Only in the last 15 years or so since Bo Ryan became the head coach, has the Wisconsin Badgers basketball team climbed to its current status as one of the best teams in the Big Ten. For many years, it was just another punching bag that Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois, and Ohio State stepped over on their way to the top of the Big Ten standings and into the NCAA Tournament. The improvement began in the 1990s when Dick Bennett, who made UW-Green Bay a mid-major power, took over as coach in 1995 and built the Badgers into the team that would make their way to the Final Four in 2000. After Bennett abruptly retired the following season, the Badgers went to another great coach from the UW system, Bo Ryan, who had led UW-Platteville to four Division III national championships. From there the team established themselves as one of the top basketball schools in the Big Ten, winning regular season championships, Big Ten tournament championships, and consistently reaching the NCAA tournament in the years since, the highlight coming when they reached the Final Four in two consecutive seasons, narrowly losing in the NCAA championship game in 2016. Having spent much of their history at the bottom of the Big Ten, there have not been that many Badgers who have made it to the NBA. There have been a few great ones however and this list will look at the best of the best, and the worst of the best, based on their careers in Madison as well as their time in the pros (wherever that may have been).
A key member of the back to back Final Four teams for the Badgers in 2014 and 2015, Sam Dekker’s breakout performance in the 2015 NCAA tournament boosted his draft stock and helped him climb into the first round as he was selected with the 18th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets. Over three years with the Badgers, Dekker was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team and second-team All-Big Ten in his sophomore and junior years. During the NCAA tournament his junior year he was named the West Regional Most Outstanding Player after setting career highs in points, first in the Sweet Sixteen and then in the Elite Eight. He also nailed the three that sealed the win in the Final Four against the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats. Dekker played only three games in his rookie year, but so far in 2017 he is averaging 7.4 points and just under four rebounds per game for the Rockets.
Although he only played one season with the Badgers, after starting his college career at Boston College, Paul Grant made the most of his senior year at the University of Wisconsin, being named honorable mention All-Big Ten. He scored over 12 points and grabbed over five rebounds per game while blocking 34 shots on the season. That led him to being drafted with the 20th overall pick in the first round by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 1997 NBA Draft. He only spent two total seasons in the NBA however, with the Timberwolves, Milwaukee Bucks, and after playing in a number of other pro leagues for four years, the Utah Jazz. He finished his career averaging 1.8 points and 1.1 rebounds per game in 16 games.
Although he has not played in the NBA yet, Nigel Hayes will probably have an opportunity to end up there and has been one of the best players for the Badgers during his four years in Madison. Hayes came on the scene as a freshman, being named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team as well as the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year in 2014. He started every game his sophomore year and was the third leading scorer for the team that lost in the NCAA championship game. As a junior, with Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker gone to the pros, he became the go to player for the Badgers, being named first-team All-Big Ten in 2016. So far in his senior year, Hayes remains the team’s leader, scoring over 13 points and grabbing almost six rebounds per game.
After playing in about half of his games during his freshman season, Marcus Landry played in every game for the next three years of his college career for the Wisconsin Badgers. Along the way he became the 18th player in Badger’s history to score at least 1000 points and grab at least 500 rebounds. He also finished his career with the fifth most blocked shots in Wisconsin history with 99. Averaging 9.2 points and 4.2 rebounds over his four year career, Landry was not drafted but did end up signing with the New York Knicks in 2009. He was traded to Boston the same season and ended up playing one game for the Celtics. The rest of his pro career has been spent internationally and in the NBA D-League.
During his three year career at the University of Wisconsin, Devin Harris helped lead the Badgers to the NCAA tournament three times, while helping them win the Big Ten Tournament and become the Big Ten regular season champions twice. He averaged 14.8 points per game through his three years, including scoring almost 20 per game as a junior in 2004 when he was named as a consensus second-team All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year. Leaving school a year early, Harris was drafted by the Washington Wizards with the fifth overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft and then traded to the Dallas Mavericks. Harris has been in the NBA for 12 years with three other teams sandwiched between his first four seasons and latest four seasons with the Mavericks. So far in his career he has averaged 16 points and six assists while making the NBA All-Star team in 2009.
Somehow over the course of four years as a professional basketball player in Turkey, South Korea, and then Sioux Falls, South Dakota in the NBA D-League, Greg Stiemsma finally made it to the NBA in 2011. He played over 200 games during four years with the Boston Celtics, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Hornets, and Toronto Raptors, finishing his career averaging 3.2 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. One would assume he must have been a star at the University of Wisconsin to get the opportunities he did as a pro and to eventually make it to the NBA. But strangely enough, Steimsma’s production as a Wisconsin Badger was even worse than it was in the NBA. As a dependable 6’11” center, he was a key piece of their defense, blocking 96 shots during his four years in Wisconsin, but he was never a top scorer or playmaker.
