have turned the corner after a strong 2010-11 campaign in which he averaged 16.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game, but the Wizards elected to jettison him the following season as part of a rebuilding effort centred around new star John Wall. Despite playing decently well for the Nets, he lasted just two seasons there, last playing an NBA game in 2014.
He has spent the intervening two years in Asia, playing professionally in China for the Xinjiang Flying Tigers, and in international competition for the Philippines, who made him a naturalized citizen in 2014.
4 Jason Maxiell
A four year player at Cincinnati, Maxiell managed to improve each year of his college career, earning him a pace in the first round of the 2005 draft. Making a name for himself based on his gargantuan 7’3” wingspan and aggressive, efficient style of play, Maxiell was always nonetheless extremely undersized for an NBA big man, standing just 6’5” barefoot. He also entered the league at 22 years of age, giving him a shorter window to grow into a productive player. Despite these obstacles, Maxiell’s toughness helped him carve out a 10 year NBA career, but it was only a matter of time before they caught up to him.
He found himself without an NBA job for the 2015-16 season, and opted to continue his career in China. His trademark intensity garnered him mixed results there, as he was involved in a heated altercation when he chased an opposing player across the court after a hard foul.
Following his Chinese experiment, he attempted to play for the Tropang TNT of the Philippine Basketball Association, but failed to measure under the 6’5” height limit. At 33, an NBA return seems unlikely for Maxiell, but his imposing strength and ferocity will almost certainly garner him no shortage of foreign suitors.
3 Hakim Warrick
Warrick has a lot in common with the previous player on this list, Jason Maxiell. Both were undersized, overaged power forwards chosen in the first round of the 2005 draft. However, Warrick was even older, at 23 years of age, and this combined with a game that relied largely on his elite leaping ability meant that his career prospects became considerably dimmer once he turned 30. After being traded to, and immediately waived by the Orlando Magic, Warrick turned further afield for work, picking up contracts in China, Turkey, Australia, and, most recently, Greece. While it’s too bad NBA fans won’t likely see any more of his high flying dunks, it’s a little surprising he lasted as long as he did with almost no outside shooting ability, something that probably wouldn’t be possible in today’s three-crazed game.
2 Stephon Marbury
The oldest player on this list, Marbury has continued to live out the exploits of his All-Star prime by relocating to China to play against lesser competition. Though he’s many years removed from being a useful NBA basketball player, having last played in the 2008-09 season, there was a time when Marbury was one of the most electrifying guards in the game, up there with his storied draft-mates like Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson and Steve Nash. However, the same gritty disposition that had served him so well on the New York City street courts he grew up on also caused him to butt heads with players and coaches, likely expediting his exit from the league at just 32 years old.
Since leaving the NBA for China, he’s never looked back, playing for Shanxi and Foshan before settling into a starring role with the Beijing Ducks and becoming the most successful import player in the Chinese Basketball Association’s history. In addition to winning three league championships, “Starbury” was recently given one of the highest honors for a foreigner by being granted a permanent residence card. With a fanbase that worships him, and a team that lets him run the show, I think it’s safe to say he won’t be coming home to play any time soon.
1 Amar’e Stoudemire
Stoudemire officially retired from the NBA at the end of this past season, which means we won’t see him in an NBA uniform again, barring a serious change of heart. Though injuries left him a shell of his former self in his latter years, Stoudemire was once the most feared pick and roll threat in the league, known for posterizing dunks but equally adept at stepping out and splashing mid-range jumpers. The six-time All-Star should be a lock for the Hall of Fame, potentially joining an all-time great class featuring new retirees Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and Kobe Bryant.
However, unlike most retired players who seem to want a break, Stoudemire’s love for the game and health are evidently strong enough that he wants to continue playing professionally. Shortly after retiring, it was announced that he would join the Israeli team Hapoel Jerusalem on a two year deal. Given that he’s a part owner of the team, it’s hard not to read this as a publicity move done to boost his future source of income. On the other hand, Stoudemire’s self-proclaimed Jewish heritage and long-standing interest in Israel may mean he’s simply looking for an opportunity to get closer to his roots and experience a culture that means a lot to him. Whatever the case, mazel tov on your (semi) retirement, Amar’e!