The differences between the NFL and the NBA are too numerous to mention, but here’s another one: whereas the NFL sees a relatively large number of undrafted free agents go on to enjoy successful football careers, that’s not usually the case in the NBA. With a lot fewer roster spots, there’s not often room on the bench for someone who doesn’t get his name called on draft day.
That said, there are certainly some notable exceptions to that rule. Ben Wallace was the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year four times. Brad Miller was a two-time All-Star at center. Bruce Bowen just had his jersey retired in San Antonio, where he earned three NBA Championship rings. Fellow Spur, Avery Johnson, also got a title and made his way into the NBA coaching ranks. Three-point standout Raja Bell, 26-year old rookie Darrell Armstrong, and 5’5″ point guard Earl Boykins also had lengthy NBA careers.
But what does the next generation of undrafted NBA stars look like? You don’t see anybody who wasn’t drafted earning eight-figure contracts like Kobe or Dirk or LeBron. In fact, there are less than a dozen undrafted players in the Top 200 on the salary list for this season. Here are the top ten most well-paid undrafted players who are currently on an NBA roster (apologies to the 11th man, Bosnia’s own Mirza Teletovic), along with their salary for this season.
T9. Alonzo Gee, Cleveland Cavaliers: $3.25 million
The city of Cleveland sometimes takes some ribbing from the rest of the country, but something about the city makes Gee play his best. In his short stints in San Antonio and Washington, the former Alabama standout averaged just 4.4 points per game. But while wearing a Cavs jersey, Gee has crossed the 2,000-point mark with a 8.3 ppg average. After spending some time in the D-League with the Austin Toros, the 6’6″ small forward debuted in the NBA in March of 2010. Over the previous two seasons in Cleveland, Gee has averaged over ten points a contest and started every game for the Cavaliers a year ago. But this year, with Luol Deng in the lineup, Gee’s minutes have been more limited.
T9. Gary Neal, Charlotte Bobcats: $3.25 million
Gary Neal finally broke into the NBA at the start of the 2010 season after stints in Spain, Italy, and a league-leading season in the Turkish Basketball League. The 6’4″ shooting guard was a bit of a nomad in college as well, enrolling at La Salle University but then transferring after a season to Towson University after allegations that he raped a woman (he was later acquitted). Fun fact: Neal is only the fourth college basketball player in history to score 1,000 points with two different schools. Once he reached the NBA, Neal averaged just under 10 points per game in his first three seasons in San Antonio. Prior to this season, Neal signed with Milwaukee, but was traded to Charlotte in February. He’s still averaging 10.5 points per game this season to go with a stellar free throw percentage of 88.2%.
8. Joel Anthony, Boston Celtics: $3.8 million
He’s the other Anthony-surnamed player in the league right now. Joel Anthony was born in Montreal and has been on the Canadian national team, but has never played in an Olympic game. After two years at Pensacola Junior College, Anthony transferred to UNLV, where he earned Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors. Although he was bypassed in the draft, he signed a one-year contract with Miami. He kept his Heat uniform all the way through the team’s two NBA title runs before being traded in January to Boston. Since the trade, Anthony has managed only 10 points in 15 games in a Celtics uniform with less than 4 minutes a contest.
7. Udonis Haslem, Miami Heat: $4.34 million
The 6’8″ power forward is the quintessential Florida boy. Born in Miami, he led his Miami High team to a state title and played his college ball at the University of Florida. Despite starting all four years at center for the Gators, he saw his weight balloon above 300 pounds after he left Florida and had to settle for a roster spot on a French team. He played his way back into shape and entered the NBA summer leagues before signing with the Heat in 2003. He’s never looked back, starting 24 games his first season and helping Miami in all three of their title runs. But Haslem might have been higher on this list if he cared about money more than winning. In the summer of 2010, when Miami signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh, Haslem opted to stay with the Heat – turning down offers from teams like Dallas and Denver which would have paid him almost $10 million more.
