As sports fans we all think we’re experts. But most of the time we aren’t. There’s a big reason talent scouts and recruitment staff are paid big money in professional sports. Most of the players on this list came from international leagues or went to schools without a basketball reputation, and many fans were quick to make judgements. Too often we fall on stereotypes and think we can tell a good basketball player by the way he looks or where he came from. Almost every draft produces at least one unfancied selection who goes on to prove the fans wrong, but amazingly the fans never learn their lesson.
Too often players entering the league are pampered and adored by the fans before they’ve even taken a shot. Some are mature enough and willing to work on their game to achieve the potential expected from them, but many fail to deliver. It’s way too easy to get caught in the hype over college players. Countless players have proven that flourishing at collegiate level does not guarantee you will cut it as a pro.
Nobody likes being unpopular, and it is possible that the negative reaction they received was a good thing for many of these players. With their pride hurt, it made them work even harder to prove the doubters wrong. This list is proof that it is foolish to underestimate anyone selected in the NBA Draft, no matter their background or what they look like.
15 Kristaps Porzingis
The boos resounded around the Barclays Centre in Brooklyn during the 2015 NBA Draft, when the New York Knicks selected the 7’3 Latvian Kristaps Porzingis. Carmelo Anthony was reportedly furious. An image of a young Knicks fan in tears went viral in the Twittersphere. To his credit Porzingis, who made his name in the Spanish League, decided to respect the fans and stay positive. “I know the fans are a little harsh sometimes, but that’s how it is in New York,” Porzingis told the press. “I can’t wait to be a part of this organization and get to work.”
And get to work KP did letting his numbers do the talking for him from that point on. It did not take long for Knicks fans to come to love Porzingis. Playing 72 games in his rookie year, he finished with 14.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, and 1.9 bpg. Showing remarkable athleticism for such a big man, comparisons to Dirk Nowitzski and Pau Gasol have come quick, many feeling Porzingis is already showing more promise than even those two great European players did. Knicks fans are notorious for booing their draft picks, hopefully Porzingis proves to be a cautionary tale never to judge a book by it’s cover.
14 Chuck Person
At the 1986 draft, Donnie Walsh, the new President of the Indiana Pacers, was surprised his fourth overall pick Chuck Person was booed by his fans. Person had become a legend at Auburn where he is still their highest ever scorer, but some reason Pacers fans just didn’t want him. Person would emerge as the star of that draft, that included Len Bias, who would die of an overdose within days, and the serial underachiever Chris Washburn to win the Rookie of the Year.
Nicknamed “The Rifleman,” Person established himself as one of the league’s deadliest shooters. Capable of dropping 40 points in a single game, he also gained a reputation for being tough on defence, as well as a notorious trash-talker. He had an ongoing rivalry with Larry Bird who once famously told Person that he had a Christmas present for him, after which he calmly dropped a three-pointer, turning back to Person saying, “Merry F'n Christmas.”
Since retiring Person has enjoyed a distinguished coaching career, notably as Phil Jackson’s assistant at the Lakers, where he worked with Kobe Bryant on his shooting.
13 Cody Zeller
He was the man Michael Jordan wanted. But Charlotte fans certainly were not stoked about the selection of seven-foot Hoosier Cody Zeller fourth overall at the 2013 draft. In his two successful years at Indiana, Zeller gained a reputation for exceptional speed and agility for a seven-footer. He played every game off the bench in his rookie year and helped the Bobcats (Charlotte’s last season under that name) clinch a playoff spot before being swept by the Heat. Soon becoming regular starter, Zeller helped the Hornets back to the playoffs in 2016 where they took the Heat to seven games.
Zeller has since become a popular player for the Charlotte Hornets. Still only 23 he has demonstrated an intelligent reading of the game and willingness to work and improve his play. With his current attitude many are predicting Zeller could become one of the elite big men in the league over the next 10 years.
