The 8 Best And 7 Worst Michigan State Spartans To Play In The NBA

Just going through the history of the Michigan State Spartans, you can tell that even before Tom Izzo, the team was always about tough and smart basketball. It seems like no matter how the season is going for the Spartans, they will end up making a solid showing at the NCAA Tournament. Teams will hope not to play them, and just knowing Izzo and the history of the program is enough to gain an edge on the mental aspect of the game.

If you're reading this article, it can be assumed that you know who Magic Johnson is. The players that join the Michigan State program also know who he is. Johnson set the gold standard of Michigan State basketball. Perhaps one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA, Magic set the standard for these former Spartans entering the next level as well.

Some players have been able to follow Magic Johnson's footsteps and enjoyed NBA success as former Michigan State Spartans, while others have not been able to find the success translate into the NBA game. Personal problems have played a part in some of our inclusions, and others just did not have what it took. Our whole list does not include Magic Johnsons, but also some players have become perennial All-Stars and NBA Champions, and others who failed to live up to their own hype.


15 Best - Scott Skiles

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Let's start off with a model of consistency. Scott Skiles was a Second Team All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year during his time at Michigan State. His success led to his number 4 being retired by the university. Ultimately, the Milwaukee Bucks used a first round pick on the point guard. He would play for five teams over his NBA, with his biggest successes coming as a member of the Orlando Magic. After never averaginge more than 7.7 points or 4.9 assists for the first four years of his career, Skiles put together a 1990-1991 season that would earn him the NBA Most Improved Player award. He sported a stat line of 17.2 points, 8.4 assists and 1.1 steals per game. He would end up averaging 9.4 assists per game for a career high in the 1992-93 season. Skiles also holds the record for most assists in a game with 30.

14 Worst - Eric Snow

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Eric Snow did make the most of what he had. Mostly playing alongside NBA superstars, Snow started and played a long time in the NBA. The Milwaukee Bucks used a 2nd round pick on the point guard, and he was immediately traded to the Seattle SuperSonics where he struggled to find playing time for two and a half seasons. He was traded to the 76ers in 1998 after averaging just 4.4 minutes per game for the Sonics. Larry Brown saw something in Snow and he paired him with 76ers legend Allen Iverson. Although Snow did display defensive ability, we know that the ball ran through AI for the Sixers' offense to get moving. He appeared in an NBA Finals with the 76ers alongside Iverson and later in another alongside LeBron James. Snow was solid but he was never a go-to player, and needed a NBA All-Star beside him to have any sort of NBA success.


13 Best - Jason Richardson

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Jason Richardson almost landed on the flip side of our list. He was a solid NBA player that flashed brilliant athleticism and later in his career a three-point shot, but it just feels like he could have been a lot more. Richardson was a NCAA Champion for the 2000 Spartans, and a 2001 Second Team All-American. This led to him being selected with the number 5 overall pick in the 2001 NBA Draft by the Golden State Warriors. There, he won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest twice, and was the Rising Stars Game MVP his rookie season, as well as NBA All-Rookie First Team.

During the 2005-06 season, Richardson helped the Warriors to their first playoff appearance in 13 seasons, which can be remembered for the year the Warriors ousted the number 1 seed Dallas Mavericks.

12 Worst - Shannon Brown

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Shannon Brown was a All-Big Ten and Big Ten All-Defensive performer at Michigan State. Brown played three seasons at Michigan State University before being drafted in the 1st round of the 2006 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Between injuries and inconsistent play, Brown had trouble staying on the NBA court. He played in 38 games and averaged 11.1 minutes per game for the Cavs before being traded to the Chicago Bulls. There, he played just 22 minutes before entering free agency the following season, when he would sign with the Bobcats. Again he would be moved shortly after, this time landing with the Lakers where he would be part of two NBA Championship teams. Some players would probably take those rings, but Brown's inconsistent career and underachieving lands him on the worst side of our list.


