Top 10 NCAA Riches to NBA Bust players

1. Ed O’Bannon

Most of the players on this list are remembered for either being great in college (Christian Laettner) or for being NBA busts (Pervis Ellison). Then there’s Ed O’Bannon. He’s just not remembered much at all.

It’s a shame because when he was good, O’Bannon was great. He won national player of the year honors in 1995, led UCLA to its first title since the John Wooden era (scoring 30 points and grabbing 17 boards in the NCAA championship game) and was considered a “complete” player that would shine in the NBA.

It never happened, as the injury that almost prevented O’Bannon from becoming a college star became the one that derailed his professional career.

After being the most highly-touted prep recruit in the land (in the same high school class as Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill, no less), O’Bannon committed to UNLV but signed with UCLA after the Runnin’ Rebels were put on probation. Six days before O’Bannon would have his first practice at the school, he tore up his knee so badly that his doctor said it looked like he had been in an explosion.

Four years and a few cadaver ligaments later, O’Bannon scored 30 points and grabbed 17 boards in UCLA’s first national championship victory since John Wooden retired. O’Bannon was the guy who led the Bruins back to the promised land. And it was expected that he would do the same to whichever team took him in the 1995 NBA draft.

When O’Bannon unexpectedly fell to the New Jersey Nets at the No. 9 pick in that draft, it caused Newsday’s Neil Best to write:

The news was a bolt out of the blue, one of those rare moments when the Nets could allow themselves to believe their bad luck might not last forever.

Oh, there was bad luck, but it lasted for two years, not forever. That’s how long O’Bannon stuck around the NBA before retiring and bouncing around Europe for a couple of seasons. He left the game for good at 30 and now the man who was once the greatest basketball player in the land and is forever one of the biggest draft busts is selling cars at a dealership in Nevada.

But that doesn’t make Ed O’Bannon a failure, just a guy who could never duplicate his collegiate success on the professional level.

This list wasn’t about mocking great college players who failed in the NBA, it was about celebrating great college players whose basketball reputations took a hit when they couldn’t hack it in the pros. That’s always seemed unfair to me.

Is Al Pacino’s performance in “The Godfather” any worse because he was in “S1mone”?  Does the awfulness of the new Rolling Stones albums take away from the greatness of “Beggars Banquet”? Of course not. So why should Ed O’Bannon only scoring 684 points in the NBA negate what he did in college?

To true college basketball fans, it doesn’t. The Ed O’Bannons and Christian Laettners and Calbert Cheaneys were great during their NCAA basketball heydays and that’s the way I choose to remember them. What happens in the NBA should be completely separate from that. Too often, it isn’t.

I wish the players in the 2009 NBA draft the best of luck with their futures but, to me, whatever they do in the pros doesn’t matter in regard to the way they should be remembered by college fans. Whether Tyler Hansbrough is a 10-time All-Star or out of the league by age 27, it won’t enhance or diminish the fact that he was one of the best to ever play college basketball.

2. Christian Laettner

Christian Laettner was on the Dream Team.

I rest my case.

Oh, I’m not going to argue with you if you think that Laettner’s NBA career wasn’t bad enough to merit his inclusion on this list. He did score in double-figures for seven of his 13 seasons and he’s No. 92 on the career defensive rebounds list. And there was that All-Star appearance in 1997 (a surprise berth that led teammate and fellow All-Star Dikembe Mutombo to cry and say, “I am so happy. I’m going to the game with my new white brother.”).

But, again: Dream Team. (The Duke superstar was a late addition to the squad, beating out other college stalwarts like Shaquille O’Neal and Jim Jackson.) When you play on the most famous basketball team of all-time, win two national titles in college, hit the most famous shot in history and leave school as the greatest player of your generation, the bar for NBA success is set a little higher.

Christian Laettner may not have plunged as deep into the NBA abyss as some other players on this list, but that’s not the point. His fall was from a much bigger height.

3. Pervis Ellison

I’m pretty sure that “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison acquired that nickname less because of his cool demeanor on the court and moreso because he has the only name that could ever rhyme with “nervous”. It’s like the guy I knew in college named “Lorges” whom everyone called “Gorgeous Lorges” even though he was, admittedly, not the most handsome fellow in the world.

