The NBA Draft is supposed to be the barometer of success in the NBA. But while it has been true for most, there have been those who are the exception to the rule. Every year many players go undrafted for one reason or another. Some of them get second chances to play as a free agent. Some don’t. And then some made the most of that second chance by building a career no one expected.
Here are the best-undrafted players in NBA history.
Lakers fans remember Raja Bell for his clothesline on Kobe Bryant in 2006. But Bell was more than just that. After he was left undrafted in the 1999 NBA draft, he made his way to the Philadelphia 76ers in 2001. He was a role player with the Sixes and then with the Dallas Mavericks before moving to the Utah Jazz where he played a key role in 2003. That led to a contract in Phoenix where Bell played his best years. In his first year with the Suns, he posted career highs in every statistical category and helped the team reach the Conference Finals where they would lose to Dallas in six games. Bell slowly gained the reputation as a defensive stopper, earning All-Defensive honors in 2007 and 2008. He also led the league in three-pointers made during the 2006-07 and is one of the first 3 and D players in the NBA.
David Wesley was a tweener so he went undrafted in 1992. Experts said he was too short to be a shooting guard while others were not sure if he would develop into a point guard. Luckily, the Nets picked him up in 1993 but played sparingly there. He joined the Celtics the following season and he blossomed in the Garden. Beginning his second season where he averaged 12.3 points per game, Bell would average at least 10 points for the next 10 seasons. The streak ended in 1999 when he averaged 9.9 points per game. In 2001, he averaged 17.2 points and 4.4 assists for the Charlotte Hornets and took them to the Conference Finals where they lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7.
The Big Bad Wolf wasn’t your typical big man. Brad Miller wasn’t a great rebounder nor was he a good shot blocker. He wasn’t even as athletic as his peers. Despite that, he went on to play a long and successful career. Miller’s bread and butter was his mid-range shot. Later, he developed a three-point shot that would make him tough to guard in the court. Miller was also an excellent passer so he excelled in the Princeton Offense run by the Sacramento Kings. He became the second undrafted player to be named to An All-Star team when he was with the Pacers and earned a second All-Star nod with the Kings.
It was better late than never for Darrell Armstrong. After he went undrafted in 1991, he was signed by the Orlando Magic in 1994 but played as a role player until 1998 when he started getting more minutes. With an increased role, Armstrong produced big numbers and was named as the NBA’s Most Improved Player during the 1998-99 season. After winning the award, Armstrong earned the starting point guard spot the next season and from 1999-2002 when he was a starter, he delivered All-Star numbers. He averaged 14.8 points, 6.2 assists and 1.9 steals per game during that period. He even got MVP votes in 1999 and 2000 when he finished 15th and 14th in the balloting. He was also an excellent defender who finished in the Top 10 in steals in four seasons.
Who doesn’t know Jeremy Lin? I love Yao Ming to death but Jeremy Lin is the most successful player of Asian descent to play in the NBA. After being undrafted in 2010 out of Harvard, Lin made his way to his hometown Golden State Warriors in 2011. But after a stint in the D-League, he found his way to the Knicks and during a period when the Knicks were rebuilding, he led a revolution known as Linsanity in 2012. Linsanity led the Knicks to a winning streak that led a turnaround in New York. Lin would earn a three-year deal with the Knicks and he also played for the Lakers, Hornets, Nets, and Hawks. Last season, he was traded to the Toronto Raptors and was part of the 2019 title team despite playing sparingly.
The Little General will always be remembered as one of the most important figures in the rise of the San Antonio Spurs. Avery Johnson went undrafted in 1988 because he was undersized at 5-10 and played college hoops at little known Southern University. The Seattle Supersonics signed him in 1988 and he bounced around the league. It was only in 1994, during his third stint with the San Antonio Spurs, that Johnson blossomed.
Johnson averaged 13.2 points and 8.9 assists in his first two seasons back. He was key during San Antonio’s run to the Western Conference Finals in 1995. But his most unforgettable season was in 1999 when he helped the Spurs win the NBA title. Johnson had often been criticized for his lack of shooting but in Game 5 of the 1999 Finals against the New York Knicks, the Little General hit the game-clinching shot for the Spurs.
Bruce Bowen went undrafted in 1993 because he didn’t have an offensive game. He played four seasons in Europe and the CBA before finally getting signed in the NBA in 1997. After four seasons, he earned a starting role with the Miami Heat and began displaying his defensive prowess. After earning an All-Defensive 2nd team award, he was lured by the Spurs where he won three titles in six seasons with San Antonio. Bowen would make the All-Defensive first team for five straight years from 2004-08. He had his jersey retired by the Spurs but with his permission, LaMarcus Aldridge wore #12 again for the Spurs.
Yes, Udonis Haslem was an undrafted player coming out of college. But it wasn’t because of the lack of skill but it was because he weighed more than 300 pounds when he applied for the draft. So he spent a year in France and lost 70 pounds quickly. The Miami Heat signed him in 2003 and the rest they say is history. He was named to the All-Rookie second team in 2004 when the first team had LeBron, Carmelo, Wade, Bosh and Kirk Heinrich. Haslem’s best statistical season was in 2007-08 when he averaged 12 points and 9 rebounds but no one will ever question his value to the Miami Heat throughout these years. Haslem helped Wade, James, and Bosh win NBA titles. In all, he has three rings and is one of the most beloved players in Heat history.
John Starks went undrafted in 1988, he signed with the Golden State Warriors but was cut in mid-season. He earned a tryout with the Knicks and it was touch and go from there. Starks would be a vital cog in the Knicks’ playoff runs during the 1990s. He was an excellent scorer, a tough defender, and a terrific playmaker. The only problem with Starks and the Knicks was that they peaked during the Michael Jordan era in Chicago. With Chicago taking six titles during that period, Starks and the Knicks were unable to win a title. Still, Starks earned an All-Star appearance in 1994 and played in the 1994 NBA Finals where they lost to the Houston Rockets.
Ben Wallace is one of the best defensive players of all-time. Big Ben was the defensive anchor of the Detroit Pistons championship team of 2004 and was for many seasons there. At 6-9 he was considered undersized to play center but in the 2004 NBA Finals, his Pistons dominated a team that had Kobe, Shaq, Gary Payton, and Karl Malone. Wallace was more than just the 2004 season. He won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award four times, a record he shares with Dikembe Mutombo. He is a ten-time member of the NBA’s All-Defensive team, including five times in the first team. He is the current all-time blocks leader in Pistons history and his #3 was retired by the team.