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June 17, 2019

Top 5 NCAA Basketball Superstar Busts in the NBA

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Starting in 2006, the National Basketball Association (NBA) updated their draft’s eligibility rules in an attempt to encourage more high school student-athletes to go to college. Up until 2005, high school players were eligible for selection. Some of the NBA’s greatest players in history like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Kevin Garnett were drafted straight out of high school (Wojnarowski, Yahoo! Sports). Beginning in 2006, the league mandated that you must be at least 19 years of age and also be at least one year removed from your high school graduating class year (Sheridan, USA Today). It’s critical to note that this in no way mandates high school basketball student-athletes from playing in the NCAA for at least a year, as several notable players like Marc Gasol and Brandon Jennings opted to play in international professional basketball leagues until they became eligible for the NBA Draft (Sheridan, USA Today). But to be fair, while those aren’t the only instances of talented high school basketball players playing a year or two in an international league before they meet the criteria for NBA Draft eligibility, those are exceptions to the general effect of the league’s 2006 policy change.

The biggest vocalized issue with the league’s draft eligibility criteria today is the “one and done” effect it’s lead to. This refers to the increasingly common dynamic of very highly recruited high school basketball student-athletes committing to a powerhouse NCAA DI men’s basketball program when they already have their mind made up that they’re going to declare for the NBA Draft once they’re eligible the following year. So while the NBA Draft’s policy does ultimately push most high-school student athletes into college, it doesn’t provide them with any incentives to pursue a real college experience. Most NBA head coaches and scouts anticipate this effect; when a top-ranked high school basketball player goes into their freshman year at an ACC powerhouse basketball program – for example – NBA teams already begin evaluating where that athlete will go in the following year’s draft (Brennan, ESPN). Finally, for the best high school basketball players in the country, this is an ultimate dream situation for them in many ways. They get a full scholarship to an outstanding college, along with the best coaching staffs available, excellent exposure to NBA scouts, and a lifelong memorable college experience by any standards.

In this LRT Sports Top 5, we’re going to take a closer look at the most hyped NCAA basketball players who didn’t come close to achieving their NBA potential. While there are many similar lists, our rankings were determined by several factors including NBA Draft overall selection spot, NCAA college basketball program attended, NBA scouts and other NBA basketball expert opinions, and finally each respective players accomplishments in the NBA throughout their career. Now without further adieu, here are the LRT Sports Top 5 NCAA Basketball superstars who ultimately turned into busts after pursuing professional basketball in the NBA:

#5: Greg Oden, Ohio State University, 2007 NBA Draft: 1st Overall Pick

The Top 5 list starts with Greg Oden, a former center from Ohio State University who was then selected 1st overall by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2007 NBA Draft. Oden is part of the “one and done” group; after one outstanding season at Ohio State, the 7-foot 1-inch superstar declared for the NBA Draft. He received a tremendous amount of hype before being drafted; Steve Kerr, head coach of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, was quoted as saying Oden was a “once-in-a-decade-player” (Nathan, Bleacher Report). Though he missed some college games due to various injuries, Oden still managed to win the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Award, as well as being a First Team All-Big Ten selection, and finally named to the Associated Press All-American Team (Hughes, Tribune-Star).

Due to his extraordinary potential, many often argue that Oden should be higher on this kind of list because his NBA career was a total flop. It’s true that it was a massive disappointment, but the reason behind it is critical. Oden’s career was quite literally as plagued with injuries as could be. After being drafted 1st overall on June 28, 2007, less than three months later he got microfracture surgery on his chronically injured right knee, thus causing him to miss the entirety of what would have been his first NBA season (Thorpe, ESPN). When Oden returned the following season, the excitement surrounding his name had worn off, and as it turned out, his performance suffered. While he was officially listed at 250 lbs, the Blazers’ trainer, Jay Jensen, claimed Oden weighed roughly 290 lbs (Kriegel, ESPN). The next couple of seasons he had an impressive game here and there, but when you look at the totality of his work they were more like flukes. The real defining story for Oden was the continuous injuries that began to seem never-ending, specifically with his knee. In February 2009 he missed nearly a month due to a chipped kneecap and later in December 2009, after he was taken off the court on two connected stretchers in the first quarter of an early-season game, Oden underwent another major surgery for a fractured patella and subsequently missed the rest of the season (Unnamed Writer, NBA.com). Sadly, things continued to go downhill for Oden’s knee troubles.

