Top 15 NBA Players Whose Careers Ended Too Soon

Throughout NBA history, there have been countless "what-if?" stories,  featuring players who for one reason or another, were unable to exhaust their full potential in the sport of basketball. There

Throughout NBA history, there have been countless "what-if?" stories,  featuring players who for one reason or another, were unable to exhaust their full potential in the sport of basketball.

There are numerous reasons for why a player may be forced to retire prematurely. Some players lose passion for the game before their talent dries up, others suffer debilitating injuries and some are victims of temptation. Regardless of why a player is forced to end his career prematurely, it is always sad to see greatness unrealized.

These 15 players have some of the saddest tales in the game's history, as almost all of them had Hall of Fame talent, yet not all of them were able to put together Hall of Fame careers. It is not only unfortunate for the players themselves, but it is also unfortunate for us, the fans, as we are deprived of witnessing the greatness these players had to offer.

Today we will give these players some shine by ranking the top 15 players whose careers ended too soon. Keep in mind that some of the players on this list are considered legends, but still could have contributed more to their legacy. 

As always feel free to let us know what you thought of this list, by leaving your opinions in the comments section.

15 Earl Manigault


Earl Manigault, or as it is pronounced "Manigoat", is the greatest unknown in basketball history. He was a legend in New York City during the 1960s when he set seemingly every New York City high school basketball record. Manigault was on track to become one of the greatest players to ever play the game. He was a 6'1" scoring machine, with a 60" vertical jump.

His downfall came when he began running with the wrong crowds in the busy New York streets. Manigault would be expelled from high school and ultimately only attend one year of college, where he averaged 31 points and 13 rebounds. But, sadly for him and basketball, Earl got involved with heroin shortly after dropping out of high school. Although Earl never officially made it to the NBA, he is revered among the all-time greats of the game. During his retirement ceremony, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was asked to name the greatest player against whom he's played; without hesitation, Jabbar said Earl Manigault.

14 Greg Oden

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Viewed as one of the biggest busts in NBA draft history, Greg Oden was expected to be the future centerpiece for a title run with the Portland Trail Blazers. Oden was famously drafted ahead of Kevin Durant in the 2007 draft.

Oden played one year of college basketball where he won pretty much every award imaginable, including Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, as well as being named a unanimous All-America selection. Once he arrived in the NBA, his knees began to give out on him. With the bad knees, his career came crashing down before it began. After playing 82 games over two seasons with the Blazers, Oden was released by the team. He attempted a comeback in 2014 with the Heat, but his knees were just not suited for NBA basketball and he was forced to retire for the final time following the 2014 season.

13 Ray Allen

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Ray Allen is an interesting one. He played for 18 healthy years. So you wonder why is he even on this list, given that he played 18 years and never suffered a serious injury. Well, this list is about players who ended their career too early, and Ray Allen easily had four or five more quality seasons left in him when he decided to leave the game.

Allen willingly stepped away from the game, saying he wanted to spend time with his family and escape the grind of an NBA season. Despite being highly sought after by every contending team for the past three seasons, Allen has stayed true to his word, and not come back... yet. There have been rumors that Allen could return after the All-Star break this year. He is a health junkie and has himself in perfect shape year round, so if he did decide he wanted to chase one more ring, he would have no issues getting back into game shape.

12 Jay Williams


The man who is now the face of ESPN's College Basketball Gameday was once a superstar point guard for Coach K at Duke. Williams was the second overall pick by the Bulls in 2002 but sadly he only had one good season there.

Williams was a bit of a risk taker in life; he attributes that quality to why he is where he is today. However, that quality betrayed him following his rookie season in Chicago. Williams was riding his motorcycle when he lost control and went crashing into a street light in the north side of Chicago. Williams would spend the entire next year rehabbing, although it was clear he would likely never play NBA basketball again. Williams, to his credit, was able to get himself back into a position where NBA teams were willing to give him a try. In 2006, the New Jersey Nets gave him a look, but he was unable to impress them enough for a contract offer, and with that, Jay Williams' playing days were through.

11 Penny Hardaway

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Penny was drafted by the Golden State Warriors, third overall in 1993, but was immediately traded to the Orlando Magic for Chris Webber. Penny was brought in to be the point guard for the Shaq-led Magic, who would reach an NBA Finals early in both players' careers.

