Draft surprises, both good and bad
Examining a decade of draft picks exceeding expectations and not quite reaching them
We are all brilliant in hindsight. We saw the busts before they busted. We knew the surprises before they surprised.
Or at least that's what we say since, unlike NBA executives, we aren't publicly on the hook for our knowledge and draft insight.
But if the past has proved anything, it is that nothing is a sure thing. Some players exceed their potential, and some fail to live up to expectations. So as we prepare for this year's NBA draft, trying to figure out who will be the surprises and who will be the flops, it's time to own up to the truth.
And the truth is, we all miss: the people who get to poke, prod, evaluate and interview their future draft picks, and the rest of us ordinary armchair point guards. Players exceed their potential or fail to live up to expectations every year.
In honor of that cold, harsh reality, here is a list of 10 of the biggest surprises since 2000, good college players who have gone on to even more successful pro careers. And, naturally, with the good comes the bad, so I'm throwing in five players who looked like stars in the making back in college but instead have fizzled in the NBA.
By no means is this a definitive list. Just a retrospective based on one scribe's draft-night expectations. Feel free to share some of your favorite surprises and disappointments in the comments section. And remember, these are only players whom we saw play in college.
Trevor Ariza: Baron Davis, Ariza's mentor, said before the 2004 NBA draft: "In the next three to four years, a lot of teams will know they made a mistake by not taking him higher." Davis wound up being right but it was hard to blame the NBA brain trust for being reluctant. Ariza left after one good-but-not-stellar season at UCLA, and his selection at No. 43 seemed about right. Seven seasons later, Ariza is a mainstay in the NBA and this year put up his best numbers for the Hornets in the playoffs, averaging 15.5 points and 6.5 boards.
J.J. Barea: Hands up if you had Barea winning an NBA championship, slicing and dicing the Lakers in the playoffs and dating Miss Universe. Sure you did. The 5-10 guard (yes, he's listed at 6 feet no, he's not 6 feet) out of Northeastern went undrafted in 2006 and was only picked up by the Dallas Mavericks after strong performances in a pair of summer leagues. Now a free agent, Barea is looking at a sweet payoff as suitors in need of a solid point guard vie against the Mavs, who need Barea as a backup to Jason Kidd.
Taj Gibson: In case you were vacationing in the Himalayas and missed it, Taj Gibson threw down a few nice little dunks at the expense of the Miami Heat in these NBA playoffs. Humiliated a guy by the name of Dwyane in the process, too. The epic throwdowns put Gibson in the spotlight, but the 26th pick for the Chicago Bulls has been a good find since 2009. At USC, Gibson was a solid but inconsistent player. He earned Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year honors, but his energy level waned at times. Now that he's found a constant motor, things have changed dramatically for Gibson. Despite being relegated to the bench with the addition of Carlos Boozer, he still put up strong numbers for the Bulls this season, and plenty of people are wondering whether Chicago can afford to keep Gibson out of the starting lineup.
Danny Granger: In the 2005 NCAA tournament, Granger put up 15 points and 12 rebounds for New Mexico in a first-round loss to Villanova, numbers that seemed to summarize his game: a very good player, but not the type to lead the charge. Instead, Granger has been asked to do exactly that since joining the NBA, becoming the primary threat as the Indiana Pacers reorganized and rebuilt their franchise. He's handled the responsibility better than anyone could have anticipated. He was an All-Star in 2009, and, in getting the Pacers back to the playoffs this season, Granger averaged a yeoman's 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists.
Roy Hibbert: When John Thompson III signed Hibbert, his dad immediately coined a nickname for the 7-2 big man: the Big Stiff. Mean-spirited? Perhaps. But Big John has never been one to mince words and Hibbert was something of a stiff. He certainly got better during his college career, improving his footwork, his game and his numbers before he left Georgetown after leading the Hoyas to the Final Four in 2007. Still, there were plenty of folks who thought the gangly Hibbert would resort to his old moniker when mixed in with the behemoths of the NBA. Instead, the 17th pick has been a more than serviceable big man for Indiana, upping his numbers as a pro just as he did in college. This season Hibbert averaged a career best 12.7 points and 7.5 boards.
David Lee: Timing has never been Lee's specialty. He departed Florida in 2005, a year before Gainesville became a college hoops mecca and he was drafted by the Knicks in the middle of the franchise's hellacious run of disaster. But the 30th pick of the 2005 draft has parlayed a good, if not great, college career into a surprisingly consistent pro career. A guy who never averaged more than 13.6 points as a Gator put up 20.2 in an All-Star season in 2010, and has averaged double-digit rebounds in four of his six NBA years, including this past season with the Warriors.
Gary Neal: Forget being an NBA star; plenty of people wondered if Neal would even make it out of college. Once the Atlantic-10 Rookie of the Year, Neal was accused of rape after his sophomore season at La Salle. With the trial pending and his coach fired, Neal withdrew and transferred to Towson, where he enrolled as a walk-on, his participation on the team conditional on the trial. Neal was acquitted and, by his senior season, ranked fifth in the nation in scoring (25.3 ppg). After college, he spent three seasons in Europe -- playing in Turkey, Italy and Spain -- and finally got his NBA chance in 2010, when the San Antonio Spurs signed him to a three-year contract. This season he averaged 9.8 ppg, and the elderly rookie -- he'll be 27 in October -- earned a spot on the All-Rookie Team and saved the Spurs (temporarily at least) with a last-second 3 in Game 5 of this year's first round.