Ellison was pretty cool though. He led the Louisville Cardinals to their last national title in 1986, scoring 25 points and grabbing 11 boards in the team’s three-point win over Duke. He stayed three more years, earning first-team All-American honors, but never duplicating the team success he had as a freshman. Denny Crum’s Cardinals never would advance past the Sweet 16 with Ellison again.

Here’s a delightfully cheesy highlight video of Ellison’s college career (complete with a man singing “Wind Beneath My Wings” in what sounds like the tune of “One Shining Moment”), which includes a rare compliment from basketball’s resident curmudgeon Billy Packer.

The Sacramento Kings made Pervis the No. 1 pick in the 1989 draft, but he was soon shipped to Washington where he had a decent two-year stretch, before injuries took over.

The “Never Nervous” moniker stuck for the rest of his career, but Ellison’s time in the NBA was best summed up by a nickname he earned from teammate Danny Ainge gave him during their time in Sacramento: “Out-of-Service Pervis”.

4. Calbert Cheaney

Not surprisingly, opinions about Calbert Cheaney differ depending on which fanbase you speak with.

Yesterday on Twitter (follow me!) I asked for people to send in their thoughts about the 1993 consensus national player of the year. Some of the responses:

@eamonnbrennan: Old-school, tough, Bob Knight’s spirit warrior, leader, all-around bad dude.

@johnmtaylor: I watched from the press box in 1998 as Cal Cheaney lit up Michael Jordan for 30 points, and M.J. still seemed more impressive.

@afriendofminewithoutatwitteraccount: His NBA career was like his jump shot … ugly.

@unsilent He b***** goats.

You can guess where Eamonn went to school and which professional basketball team Unsilent Majority roots for.

It’s like that with most NBA busts, but Cheaney, in particular, was beloved during his four years at Indiana. He was a native of the state, led Bob Knight’s Hoosiers to a Final Four in 1992 and a No. 1 ranking in 1993, set the Big Ten record for career points, was a three-time All-American and seemed to be the perfect fit with Knight’s motion offense. It all led to him becoming a Hoosier Hero on par with Quin Buckner and Steve Alford.

The Washington Bullets made Cheaney the sixth pick in the 1993 NBA draft, and the IU product looked to be headed toward pro success, averaging 15 ppg during his first three years. But the trade of Chris Webber and the NBA lockout derailed Cheaney and he spent his final seven years in the league bouncing around to four different teams.

As we’ve written in this series before, failure is a relative term when talking about most of these guys. Cheaney played professionally for 13 years and made over $30 million during his time in the NBA. But he never gave anyone in Washington any reason to love him as much as they still do in Bloomington.

5. Lionel Simmons

On a list of famous Lionels, former LaSalle star Lionel Simmons would be far down the rankings, below Ritchie, Messi, Barrymore and even Hutz. A majority of college basketball fans under 30 have probably never heard his name. A majority of college basketball fans over 30 have probably long forgotten it. But in 1990, Lionel Simmons was the best player in the land.

As a senior, Simmons was the consensus national player of the year after leading LaSalle to a 30-2 record and a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. (They lost in the second round to Clemson.) The L-Train, as he was known, led the country in scoring that season and finished his career as the third most prolific scorer in NCAA history (behind only Pete Maravich and Freeman Williams). He still holds the NCAA record for most consecutive games scoring in double figures (115). And only five players had more rebounds than his 1,429.

LaSalle hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since the year after Simmons graduated, but the Explorers have a rich basketball tradition going back to its national title in 1954. Simmons was the third LaSalle player to win national player of the year honors, which ties the Big 5 school for third all-time behind Duke and Ohio State (and tied, amazingly, with UCLA).

Simmons went No. 7 in the 1990 NBA draft and had a solid start to his career with Sacramento, earning all-Rookie honors and averaging over 15 points per game in his first four years in the league. But injuries killed his production and by 1997 he was out of the NBA.

6. Juan Dixon

There was a solid two-month stretch in 2002 when all I did was watch ‘Charles in Charge’ and talk about Juan Dixon. (My college roommate: “Yup.”) I talked about Juan during classes and beer pong games, discussed his silky-smooth jumpshot with friends and strangers. I even once cornered Josh Howard at a party to talk about the greatness of Juan. He concurred, and I don’t think it was just because he wanted to get away from the conversation.

Yet, in the cocoon of Juan-love that I nested myself within, I became unaware that the national perception of Dixon didn’t mesh with his ACC reputation.

