No one wants to leave talent on the table, but it happens. Sometimes it's motivation, sometimes it's the situation you find yourself in and other times it’s purely bad luck (injuries). Basketball is a sport that doesn’t allow much to be covered up, your game is always on display and weaknesses are difficult to hide. This list looks at some of the biggest wastes of talent and why they were unable to fulfill their potential.
Championships shouldn’t matter and won’t matter for this list. Charles Barkley and Karl Malone may have never won a championship, but it wasn’t due to lack of effort or talent. Same goes for Allen Iverson who only once made it to the finals and was surrounded by inferior talent for most of his career. Bill Walton was plagued with injuries, but still led the Blazers to a title and then took on a leadership role with the Boston Celtics. Some will argue Antoine Walker and Tracy McGrady should be included, but I believe both got the most out of their talents and that maybe their ceilings were overrated from the start.
A couple dishonorable mentions go to Marvin Williams; more was expected from the second player picked in a draft. Shawn Kemp could have dominated for more years had he managed his body better and Len Bias, well, Bias never really even gave himself a chance to show us his talent, overdosing before he got a chance to showcase his moves.
Here are the 20 that did make it. Feel free to discuss, and yes, having a nickname did make it more likely a player would end up on the list.
20 Chris Webber
Chris Webber was never able to shake the famous “timeout that wasn’t” from his days at Michigan. Webber was traded to the Washington Bullets on draft day where he showed some promise and was eventually traded to Sacramento Kings where he had most of his success. Despite averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists a game, many expected more of a franchise player. What they got was one of the better players for the Kings as the team challenged the Los Angeles Lakers for a couple years. Webber would appear in 5 All-Star games over his career, but projections of being a top 10 all-time player never materialized.
19 Kwame Brown
This was Michael Jordan’s first number one draft pick. Kwame Brown never went to college, but had length and an athletic body that front offices crave. Had Brown not been picked by Jordan, it’s hard to say if he would have had more success. No doubt having the greatest player ever in your face on the practice court did more damage than good (anxiety problems that may have been linked to pressure), but maybe bringing him along more slowly would have helped. Brown hung around for 11 years, bouncing around multiple teams as a bench warmer/role player before finally calling it quits.
18 Darko Milicic
Darko Milicic was drafted during the European player boom when every General Manager was looking for the next Dirk Nowitzki. Milicic’s game never materialized into anything resembling Nowitzki or a regular starter in the league. Even his passing, an attribute that scouts liked didn’t translate in the NBA. In fact, the Detroit Pistons drafting Milicic made NBA executives step back and re-evaluate how they would look at European talent going forward, understanding there is a certain toughness that goes with playing in the NBA compared to overseas where the game is free flowing with less contact. Milicic bounced around for a while, but never contributed in a major way.
17 Sam Bowie
Poor Sam Bowie will always be the guy drafted before Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft. What most don’t remember is that Bowie was not drafted first, that was Hakeem Olajuwan. Still, the 1984 draft changed the NBA forever, making Bowie a punch line. Over his 10 seasons in the league he averaged 10 points and 7 rebounds, carving a niche as a solid role player despite battling injuries. It didn’t matter though because the guy taken after him in the draft went on to win 6 championships, numerous MVP awards and became the greatest player to ever play in the NBA.
16 Oliver Miller
Oliver Miller was a guy that could fill up the middle, and the bad joke is that he did such a good job of filling up the middle that he ate himself out of the NBA. Miller’s weight fluctuated from “husky” to “overweight” for most of his career and when there was a lockout (and time off for the players) it got worse. Miller played in 11 seasons as a center and power forward, many with the Phoenix Suns where he was an active player for some entertaining run, gun and shoot-the-three teams. Had Miller taken better care of his body who knows how much more he could have contributed?
15 Ralph Sampson
Injuries stopped Ralph Sampson from reaching his unlimited ceiling. At over seven feet tall, Sampson could shoot, rebound, pass and block. He was a superstar at Virginia who saw success at every level and was expected to bring a championship to the Houston Rockets. From day one injuries would keep Sampson off the court, limiting his career to only a few years and 4 All-Star appearances before he retired. His NBA highlight reel would have to be 1985 when he averaged 18 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists, leading the Rockets (along with Hakeem Olajuwan) to the finals where they eventually lost.
