There’s always been the risk among college players when they try to jump into the pros. The professional world has a much higher bar than in college, guys who have been around for quite a while and guys not willing to give up their spots. There are temptations of drugs, the rush of fame and making millions and the brutal truth that too many guys just can’t measure up. True, some college stars pay off in the pros: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, the list goes on. Sadly, too many guys go the other way, as they are great college stars but are never able to rise to that level in the NBA. Sometimes, it’s due to personal issues but other times, it’s simply not being able to perform at that level.
The list can be quite long but some guys just stand out more. Guys who were sensational in college or at the very least quite good but their NBA careers just went nowhere. Some had real promise but undone by their own inexperience, personal issues and so much more. Here are the biggest of this sadly large group; 20 great college players who failed to succeed in the NBA and show why there are so many risks to guys jumping into the big leagues.
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20 Jay Williams
Williams helped put Duke back on the map majorly with his play in the early 2000s. In his freshman year, he averaged double figures in scoring and was named Freshman of the Year by The Sporting News. His sophomore year was even better, breaking the school record points in a season and led the Blue Devils to the 2001 National Championship. Earning the Wooden Award, Williams was seen as the best college player of the time and a must-get in the draft.
He was picked second by the Bulls in 2002 but seemed to struggle in the pro ranks with low numbers. He still showed promise but in 2003, Williams got into a terrible motorcycle accident, fracturing his pelvis, suffered multiple fractures in his leg and tore his ACL. When it became clear he’d be out for the year, the Bulls waived him, giving Williams $3 million but Williams admitted all that gave him was enough money for painkillers. He made a comeback attempt with the Nets but clearly was not the same player, let go after just a month as his addiction to painkillers hurt his drive.
Williams has since found a good career as an analyst and has cleaned up his act to talk about his problems.
19 Sean May
At North Carolina, May was a fantastic star, averaging 15 points and leading the team to some sensational victories. The high point was the 2005 National Championship game as May basically dominated, with 26 points and 10 rebounds as North Carolina upset undefeated Illinois for the title. Wanting to keep him in state, the Bobcats picked May with #13. But May was soon hit by a bevy of injuries that seemed to be tied in to his weight issues. Trainers complained on how May just didn’t seem interested in getting himself into the proper playing shape despite his high salary and he was placed on the inactive list.
He had one year with the Kings, another with the Nets and was out of the NBA by 2010. All told, he played in 119 games with just a 7 point average. Currently running his own food blog, May showed how a love for eating can ruin a good athletic career.
18 Jonny Flynn
As a freshman at Syracuse in 2007, point guard Flynn took college basketball by storm. In his very first game, Flynn scored 28 points, breaking Carmelo Anthony’s record for most points in a freshman’s debut. He had a terrific freshman year and just got better in his sophomore season, leading the Orange to a fantastic six-overtime win over rivals UConn, scoring 37 points with 11 assists. He also was part of Team USA and impressed with his leadership.
The Timberwolves selected him with the 6th pick and looked to be okay with a top rookie season. However, hip surgery would cause him to falter badly, his numbers dropping to 5 points a game. He was traded to the Rockets who in turn traded him to Portland and he later played for the Pistons before leaving the league. He later played in European leagues to showcase an amazing college talent who just couldn’t crack it in the pros.
17 Rashad McCants
At North Carolina, McCants was a scoring machine, averaging 17.5 points a game. An All-American in each of his three seasons at UNC, McCants was a critical component in the team’s 2005 National Championship team. However, he had controversy in an interview openly comparing college to “prison” and couldn’t wait to “be free.” He also accused the school of helping do his homework to cover for his play, causing a big scandal. Despite that, the Timberwolves took him in the 2005 draft, hoping he’d boost their offense. However, McCants made only 38 starts over four seasons as he was hampered by injuries.
He spent more time clashing with his coaches and trainers, arguing right in the middle of games and complaining about his lack of playing time. He was let go for runs with the Kings, Rockets and Mavericks, none of which lasted long and he was out of the NBA by 2009.
