There is a lot of talk about great college players who busted out of the NBA, but there are an equal number of players who kinda did the opposite. For various reasons, they thrive in the NBA, but never made as much of a mark as college players.
Many of these are guys who were simply too young to be good yet. They spent one year in college, did what they could, and answered the NBA’s call. Others have styles of play that just make more sense for an NBA team and some — possibly many — were poorly utilized by their college coaches.
Whatever the reasons, these are 10 active NBA players who are better in the NBA than they ever were in college.
DeAndre Jordan played for Mark Turgeon at Texas A&M, and either he was simply not any good yet or Turgeon had no idea what to do with him. It struck me as odd that Jordan signed on to play for Turgeon in the first place, and at almost no point during his one year in College Station did it look like he belonged there.
He averaged 7.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 20.1 minutes per game. Those are the numbers of a reliable senior who plays in Turkey for three years before moving back home and opening a bar.
The Clippers took Jordan in the second round on the hunch that a guy that big and athletic couldn’t be too bad. Jordan rewarded them by leading the NBA in rebounding twice, being named to two All-Defensive teams, two All-NBA third teams, and a first-team All-NBA season in 2016.
His otherworldly quality makes Rajon Rondo the subject of a lot of interesting argumentation, so I get that we all may not agree on how good Rondo exactly is right now.
But regardless of what you think of him now, you have to consider his Kentucky career a total disappointment. He stayed there two dull years, averaged 9-4-4, shot 57 percent at the foul line, went to an Elite Eight, then was a No. 8 seed in 2005, which was the beginning of the end for the Tubby Smith era.
Rondo had his share of otherworldly performances at Kentucky — he got 19 rebounds in a game against Iowa, for example — but watching him as a college player was not even remotely as entertaining as watching him as a pro.
It seems that Rondo needs to play with other great players in order to be interested and at his best, and those late Tubby Smith teams just didn’t do it for him.
For the first couple years of Russell Westbrook’s career, I assumed he was a big-ish combo guard who couldn’t shoot. While that remains true all these years later, he has won an MVP award and has averaged a triple double, something I did not see coming when Westbrook was a solid player at UCLA.
He averaged 3.4 points per game as a freshman and 12.7 as a sophomore before turning pro.
Here’s how DraftExpress described him at the time (2008)
"Obviously a late bloomer, Westbrook remains a raw prospect as far as his skill-level is concerned, but has just about as much upside to continue to improve as any guard in the NCAA not named Derrick Rose. … He plays a fairly small role in UCLA’s half-court offense (only 8% of his offense comes from either pick and roll or isolation plays) , mostly as a complimentary piece, moving off the ball trying to find holes in the defense to get to the rim with his tremendous strength and leaping ability, or shooting wide open jumpers. It’s pretty clear when breaking down his footage that he lacks quite a bit of polish on this end of the floor, even if he is extremely effective at the few things he does well."
Some might say not much has changed for Westbrook in the last 10 years, other than he gets to shoot as much as he wants now. Either way, I doubt many saw this coming.
Like a lot of college basketball fans, I had never even heard of Jimmy Butler until he was already in the NBA. Despite looking exactly like Michael Jordan, Butler was barely recruited out of high school, and started his career at Tyler Junior College. He averaged 18-7 there as a freshman but wasn’t even ranked among the top 100 JUCO prospects when he accepted a scholarship at Marquette.
His junior and senior years at Marquette, Butler averaged 14.7 and 15.7 points per game, respectively. That got him a couple of honorable mention All-Big East nods, but it wasn’t until the NBA Summer League in 2012, his second NBA season, that Butler turned into a star. He averaged 21 and 7 that summer, got a contract extension, and has now played in four consecutive NBA All-Star games.
There was nothing wrong with Kyle Lowry as a college player. He was a second-team All-Big East pick as a sophomore in 2006, when he averaged 11 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.3 steals per game for a Villanova squad that won the Big East and finished No. 3 in the final AP poll.
Some guys with those credentials (and a 6-foot-1 frame) go undrafted and get cut in training camp, but it was Lowry’s explosiveness that impressed NBA scouts, and he went 24th overall.
It took a while for Lowry’s NBA career to really take off. He didn’t average double figures until his sixth year in the league, when he was on his third team. But in six seasons with Toronto, he’s averaged 17.8 points, 6.8 assists and 4.2 rebounds, showing the same explosiveness and versatility that got him drafted in the first place.
When the Rockets took Chandler Parsons 38th overall in 2011, the assumption was he’d spend some time in the D-league while the 14th pick, Marcus Morris, filled in at small forward.
Instead, Parsons was in the Rockets’ starting lineup from the jump, making a splash with the tip dunks he was known for at Florida, and some reliable 3-point shooting.
I don’t want to downplay Parsons’ college career too much, since he was the SEC player of the year in 2011, but he did that by averaging 11.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. By his second year in the NBA, he was averaging 15.5 points and 5.3 rebounds and in 2014 he went from making six figures to making $14.7 million.
Booker was perhaps the least balleyhooed one-and-done player Kentucky has ever had. He played well right off the bat for the Wildcats, but came off the bench to score 10 points per game for a team that went 38-1 on the back of Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein and Aaron and Andrew Harrison.
Anybody could see that Booker could really shoot it, and shooting is a skill that matters more in the NBA than it does in college. It’s not a surprise Booker has turned out to be the player he has, although you don’t usually expect much from guys who didn’t start in college.
Ben Simmons was great at LSU in the sense that he filled the box score night after night. Yet in the fashion of LSU’s other historically talented players, that never amounted to much for the Tigers, who went 18-13 and missed the NCAA Tournament.
Everyone nonetheless expected Simmons, the Naismith Player of the Year, to be the top pick in the draft, but his season at LSU included some conspicuous disappearing acts in big games and as a result he was dogged by questions about his competitiveness and courage when he entered the league in 2016.
Two years later he was (somehow) named Rookie of the Year, and the Sixers look for all the world like a team that’s going to be trouble in the East for a long time, proving anything that happens at LSU should be taken with a big grain of salt.
Zach Randolph is, was, and always has been a load, but he was just the fourth-leading scorer on a 2001 Michigan State team that lost to Arizona in the Final Four. That was his only season in college and he was taken 19th, right after Jason Collins and right before Brendan Haywood.
A hefty big man always feels like a disaster waiting to happen, but in Randolph’s case it has worked out beautifully. He averaged at least 20 and 10 five times, and has career averages of 16.6 points and 9.1 rebounds over 17 seasons.
For eight years he was the centerpiece of some Memphis teams that were always in the playoffs, and made it to the Western Conference Finals in 2013.
So if you had it to do over again you’d probably take him over Jason Collins, to say nothing of Kwame Brown, Eddy Curry and DaSagania Diop.
Kyle Korver was a great scorer and a two-time Missouri Valley Player of the Year at Creighton, so he was no chump. In the NBA he’s a role player, but Korver is a better shooter relative to the competition than he was in college — and he was great in college.
Over four seasons, Korver shot 45.3 percent from what was then a 19-foot-9 college 3-point line. In his NBA career, he’s a 43.1 percent 3-point shooter, with three seasons above 47 percent and one season at 53.6 percent. This, obviously, is from a significantly longer distance against much better competition.
Korver never led the NCAA in 3-point shooting percentage, although his 48.0 mark in 2003 would have done it in two of his four seasons (just not that one). He has, however, led the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage four times and in free-throw percentage once.