14 Austin Rivers
So far Austin Rivers has been the ultimate smoke-and-mirrors draft pick. Rivers was a blue chip Duke prospect that got injured his freshman year and still was a lottery pick based on talent and potential. Granted Rivers is still young, so the jury is out, but early returns do not show a superstar NBA guard in the making, more like a bust, assuming you agreed with the initial talent/potential assessment based on limited sample size. However, just having the “talent” label will be enough for Rivers to stay on the trade block for a few seasons and get numerous chances with new organizations. No one wants to miss the next big thing – so far Austin Rivers doesn’t appear to be it.
13 Grant Hill
Did you know Grant Hill won a championship for the Detroit Pistons? Not as a member of the team, but the trade that sent Ben Wallace and others from Orlando played a big part in the Bad Boys 2 championship. After a promising rookie campaign (co-rookie of the year honors with Jason Kidd), Hill got a bad case of the injury bug, putting a halt on his rise to fame as one of the NBA greats. Hill continued to play and suffered more injuries, but persistence has kept him in the league. Unfortunately he was never able to maximize his promising game during his peak years, instead being relegated to the bench with injuries.
12 Vin Baker
Vin Baker was an underrated power forward who put up big numbers for the Milwaukee Bucks for several years. After drafting Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson, the Bucks traded Baker who almost immediately saw his production drop off. It wasn’t long before we found out that Baker was suffering from alcoholism. He never did regain his top numbers (around 19 points, 10 rebounds a game) even though he got several good opportunities with teams such as Seattle Supersonics and Boston Celtics. Baker still had several good years left and could have left his mark on any one of those teams, but he never fully got past his demons, eventually relegated to the bench and then out of the NBA.
11 Isaiah (J.R.) Rider
Clearly there was talent, and clearly Isaiah’s head wasn’t always on straight. Rider was a standout at UNLV and was surrounded by big expectations when he came into the NBA. Rider was a classic numbers guy that never translated to victories. For several years he averaged over 18 points and over 4 rebounds a game, good numbers for a point guard, but his assist totals were always low and the little things that help teams win were never part of his game. Rider, drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves, would get traded to Portland and then play for the L.A. Lakers and Denver where his numbers dropped off before he called it quits in the NBA.
10 Stephon Marbury
Stephon Marbury and Kevin Garnett were one of the greatest duos in the NBA, but that unfortunately didn’t last very long. Another “me first” player, team executives were content to rid themselves of Marbury as soon as they got him. Stephon was traded to New Jersey and then Phoenix where statistically he had productive years, and then was traded to the New York Knicks where the wheels came off - he was victim of being in the wrong situation (Read: Coach Larry Brown) at the wrong time. Marbury would average over 19 points and 7 assists for his career and participate in two All-Star games, but he never found team success, unable to gel with other players, regardless of the talent level.
9 Michael Beasley
Once you are labeled as an NBA talent you can usually milk the association for at least 5 years before no one will offer you an opportunity to keep their bench warm. Case in point is Michael Beasley, a physical specimen with all the tools to be an amazing basketball player without either the motivation or the basketball IQ to pair with his body. Beasley spent his first two seasons struggling to produce as a lottery pick was expected before getting traded to Minnesota where he flourished for one season, buying him additional opportunities including another stint with Miami which once again has been less than stellar to say the least. Most high-lottery guys play high minutes and have a go-to attitude. With the exception of one season in Minnesota, Beasley has shown neither of these winning attributes.
8 Andrew Bynum
Every one loves a great center in the NBA and everyone understands how often they get injured. It’s only natural that a person that size, using his body to jump and bang constantly, will get injured. At one point it appeared Andrew Bynum was going to be the next great L.A. Laker center, but that never happened. Instead, injuries and situations (poor teams) have forced Bynum to hang up his sneakers much earlier than many expected when just a couple years ago he was paired up with Kobe Bryant and considered a reason to pick the Lakers to win. Bynum tried to make it in Cleveland and last season joined LeBron James in Miami, but as a shell of his former self. His better NBA days are behind him, even if he is still only 27 years old.