11 Best - Johnny Green

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We're going to have to go back into history a little bit, so we can look at the career of former Michigan State forward Johnny Green. Green earned All-American honors during his college stay, and is still ranked 3rd all-time in Spartans rebounding history. The award for most rebounds is now named after Green, and his number 24 jersey is retired by Michigan State.

Green was able to continue his success at the NBA level. He was a four-time NBA All-Star after being selected 5th overall in the 1959 NBA Draft by the New York Knicks. He finished his career averaging 11.6 points and 8.6 rebounds, frequently breaking 10 rebounds per game throughout his career.

10 Worst - Jay Vincent

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Jay Vincent really had a great start to his NBA career, averaging 21.4 points during his rookie season and earning a NBA All-Rookie First Team. Vincent was drafted in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft following his stay with the Michigan State Spartans. While there, Vincent was a member of the 1979 NCAA Champions, a Third Team All-American, and ultimately had his number retired by the university.

Vincent never matched his rookie season success. After five years with the Dallas Mavericks, the former Michigan State forward played for five teams in his final four years in the league. His scoring average averaged dropped to 5.2  in the 1989-90 season, which proved to be his last in the league.

Vincent was actually just released from prison in recent years for a crime in which his company based in Michigan was involved in a fraud scheme.


9 Best - Kevin Willis

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While some players in our list were not able to stick around the NBA very long, Kevin Willis went ahead and played 21 seasons in the league. Willis played three years of college ball with Michigan State from 1981-1984. He would go on to be drafted 11th overall by the Atlanta Hawks, where he would play just over nine seasons. His shining moment in Atlanta was the 1991-1992 season, in which he averaged 18.3 points and 15.5 rebounds en route to an All-Star Game and All-NBA Team. Following his stay in Atlanta, Willis played for seven more NBA teams. By the end of his career, he was serving as a veteran presence deep off the bench. Nonetheless, Willis was able to capture an NBA Championship as a member of the 2003 San Antonio Spurs. Willis is one of 15 players in NBA history with 16,000 points and 11,000 rebounds.

8 Worst - Keith Appling

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A McDonald's All-American in high school, Keith Appling was twice an All-Big Ten performer while at Michigan State. Appling went undrafted but continued to pursue a career in the NBA. Appling has since spent the majority of his time in the NBA D-League and compared his NBA career, more time in a different kind of court. Appling was charged with four felonies in 2016, and has not played an NBA game since the 2015-2016 season.

Appling's career is not one with many highlights. In all, he has appeared in 5 games, played 27 minutes, made 2 field goals, grabbed 1 rebound, had 1 assists, 1 steal, and scored 6 points while adding 5 fouls and 3 turnovers. Although undersized, the guard still had the skill set to play professionally somewhere, if he could stay out of legal trouble.


7 Best - Steve Smith

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Steve Smith was an elite player in both the NCAA game and NBA game. Even though he only has one NBA All-Star Game (1998) to show for it, Smith was able to put together a long and accomplished career. After two years of All-American play at Michigan State, Smith was drafted 5th overall by the Miami Heat. There, he spent just over three seasons and averaged 14.4 points before being traded to the Atlanta Hawks. As a Hawk, he would have some of his best years. Twice he would eclipse 20 ppg mark, and he also added his lone All-Star Game appearance. He would end his Hawks career with 18.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg, and 3.6 apg. After being a part of a couple very good Trail Blazer teams in the early 2000s, Smith would join the San Antonio Spurs and would be able to add a NBA Championship to his career highlights. Smith was also an Olympic Gold Medalist.

6 Worst - Charlie Bell

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Charlie Bell was an integral part of the 2000 NCAA Champion Michigan State Spartans. There, he was a All-American but would end up going undrafted. After appearing in just 7 games between the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks in 2001-2002, Bell took his career overseas to Europe. He would join the Milwaukee Bucks for the 2005-2006 season and actually put together a decent five-year stint before ending his NBA career in 2011. Bell started 137 games for the Milwaukee Bucks and zero for the other three NBA teams he appeared with. In all, Bell was a journeyman in his professional basketball career, but probably didn't have the career he thought he'd have after a stellar career at MSU. Currently, Bell serves as an assistant coach in the NBA D-League.


