We’re all about the unheralded gems of the sportsworld here at Empty the Bench. After naming our All NBA Second-Round Pick Team earlier this week (sorry, guys, we’re still not picking Walton over Korver), we’re back to dig even deeper and unearth the NBA players who got even less respect on draft day than their second-round brethren.
Like with the second-round picks, ETB has named our starting five—encompassing only those players who entered the league from 1990 on—as well as two honorable mentions for each position. Between our starting five we have a few Defensive Player of the Year awards, a fistful of All-NBA Defensive Team honors, a gaggle of NBA Championships, and the most dimunitive man in the league. Think a few GMs are kicking themselves for passing over these guys? If we’ve overlooked anybody, please add them in the comments section.
Earl Boykins, 1998 (Eastern Michigan)
It’s sometimes easy to miss the littlest guy on the court amongst the trees surrounding him, but Boykins hasn’t let his lack of size keep him from becoming a valuable contributor for the bulk of his nine-year career in the league. We considered naming Mike James to this spot and bumping Earl down to an Honorable Mention, below, but James has only recently developed into a starting-caliber guy, and besides: who thought a skinny, unheralded 5-5 point guard would last this long and play so well? Coming in undrafted, coupled with his size disadvantage, has forced Earl to overcome long odds, and for that alone he has earned this spot.
Oh, yeah, he’s a pretty decent player, too. Currently suiting up for the Milwaukee Bucks (he’s been sidelined with torn ligaments in his thumb), Boykins has averaged double digit scoring each of the past four seasons, corresponding with his move to the Denver Nuggets in 2003-04. He’s not as big of a steals guy as you might guess, averaging less than one a game over his career, but his coaches don’t play him for defense. With Earl, it’s all about scoring and giving his team a change of pace. Plus, doesn’t his impish-sounding last name, “Boykins,” just seem to suit him perfectly?
Raja Bell, 1999 (Florida International)
David Wesley, listed below, has the stronger career resume at this point, but we feel that when it’s all said and done Raja will have finished the race as the better player. Bell didn’t blossom until his fourth year in the NBA, when as a member of the Utah Jazz he averaged 11.2 points a game in only 24 minutes of action. His minutes have increased every year since then, as have his statistical and intangible contributions on both the offensive and defensive ends. Raja has indeed become one of the better on-ball defenders for a Phoenix Suns team that doesn’t emphasis D very much; just ask Kobe.
Since arriving in Phoenix during the 2005-06 season, Bell has averaged 2.5 three-pointers a night, sinking them at about a 42.5% clip. It’s crazy how consistent his averages have been over his two seasons running alongside Steve Nash: his points, FG PCT, assists, rebounds, FT PCT, three-pointers made, blocks, and turnovers are nearly identical. Bell is a key cog in the Suns’ starting lineup, and will undoubtedly play a major role in his team’s upcoming playoff run.
Bruce Bowen, 1993, (Cal-State Fullerton)
The guy you love to hate. Mr. Intangible. Clutch three-pointers from the corner. Dirty. Pain in the ass. Sticks to his opponents like glue. All of these things describe the best defensive player on a San Antonio team that prides itself on its D. If it wasn’t for Ben Wallace, Bowen would probably have at least four Defensive Player of the Year awards on his trophy shelf, but he’ll just have to settle for three championship rings and six straight years on the NBA’s All-Defensive Team. Not too bad for a guy who came into the league as an afterthought amongst afterthoughts. Raise your hand if you remember seeing Bowen suit up as a member of the Miami Heat during his rookie season. Liar—he played just one minute in one game.
Bowen played in all 82 games last season for the Spurs, logging over 30 minutes each night. In fact, he’s now played in 421 straight dating all the way back to 2002; that’s good for the longest standing streak in the league. His career averages are rather pedestrian—6.5 points, 2.9 rebounds, 40% FG—and he’s an absolutely pathetic free-throw shooter in the mold of Shaq (okay, maybe not that bad), but anyone who has followed the NBA over the past six or seven years know how valuable Bowen is to his team.
Udonis Haslem, 2003 (Florida)
Bear with me, I need to get something off my chest in regards to one of the few still-young players on the defending champion Miami Heat. Udonis, for the love of God, keep that f%*$ing mouthpiece in your mouth! Don’t play with it, don’t take it out after every whistle, don’t wave it around like a flag. It’s a disgusting habit, my man, and it annoys ETB to no end.
Okay. With that out of the way, Haslem has walked an admirable path on his way to becoming the starting power forward for the Miami Heat. After ending his collegiate career at Florida, a rotund Haslem traveled to France to play for Chalon Sur-Soane; over the course of that successful season, not only did he hone his basketball skills, but perhaps just as importantly dropped over 70 pounds! Needless to say, that year overseas helped his NBA prospects immensely, and after signing on with the Heat he was named to the All-NBA rookie second team.
Haslem played a major role in the Heat’s championship run last season, especially against the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals (damn you for that, Udonis). He’s a tenacious rebounder, solid defender, and has greatly improved his mid-range jump shot this season, and for his career is a 50% shooter from the field. This season, his free-throw shooting is down (69%), but he doesn’t shoot many anyway and is averaging a solid 10.6 points and 8.3 rebounds.
