Photo Credit: Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports Images
On October 29th, 1996, NBA commissioner David Stern, unveiled the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, tipping off a season-long celebration of the league’s 50th anniversary. Among the august group were legends who had honed their skills at college basketball powerhouses such as UCLA, North Carolina and Kansas before embarking on their NBA careers.
Walt “Clyde” Frazier was one of those 50 players. He also was a Hall of Famer and two-time NBA champion. He had not, however, played his college ball at a basketball factory. Frazier had attended Division II Southern Illinois University. Frazier played at Southern Illinois from 1963 to 1967, earning D-II All-America status in 1964 and 1965. In 1967, Frazier earned MVP honors after leading Southern University to the NIT championship with an upset victory over Marquette University.
The New York Knicks judiciously made the 6-4 Frazier the No. 5 overall selection in the 1967 NBA Draft. All Frazier did to thank the team was: help New York win the only NBA titles in franchise history, in 1970 and 1973; make seven All-Star teams – earning MVP honors in 1975 – four All-NBA First Teams and seven All-Defensive First Teams; and become one of the most iconic players in NBA history. When New York traded him to Cleveland in 1977, Frazier held the following franchise records: games (759); minutes played (28,995); field goals attempted (11,669); field goals made (5,736); free throws attempted (4,017); free throws made (3,145); assists (4,791); and points (14,617). Those marks stood until Patrick Ewing – a fellow Top 50 Player – came along.
All of the above makes Frazier the patron saint of players from small colleges who dream of playing in the NBA. There are a growing number of such NBA players today, those who played college at small schools – not Division II-small, but certainly not North Carolina-big – the best of whom, while a long way from achieving Frazier-like status, are in the process of authoring highly successful professional careers.
Following are the best of the best, ranked by their 2013-14 salaries. Perhaps surprisingly, they are all guards. Or maybe, just maybe, Frazier’s influence is strongest with the vertically challenged.
8 Norris Cole, Miami Heat, 2013-14 Salary: $1,129,200
In his third NBA season, Cole often finds it difficult get a lot of quality minutes on a team featuring perimeter players named LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen. That said, he is making the most of limited playing time, averaging 7.2 points and having connected on a career-high 48 three-point field goals this season, surpassing his previous high of 35 set last season. Cole almost accepted a scholarship to play football at Walsh State before choosing Cleveland State and basketball. As a senior, he became the first men’s basketball player in Horizon League history to earn Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors. The fifth Cleveland State alum to don an NBA uniform, Cole averaged 14.1 points and 3.3 assists in his collegiate career.
7 Patrick Mills, San Antonio Spurs, 2013-14 Salary: $1,133,950
Now in his fifth NBA season, and third with the Spurs, Patrick Mills has appeared in every game for the Spurs, scoring in double figures 28 times, including seven games with 20-or-more points and one 30-plus-point performance. Although he was recruited by bigger Division 1 schools like Utah, Wake Forest and Alabama, Mills chose to attend Saint Mary's in Moraga, Calif. Mills was the only collegiate basketball player competing in the 2008 Olympic Games and the youngest player in the history of Australia to compete in the Olympic Games in basketball. In six games, Mills averaged a team-best 14.2 points.
6 Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers, 2013-14 Salary: $3,202,920
An All-Star in only his second year in the NBA, the reigning Rookie of the Year ranks first on the team in assists (5.6 apg) and second in scoring (20.8 ppg). That, however, understates how important Damian Lillard is to the success of the Portland Trail Blazers. On a team that is reliant on its long-distance shooting, Lillard is second in the league for three-pointers (169), and early last month, he recorded his 323rd career three-pointer, the most ever by a player in his first two seasons in the NBA. Playing three years at Weber State, Lillard ranks second in school history in points (1,934 points) and fifth in Big Sky history. The ninth Weber State player to make it to the NBA, Lillard earned two Big Sky Player of the Year awards and as a senior was a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award.
5 Gary Neal, Charlotte Bobcats, 2013-14 Salary: $3,250,000
Gary Neal, who the Bobcats acquired by the Bobcats from Milwaukee on February 20th, is averaging over 10.0 points this season while playing a shade over 20.0 minutes per game. In six games with Charlotte, Neal has seen his playing time tick up to 24.5 minutes as the Bobcats vie for a postseason spot. Neal started out at La Salle but was dismissed after his freshman year due to a sexual assault allegation, for which he was later acquitted. He walked on at Towson University and is only the fourth basketball player in NCAA history to score at least 1,000 points with two different schools, and only the second player from Towson State to make the NBA.
4 J.J. Barea, Minnesota Timberwolves, 2013-14 Salary: $4,687,000
Only the fifth Northeastern player to reach the NBA, J.J.Barea, an eighth-year pro went over the 4,000-career-point mark February 12th vs. Denver, and sank his 400th career three-pointer Jan. 31 vs. Memphis. A key cog off the bench for Minnesota, Barea is averaging 8.9 points and 3.6 assists. Barea was a four-year standout at Northeastern University, and was a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation's best point guard, during his junior and senior campaigns. He finished his college career as the school's second all-time leading scorer with 2,209 points, trailing only Celtic great Reggie Lewis.
3 Kevin Martin, Minnesota Timberwolves, 2013-14 Salary: $6,500,000
In his 10th NBA season, Keven Martin is averaging 19.1 points and ranks fourth in the NBA in free throw accuracy at 88.5 percent. Martin scored the 10,000th point of his career November 11th and needs eight three-pointers for 1,000 in his career. Martin played college ball at Western Carolina University, where he ranks fourth all-time on the school’s scoring list with 1,838 points. In his three-year collegiate career, Martin averaged 23.3 points. Martin is one of only six Western Carolina alums to play in the NBA, and the only one to last more than two seasons.
2 Rodney Stuckey, Detroit Pistons, 2013-14 Salary: $8,500,000
Playing a reserve role for the Pistons this season, Rodney Stuckey ranks first in the NBA for most points off the bench this season with 13.7 per game among players who have played at least 53 games off the bench. The sixth-year pro scored his 6,000th career point vs. Orlando January 28th. The only player Eastern Washington University has ever graduated to the NBA, Stuckey played two years of college ball, scoring 1,438 points and dishing 283 assists .On January 11th, 2009, Eastern Washington retired Stuckey's No. 3 jersey during a half-time ceremony.
1 Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors, 2013-14 Salary: $9,887,642
First on this list in more ways than one, Stephen Curry this season became the first Warrior to be voted an All-Star starter since Latrell Sprewell in 1995. Curry leads the league in three-pointers made while ranking third in assists per game and tied for seventh in scoring. Curry has recorded 15 30-point games already this season, the most 30-point games by a Warrior since Baron Davis in 2007-08. He has dished at least four assists in 72-straight games, the longest active streak in the NBA and a career-long streak. Curry, only the sixth player from Davidson to reach the NBA, Curry is the school’s all-time leader in three-point field goals (414); free throws (479); 30-point games (30) and 40-point games (six).
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