Penny and Shaq were touted as a potential dynasty, and it was clear in 1994 that it could very well come true. However, in 1996, O'Neal decided he wanted to play in Los Angeles, leaving Penny as the lone superstar in Orlando. In hindsight, it appears Shaq got very lucky with his move because shortly after he departed, Hardaway began experiencing consistent injury problems. After his third season, Penny never played a full season again. He stuck around for almost a decade longer, bouncing from team to team, spending more time in the doctor's office than on the court. Since retiring, Shaq has said he thinks he and Penny could have went on to win multiple championships, and who could argue?

10 Bobby Hurley

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Another legendary Duke point guard makes the list. Bobby Hurley was one of the best college players in NCAA history and was drafted seventh overall by the Kings in 1993.

Hurley's NBA career had a tragic ending. He was a highly touted rookie in 1993 and it appeared he had a bright future as the starting point guard for the Kings organization. The unfortunate events that happened on December 12, 1993 would change Hurley's life forever, and the fate of the Kings was sent into a tailspin. Hurley was heading home from a game when he was involved in a car accident. His SUV was broadsided by a station wagon. Hurley was not wearing a seatbelt and was thrown from his vehicle. He suffered severe life-threatening injuries. His teammate, Mike Peplowski, was driving five minutes behind Hurley and was first on the scene to render immediate aid. He was able to attempt a comeback, but it was short-lived and underwhelming.

9 Pete Maravich


"Pistol Pete" was one of the original showmen of the game. He is credited with many of the flashy plays we see today, including the behind-the-back pass. Pete was also a scoring machine, with a career average of 24.2 points per game.

Maravich was drafted third overall in 1970 by the Atlanta Hawks, and he immediately helped lead the team to the playoffs. In 1977, after being taken by the expansion Utah Jazz, Maravich began experiencing issues in both of his knees, forcing him to miss 32 games that year. Knee problems plagued Maravich for the rest of his career. He played in just 49 games during the 1978–79 season. Maravich hung on for one final season in 1980 where he was a role player off the bench for the Boston Celtics, led by rookie Larry Bird.

8 Yao Ming

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Yao Ming's impact on the NBA reaches far beyond his time spent actually playing the game. He has helped spread the game across the world as much as anyone in the history of the game.

At 7'6", it was clear that injuries would eventually catch up with Yao. He was able to squeak out three very good seasons before his knees began to give him serious issues. Ming spent his entire eight-year career with the Rockets, leading them to some quality seasons and even a few deep playoff runs, but he was never able to live up to the potential he possessed. At 7'6", Yao was incredibly athletic and coordinated. Shaquille O'Neal once said that Yao could have been the greatest big man to ever play the game had it not been for his injuries. Ming did get his recognition last year when he was named to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

7 Brandon Roy


Roy was one of the brightest young players in the NBA before his knees completely gave out on him. He was the heir apparent to take Kobe Bryant's mantle as the best shooting guard in the NBA.

Roy burst on the scene in 2006 when he won Rookie of the Year with the Trail Blazers. His smooth style of play often got him less attention than the more flashier players in the league, but it was clear Roy had something special. After a sensational rookie season, Roy helped lead the Blazers to several deep playoff runs, laced with incredibly clutch performances. In 2011, he began to experience knee troubles that had been with him for years, but never came to surface until then. Brandon was forced to retire at the end of the 2011 season, and had a failed attempt at a comeback in 2012. He is currently the head coach of Nathan Hale High School in his hometown of Seattle, where he has the nation's top player, and his team ranked as the number one high school team in the nation.

6 Ralph Sampson


Ralph Sampson is one of the most underrated players to ever play the game -- let's just get that out of the way first. Sampson was a 7'1" athletic freak who was able to score, rebound, and block shots like very few before him.

When he was drafted first overall by the Rockets in 1983, many people said he could score like Wilt and win like Russell. Upon arriving to Houston, Sampson didn't disappoint, averaging 21.1 points and 11.1 rebounds in his rookie season. The Rockets, however, struggled to win games that season, and as a result, they scored the first overall pick again the following year. When they selected Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984, many believed the Rockets were on their way to a dynasty. Unfortunately for the Rockets, Sampson began to experience knee and back problems after only three seasons. In an attempt to salvage the value of Sampson's talent, the Rockets traded him to Golden State in 1987. Sampson never played a full season with the Warriors and was forced to retire in 1990.