In November 2010 Portland announced Oden was undergoing another microfracture surgery on his knee, causing him to miss that entire season as well (Unnamed Writer, NBA.com). After the Trail Blazers announced Oden had suffered a setback in December 2011, casting doubts about whether he’d return the following season, he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in February 2012 (Unnamed Writer, NBA.com). During the procedure, further damage was discovered to his articular cartilage, which led to his third microfracture surgery (Unnamed Writer, NBA.com). At this point the Blazers had no choice but to waive Oden to make roster space available for trades and acquisitions; they did just that in March 2012 (Unnamed Writer, The Oregonian). Oden would eventually sign a one-year deal with the Miami Heat for the 2014-15 season, but by then his NBA career was long over in reality. While the story of Oden’s NBA career is quite saddening, once he left the league, things picked up for him. In April 2016 the Ohio State Buckeyes hired him to be a student manager for the men’s basketball team as he went back to complete his college degree (Landis, Cleveland.com).

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Greg Oden appearing to suffer a major mid-game knee injury (Oregon Live)

#4: Michael Olowokandi, University of the Pacific, 1998 NBA Draft: 1st Overall Pick

Next up at #4 on the LRT Sports Top 5 list of most significant NBA Draft pick busts is Michael Olowakandi, a 7-foot center who attended the University of the Pacific in California. Olowokandi was not a highly recruited high school basketball player. He wasn’t even recruited by Pacific’s coaching staff and only joined the men’s basketball team after calling the school’s basketball office in hopes of getting accepted (Unnamed Writer, NBC Sports). He’s also an exception to other players on this list, as well as other well known NBA Draft pick busts who aren’t on this list, due to him graduating from college with a degree in economics after attending for four years (Unnamed Writer, NBC Sports). Players who get selected 1st overall, or very high in the first round, then turn out to flop in the NBA are typically part of the “one and done” group, or taken straight out of high school if they were drafted pre-2005.

Some of Olowokandi’s most memorable highlights from his college basketball career at Pacific include leading his team to the NCAA tournament his junior year, as well as the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) his senior year (pacifictigers.com). In terms of individual stats, Olowokandi’s senior year was his most dominant by far. He averaged a double-double, with 22 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks per game en route to getting honored by earning the Big West Conference Player of the Year Award (pacifictigers.com). His collegiate basketball legacy was cemented for good in Pacific sports history when the university retired his No. 55 jersey number.

Upon graduating following the completion of the 1997-98 season, Olowokandi was selected as the 1st overall pick in the 1998 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Clippers (White, Los Angeles Times).  

Olowokandi’s professional basketball career started with an Italian team, Kinder Bologna, due to the 1998-99 NBA lockout (White, Los Angeles Times). Shortly after, once the lockout ended, he signed with the Clippers and played five very mediocre seasons for them, considering he was the 1st overall pick in his draft class. After ultimately being let go by the Clippers, he signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Minnesota Timberwolves (Schmidt, The Post Game). His three years in Minnesota were riddled with severe injuries and inconsistent play, which effectively ended his NBA career. He was traded to the Boston Celtics in a multi-player deal in 2006, and he retired as a Celtic in 2007, having appeared in just 40 games in his two-season span there (Schmidt, The Post Game). By the time his NBA career was over, Olowokandi had appeared in 500 NBA games, averaging just 8.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.39 blocks per game (NBA.com). While he barely made any playoff game appearances, the 15 he did play in were significantly worse. In the playoffs, Olowokandi averaged 2.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 0.7 blocks per game; not the kind of numbers you hope to see from a 7-foot 1st overall draft choice.  Finally, many also consider Olowokandi to be a bust because he was drafted higher than future NBA superstars from his same draft class, including Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, and Vince Carter (Schmidt, The Post Game).

