The success or failure of an NBA career is rarely determined by the player alone, and listening to the speeches at the annual Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony is all the proof necessary to demonstrate this point. The greatest players of all time are always quick to point out the many people who played an essential role in their development as players, mentioning family members, coaches, teammates and countless others as being responsible for making an overwhelmingly positive contribution to their basketball lives.
This is not to say that players have absolutely no control over their success or failure in the NBA, but it is also true that the circumstances of a particular situation can have a sizable impact on a player’s career arc. Andrew Wiggins is an excellent example, as his development could have been quite different had he never been sent to Minnesota in the trade that brought Kevin Love to Cleveland. Playing alongside LeBron James on a team expected to compete for a title could have brought such intense pressure that his development as a player could have been stunted to a significant degree.
While it is certainly possible that Wiggins would have thrived in such a role anyway, it seems clear that the future star has blossomed due in part to playing in a place in which every mistake isn’t picked apart by the national media ad nauseam. With veterans like Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince helping to oversee his continued development, Wiggins could not have hoped for a better situation to start his NBA career, particularly given the fact that the young T-Wolves appear poised to greatly exceed expectations this season.
For the 15 players that follow, however, the good fortune currently being enjoyed by Wiggins was unfortunately absent. These players were all deemed top prospects and hailed as franchise-caliber players early in their careers, but circumstances beyond their control played a significant role in hindering their development. Whether it was caused by undue pressure from management, too much (or too little) playing time or a failure to take advantage of a player’s unique skill set, the following 15 players all saw their prospects of becoming bonafide NBA superstars fade because of circumstances at least partly beyond their control.
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15 Kenny Anderson
The Nets made Kenny Anderson the second overall pick in the 1991 NBA Draft, pairing the New York City prep legend and Georgia Tech star with Derrick Coleman, the previous year’s top draft selection. With two young, talented and up-and-coming stars, the Nets envisioned an East Coast version of John Stockton and Karl Malone, but both Coleman and Anderson were immature (Anderson was the youngest player in the league during his rookie season) and were harmed by the lack of strong team leadership.
The promising point guard was therefore allowed to develop some awful off-court habits during those first few seasons, and the 1994 incident in which Anderson missed a morning practice session was the perfect example of how the Nets’ culture eroded any chance of team success. Anderson, at that point a team captain, missed the practice entirely and his whereabouts were unknown. Unknown, that is, until the New York Post reported seeing him at Scores, a well-known New York City strip club.
Anderson was not suspended by Nets management for missing the session and Coleman famously minimized the incident and defended his teammate by saying, “Whoop-de-damn-do,” when told that the point guard’s behavior might set a poor example for teammates. If Anderson had been held accountable by management or teammates during those early years, perhaps the undeniably talented point guard's 14-year NBA career would have included more than just the single All-Star appearance he earned in 1994.
14 Chris Webber
Chris Webber ultimately enjoyed an outstanding NBA career, but that does not necessarily mean he achieved all that he could have as a pro. Webber found himself involved in clashes with coaches to varying degrees throughout his first few NBA seasons -- Don Nelson in Golden State, Jim Lynam and Bernie Bickerstaff in Washington -- over the way he was used on the offensive end. Part of the problem was the fact that there was no cap on rookie contracts and Webber was paid handsomely and given tremendous leverage during his rookie season due to an opt-out clause in his contract.
Gregg Popovich, Nelson’s assistant during Webber’s time with Golden State, succinctly described the crux of the usage issue with Webber and the Warriors coaching staff, telling ESPN that Webber had little interest in playing in the post early in his career, saying, “He wanted to be Magic Johnson. We wanted him to be more like Karl Malone." That, along with the contract leverage and a host of other issues, hindered Webber’s early career success in a significant way, and even though he made four All-Star teams after joining the Kings, injuries limited his effectiveness for the remainder of his career.
13 Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway
Penny Hardaway was a revelation early in his NBA career, with many anointing the 6-7 point guard as the second coming of Magic Johnson. During his first five seasons, “Penny” averaged 19.5 points, 6.5 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game while earning four All-Star Game appearances and a place on the 1996 Olympic Team. It was also during this time that Hardaway averaged 36.9 minutes per game, routinely ranking among the top-20 in that category and playing far more minutes than any other rookie from the 1993 NBA Draft class.