6. Timofey Mozgov, Denver Nuggets: $4.4 million
Even hardcore NBA lovers may not have heard about this 7’1″ Russian star. He played professionally for six seasons in his homeland before answering the call from the U.S. when he signed a three-year, $9.7 million contract with the Knicks in 2010. But Mozgov may better be known as one of the players who was traded to Denver later that season to bring Carmelo (don’t call me Joel) Anthony to New York. After scoring just 375 points in his first 96 games in a Nuggets uniform, Mozgov has stepped up his game this season, scoring 643 points in 74 games. The Nuggets have been so impressed with the big man that they re-signed him to his current contract in July of last year. Mozgov also played on the Russian National Team at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
5. Jose Barea, Minnesota Timberwolves: $4.687 million
The pride of Puerto Rico, Barea actually started playing professionally on the island at age 17 before enrolling at Northeastern University in Boston. When he left, he was the school’s top three-point shooter in history and the second-leading scorer behind Reggie Lewis. After being snubbed in the 2006 NBA draft, Barea played in some offseason tournaments and caught the eye of the Dallas Mavericks, who signed him as a free agent. Though he was sent down to the D-League for a bit, Barea finished the season as the Mavs’ backup point guard. Four years later, he was helping Dallas hoist the championship trophy, becoming only the second Puerto Rican to do so. Barea then became a free agent and cashed in by signing a four-year contract with the T-Wolves in December 2011. Since then, he’s averaged 10.3 points and 4.2 assists per game in Minnesota.
4. Chuck Hayes, Toronto Raptors: $5,722,500
The former “Mr. Basketball,” as a high school player in California, played his college ball at Kentucky, where he helped the Wildcats win 87 out of 102 games in his final three seasons there. Despite winning the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award, Hayes was passed over in the draft and signed with the Albuquerque Thunderbirds of the D-League, where he led the league in rebounding at 12.2 per contest. The Houston Rockets then signed Hayes to a ten-day contract in January 2006, and he didn’t give up his roster spot until December of 2011, when he signed a four-year deal with Sacramento. But his stats and minutes dropped while with the Kings, and he was sent to Toronto this past December in a seven-player trade.
3. Jose Calderon, Dallas Mavericks: $6,791,570
Like Mozgov, Calderon is a foreign-born player who had an impressive professional career overseas before coming to America. The son of a basketball player, Calderon was born in Villaneuva de la Serena, Spain and played pro ball for four different Spanish clubs between 1998 and 2005. In August of 2005, Rob Babcock, the Raptors GM at the time, convinced Calderon to sign an NBA contract. He responded by placing third among rookies in his first season with 4.5 assists per game. His best season with the Raptors was the 2008-09 campaign, when he finished with 12.8 points per game and 8.9 assists per game to go with an astounding mark of just three missed free throws in 154 attempts (with 87 in a row at one point). He was traded to Detroit in the middle of last season before signing with Dallas this season as the Mavs’ starting point guard.
2. Wesley Matthews, Portland Trail Blazers: $6,875,480
Matthews also comes from an impressive basketball pedigree: both of his parents were standouts at the University of Wisconsin (his father, Wes. Sr, was a first-round NBA draft pick). But despite pressure to become a badger, Matthews instead elected to play for Marquette University, averaging 18.6 points per contest his senior year. Still, NBA teams passed him by in the 2009 draft. But after he played summer league ball, Matthews signed a free agent contract with Utah prior to the 2009-10 season – and then played in every game for the Jazz. Portland then aggressively pursued Matthews and signed him to a five-year, $34 million contract. Since then, the 6’5″ shooting guard has averaged 15.3 points per game and compiled a free throw percentage of 83.7%.
1. Jeremy Lin, Houston Rockets: $8,374,646
Everybody has their opinion about the Linsanity craze, but one thing’s for sure: it certainly wound up paying well. Lin burst onto the scene in New York the 2011-12 season, when he came from bench obscurity to score 18.2 points and dish out 7.7 assists per game in a 25-game span when he started for the Knicks. After that year, conventional wisdom was that Lin would re-sign with the Knicks, until Houston came calling and offered a three-year, $25 million contract. Many people forget that Lin was also “undrafted” out of high school, receiving no scholarship offers. He went on to play at Harvard, and after graduating in 2010, he played in the summer league when no team drafter him. After that, he was signed by Golden State, but sent down to the D-League three different times. He was claimed off waivers in late December of 2011 by New York, and the rest is history.