16 Jimmer Fredette
Fredette was a true star in the early 2010s, his time at BYU marking him as a star in the making. He hit the zenith in 2011, named the National Player of the Year after leading the NCAA in scoring with an amazing 29 point average. He inspired the term “Jimmer-range for his great three-point shooting and led the Cougars to the Sweet 16, hanging out at the ESPYs and ready to take off. Picked by the Bucks, Fredette was traded to the Kings and charged up the fanbase, complete with massive t-shirt sales and season ticket sales were high. And then…he started to play.
While he had flashes of good play here and there, Fredette never clicked as his three-point shooting took a nose dive and the hype for him soon faded. He later played for the Bulls, the Pelicans and then D-Ball for the Knicks. He currently plays in Shanghai and shows how so much hype can lead to massive disappointment for a player.
15 Pearl Washington
A sensation on playgrounds in Brooklyn, Washington was soon rising up in high school before going to Syracuse. He was hailed for his “shake and bake” play, slamming in dunks while dodging opposing players with ease. He averaged 15 points and was an All-American leading the team to some great winning seasons. Drafted by the Nets in 1986, “The Pearl” soon hit a major slump, averaging just 8.6 points and a very low shooting percentage.
His stock fell and so the Miami Heat decided to take a chance on him in the 1988 expansion draft. The fact the Heat had one of the absolute worst first seasons in NBA history should show how well that went. Washington was out of the NBA the next season, and spent some time in Europe before his basketball career ended for good.
14 Sam Bowie
It’s a shame that Bowie is far more remembered today as the answer to a major trivia question rather than any good play. Bowie’s career at Kentucky had good play, as he was a solid rebounder and might have gone further if not for some knee injuries, yet still led Kentucky to the SEC title. He still had plenty of promise (even a jinxed Sports Illustrated cover) so he had a high spot in the famed 1984 NBA draft. In what has to rank as their all-time biggest mistake, the Portland Trail Blazers drafted Bowie second overall.
He had some promise, but then his knee injuries came up and cut things short. Bowie’s career could never live up to the promise and he was done in the NBA in less than a decade. What is more remembered is the player Portland passed up to get Bowie: Michael Jordan. Thus, Bowie’s disappointment is greater as the Trail Blazers passed on the greatest player of all time to get an injury-prone mess.
13 Keith Lee
Before Lee joined Memphis State, the Tigers had gone 13-14 in two straight seasons. In his four years there, they went 104-24 thanks to his play. A three-time All-American, Lee averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds, led the Tigers to the Final Four and still remains the highest scorer in school history. However, there were warning signs as he gained 30 pounds before his senior season and the Tigers still won even when he fouled out.
That didn’t stop the Chicago Bulls from getting him at 11th in the 1985 draft only to then trade him to the Cavs for the pick to get Charles Oakley. That turned into a smart move by Chicago as Lee averaged just six points per game over two seasons with the Cavs. Lee’s career faded quickly while Oakley helped Jordan become a star, showing the Bulls made a good choice in dumping Lee before he could bring them down.
12 LaRue Martin
He has been cited as quite possibly the worst number one draft pick in NBA history and that should tell you almost everything. At Loyola, Martin was a terrific player, averaging 18 points and set the school record with 1,062 rebounds. He was notable for outplaying Bill Walton in a top notch game against the powerhouse of UCLA and entered the NBA with massive fanfare with the Trail Blazers taking him first in the draft, ahead of none other than Julius Erving. But Martin never clicked in the NBA, and the same power he’d shown at Loyola didn't show up in the pros.
His play time dropped more and more and when Walton himself became available for the 1974 draft, the Blazers grabbed him. Martin’s best season was just seven points a game and in a bitter irony, retired in 1976 just one year before Portland won the NBA title. The Trail Blazers have had many poor picks but Martin is still one that stings..
11 Mateen Cleaves
Cleaves’ career had a wild start as he was heavily recruited by colleges but his involvement in a car accident kicked off the scandal that nearly crippled Michigan’s basketball program. Cleaves went to Michigan State, becoming a three-time All-American and two-time Big Ten Player of the Year. Cleaves was one of the “Flintstones” who aided the Spartans in winning the 2000 National Championship and is still the school’s all-time leader in steals. Realizing they had a real hometown hero on their hands, the Pistons snatched him up 14th in the 2000 draft. But for some reason, Cleaves could never replicate that same power in the NBA. He averaged less than four points a game with a 38.9 shooting percentage and his assists dropped to 2.7.