7 Josh Smith
Is Josh Smith a power forward, a small forward or a center? Maybe he’s a stretch four? Unfortunately for Smith, he has been a talent without a position for his entire career. Coaches have not known how to utilize his unique skill set that incorporates both defense and offense without exposing weaknesses caused by him playing out of position. Make no mistake though, Smith can do things most dream of being able to do around the hoop; unfortunately, consistency hasn’t been an adjective tied to Smith. After several years with the Atlanta Hawks it looked as if Josh Smith was finally going to be the player many have hoped for, but that has yet to happen. We continue to wait.
6 Greg Oden
If you heard the rumor that Greg Oden is made of glass, I’m here to tell you that rumor is not true. Anyway, I’m pretty sure it’s not true. We felt sad when he was out in the NCAA tournament and then felt bad when he got injured after being drafted by the Portland Trailblazers. By the third time I don’t think anyone expected anything less. Last season the Miami Heat picked up Oden, a storyline that would have really been amazing had the Heat won a championship with Oden playing the “defensive center” role. Alas, neither happened and we are left with only those amazing Ohio State blocks pre-NCAA tourney and pre-NBA career.
5 Darius Miles
Darius Miles was one of the last players to come straight out of high school before the NBA put in the no 18-year-olds rule. Miles was also one of the first players measured by not actual talent, but potential talent. Unfortunately, Miles found it difficult to be such a raw prospect and then fell into a series of injuries soon after. You can absolutely blame this on the Clippers, a team cursed by bad luck for many years at this point. Miles never made it back to 100 percent, nor did he ever become a lottery star. He did have a couple of productive years in Portland after leaving the Clippers, but his total career only spanned 9 years, too short for an 18-year-old kid drafted with the third overall pick.
4 Baron Davis
Certain individuals have so much talent they can get by with little effort. The frustrating part of this is that we never get to see how talented that individual actual is. Baron Davis played over 12 seasons in the NBA, many of them with above average numbers across scoring, rebounding and assists for his position. Davis also never won a championship, was often injured and was always on the trade block. Davis was the ultimate player known for his highlights, but never discussed when the topic of “missing piece” came up. He had more talent in one hand than some players have in their whole bodies, he just never had the motivation (or right coaching) to maximize his effort.
3 Lamar Odom
A silky smooth, long lefty that could score, pass and play defense, Lamar Odom was the full package. Then he started smoking crack and dating a Kardashian. Not necessarily in that order. So, the Clippers curse (being drafted by L.A. Clippers) never said anything about crack and Kardashian love, but it’s the Clippers, so anything is possible. After a couple injury-filled years with the Clippers, Odom was traded to the Miami Heat and then came back to L.A., this time to play with the Lakers. Here Odom became a role player for Kobe to defer to, a position he was comfortable with. Initially scouts saw Odom as a star, but the role player for a top dog fit him nicely. In Hollywood all good things must end and with Odom it was a quick slide that involved reality TV and hard drugs. Lamar had a few years of productive basketball left; instead, he sold his soul to the Kardashians.
2 Steve Francis
The Houston Rockets thought they had found a savior in Steve Francis, even giving him the nickname of Stevie Franchise. All started off well, Francis could score and had great court vision. Once the Rockets started adding more players, his weaknesses (defense and sharing) became apparent. You can have all the vision in the world, but if you are set on taking the shot, you are going to take the shot. Maybe it was coaching, maybe something else, but Francis never improved his game. Most talents show improvement, but Francis seemed to peak in his first three years which was a sure sign of lack of killer instinct. When Francis got shipped off to New York (after a brief stop in Orlando) everything bottomed out and he was out of the league in two years. Today, Stevie Franchise plays in China.
1 Derrick Coleman
How can someone that played for 14 years and averaged 16 points and 9 games for his career be considered a waste of talent? Easy, when it’s Derrick Coleman, everybody’s favorite overrated power forward. Few players had as high expectations as Coleman when he was drafted 1st in 1990. He was going to be the greatest power forward to ever play the game, or at least the next Charles Barkley. He had the rare body and coordination combo (as well as success at the college level) that coaches lined up for. Instead we got a “good” player that appeared “chubby” and lacked hustle. Coleman was the definition of a bust and a waste of talent.
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