Jameer Nelson: The NBA folks told Nelson after his junior year that he wasn't a lottery pick, probably more of a late first-rounder. So Nelson decided to return to Saint Joseph's to improve his stock. His stock soared -- he led the Hawks to an undefeated record until the A-10 tournament, earned national player of the year honors and almost willed St. Joe's into the Final Four. And he still was drafted 20th. Considered little more than a really good college player, Nelson instead has played in the NBA Finals, earned an All-Star stripe and remains the second-most valuable player on the Orlando Magic's roster.
Rajon Rondo: If this list had a poster child, it would be Rondo. From 21st pick to elite player, from embattled college player to NBA champion, Rondo's rise has been as meteoric as it's been unpredictable. How big is Rondo? This website did a nine-chapter story -- 9 Stories on No. 9 -- about him last year. But before all this Boston glory, there were considerable doubts. At Kentucky, Rondo was a savant of a player, blessed with big hands and nimble feet but cursed with a stubborn streak. He was headstrong, a kid who liked to play by feel tethered to a coach, Tubby Smith, who liked to dictate play. The relationship destined for disaster failed to produce a UK Final Four and, in the end, probably cost Rondo more than a few draft spots. Among the players drafted ahead of him: Rutgers' Quincy Douby and Memphis' Rodney Carney. Neither is in the league now. In the meantime, Rondo -- after some serious growing pains as a rookie -- is a two-time All--Star with a championship ring.
Russell Westbrook: In theory, Westbrook doesn't belong on this list. He was, after all, the No. 4 pick in the 2008 draft, meaning that excellence was expected of him. The caveat: He wasn't expected to be the fourth pick. When Seattle (which has given way to Oklahoma City) opted for Westbrook, the general consensus consisted of a group head-scratch. He was good in college, taking UCLA to two Final Fours, but was seen primarily as a defensive specialist. He also was a shooting guard in college and would be expected to play the point in the pros, which equated to an awful lot of maybes and what-ifs to risk such a high draft pick. But Westbrook has rewarded the Thunder with his dynamic play, and in a roller coaster of a postseason, the 22-year-old helped lead one of the NBA's youngest teams all the way to the Western Conference finals.
And now for the not-so-good:
Marcus Fizer: Before it all went haywire and Larry Eustachy became a punch line, there was Fizer -- leading the nation in scoring and, with the help of Jamaal Tinsley, leading Iowa State to the brink of the Final Four. Picked fourth by the Chicago Bulls in 2000, he bounced around the NBA for six uninspiring seasons before bouncing himself out of the league altogether.
Michael Beasley: It's certainly too early to write Beasley off as a washout, but there's no doubt that the player who created such a stir in his one year at Kansas State hasn't made quite the same impact on the NBA. Beasley was a beast in college, a double-double waiting to happen. His pro numbers are decent -- 15.9 points, 5.8 boards -- but it's his presence that is missing. Tagged with maturity questions as a college freshman, he has only added to lingering doubts with myriad off-court troubles, getting more attention for his antics than for his play. The Heat believed so much in him that they traded the former second overall pick for a pair of second-round picks and salary-cap space.
Adam Morrison: Morrison is to the bad surprise list as Rondo is to the good. Plenty of people wondered about Morrison when he was drafted No. 3 in 2006, worried that his defense (or lack thereof) would be too much of a liability. But it seemed impossible to fathom that a guy who averaged 28 points per game and led Gonzaga to such heights couldn't make it in the NBA. It wasn't. After a decent rookie season in Charlotte, Morrison missed an entire season due to a torn ACL and then was a nonfactor for the Bobcats and Lakers before being cut by the Wizards before the start of last season. He is currently out of the NBA.
Marvin Williams: I remember watching North Carolina in Williams' lone season there, amazed that perhaps the best player on a loaded team came off the bench. No one blinked when Atlanta made him the No. 2 pick of the 2008 draft. To be fair, Williams hasn't been awful. He's averaged a steady 11.9 points and 5.1 boards, but he is a victim of the 1-2 punch of ridiculous expectations and where he was drafted. Williams was chosen ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams, and no one is terribly interested in letting him or the Hawks forget it.
Shelden Williams: A dominant All-American at Duke, Williams became the third player in NCAA history to corral more than 1,500 points, 1,000 rebounds, 350 blocks and 150 steals. But his lack of mobility and tweener size made NBA success hard to come by. In five seasons, the No. 5 pick in the 2006 draft has played for six teams and failed to match his moderate rookie numbers of 5.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
More disappointments at No. 2: Stromile Swift, 2000 (the breakout season simply never came); Jay Williams, 2002 (suffered a devastating injury); Hasheem Thabeet, 2009 (hello, D-League)
To be determined: Greg Oden (if only he could stay healthy )
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
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