The fact that Hardaway was limited by chronic knee injuries so early in his career came as little surprise to anyone who witnessed the way the Magic so heavily relied on Hardaway, particularly when he was pushed to come back early from injuries that were not likely to have fully recovered. Had Orlando taken a more patient approach with Penny and somehow managed to retain Shaquille O’Neal, it’s not a stretch to imagine the Magic having multiple title banners hanging in their arena.
12 Jonny Flynn
Jonny Flynn is always going to be remembered as the point guard taken just ahead of reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry and immediately after the team that selected him -- the Minnesota Timberwolves -- chose Ricky Rubio, also a point guard. Flynn’s selection will go down as one of the most mindboggling choices in draft history, as taking two points guards in succession with the fifth and sixth picks is a questionable strategy at best.
The plan in selecting Flynn was to pair him in the backcourt with Rubio, who ended up delaying his stateside arrival for two seasons. While most felt that a Rubio-Flynn tandem was not a sound idea in principle given their respective strengths, Flynn was further hurt by Kurt Rambis’ use of the triangle offense, which is not an ideal system for point guards who thrive in the pick-and-roll and are more comfortable with the ball in their hands as Flynn was during his time at Syracuse University.
Flynn started 81 games for the 2009-10 T-Wolves, and while it could certainly be argued that he was hurt by getting too much undeserved playing time, it was the handling of his recovery from offseason hip surgery that largely caused the precipitous decline that pushed him out of the league at the age of 22. Despite Rambis and the rest of the coaching staff feeling that Flynn needed more time to recover after tearing his hip labrum, Minnesota’s management team pressured Flynn to get back on the court too soon.
Rambis reflected on the situation recently while speaking to Grantland, saying, “I didn’t think he was ready to play, and as a result, he didn’t play anywhere near his level that he ended his first season with. He lost a lot of confidence. Fans were booing him.”
11 Michael Olowokandi
Ahead of the 1998 NBA Draft, every team knew very well that Olowokandi was a project -- a raw, physical talent in need of extensive time to develop. Considering the fact that he had only recently taken up basketball, no team could have reasonably expected the 7-footer to make an immediate impact, but that did not stop the Clippers from taking the center with the first overall pick of the draft.
During that time, the NBA locked out players, causing the big man to miss out on the benefit of preparing for the season with his pro coaches and teammates, and, despite playing overseas during the lockout, Olowokandi was out of shape when he returned stateside. It didn't help that the Clippers were at the height of their dysfunction during the raw center's first few seasons, exposing Olowokandi to complacent teammates and a deeply embedded losing culture in which the team averaged just 24.2 wins per season over the first five years of the former top draft pick's career.
To their credit, the Clippers did bring in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to assist with player development, but it was not enough to overcome the poor work habits Olowokandi developed while in Los Angeles. Of course, Olowokandi is certainly not innocent in this regard, and it was very likely that he was highly overrated when he entered the 1998 NBA Draft out of the University of Pacific, but a different organization may have been able to help get a great deal more out of the talented big man than the Clippers did early in his career.
10 Eddy Curry
Eddy Curry, drafted along with fellow big man Tyson Chandler in the 2001 NBA Draft, was supposed to be one-half of a dominant interior pairing, with Curry’s offensive prowess serving as the ideal complement for Chandler’s defensive acumen. Though the theory was sound in principle, placing the hopes of a franchise very accustomed to championship parades on two young prep stars proved to be a mistake.
Chandler, of course, went on to become one of the best defensive big men in the NBA, but lofty expectations and being handed a prominent role at such a young age had an adverse impact on Curry’s development as a player -- not to mention on his willingness to continue to work on his game. With the Bulls and later with the Knicks, Curry never showed much improvement in the weaker areas of his game, which was particularly evident with regard to his rebounding ability, as demonstrated by the 7-footer’s career average of just 5.2 rebounds per game.