He was traded to the Kings and later had stints with the Celtics, Cavs and Sonics, and was out of the league in 2006. Sadly better known for charges of sexual assault, Cleaves could never be as great in the NBA as he was in college.
10 Steve Alford
A first-team All-American in his junior and senior seasons at Indiana, Alford was part of the Hoosiers squad that dominated under Bobby Knight. Averaging 19 points over his time, Alford helped Indiana win the 1987 National Championship despite how Bobby Knight made some disparaging comments about Alford’s play and leadership. Alford was also part of the 1984 Olympic Gold Medal team and finished his college career with over 2,400 points. Surprisingly, he was passed over in the draft by the Pacers and instead went to the Mavericks.
Over four seasons, Alford only started in three games, averaging 4 points as he just never seemed to be the right pick for the team and struggled to handle the pro game. He had a brief stint with the Warriors before finally hanging it up and has gone on to a good coaching career. Alford himself admits his career wasn’t that great and that Indiana made a much better choice by passing on him for Reggie Miller.
9 Walter Berry
Long before Paul Pierce, Berry was nicknamed “The Truth” for his great work at St. John’s, averaging 23 points a game and was named the 1985 National Player of the Year. He led the team to the Big East Championship and the number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. He was drafted 14th by the Trail Blazers in 1986 but problems came from the start as he never wanted to play in Portland. Thus, after just seven games, he was traded to the Spurs for Kevin Duckworth. Problems abounded as Berry clashed with his coaches, including Larry Brown, that led to him being cut.
His tenure with the Nets was short-lived as he was let go for not conforming to team rules. Ironically, Berry went on to have a great career in Europe, hailed for his amazing ways of scoring and innovative shots. It's a shame he couldn’t have worked that in for the NBA to stand out much longer in his career.
8 Ed O’Bannon
O’Bannon was a terrific story as he’d badly injured himself in practice during his freshman year at UCLA and was told he might never play again. Instead, he not only came back but became one of the best players the school had seen since the John Wooden era, shooting 43 percent from the three point range and averaging 20 points a game. Thanks to his play, the Bruins won the National Championship, scoring 30 points and 17 rebounds in the Final and his number was retired by the school. He was drafted ninth in 1995 by the Nets but hated it from the start, wanting to play on the West Coast.
That might have contributed to his poor play as he still seemed hampered by knee injuries and thus averaged just six points a game. He was traded to the Mavericks after his second season and then later the Magic. O’Bannon stated he just never got the confidence needed to work out well in the NBA and those old injuries held his career in the pros back.
7 Adam Morrison
It takes a lot to be called a “failure” when you have two championship rings but somehow, Morrison has pulled it off. In his junior year at Gonzaga, he was the nation’s leading scorer with a 28 point average and even hit 44 points in a single game. He was an All-American who led his team to the Sweet Sixteen with the famous sight of him breaking down crying when they were eliminated. Drafted third in 2006 by Charlotte, Morrison ended up making just 28 starts in his entire NBA career. His play was rough with bad rebounding and he underwent surgery for a bad knee injury that kept him out for a year.
He was traded to the Lakers where he had limited time and basically only earned his championships simply by sitting on the bench. Morrison ended up playing in Europe and his two rings are just decoration for a rough career following such amazing promise for the NBA.
6 Greg Oden
More than a few guys have made the mistake of thinking one great college season was enough to make them ready for the pros. Oden is one of the best recent examples. Despite undergoing wrist surgery, Oden was a powerhouse for Ohio State, coming off the bench to score 14 points in his first game. He was soon leading the Buckeyes to the NCAA Finals and the Big Ten Championship. Steve Kerr boasted he was a “once-in-a-decade” player and Oden seemed to think that would be enough as he declared for the 2007 draft.
The Trail Blazers took him as the first overall pick and soon ended up with yet another crushing draft disappointment. He ended up missing the entire season because of knee surgery and when he came into the 2008 season, he weighed 290 pounds. This perhaps contributed to further injuries that caused him to miss two more seasons. He was cut and signed with the Heat for a so-so run before leaving. Perhaps a bit more time in college would have better prepared him for the rigors of the NBA.