Oh, he was well-respected nationally (first-team All-American), but not as revered as he was on the east coast. Case in point: Juan (first name only, please) won the 2002 ACC Player of the Year, but lost out to Duke’s Jason Williams for both major national POY trophies.

Dixon validated himself by leading Maryland to the NCAA championship (winning Most Outstanding Player honors in the process), but today that feels like a forgotten achievement. There is frequent talk about ’01 Duke, ’03 Syracuse, ’04 Connecticut and both championship Carolina teams, but when’s the last time you heard about those Terps? When’s the last time you heard about Juan Dixon?

A lot of that has to do with the fact that we often retroactively diminish a player’s college achievements based on their lack of success in the NBA. The memory of Juan Dixon, NBA vagabond, supersedes the memory of Juan Dixon, college great, because that’s what’s freshest in our minds. That Dixon went No. 17 in the ’02 draft only further reinforces the notion that he wasn’t that a spectacular college player.

7. Billy Owens

When unsigned rookie Billy Owens was traded to Golden State for Mitch Richmond in November of 1991, Warriors coach Don Nelson said, “Billy is a big, strong, excellent young basketball player who can play three positions — power forward, small forward and shooting guard.”

He was about three positions off.

Owens was a monumental NBA bust out of Syracuse, never living up to the hype that made him the third pick overall in the ’91 NBA draft. Despite putting up decent numbers in his first three years in Nelson’s high-flying Golden State offense, the 1991 Big East Player of the Year is best remembered in the pros for being the guy that broke up Run TMC. Just call him Yoko Owens.

Perhaps NBA teams should have realized what they were getting in Owens after his No. 2 seeded Orangemen were upset by No. 15 Richmond in one of the biggest first-round upsets in the NCAA tournament history. Yet, in a draft that saw Larry Johnson go No. 1, Kenny Anderson No. 2 and Dikembe Mutombo No. 5, Owens might have been the most coveted.

Coaches of the first two teams to draft, Charlotte and New Jersey, both wanted to take Owens with their picks but were overruled by the front office. (In a sign of how different things were back in 1991, this information was public knowledge that was reported in the AP’s draft recap. Unfortunately, I can’t link to it.) When Owens didn’t sign with Sacramento and forced his trade to Golden State, I’d imagine there were a lot of relieved folks in Charlotte and Jersey.

Like many players on this list, Owens bounced around from team to team during his professional career. By age 31, he was out of the NBA.

8. J.R. Reid

The most amazing part about J.R. Reid’s career at North Carolina is also the reason he isn’t regarded as highly as he deserves. In his three seasons in Chapel Hill, Reid never made a Final Four. That makes him a rarity among Tar Heel greats like Ford, Jordan, Perkins, Worthy, Montross, Wallace, Carter, Stackhouse, McCants, May, Hansbrough, Lawson and Ellington, guys who played in one, if not more, Final Fours. Don’t let that fool you though. J.R. Reid was one bad dude in college.

He was 6-foot-9, 240 pounds before 6-foot-9, 240 pounds was the norm. He was a freshman star when that was the exception, not the rule. And, oh, that hi-top fade.

When Reid was put on the cover of Sports Illustrated during his freshman year, Curry Kilpatrick wrote of him:

Reid’s post-up, one-hand elevator jumper, either facing the basket or turning around, is already one of the more dangerous weapons in the sport, especially as an option to his line-drive, baby jump hook, which he releases as opponents’ bodies bounce off him. Then there’s his precise drop-step move, and his change-of-direction dribble — he has gone coast-to-coast as middle man in the Tar Heels’ break on several occasions. His hands are massive prime cuts, something out of a meat locker. The touch. That body. In the lane J.R. is virtually unstoppable.

Reid led Carolina to an 88-15 record in his three seasons at the school, each of which finished with the Heels ranked in the AP’s top 10. He was a three-time All-ACC performer and a first-team All-American, which led to his being selected with the 5th pick in the 1989 NBA draft. But, Reid could never duplicate his college success in the pros. He was the definition of an NBA journeyman, playing for seven teams, including twice for the Charlotte Hornets, the team that drafted him.

It’s sort of sad that Reid is probably best remembered now as the butt of a frequent joke from the Cameron Crazies. Those so-called clever fans used to hold up signs that said “J.R. Can’t Reid”, a practice that eventually incensed Dean Smith so much that he publicly called out the Duke students and pointed out that Reid had higher SAT scores than Danny Ferry and Christian Laettner. Unfortunately, all three had similarly disappointing NBA careers.