#3: Adam Morrison, Gonzaga University, 2006 NBA Draft: 3rd Overall Pick

The third biggest college basketball superstar on LRT Sports Top 5 list to turn into a bust in the NBA is Adam Morrison, a forward who played for the Gonzaga Bulldogs from 2003-2006. Morrison was a prolific scorer during his college basketball days and was especially highly thought of because Gonzaga was not considered an NCAA “powerhouse” school for men’s basketball. He started his career with the Bulldogs strong in his first two years, getting named to West Coast Conference (WCC) All-Freshman Team his rookie year, as well as averaging 19 points per game and earning a spot on the All-WCC First Team his sophomore year (Unnamed Writer, GoZags.com). However, Morrison became a true standout with the Zags in his junior year. In the regular season, he averaged 28.1 points per game – making him the nation’s leading scorer for the 2005-06 season – including 13 games with over 30 points and five games with over 40 points (Mann, ESPN). The stronger the opponent, the better Morrison played. During that same year, in 11 games against teams from “major” NCAA basketball conferences, Morrison averaged 28.5 points per game (Mann, ESPN). Though his college basketball career ended in the Sweet Sixteen of the 2006 NCAA Tournament when the Zags blew a 17-point lead against UCLA, Morrison was named the Co-Player of the Year, sharing the award with Duke’s J.J. Redick (Mann, ESPN). He was additionally selected as a Consensus first-team All-American, named the WCC Player of the Year, Chevrolet Player of the Year, and was awarded the highly coveted Oscar Robertson Trophy (Mann, ESPN). After such an outstanding season, Morrison decided to forgo his senior year with the Bulldogs and declare for the NBA Draft. In the 2006 NBA Draft, Morrison ended up being taken by the Charlotte Bobcats with the 3rd overall pick.

Morrison started for the Bobcats as a rookie in 2006, scoring what would be his career high of 30 points against the Indiana Pacers on December 30, 2006. However, just midway through his rookie season in Charlotte, Morrison was benched, primarily due to his lack of defensive play and an abysmal 37% shooting percentage (Wahl, Sports Illustrated). The following season, in a preseason game on October 21, 2007, Morrison tore his ACL forcing him to miss the entire 2007-08 NBA season while recovering from surgery. He was then traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in a multi-player deal but saw minimal playing time in his two seasons there, not earning a start in a single game (Haubert, ESPN). Though the Lakers won NBA Championships in both of Morrison’s seasons with the team, he was released at the end of the 2009-10 NBA season. His final stint in the NBA was getting signed with the Washington Wizards shortly after being let go by the Lakers. However, he was waived at the end of training camp and did not subsequently get picked up by any other NBA teams. After that had a brief stretch playing professional basketball overseas, in a Turkish basketball league, but after two seasons he quit due to lack of playing time (Amick, Sports Illustrated). He then returned to Gonzaga University to complete his undergraduate degree in sports management in 2014 and is currently weighing a possible career in basketball coaching (Unnamed Writer, GoZags.com).

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Adam Morrison sits on the sidelines as a Charlotte Bobcat in 2007 (Bleacher Report)

So how did such a widely respected NCAA basketball recruit flop so badly in the NBA, especially considering it wasn’t due to injury, work ethnic, off-court problems, or anything we know about him to that effect? Nowadays most NBA experts attribute it in part to overexcitement about his potential from his season as a junior at Gonzaga, but more so his lack of size and physical ability when measured against successful NBA players (Henninger, CBS Sports). Morrison is listed as a Small Forward/Power Forward, with a height of 6’8” and weighing 205 pounds (NBA.com). Compare that to some of the league’s elite Power Forwards during Morrison’s NBA playing days: Pau Gasol – 7’0” weighing 254 pounds, Tim Duncan – 6’11” weighing 256 pounds, Kevin Love – 6’11” weighing 251 pounds, and Dirk Nowitzki – 7’0” weighing 245 pounds (NBA.com). Even looking at the league’s better – but not best – Small Forwards during that same time, Morrison was clearly at a substantial disadvantage: Carmelo Anthony – 6’8” weighing 240 pounds, Paul Pierce – 6’7” weighing 240 pounds, Paul George – 6’9” weighing 220 pounds, and Shawn Marion – 6’7” 228 pounds (NBA.com). So purely from a size comparison, Morrison was always outmatched both on offense and defense, and that’s not even getting into the natural physical talent most of those guys had, which Morrison lacked. The 2006 NBA Draft class wasn’t outstanding, but there were still several successful players like Brandon Roy, Rajon Rondo, and Kyle Lowry selected below Morrison.

