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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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