9. Adam Morrison

For a moment on the night of March 26, 2006, Adam Morrison was on top of the basketball world. Morrison — an All-American, national player of the year candidate, two-time Sports Illustrated cover boy, the latest “next Larry Bird” — and his third-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs had a nine-point lead on No. 2 seed UCLA with three minutes to play in their Sweet 16 game in the NCAA tournament. It’s all been downhill from there.

Morrison infamously cried on the court after Gonzaga’s loss, but things were looking up three months later when he was selected with the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft by the Charlotte Bobcats.

His first season in the league wasn’t terrible (he made the All Rookie second-team on 11.8 ppg), but a devastating knee injury later that year kept him out for his sophomore campaign. He was used sparingly in Charlotte during this, his comeback season, and played even less after getting traded to the Lakers in February. He’s been watching the NBA finals from the end of the bench in street clothes, his trademark shaggy hair shorn down to a buzz cut. That’s a long fall for a guy that scouts once called “literally unguardable”. (I think they meant figuratively.)

It’s too early to call Morrison’s career a complete wash, but it seems highly unlikely that his time in the NBA will be anything but a disappointment. Morrison is a scorer who can’t score. To even say that he plays defense suggests he is somewhat familiar with the concept.

Morrison’s old video game-partner J.J. Redick, who was a superior college player, didn’t make this top 10 because it still seems possible that he can carve out a niche in the NBA (although it’s still amazing that Stan Van Gundy gives him crunch-time minutes). For Adam Morrison to do that, it would be as miraculous as UCLA’s comeback on that March evening three years ago.

10. Danny Ferry

There’s no such thing as a bad 13-year career in the NBA but considering all the hype that accompanied Danny Ferry’s arrival in the league, his might come close. After being one of the most heralded high school and college players of his time, Ferry was little more than a role player during his professional career in Cleveland and San Antonio. He was expected to be an All-Star staple, but rode the bench for most of his playing days, starting just 11 times in his first five seasons.

Ferry was a prep legend at Dematha, the D.C.-area basketball powerhouse coached by basketball legend Morgan Wootoon. After leading the Stags to USA Today’s mythical national high school championship in 1985, he became the object of an intense recruiting battle between Tobacco Road rivals Duke and North Carolina. Ferry, of course, chose Duke and ended up becoming the first in a long line of tall, white Duke superstars who were loathed by most of the college basketball public. If George Washington is the Father of our Country, Ferry is the Father of the Floorslappers. He begat Christian Laettner, who begat Cherokee Parks, who begat Josh McRoberts, who begat Kyle Singler.

In 1989, Ferry was the best player in college basketball. He earned national player of the year honors on 22 points and seven rebounds per game. His 6’10” frame made him an ideal post player, but he had a shooter’s touch, hitting on 43 percent on threes during his senior season. Ferry earned national player of the year honors ths year and was on the final Olympic basketball team comprised solely of amateur players in 1988. (Their bronze medal was said to provide the impetus for the rule change that allowed for professionals to play basketball in the Summer Games.) Duke made three Final Fours during Ferry’s career.

When they drafted him with the No. 2 overall pick in 1989, the Los Angeles Clippers envisioned an All-Danny (Ferry and Manning, the No. 1 pick in 1988) frontcourt leading them out of the basketball doldrums. But Ferry refused to sign with Donald Sterling’s team and instead played in Italy for one season before he was able to orchestrate a trade to Cleveland (where he is now the GM).

In retrospect, it’s easy to say that Ferry’s game wasn’t going to translate well to the pros. His versatility might have masked the fact that he wasn’t dominant at any specific part of the game, his size wasn’t as much of an advantage in the NBA … all the stuff people say about a bust. But at the time, Ferry was thought to be a sure-thing in the league.

Jim Valvano once praised Ferry’s basketball IQ (which was instilled in him not just by his two Hall of Fame coaches, but by his father, who played 10 seasons in the NBA and was the GM for the Washington Bullets), by saying that, “the pro stuff … he knows it all.” He might have known it all, but he couldn’t show it on the court.

Ninety-nine percent of college basketball players would kill to have Danny Ferry’s NBA career. I doubt Danny Ferry is one of them.