12 Danilo Gallinari
Knicks fans are known for being unfairly critical of their team's draft picks. The 2008 NBA Draft featured a host of exciting prospects such as Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, and Russell Westbrook. In their sixth overall pick of Danilo Gallinari, Knicks fans felt they had wasted an opportunity, and the fans fans at Madison Square Garden that night let their discontent be heard.
Regarded as a top prospect in his native Italy, coach Mike D’Antonio made Gallinari a starter in his second season in 2009-10. The sharpshooting forward went on to average 15.1 ppg that season and became a popular player in New York over the next two years, forcing the fans to take back their initial anger at his selection. In 2011 he was traded to the Nuggets where he has continued to improve, demonstrating night after night that he was never deserved of those draft night boos.
11 Kawhi Leonard
The two-time NBA Defensive Players of the Year didn’t immediately feel the love in San Antonio. After a first round defeat to the Grizzlies in 2011, Greg Popovich knew the Spurs needed to add some size and robustness to the line-up. Many thought Tony Parker had reached the end of the road in San Antonio, but on draft day Popovich reluctantly traded fan favourite George Hill to Indiana for the 15th pick, who would be Kawhi Leonard. Hill's departure was a big disappointment for many Spurs fans and many took their frustration out on Leonard.
When Richard Jefferson was traded midway through his rookie year, Leonard found himself starting at small forward where he quickly settled making the All-Rookie First Team. An outstanding year followed for Leonard where the Spurs lost in the NBA Finals to the Lakers in seven games. The Spurs were victorious in a finals rematch the following year where Leonard was awarded the Finals MVP.
In 2016 he became the sixth urs player to be named on a starting All-Star team and became the first player since Dennis Rodman to win back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards. After an inauspicious start to his NBA career there isn’t a doubter left for Leonard to prove wrong. With Tim Duncan retired, and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli are soon to follow. Leonard is the leader of this new era for the Spurs.
10 Gordon Hayward
The ninth pick of the 2010 NBA Draft didn’t seem to please anyone, including the player. Gordon Hayward was hoping he could stay in his home state of Indiana who had the 10th pick, and Jazz fans were not exactly thrilled about the Butler small forward. The Jazz, however, were desperate for someone in that position, and their selection of Howard has been an inspired one. He flourished as a starter in his rookie year with many stand-out performances including an impressive defensive display on Kobe Bryant. Haward also proved himself capable of scoring 30-plus points in a game and being a go-to option in clutch moments.
In the past six years Hayward has become a fan favourite at the Jazz and also featured in the Team USA squad, although he decided not to go to Rio in 2016 because of family issues. With rumours that his time at the Jazz might be coming to an end, Hayward has inevitably received a great deal of interest throughout the league.
9 Damon Stoudamire
At the 1995 draft ahead of the Toronto Raptors inaugural season, Raptor fans made it clear they wanted UCLA High-Flyer Ed O’Bannon. Never one to be afraid of a little unpopularity, coach Isiah Thomas surprised everyone by selecting diminutive Arizona point guard Damon Stoudamire.
Earning the nickname “Mighty Mouse” Stoudamire was quick to prove the fans wrong demonstrating a great scoring and passing ability as well as being a underrated defensive player. At 5’ 10 Stoudamire became the shortest player ever to win the NBA Rookie of the Year award, and was a clear fan favourite during the Raptors first two years in the league.
Stoudamire was then traded to the Blazers where he helped them reach the Western Conference Finals in 2000. His two years in Canada remained the most impressive of his career, and he is still remembered with immense fondness in Raptor-land.
8 Yao Ming
Every player on this list was booed through sheer ignorance from the fans, and sometimes from the press. Many of these players came from abroad, or from undistinguished schools, keeping them off the radar from your typical NBA fan. Every fan expects their team to pick the next Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson. If they come from parts unknown and they don’t have the “look” of the next superstar, then the fans are going to be skeptical. No player looked less like your typical NBA superstar than Yao Ming.
Attitude towards foreign-born players have softened over years, but prejudices still exist, and many at the 2002 draft just could not work out how a guy from China could end up being the number one pick. High profile commentators such as Dick Vitale and Charles Barkley predicted that Yao would fail. In his rookie year, Ming showed that he possessed much more than just incredible height.