5 Best - Draymond Green

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Some of the 2nd-round picks and undrafted players on this list may have deserved better, but Draymond Green shows that sometimes that can be overcome. And in a big way. The Golden State Warriors used a 2nd-round pick on Green following a decorated career at Michigan State. The reason he was taken so late? Scouts viewed him too small to be a power forward and too slow to be a small forward. Well, Green has responded by becoming an Olympic gold medalist, two-time NBA All-Star, two-time NBA All-Defensive, an NBA steals leader, an All-NBA performer, and ultimately an NBA Champion. Green, along with his star teammates, set the single season record for wins, and it looks like he is going to continue to add to his NBA resume.

4 Worst - Paul Davis

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Former Mr. Basketball of Michigan (2002) Paul Davis attended Michigan State from 2002-2006. In his senior season, he averaged 17.5 points and 9.1 rebounds while shooting 87 percent from the free throw line. At 6-foot-11 and sporting a soft shooting stroke, Davis was drafted in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Clippers. In three seasons in LA, Davis appeared in 80 games with 2 starts. During his third season, he put together career highs with 4.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 0.4 spg, and 11.9 mpg. Although he may have started to show the most promise that year, he would only play two more games following that season. After a couple D-League stints, Davis played a couple seasons overseas and is now retired from basketball.


3 Best - Zach Randolph

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Zach Randolph, a.k.a. Z-Bo, is another former Spartan who just possesses that heart of a lion mentality. Randolph spent one year at Michigan State. There, he played with the previously mentioned Charlie Bell and Jason Richardson, as the trio was able to take MSU to another Final Four. Randolph was then drafted 19th overall by the Trail Blazers. By his third season in the NBA, Randolph found a starting role. In 2003-04 Randolph averaged 20.1 points and 10.5 rebounds en route to the NBA Most Improved Player award. Injuries did slow his production after the breakout year, and moves to the Clippers and New York Knicks proved to be the wrong fits for the big man. Finally, he found his home in Memphis where he earned two NBA All-Star appearances and a All-NBA Third Team spot.

2 Worst - Mateen Cleaves

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This one will hurt for any fan of the Michigan State Spartans. Mateen Cleaves was a GREAT college basketball player. His accomplishments include the following: two times Big Ten Player of the Year, three times All-American including one First Team, Final Four Most Outstanding Player and of course, NCAA Champion.

Cleaves was then drafted 14th overall by the Detroit Pistons. In his rookie season, he appeared in 78 games, started in 8 and scored 5.4 ppg. All of these proved to be career highs. Cleaves bounced around from the D-League to the NBA for the majority of his career, and also had a couple stints in Greece. In all, Cleaves played 167 games and averaged 3.6 points per game, and by 2009, Mateen Cleaves had retired from basketball.


1 Best - Magic Johnson

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This one is simple enough. Magic Johnson was a winner on all levels. The guy even has a WNBA Championship as an executive. Magic guided Michigan State to its 2nd NCAA Championship in 1979. There, he was an All-American and Final Four Most Outstanding Player, and that was enough to be selected 1st overall by the Los Angeles Lakers. And as we know, the rest is NBA history.

Look at these accomplishments: five-time NBA Champion, three-time NBA Finals MVP, three-time Most Valuable Player, 12-time NBA All-Star, two-time NBA All-Star Game MVP, nine-time All-NBA First Team, four-time NBA Assists leader, two-time NBA Steals leader, and the NBA Playoffs all-time assists leader. Magic changed the NBA game. His duels with Larry Bird and numerous others will never be forgotten. And while there has not been another Spartan like Magic as of yet, there were still some very good college and NBA players to come out of the program.


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