9 Darko Milicic
It is highly unlikely that any other other player faced the kind of ridicule for failing to live up to expectations in the way Darko Milicic has, and it certainly doesn’t help that the 7-foot Serbian was selected in what turned out to be one of the most talent-laden drafts in NBA history. Embarrassingly dubbed the “Human Victory Cigar,” Milicic played sparingly on a Pistons team focused on competing for NBA titles, and then-coach Larry Brown had little patience for a rookie everyone knew was going to be a project the moment he was selected.
At just 18 years old and in an entirely unfamiliar country, Milicic immediately faced unfair comparisons as Pistons fans saw fellow 2003 draftees like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh immediately contributing to their respective teams. With an impatient coach and a win-now team, Milicic found himself in the worst possible situation for a young player in need of development.
The lack of playing time and the unfair expectations had to have stunted Milicic’s development, and while he may have never deserved to be taken as the second overall pick, there were few that questioned his potential as an NBA player when he first entered the league. Had Milicic been in a different situation during his first few NBA seasons, it is quite possible that he would still be in the NBA (he only recently turned 30 years old) and would not be the foremost representative of the term “draft bust.”
8 Rajon Rondo
The headstrong and uniquely talented point guard has recently seen his league-wide reputation take quite a hit after his time in Dallas soured so quickly. Rondo’s seasons with the Boston Celtics are a large part of the reason why the point guard found it acceptable to openly challenge coach Rick Carlisle to the point that Rondo was dismissed during the midst of a playoff series, as Boston and then-coach Doc Rivers largely ignored or at least enabled his penchant for petulant behavior.
During those early seasons with Boston (save for his rookie season), the Celtics were contending for titles and were far more willing to accept insubordination from Rondo, and it certainly helped that Kevin Garnett was able to keep him in line to some degree. Those bad habits, however, have earned him something of a rep as a bad teammate and have now come back to haunt a player who once made four consecutive All-Star teams and was considered a legitimately elite NBA point guard.
7 Kwame Brown
There are not many ways to markedly increase the pressure and expectations associated with being the top overall pick in a given draft class, but being the personal choice of none other than Michael Jordan certainly has to qualify. Brown, a 6-11 big man just out of high school, was hyped to an even greater degree simply because of Jordan’s glowing evaluation. Further complicating matters was the fact that Brown’s rookie season also marked Jordan’s return to professional basketball, unfairly raising expectations for the Washington Wizards and their young prospect.
If those pressures were not enough to hinder his development, being a 19-year-old teammate of one of the game’s most notorious competitors and an all-time great trash talker could not have eased Brown’s transition to the NBA. Perhaps Jordan’s evaluation was off right from the beginning, but it seems likely that the circumstances in Washington -- along with his youth and inexperience -- hurt Brown’s chances of ever living up to the potential Jordan initially saw in him.
6 Darius Miles
A gifted athlete who was selected fresh out of high school with the third overall pick of the lottery, a host of factors contributed to Miles’ failure to live up to his immense potential. Drafted by the Clippers in 2001, Miles went to a franchise with a long history of dysfunction and a city that is not exactly bereft of late-night entertainment. According to Miles, he and teammate Quentin Richardson were “in the club almost every night,” and the Clippers clearly lacked the kind of leadership needed to help Miles reevaluate his priorities.
The Clippers traded Miles after just two seasons to a Cleveland franchise intent on losing as many games as possible to have a shot at landing LeBron James in the 2003 NBA Draft, and, despite Paul Silas’ efforts to help the athletic wing improve his game, the 17-win season Miles endured in Cleveland certainly didn’t help his development. Ultimately, Miles enjoyed some solid seasons in Portland but never quite lived up to his potential due to the lack of development during those early seasons (of course, the knee injury requiring microfracture surgery didn’t help).
5 Pete Maravich
Perhaps the most innovative scorer in the history of the game, Maravich’s NBA career was not nearly as successful as his collegiate career, due in part to a lack of talent on most of the teams he played for. Upon entering the NBA, Maravich was forced to alter and tone down his style of play due to the presence of Walt Bellamy and Lou Hudson, and a move back to New Orleans after four NBA seasons did not improve matters much, as Maravich was forced to carry the burden of a heavy scoring load as the best player on a very poor team.