The Wisconsin Badgers were in the midst of their long term residency in the cellar of the Big Ten during the time that Wes Matthews played for them in the last few years of the 1970s. Matthews was the team’s leading scorer for all three of his years in Madison, averaging over 18 points per game. As one of the standout players in the Big Ten at the time, Matthews was drafted with the 14th overall pick in the 1980 NBA Draft by the Washington Bullets. He was shipped to the Atlanta Hawks during his rookie year and spent parts of five seasons there, before hitting the 76ers, the Bulls, and the Spurs for one season each and then landing with the Lakers for two years where he was a part of the 1987 and 1988 NBA championship teams. Ultimately, Matthews spent nine years in the NBA, and finished averaging just under eight points and 4.2 assists in his career.
There are two players from the Wisconsin Badgers 2015 NCAA tournament runner-up team that unsurprisingly made it to the NBA in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. There is at least one more that has yet to graduate, but will most likely get a chance at the NBA as well in Nigel Hayes. Then there is the guy from that 2015 team who averaged less than five points off the bench during his senior season and somehow has also made it to the NBA, Duje Dukan. Despite being a minor factor for the Badgers, and not being drafted in 2015, Dukan managed to get a shot with the Sacramento Kings. He only played one game for the Kings but he did score six points and grabbed four rebounds while dishing an assist and recording a steal as well. Dukan also played a year in Croatia and is now in the NBA D-League hoping to make his way back to the NBA.
A four year starter at the University of Wisconsin, Alando Tucker, ended his career with the Badgers as the team’s all time leading scorer. Tucker started right away his freshman year as the team advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. They made the NCAA tournament each year he was there including a trip to the Elite Eight in his redshirt sophomore year. Tucker was a consensus first-team All-American in 2007 and finished his career with 2147 points. In the 2007 NBA Draft, Tucker was selected with the 29th overall pick in the first round by the Phoenix Suns. Despite his tremendous college career, Tucker played mostly internationally and in the NBA D-League, with fewer than 60 games in the NBA over four seasons with the Suns and Timberwolves, averaging just over four points and one rebound per game.
Over his four years with the University of Wisconsin, Jordan Taylor earned honorable mention All-American in his senior year and second team All-American as a junior. He was an important part of two of the Badger’s Sweet Sixteen teams including the 2011 team that was ousted by eventual national runner-up Butler. Taylor averaged double digits three of his four years with the team, which included putting up over 18 points per game during his junior year. He is the seventh all-time leading scorer for the Badgers with 1533 points. Taylor was not selected in the 2012 NBA Draft but did play for the Atlanta Hawks Summer League team before he embarked on an international career which has led him to Italy, Israel, and Germany where he won a German Cup championship in 2016.
After easing into the rotation his freshman year and establishing himself during his sophomore year, Jon Leuer became a go to player during his junior year and an honorable mention All-American by the end of his career. The Badgers made the NCAA tournament all four years Leuer was there, including making it to the Sweet Sixteen twice, losing to Steph Curry’s Davidson squad his freshman year and national runner-up Butler during his senior season. Upon completing his eligibility, Leuer was drafted in the second round of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. After one year with the Bucks he ended up with the Cleveland Cavaliers before he was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies. After three seasons with the Grizzlies he went to the Suns for a year and now plays for the Detroit Pistons where his production has gone up to 11.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.
One of New Zealand’s best basketball players ever was also a great player at the University of Wisconsin who managed to make it to the NBA for a quick stint as well. While a freshman at Wisconsin, Kirk Penney contributed some off the bench for the Badgers on their run to the Final Four in 2000. Over the next three years Penney became one of the best players on the team, gunning threes, helping the Badgers to two straight Big Ten regular season championships and another trip to the Sweet Sixteen, and earning honorable mention All-American honors in 2003. When the 2003 NBA Draft came around, Penney was not selected but he did end up signing with the Miami Heat. Penney also played for the LA Clippers the following year but the majority of his pro career has been played internationally, with a number of stretches with the New Zealand Breakers where he has won the NBL Championship and MVP. He also won an NBA D-League championship with the Asheville Altitude.
Another four year starter at the University of Wisconsin from the dreary early 70s teams was Kim Hughes (Pictured Right). Hughes averaged a double-double over his career, registering 13.6 points per game and racking up over 800 rebounds during his time with the Badgers. Upon graduating Hughes was selected in the third round of the 1974 NBA Draft by the Buffalo Braves. He ended up playing in Italy first before joining the ABA’s New York Nets in 1975-76 when they won the ABA championship. He stuck with the Nets as they joined the NBA and then signed with the Denver Nuggets in 1978. He finished his NBA career with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1981. His career ABA/NBA numbers were 7.4 points and 10.8 rebounds per game over six seasons.