Ben Wallace, 1996 (Virginia Union)
Big Ben is obviously the anchor of this starting five. What more can be said about Wallace that hasn’t been said before? His ascension to the top of the defensive standout throne didn’t begin in earnest until he was traded, along with Chucky Atkins (below), to the Detroit Pistons in 2000-01 in the Grant Hill deal. Since then, he’s simply become one of the NBA’s very best defenders, rebounders, shot-blockers, and hustle players. It all translated to a lucrative free-agent deal with the Chicago Bulls this past offseason—4 years, $60 million, despite being on the downside of his wildly successful career.
And just what has Wallace accomplished in that career? Oh, not much: one NBA title, four all-star appearances, four Defensive Player of the Year awards, five times on the All-NBA team (three on the second team, two on the third), five times on the All-NBA Defensive First Team, and still the only player in NBA history to record 1,000 rebounds, 100 blocks, and 100 steals in four consecutive seasons. When it’s all said and done, Wallace will likely retire as the most successful undrafted player to ever step foot on an NBA court. Heck, he would probably hold that honor if he retired tomorrow.
Mike James, 1998 (Duquesne) – James translated his breakout season last year with the Toronto Raptors into a nice, fat payday from Kevin McHale—Forbes’ best GM in professional sports—and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Things haven’t especially worked out for either party yet, but putting this year aside James has clearly exceeded any expectations (if there were any) he had coming out of college. He was a key member off the bench for the Detroit Pistons 2004 NBA title, can be a bull of a defender when he wants to be, and when he’s feeling it (keyword “when”) is wholly capable of dropping dimes left and right.
Chucky Atkins, 1996 (South Florida) – Chucky is a starter. Wow. But, hey, I suppose he’s earned it (by default) down in Memphis this year, and is indeed enjoying the best season of his eight-year career. He doesn’t do anything spectacularly well, but he’s solid in most areas that a point guard needs to be solid in: he can shoot the three ball with some consistency, is a decent passer, doesn’t turn the ball over much, and keeps his field-goal percentage over 40%.
Matt Carroll, 2003 (Notre Dame) – Until this season, Carroll never averaged more than 17 minutes and 9 points a game, but he’s solidified himself in the Charlotte Bobcats rotation in 2006-07 and become a key contributor off the bench, mostly for his three-point shooting. Still only 26 years old, Carroll has shown steady improvement every year of his NBA career, and is in midst of his best scoring season at 12.2/game.
David Wesley, 1992 (Baylor) – During an 11-year spell that stretched from the mid-90s to the mid-00s, Wesley averaged double digits in points and at least 1 three-pointer while playing well over 30 minutes a night for the Celtics, Hornets, and Rockets. Now on his last leg with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Wesley has career averages of 12.5 points, 4.4 assists, and 42% FG. Not bad, not bad.
Andres Nocioni, 2004 (Argentina) – In just three years in the league, Nocioni has established himself as a balls-out defense guy in the mold of Bruce Bowen; not as good of a one-on-one ball defender, but a much more polished, consistent scorer. Unfortunately (for the Bulls), his season has been derailed by a bothersome foot, but over the past two seaons he’s put up 14 points, 6 boards, 46% FG, and countless hustle plays. A lot of GMs in this league would love to have him on their squad.
Maurice Evans, 2001 (Texas) – Mo has developed into a nice player off the bench, and even filled in as a spot starter for the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this season, a stint that included a 26 points, 4 assists, 2 steals, and 61% FG effort (okay, it was against the Warriors, big deal!). Evans is an erratic shooter and has a tendency to disappear at times all together, but when his head is in the game and he hits a few early shots, this guy is capable of contributing a quality 12-20 minutes to his team.
Reggie Evans, 2002 (Iowa) – Rebounds. That about says it all for the slightly undersized PF who’s now making his living with the Denver Nuggets. He averages just over 7 of those bad boys a night, and that’s pretty much what he’s out there for. Evans is perhaps most famous, however, for violating Chris “Cave Man” Kaman.
Malik Allen – PF 2000 (Villanova) – Nothing really spectacular (at all) about Allen’s game, but there’s a reason he’s stuck around the league for six seasons now. Decent defender, decent rebounder, can put the ball in the hoop from time to time. Honestly, there weren’t many other power forwards for consideration here—are we missing anybody?
Brad Miller, 1998 (Purdue) – Brad, Brad, Brad, Brad, Brad… why did you have to pick the one season I draft you for my fantasy team to send your normally reliable game into the tank? Until this season, Miller was one of more under-appreciated centers in the league, a guy who could fill up the stat sheet with points, rebounds, assists, three-pointers, and a high field-goal percentage. He’s having his worst season, statistically, since the turn of the century.
Jorge Garbajosa, 2006 (Spain) – I have a feeling we might get raked over the coals on this one, especially since he’s one of these “hybrid” guys who plays multiple frontcourt positions. But let’s be honest: outside of perhaps Aaron Williams and Mikki Moore, there just haven’t been many undrafted centers to make much of an impact over the past 16 years. If you know of one, please state his case in the comments section. Jorge has adjusted to the NBA game very well in his first season, giving the young Raptors a good dose of versatility and reliability. He’s putting up 8.3 points, 5 boards, and 2 assists so far, but his role figures to increase with Bargnani likely out for the season.