As the top overall pick in the 1970 NBA Draft and the best collegiate scorer of all time, expectations were always high for Maravich, and the Atlanta Hawks paid him a hefty sum before he ever played an NBA minute. Between the lofty salary and the unreasonable hype, it was unlikely that Maravich would ever meet the expectations thrust upon him by management. Despite the difficulties he encountered -- not to mention the injuries that limited his play and forced him into retirement at the age of 32 -- Maravich earned five All-Star appearances and was ultimately inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
4 Jamal Mashburn
Part of a young and talented triumvirate in Dallas that included Jason Kidd and Jimmy Jackson, the Mavericks were unable to make the most of their impressive assemblage of up-and-coming talent and ultimately split up the trio amid contention and acrimony. Jamal Mashburn, who averaged 21.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game during his first two seasons with the Mavs, could not make his team a winner despite the undeniably talented roster, a fact that Mashburn attributed to the poor management in Dallas at the time, saying, "Nobody taught us how to win. I think we were all fighting for top billing and that destroyed us.”
3 Bill Walton
Bill Walton is often referenced among the many talented NBA players who have had their careers ruined by injuries, and the fact that Walton still managed to win the 1977 NBA Finals MVP, the 1978 NBA MVP and the 1986 NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award along with two NBA championships during a 14-year career is a testament to just how talented a player he was when healthy.
While his best professional seasons came while playing with the Trail Blazers, Walton demanded a trade out of Portland and filed a lawsuit over what he felt was mismanagement regarding the treatment of his injuries. At the time, Walton said Blazers management pressured him to routinely play through injury, culminating in the navicular bone fracture that hindered his production throughout the remainder of his career.
2 Derrick Rose
The youngest MVP in the history of the NBA, Rose’s injury history is so lengthy that it is hard to recall his status as something of an iron man over his first three seasons in the NBA. Averaging 37.1 minutes per game in the regular season and upping that number to 41.9 minutes per game in the playoffs, the Bulls star played in a total of 268 games during his first three seasons as a pro after just one collegiate season at the University of Memphis.
The sharp increase in games and playing time, coupled with the fact that the Bulls hired Tom Thibodeau -- a coach with a reputation for routinely pushing players to their physical limit -- contributed to the onset of the litany of injuries that have reduced the former NBA MVP's effectiveness in what should be the prime years of his pro career.
Fair or not, Thibodeau was also criticized for leaving Rose in during the waning moments of a game that the Bulls seemed to be in control of during the 2012 NBA Playoffs. With the Bulls up by double-digits in the first game of a series with the Philadelphia 76ers, Rose tore his ACL with less than two minutes remaining and was out for the rest of the playoffs and ultimately missed the entire 2012-13 season while recovering.
1 Grant Hill
Grant Hill’s troubles didn’t really start until after his sixth NBA season, so it is admittedly a bit of a stretch to refer to him as a prospect when he had already earned five All-Star appearances and appeared poised to dominate the league for at least the next decade. The fact that he was robbed of his prime due to injuries that were seriously exacerbated by the actions of both the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic, however, more than qualifies him for this list.
According to Hill, the mismanagement began in Detroit, when team doctors told him that he had a bone bruise that was later revealed to be a broken ankle. Hill had offseason surgery and departed Detroit for Orlando, where the mismanagement continued. After starting in the season opener with the Magic, Hill received a call from his doctor, who was considerably displeased with the turn of events.
Hill recalled the situation to Fox Sports in 2011, saying, “The next day the doctor who performed (my) surgery picks the paper up and saw that I played like 30 minutes and he was irate. I wasn’t supposed to be on the court doing basketball-related activity until December. So somewhere along the line, the ball was dropped. And certainly I didn’t know that until the doctor informed me of that. Apparently he had forwarded all the information down there to Orlando. I was told to follow the instructions.”
Hill continued to recount the circumstances in Orlando, saying, “I played in another game in Miami the next night and they shut me down to do rehab for five or six weeks. By then it was too late. What should’ve been a six- or seven-month recovery before you get on the court to play, I was on the court in three or four months. I don’t think it was a conspiracy that, ‘Hey, we gotta get him out there.’ Someone just didn’t read the protocol. Which is crazy. You invest $92 million in somebody ... I just kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe how poorly mismanaged this has been.’”
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