During his four year career at the University of Wisconsin, Scott Roth was a starter for three of those years. He ended up scoring 1156 points over his time with the Badgers, while averaging over 18 points per game as a senior. Roth was drafted in the fourth round of the 1985 NBA Draft by the San Antonio Spurs. Instead of heading to the NBA, Roth first played in Turkey and then the CBA for a few years before he joined the Utah Jazz in 1987. He stuck around the NBA for three years moving to the Spurs after Utah and ending his career with the Timberwolves. He finished his time in the NBA with 4.7 points per game along with just over one rebound and assist per game as well.
Another Badger from the bad old days of the late 70s and early 80s was Claude Gregory who was nonetheless one of the best Badgers ever by the time he graduated. He played four years for Wisconsin, averaging just under 16 points per game and corralling 904 rebounds which remains the all time record for the Badgers. After finishing up his career in Wisconsin, Gregory was drafted in the second round of the 1981 NBA Draft with the 41st overall pick by the Washington Bullets. Gregory only spent two seasons in the NBA, playing in two games with the Washington Bullets and 23 with the Los Angeles Clippers. He finished his NBA career averaging 5.4 point and 3.9 rebounds per game. Gregory spent most of his pro career in the CBA where averaged over 23 points and over 10 rebounds per game and was named to the 50th anniversary All-Time Team.
Through four years with the University of Wisconsin, Trevon Hughes was involved in 105 wins with the team. Hughes is 16th on the Badgers all-time scoring list with 1339 points. He is also the third player from the University of Wisconsin to score over 1,300 points, grab 300 rebounds and dish out 250 assists during his career. Hughes helped the Badgers to four straight NCAA tournaments including a trip to the Sweet Sixteen in 2008. Over his career he averaged 10.1 points per game including 15.3 per game during his senior season when he was named second-team All-Big Ten. Hughes did not get selected in the 2010 NBA Draft but he got a chance with the Houston Rockets summer league team in 2010. Ultimately he signed with a team in the Baltic League and has been playing internationally ever since.
Despite the fact that he usually appeared to be big, slow, and even a little bit oafish, Frank Kaminsky was one of the best basketball players to ever play for the University of Wisconsin. The seven foot Kaminsky was actually known for his excellent footwork, great post moves, and even an ability to hit the three or put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket when necessary. His overall complete game helped him lead the Badgers to two consecutive Final Fours, barely losing to the Duke Blue Devils in the 2015 national championship game. Kaminsky was a consensus first-team All-American, the Big Ten Player of the Year, the National college player of the year, and won the John Wooden Award in 2015. Upon heading to the NBA Kamisnky was drafted with the ninth overall pick by the Charlotte Hornets in 2015. Kaminsky had a decent rookie year, scoring over seven points and grabbing over four rebounds per game, and has ratcheted up his numbers in his second year to almost 11 points and almost five rebounds per game.
The sixth all time leading scorer for the Badgers was Trent Jackson who scored 1545 points over his four year career. He eased his way into his career, playing 13 games as a freshman and averaging just under six points per game. He got up to double digits his sophomore year, playing the full season and averaged just under 20 points during his junior and senior campaigns. In 1989 Jackson earned second team All-Big Ten honors and led the Badgers to their first NCAA tournament bid in over 40 years. When he left the University of Wisconsin he was the all time leader in three pointers and steals with 151. He was not drafted to the NBA and although he had a few opportunities to make NBA teams that did not pan out, Jackson was able to enjoy an eight plus year career internationally.
Of all of the players from the University of Wisconsin who made it to the NBA, the one who had the best career was Michael Finley (Pictured Left). Finley was also arguably one of the three best players ever for the Badgers as well. Finley was a star with the Badgers for all four years, averaging 12.3 points per game as a freshman and averaging over 20 per game for his next three seasons. Wisconsin was still hovering at the wrong end of the Big Ten standings during his career but despite that he still received honorable mention All-American honors his final three years at school. When the 1995 NBA Draft came around, the Phoenix Suns selected Finley with the 21st overall choice in the first round. His career took off right away as he averaged 15 points per game during his first two seasons before he was traded to the Dallas Mavericks. He became a star with the Mavericks, spending nine seasons in Dallas and averaging just under 20 points per game while being named an All-Star twice. He signed as a free agent with the Spurs in 2005 and won an NBA championship with them in 2007. He wrapped up his career with the Boston Celtics in 2010.
The best player to ever play for the University of Wisconsin that did not make it to the NBA was Danny Jones. When he left the Badgers in 1990 he was the team’s all time leading scorer and since then his record has only been topped by Michael Finley and Alando Tucker and remains third on the Badgers scoring list with 1854 points over his four year career. Jones averaged at least 17 points per game for three seasons including over 20 in his junior year when he was named honorable mention All-American. Upon graduation Jones did not get drafted. He did however join the Rockford Lightning of the CBA. He ended up spending eight years in the CBA, winning a championship with the La Cross Catbirds in 1994.