Proving the doubters wrong in his first year by making the Rookie All-Star team, Ming was joined in 2004 by Tracy McGrady's arrival in Houston. Many predicted the duo of Ming and McGrady would make Houston a strong force in the West. Unfortunately Ming's career would be plagued by injuries, and T-Mac never quite lived up to his promise. When Ming was on the court, however, he was one of the most dominant centers in the league, and has the numbers to show for it. Helping to promote the league enormously in East Asia, Ming’s 2.5 million votes for the 2005 All-Star game remains the highest an individual player has ever received.
7 Dan Majerle
“You people will be sorry you ever booed this young man,” Suns coach Cottie Fitzsimmons announced to Phoenix fans after selecting Dan Majerle as the 14th pick in the 1988 draft. With unequivocal support from his coach, Dan Majerle set to prove the fans wrong. He quickly became a favourite during his eight years with the Suns who loved his desire and incredible work-rate. On a team that also featured superstars Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson, the Suns made it to the NBA Finals in 1993 where they lost to the Chicago Bulls.
In honor of Majerle’s contribution to the team’s history and his hardworking style of play, the Suns created the “Dan Majerle Hustle Award” which is awarded each season to the Suns player who demonstrated the most work-rate and effort during the season. After the boos and disrespect he received on draft day there is no more fitting legacy Majerle could leave to the franchise.
6 Peja Stojakovic
The 1996 draft is legendary. It featured a host of young players who would go onto take the league by storm, such as Kobe Bryant, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen, and Allen Iverson. Many will surely find their name one day in the Hall of Fame. Sacramento Kings fans thought they’d missed out on the party when their team select 19-year-old Serbian Peja Stojokovich, wanting Syracuse star John Wallace instead.
The 6’9 sharpshooter, who made his name playing in Greece, would go onto be a hugely popular player for the "Greatest Show on Court" Kings alongside Chris Webber, Jason Williams, and fellow Serb Vlade Divac, establishing himself as one of the deadliest shooters in the league. That team would win the West with the best record in the league (61-21) and were seconds away from the NBA Championship in a dramatic seven game series against the Lakers.
5 Dirk Nowitzki
Dirk Nowitzski's journey to the Dallas Mavericks was a complicated one that bemused many fans. Only the Celtics and Don Nelson of the Mavs seemed to have him on their radar. Determined to bring Nowitzki to Dallas, Nelson negotiated a pre-draft trade with the Bucks, who were more interested Robert Traylor, ensuring Nelson would get his man.
The seven-foot blonde German certainly looked a little out of place in the Lone Star State, and it would take time for Dirk to convince Dallas fans that Nelson had been right. Often weak on defense, Dirk struggled in his first two years, possibly showing that he had made the transition to the NBA from Germany too quickly. Nevertheless Nelson was convinced that he possessed one of the purest shots in the game. Nowitzski worked hard on his game and became stronger, and more settled to life in America, eventually becoming one of the dominant players in the league of the 2000s. He peaked in 2011, winning the regular season and finals MVP, as he lead the Mavs to their only championship, defeating Lebron James' Miami Heat in a spectacular six game series, staking his claim as one of the greatest forwards in NBA history.
4 Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway
After selecting Shaquille O'Neal first overall overall in 1992, the Magic defied the odds at next year's lottery winning the top pick for the second year in a row. Everyone predicted they would choose power forward Chris Webber. Webber had caugh attention at Michigan as the leading member of the “Fab Five." Selecting Webber first overall was a no-brainer to most fan, and Orlando spent the summer salivating at the prospect of a Shaq-Webber partnership.
Few knew that Shaq had been spending the summer playing with Memphis State All-American Anfernee Hardaway for a movie entitled "Blue Chips." Shaq realized he needed this guy in his team and persuaded Magic GM Pat Williams to invite Hardaway for a training session. Shaq knew it would take a lot to change the minds of the Magic staff to select Penny over Webber. But something special happened in that training session which took place mere hours before the draft. Pat Williams was convinced he saw in Penny the next Magic Johnson or Oscar Robertson.