5 Grant Hill

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Here is yet another Duke player on the list; it seems to be a trend. Grant Hill was supposed to be a game-changer for the Pistons when they selected him third overall in 1994. In the beginning, he was certainly that; in his second season with the Pistons, he averaged nearly a triple-double ( 20.1 points, 9.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists).

Hill was on track to become not just the best player in the league, but perhaps one of the all-time greats. Sadly, Hill suffered so many injuries and illnesses in his career that he was often only available for half of each season. Every time it appeared he was back, a new injury would pop up. Somehow, Hill was able to last 19 years in the league, but he appeared in less than half his team's games in seven of those seasons. Although he technically spent 19 years in the league, for all intents and purposes, his career ended when he was traded to Orlando in 2000.

4 Bill Walton

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One of the most boisterous, fun-loving characters the NBA has ever seen, it is a wonder, honestly, how Walton is still upright with the injuries he suffered. Walton was the king of Westwood during his days at UCLA, where he helped lead the Bruins to two National Championships, and won three Player of the Year Awards during his college career.

Clearly the best player in the 1974 Draft, Walton was selected first overall by the Portland Trail Blazers. He signed with the Trail Blazers but his first two seasons were marred by injury (at different times he broke his nose, foot, wrist, and leg) and the Blazers missed the playoffs both years. Once healthy enough to play, Walton would lead the league in rebounding and blocked shots on the way to leading Portland to the NBA title. The following season, he was the NBA MVP. In two seasons, Walton had built himself a Hall of Fame resume. Unfortunately, after those two magical seasons, Walton began to spend a bulk of the time on the injured list with back and knee issues. Walton spent his final NBA season with the Boston Celtics, where he was a quality veteran off the bench and helped the team win the NBA title.

3 Tracy McGrady


Many people believe McGrady could have been an all-time great had it not been for his storied injury problems. Coming out of high school, he was regarded as a bit too skinny, which is why he fell to ninth in the draft that year.

Many regarded him as the top shooting guard in the NBA during his prime seasons, even over Kobe Bryant. But McGrady was never able to stay healthy long enough to earn that distinction among the basketball elite. His career was marred with injuries of varying degrees, ranging from bum ankles, back spasms, surgery on his knee and shoulder, broken fingers, the list goes on and on with McGrady. Ultimately, McGrady was forced to retire in 2013 after spending the final several years of his career in many different doctors' and surgeons' offices.

2 Michael Jordan

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Michael Jordan retired three times in his career, and at least two of them are viewed as too soon, and the final one was too late. Of all the great things Jordan did, he had incredible trouble timing his retirement correctly.

Jordan retired for the first time in 1993 to pursue a career in baseball. It was an emotional decision for MJ and he did it for good reasons; however, he walked away from a dynasty in Chicago that could have potentially spanned eight years had he not walked away the first time. In 1993, the Bulls were coming off their first three-peat. Jordan was on top of the game and he was the face of the NBA. When he decided to come back nearly two years later, he led the Bulls to another three-peat, which left many wondering what could have been had he never left in the first place. Heck even his 1998 retirement felt too soon, as the Bulls could have won more with their core intact.

1 Magic Johnson

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Magic helped guide basketball into the modern era. He, along with Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, made the game a global one. The style and charisma Johnson brought to the game were never seen before; his smile alone probably brought a million new fans to the game.

After appearing in nine NBA Finals over his first 12 seasons, Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV positive and was retiring from the game of basketball. He was still in his prime and was on track to potentially win a couple of more MVPs and NBA Championships. His career was cut short, and he became a cultural icon. He helped pave the way for the AIDS and HIV communities; he helped remove the stigma from the infection and led the country into a new way of thinking about it. Magic attempted a comeback in 1995, but he decided he wanted to, as he put it, "go out on my own terms." Magic is now a very vocal member of the community and has his fingerprints all over the NBA, and even the MLB.

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Top 15 NBA Players Whose Careers Ended Too Soon