#2: Anthony Bennett, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2013 NBA Draft: 1st Overall Pick

The #2 biggest bust in this LRT Sports Top 5 is Anthony Bennett from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). Though he was selected quite recently, in the 2013 NBA Draft, he’s already widely recognized as one of the greatest draft busts of all-time (Greenberg, Huffington Post). Bennett is one of the best modern examples of why the “one and done” approach to getting drafted isn’t necessarily an effective strategy. He played just one season at UNLV before declaring for the NBA draft, where the Cleveland Cavaliers immediately selected him with their 1st overall pick.

Before his first touch as an NBA player, many criticized the Cavaliers’ decision to draft Bennett first overall (Sherman, ESPN). He had a great freshman season at UNLV, averaging a pretty solid 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, but that’s considering he only averaged 27.1 minutes per game due to a midseason shoulder injury (Smith, The Star). Listed as 6’8” and weighs 245 pounds, he spent most of his time at Power Forward, however also occasionally playing in the Small Forward position (unlvrebels.com). Bennett shot 53.3% overall from the field and 37.5% from three-point range, which showed an impressive range for a Power Forward. Perhaps what intrigued the Cavaliers so much was his on-court efficiency; Bennett had a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 28.3 in his only season at UNLV, with the league average being a 15.0 (Sports-Reference.com).

Somewhat similar to Morrison, Bennett just never got going in the NBA, and it wasn’t related to any injury or any off-court incidents. It took him 33 games to score double-digit points, finally scoring 15 points and grabbing eight rebounds against the New Orleans Pelicans; this was three times longer than any prior player selected first overall in the NBA Draft (Dulik, NBA.com). His stats from his rookie year are pretty abysmal by any standards; Bennett averaged 4.2 points and 3.0 rebounds per game, while playing an average of 12.8 minutes per game for the season as his poor play ultimately got him benched (Dulik, NBA.com). One year with Bennett was enough for the Cavs, so they traded him to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a three-team deal the year after they drafted him. Unfortunately, Bennett failed to make any meaningful impact with the Timberwolves and after one season where he started only three games, averaging 5.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 15.7 minutes per game (Dulik, NBA.com). He was subsequently waived by Minnesota, also after just one season with the team. Despite managing to sign a one-year deal with his hometown Toronto Raptors, things somehow managed to get worse for Bennett in his third NBA season. Early in the season, the Raptors sent him down to the D-League, making him the NBA’s first No.1 overall draft pick to make an appearance in the NBA Development League (Attfield, NBA.com). It had become abundantly clear Bennett would not make any notable impact in the NBA. When his one-year deal with the Raptors expired, he was signed by the Brooklyn Nets then quickly waived just a few months later, this time failing to make it through a full NBA season (Brunt, ESPN). That marked the end of Bennett’s NBA career as he moved to play professional basketball in Turkey for Fenerbahce, but his struggles continued. After only one season, where he made just ten appearances and averaged a measly 1.2 points per game, he was released once again (Unnamed Writer, Euro Sport). Though the 2013 NBA Draft class was notably weak, it still makes you wonder how current NBA stars like Victor Oladipo and Giannis Antetokounmpo were overlooked in favor of Anthony Bennett.