When the top pick was announced, it was indeed Webber’s name which was called out and the fans rejoiced. Their joy turned almost immediately to outrage when it was announced that Webber had been traded to the Golden State Warriors for Penny Hardaway. Webber and Hardaway swapping caps is one of the iconic draft moments. Webber was clearly hurt, but at least was able to keep his pride in being the top pick. The gamble appeared to pay off as Penny and Shaq teamed up to lead the Magic to the NBA Finals in 1995. With the best surely yet to come from both these superstars, many saw this young Magic franchise as destined for greatness.
Shaq become unsettled in Orlando and left for the Laker’s in acrimonious circumstances. The rest of Penny’s career was blighted with injuries. In the recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “The Magic Moment” Shaq admitted he regretted leaving the Magic and told Penny that he saw the years they played together as the best of his career.
3 Steve Nash
At the 1996 draft, Phoenix Suns fans could never have dreamed that the 6’3, 187 lbs skinny white Canadian would go onto to be a two-time MVP. Which is why they booed Steve Nash when he was selected 15th overall. Nash would continue to be underestimated his entire career.
The Suns hoped Nash would be a replacement for legendary point guard Kevin Johnson, but instead signed Jason Kidd for the position. Nash was traded to Dallas where he thrived playing alongside a young Dirk Nowitzski.
In hindsight Mark Cuban’s decision to let Nash go as a free agent in 2004 seems inexplicable. But at 30-years-old Cuban thought Nash’s best year were behind him. He could not have been more wrong. Returning to the Suns under coach Mike D’Antoni, Nash orchestrated the 7SOL (seven seconds or less) era in Phoenix, turning the Suns into one of the most exhilarating teams to watch. Nash won back-to-back regular season MVP’ in 2005 and 2006, and lead his team to three Western Conference Finals.
2 Reggie Miller
Pacers fans were excited for the 1987 NBA Draft where, with the 11th pick, many were excited at the prospect of University of Indiana star point guard Steve Alford. Instead the Pacer’s selected lanky 6’8 lanky shooting guard from the UCLA Bruins, Reggie Miller, and the boos followed. Alford, who was eventually selected by the Mavs, would last four years in the NBA. Miller would spend 18 years in the Hoosier State becoming arguably their greatest player ever.
An incredible clutch shooter, Miler could get in a rythme coming off pick-and-rolls where he looked like he couldn’t miss. His eight points in nine seconds at the end of the Game 1 in the 1995 Eastern Semi’s against the Knicks was the defining moment of his career, but there were similar moments throughout his years in Indiana. Fiercely competitive, this statement from Miller sums up the way he played game, “There is time to play and a time to win. What you do in that winning time differentiates a player from a superstar.” For most of his career Miller played in a very strong Eastern Conference during the 1990s, and only made g it to the NBA Finals once in 2000, but you could never count the Pacer’s out thanks largely to Miller.
1 John Stockton
The 1984 draft was a bit special. Hakeem Olajuwon was selected first overall by the Rockets, as Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley were seen as future superstars. And all three would go on to surpass expectations with spectacular careers. But the draft that year produced one more Hall of Famer. For the 16th pick, the Utah Jazz selected 6'1, 175 lbs point guard from little heard-of Gonzaga University. His name was John Stockton. And when his name was called the Jazz fans were not happy.
How history would prove those fans wrong. In Stockton the Jazz had selected essentially the perfect point guard. And when they selected Karl Malone the following year, they suddenly had one of the most dynamic partnerships in NBA history. As well as scoring 19,711 career points, Stockton is still the league leader in career steals and assists and neither of these records is likely to be broken any time soon. Leading the Jazz to two NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998, Stockton would be wearing a couple rings had Michael Jordan’s baseball career gone a little better. Despite never winning a championship Stockton will permanently be in the conversation over the games greatest ever point guards.
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