Top 5 Surprise NBA Stars
Jeremy Lin is beyond a story at this point. Everything any news outlet could possibly run with Lin at the center of the narrative has already been done in the last week, and now that everybody and their mothers know he is, we can now sit back and hope that his newfound stardom sticks.
Of course, he’s not the first guy in NBA history to come out of nowhere and find his way to NBA stardom. There have been plenty of guys that walked into the league with zero expectations and ended up hoops legends. Today, we’ll look at the Top 5 biggest NBA surprises of the modern era, but before we do, a couple of notes:
Lin himself is not on the list for now, but only because the body of work is so small. From the standpoint of sheer shock value, he’d be number one as long as he can sustain the insane level of production he’s put up for the last week.
Also, the guys considered for this list were either undrafted or selected later on in the second round. Successful late first round/early second round picks can hardly be considered true surprises because teams took them with high picks knowing there was a strong chance they’d work out. To be considered, the guys below had to come out of nowhere.
All that said, here are the Top 5 Surprise NBA Stars:
#5 – David Wesley – At 6’1”, Wesley was one of those guys that scouts said was too small to play shooting guard in the NBA. For the most part, that’s generally proven to be true, but Wesley served as a nice exception to the rule. He didn’t get to be that exception right away, though. His first year after college was spent playing for the Wichita Falls Texans of the CBA, and in 1993 he latched on with the New Jersey Nets and finally got his opportunity in the league. It took two more seasons for him to find his groove, but by 1995 he was averaging double figures in the scoring column, and he wouldn’t stop averaging double figures in the scoring column for eleven more years.
#4 – Bruce Bowen – In about a month, the San Antonio Spurs will retire Bruce Bowen’s #12 uniform, showing pretty clearly Bowen’s place in the hearts of Spurs fans. However, the eight-time All-Defensive team selection didn’t have an easy road to the NBA, going undrafted in 1993 and then spending the next four years trouncing around Europe trying to earn a paycheck. Bowen made his NBA debut in 1997, playing a single game for the Miami HEAT, and didn’t find his way back until the next season, where he played his first full year with the Boston Celtics.
He didn’t end up with the Spurs until 2001, but by that point he had established himself as a premier perimeter defender, and it was then that he’d rattle off his string of eight straight All-Defensive team selections. He’d win three rings with the Spurs during that span and go down as one of the top defenders in league history. All that after almost five full seasons overseas delaying the start of his NBA career.
#3 – John Starks – Like a lot of the players on this list, Starks wasn’t drafted, and his road to finding NBA success was a rocky one. The Golden State Warriors game him his first shot in the league, but they cut him after that first season and forced him to find work elsewhere for the 1989-1990 season. That included time with the Cedar Rapids Silver Bullets of the CBA and the Memphis Rockers of the WBL, all of which prepared him for a tryout with the New York Knicks in the summer of 1990.
Unfortunately, it looked as though his time with the Knicks would be over and done pretty quickly, too. Starks didn’t make an immediate impact with the team, and actually injured his knee trying to dunk on Patrick Ewing during a practice. Since teams couldn’t cut a hurt kid, they were forced to hang onto him. This gave Starks the opportunity to heal up and prove himself, and he ended up starting at shooting guard for a ‘90s Knicks team that might have done some big things were it not for Michael Jordan. His best season was 1993-1994, in which he averaged 19 ppg and 5.9 apg.
#2 – Brad Miller – Because of the 1999 NBA lockout, Miller played his first professional ball in Italy, but that sort of thing happens all the time for undrafted free agents, lockout or not. It wasn’t long, though, before the Charlotte Hornets signed him for the 1999-2000 season, and despite flashes of brilliance, Miller was mostly unremarkable his first couple of seasons. However, brief stints with Chicago and Indiana furthered his development enough that Miller eventually made the All-Star team his first two years with the Sacramento Kings. In 2003-2004, he averaged career highs of 10.3 rpg, 1.2 bpg, and 4.3 apg, and chipped in 14.1 ppg.
He’s still a highly serviceable center, despite having served as a bit of a journeyman over the course of his career. Despite that, his rise to NBA All-Star in 2003 was a bit of a surprise, even if his rise to that spot was gradual enough not to be quite as shocking as others on this list.
#1 – Ben Wallace – In his rookie season with the Washington Wizards, Wallace played a measly 5.8 mpg, but by year three in our nation’s capital, he was averaging over 8 rebounds a night. Of course, that paired with a paltry 6 points per game didn’t necessarily turn heads, and before his fourth season he was moved to the Orlando. Just year later, he drew the interest of the Detroit Pistons, who hauled him in as part of the trade that reluctantly sent Grant Hill to the Magic in 2000.
His first year with Detroit, those rebounds per game jumped up to 13.2, and it would not dip below 12.0 rpg for five seasons. He ended up winning defensive Player of the Year four times, leading the league in rebounds twice, and even making five All-NBA Teams during that span. The same level of media craze Lin is getting now, Wallace got back in 2000. After four seasons playing solid but unremarkable basketball, Wallace transformed into the best defensive player in the NBA for half a decade. And nobody drafted him.
Paul Millsap – It didn’t take Millsap long to make his impact on the league, as there were some people talking about Millsap as a Rookie of the Year candidate for the 2006-2007 season. He didn’t win it, obviously, and his overall numbers (6.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg) were pretty modest when that year was all said and done, but to have that spoken at any point during the season was pretty remarkable for the 47th overall pick in the 2006 draft. A 6’8” power forward out of Louisiana Tech taken that late doesn’t step into his NBA career with huge expectations, but now, in 2012, he’s a borderline All-Star.
The theme here is that, for the most part, these players weren’t given the opportunity to shine early in their pro careers. Many had to find the right team and/or an injury to someone ahead of them on the depth chart to finally break out as legitimate NBA players. In every case, the emergence of these guys blew our minds, just like Jeremy Lin is doing right now in New York.
Stories that good are as juicy as they are because they come out of nowhere. That’s why Lin is such a big deal right now, and so many sensational stories were also done on Ben Wallace and John Starks and Bruce Bowen. It’s part of what makes sports so fun, and all we can do is hope that kids like Jeremy Lin keep coming along. If history is any indication, they will.