5 Marcus Fizer
In three seasons at Iowa State, Fizer was one of the top players in school history. He led the nation in scoring while being named a first-team All-American in 1999-00, averaging 18.9 ppg and 7.7 rpg in his three seasons. He led the Cyclones to the Elite Eight and thus became a major star that teams wanted. The Bulls picked him in the 2000 draft, hoping they had the next Jordan. But instead, they got a guy who never averaged more than 12 points a game. He had played for Tim Floyd who seemed to be the only one to say he was the right choice.
The Bulls nabbed him with the fourth pick. Rumors had it that the Bulls had hoped to trade him for someone else but it never happened and he stayed with them for four seasons. During that time, he never averaged more than 12 points a game and tore his ACL in 2003. He had time with the Bucks and Sonics but eventually just faded away. His entire average over six seasons was 9 points per game and the only notable thing about him was his 30 tattoos that stood out more than his play ever did.
4 Pervis Ellison
At Louisville, Ellison became known as “Never Nervous Pervis” for his fantastic play and being cool under pressure. His freshman year was fantastic, putting up great numbers as he helped lead Louisville to the National Championship and his numbers just got better in later seasons. He was a natural for the first pick in the 1989 draft with the Sacramento Kings being the lucky winners. In almost no time, he suffered an injury that put him out for 48 games and when he came back, he clearly wasn’t the same. He was traded to Washington where he improved but then more injuries hit.
Soon, he was earning the nickname “Out of Service Pervis” for how you couldn’t count on him for more than a few weeks before some injury put him on the bench. He actually once broke his toe just moving furniture in his house. He finished his career in 2000 after playing just nine games for Seattle and thus ranks as a guy who fell apart badly when he made the jump to the pros.
3 Christian Laettner
For better or worse, Laettner represented Duke University. He was even the subject of an ESPN “30 For 30” documentary, “I Hate Christan Laettner” that showcased how he fired up folks even as he led Duke to back-to-back National Championships. He was the only college player on the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” and still holds the record for the most points by one player in the NCAA Tournament (407). The Minnesota Timberwolves were joyous when they nabbed him in the 1992 draft. One the one hand, his play wasn’t bad, a lifetime total of 11, 121 points. However, he never quite lived up to the same potential he had in college and his career was notable for playing for a total of six different teams, never longer than three seasons with any of them. He also had issues of his attitude and ego, including suspended in 2004 for drug use. Considering this was a guy who’d been one of the most notable college players around, his NBA career has to be seen as a failure.
2 Miles Simon
At least everyone else on this list can boast to an NBA career that lasted a while. But Simon? That’s something else. From 1994-98, he teamed up with point guard Mike Bibby at Arizona to form one of the best backcourts in college basketball. Simon, won the Most Outstanding Player award in the 1997 NCAA Tournament in which Arizona knocked off three number one teams, including the heavily favored Kentucky in overtime to win the national championship. Thus, it was logical that the Orlando Magic would expect a lot from him when they drafted him in 1999.
Instead, Simon’s entire NBA career amounted to just 19 minutes over five games with two points, two rebounds, three turnovers and a foul. He actually had a better career in the CBA, including MVP and currently works as an analyst for ESPN. It's astounding that a man with such a top college career ended up so short in the NBA.
1 Kent Benson
You have to feel for this guy. At Indiana, Benson was a star for Bobby Knight, averaging 9 points a game and shooting over 50 percent, leading them to a 23-5 record in his freshman year. He later led Indiana to an undefeated season and the NCAA title, one of the best college squads ever. Thus, his entry into the NBA draft was highly anticipated as the Milwaukee Bucks thought they hit the jackpot nabbing him. He came in full of hype and promise…and in the first two minutes of his very first game, Benson took a savage blow from Kareem Abdul-Jabaar that smashed his jaw and broke Kareem’s hand. Benson was never the same afterward, bouncing around various teams.
Most everyone agrees that cheap shot ruined what might have been a good NBA career and has to rank Benson high on a list like this.
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