#1: Sam Bowie, University of Kentucky, 1984 NBA Draft: 2nd Overall Pick

Unlike the last couple draft classes highlighted on this list, the 1984 NBA Draft class was exceptional. It’ll become clearer very shortly, but this is the primary reason Bowie is largely accepted as the biggest NBA Draft bust of all-time. There were four future NBA Hall of Famers selected in the first sixteen picks of the 1984 draft; Bowie, of course, wasn’t one of them (Unnamed Writer, NBA.com). The back-story you’d need to know for context here is the Houston Rockets were tied with the Indiana Pacers for the worst record in the NBA entering the 1984 draft. However, in 1981, the Pacers traded their 1984 first round draft pick to the Portland Trail Blazers for Center Tom Owens (DuPree, USA Today). When 1984 came around the Pacers beat the Blazers in a coin toss, thus having the opportunity to pick first, then used their first overall spot to take future Hall of Fame Center Hakeem Olajuwon (Basketball-Reference.com). This put the Blazers in a predicament because they very clearly needed a Center. Rumor has it they wanted Olajuwon or Patrick Ewing, but Olajuwon went right ahead of them, and Ewing didn’t declare for the NBA Draft until the following season, in 1995 (Sakamoto, Chicago Tribune). The Blazers had just taken a future NBA Hall of Fame Shooting Guard, Clyde Drexler, in the previous year’s draft.

While the #1 spot on an LRT Sports Top 5 list is typically a positive, it’s the exact opposite here. The biggest NBA Draft disappointment of all-time – who also previously competed in NCAA basketball – is Sam Bowie, a 7’1” Center from the University of Kentucky. Averaging 28 points and 18 rebounds per game in high school, Bowie was highly recruited, receiving interest from many of the nation’s best college basketball programs (Schoenfield, ESPN). He ultimately chose to play for the University of Kentucky Wildcats and head coach Joe B. Hall. Bowie started strong with the Wildcats, averaging 12 points and eight rebounds as a freshman, then 17.5 points and nine rebounds as a sophomore (Basketball-Reference.com). However his basketball career was temporarily put on hold; Bowie suffered a stress fracture in his left tibia the following offseason, which would force him to use a medical redshirt and miss the coming two seasons (Dwyer, Yahoo Sports). He managed to recover well and returned in time for the start of his final season at Kentucky, where he averaged a respectable 10.5 points and nine rebounds per game, but perhaps more importantly led the Wildcats to their best season as a team during his time there. The Wildcats won the SEC Championship, finished with a Top-3 national ranking, an overall 26-4 season record, and advanced to the Final Four of the NCAA “March Madness” Tournament (Millan, Sports Illustrated). Coming off a great comeback season and having exhausted his NCAA eligibility, Bowie would head for the 1984 NBA Draft.

Additionally, their franchise player for a lengthy time, Bill Walton, a future NBA Hall of Fame Center, had left the team a few years back and Portland noticeably suffered without him or a replacement Center to fill his gap. Therefore at the time, it made sense for the Blazers to take Sam Bowie with the second overall pick. This left the Chicago Bulls, who had the third overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, to take a junior Shooting Guard forgoing his senior year with the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, Michael Jordan.

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Sam Bowie shoots over LA Lakers Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (NPR)

Bowie had a very lackluster career that was plagued with recurrent knee injuries, which ultimately led the Blazers to trade him to the New Jersey Nets after four seasons with the team since he only started in five games the last two of them (Unnamed Writer, NBA.com). His best year came when he first landed with the Nets, averaging 14.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, which was the only season of his career where he averaged a double-double (Sports-Reference.com). Throughout his NBA career – which was technically ten seasons though several were cut short or completely missed due to injury – Bowie averaged 10.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.78 blocks per game (Sports-Reference.com). His career shooting percentage from the field was 45.2% (Sports-Reference.com). To put that into context, today all Top-10 Centers in the NBA shoot over 55% from the field (Unnamed Writer, ESPN). This prompted ESPN to name Bowie the “worst draft pick in the history of North American professional sports” in a 2005 Top-100 list they created on that topic (Schoenfield, ESPN). In that same year, Sports Illustrated named Bowie the “biggest draft bust in NBA history,” using him to make the case that teams should select players from the draft based on talent, not on current position needs (Kirkpatrick, Sports Illustrated).

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