Friday, June 12, 2020

Small College Players - A History

Making it to the NBA is not an easy feat for aspiring basketball players. Of high school basketball players, only .03% find their way into the league. Even the progression from high school to college basketball can be difficult, as many talented players across the country are scrambling to get noticed, recruited, and secure a Division I scholarship.

There are 353 NCAA Division I college basketball programs, which each have 13 scholarships to round out their roster. That represents more than 4,500 basketball players of the best young talent, but there are many outstanding players at other levels of college basketball who rise to the top. Some excellent athletes end up playing at the Division II, III, or NAIA levels for a variety of reasons: desire to stay close to home, academics offered at a school, personal connection to the school of coaching staff, religious views, late blooming physical traits/gifts - often there is some notable reason.

While it isn't an impossible path to the NBA through lower levels of college basketball, it is a much tougher road, now more than ever with organized youth basketball starting at such an early age, with social media coverage allowing players to get discovered earlier, and with more Division I basketball programs than ever before.

Here is a historical timeline to highlight the some of the notable non-Division I players that did realize that dream of playing basketball in the NBA:

Vern Mikkelsen
photo courtesy of Hamline University

Before Vern Mikkelsen was a force alongside George Mikan as a 4-time NBA Champion with the Minneapolis Lakers, he was also a NAIA Champion and All-American with Hamline University (MN) in 1949. Hamline was a small-school powerhouse during this time, producing 7 NBA players in the 1940s and 1950s. In 10 seasons with the Lakers, Mikkelsen was a 6-time All-Star and is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Bank-shot artist and Wilmington native, Sam (Mr. Clutch) Jones starred at North Carolina College (later North Carolina Central) at the Division II level in 1957 before going on to win 10 NBA titles alongside Bill Russell with the Boston Celtics. Jones had 12 seasons with the Celtics, where he was a 5-time All-Star and a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Phil Jackson
photo courtesy of University of North Dakota

Earl (The Pearl) Monroe was a Philadelphia playground basketball legend that exploded on the scene at Division II Winston-Salem State (NC). In 1967, Monroe was the NCAA Division II Player of the Year and Winston-Salem State won the national title. At the professional level, Monroe was NBA Rookie of the Year, a 4-time NBA All-Star, and won the NBA title with the New York Knicks in 1973.

Phil Jackson stayed close to home by playing basketball at Division II University of North Dakota. Jackson was drafted in the 2nd round of the 1967 NBA Draft by the New York Knicks. He helped the Knicks to NBA titles in 1970 & 1973 and had a 12-season career as a key reserve known for his physical nature and defensive intensity. Jackson is the most decorated head coach in NBA history. Over 20 seasons, Jackson was able to lead his teams to 13 NBA Championships - 6 with the Chicago Bulls, featuring Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and 7 with the Los Angeles Lakers, featuring Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. Jackson was known as The Zen Master for his calming influence and bringing different personalities together to produce winning teams.

George Gervin
photo courtesy of Eastern Michigan

Originally slated to play at California State, Detroit native George (Iceman) Gervin decided to return home and play for Division II Eastern Michigan. Gervin started his professional career by signing with the Virginia Squires of the ABA in 1972, but played most of his 14-season career in the ABA & NBA with the San Antonio Spurs. Gervin was a 12-time All-Star, 4-time League Scoring Champ, and member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Gervin was famous for his signature finger roll finishes around the basket.

World B. (Lloyd) Free grew up playing basketball in Brooklyn and was a 2-time NAIA All-American at Guilford College (NC), where they won the NAIA National Championship his freshman year in 1973. Free was drafted in the 2nd round of the 1975 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers. He played for 6 teams over 13 seasons, was an All-Star with the San Diego Clippers, and was a fan favorite later on with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Six Jones brothers - Oliver (1964), Melvin (1968), Wil (1969), Caldwell (1973), Major (1976), and Charles (1979) - played Division II basketball at Albany State (GA) and all of them were either drafted or played for ABA or NBA teams. Oliver was drafted by the Cincinnati Royals of the ABA, but never played. Melvin was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA, but never played. Wil was an ABA All-Star and part of the 1975 ABA Championship Kentucky Colonels team. Caldwell had the most size and talent: he was an All-Star in the ABA with the San Diego Conquistadors, and a defensive stopper for the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA. Major was a bench player, mostly with the Houston Rockets. Charles had a long NBA career as a reserve player, and was also part of the Houston 1995 NBA Championship team.

The Jones Brothers - Oliver, Melvin, Wil, Caldwell, Major & Charles
photo courtesy of Albany State University

Jack Sikma
photo courtesy of Illinois Wesleyan
Growing up in rural Illinois, Jack Sikma was heavily recruited, but had already built a strong relationship with Illinois Wesleyan head coach Dennie Bridges and decided to stay close to home. Sikma finished as the leading scorer and rebounder in Illinois Wesleyan history and a 3-time NAIA All-American. The Seattle Supersonics drafted Sikma 8th overall in the 1977 NBA Draft. Over his 14-season NBA career, Sikma was a 7-time All-Star and won the NBA Championship in 1979 with Seattle. Sikma is revered as one of the best free-throw shooting big men in NBA history and has served as an assistant coach in the NBA for a number of teams.

Purvis Short was a 2-time SWAC Player of the Year at Jackson State (MS) when it was still a Division II school in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Short was drafted 5th overall in the 1978 NBA Draft by the Golden State Warriors. During his prime, Short averaged more than 20 points per game for a 4-year stretch. Short played 12 seasons in the NBA and now in retirement has served for many years with the NBA Players Association in various roles, including Director of Player Programs.

Rick Mahorn
photo courtesy of Hampton University

The baddest of the Bad Boys, Rick Mahorn, was a 3-time NAIA All-American at Hampton University (VA). Mahorn was taken in the 2nd round of the 1980 NBA Draft by the Washington Bullets, but earned his fame with the Detroit Pistons by winning the NBA title in 1989. Mahorn teamed with Charles Barkley to become a devastating rebounding duo for the Philadelphia 76ers. Mahorn had a 18-season NBA career and was also a 2-time WNBA Champion as an assistant coach with the Detroit Shock.

Jerome Kersey played at Division II Longwood College (VA), and left in 1984 having set school records in points, rebounds, steals, and blocked shots. Kersey was drafted in the 2nd round by the Portland Trailblazers, where he enjoyed his best NBA seasons. He had a 17-season NBA career and won the NBA title in 1999 with the San Antonio Spurs.

Manute Bol
photo courtesy of Bridgeport University

Mario Elie was not heavily recruited, but played at Division II American International College (MA) and became the all-time leading scorer in school history. Elie was drafted in the 7th round of the 1985 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks, but did not make the team. He bounced around between Ireland, the USBL (United States Basketball League), Portugal, and the CBA (Continental Basketball Association) before getting his break with the Philadelphia 76ers. Elie had a reputation as a nasty defender for his 11 NBA seasons and played a key role for the Houston Rockets to win the NBA title in 1994 & 1995. Elie was also a bench player for the San Antonio Spurs for their NBA Championship in 1999.

One of the most unique players in NBA history, Manute Bol played a single season in 1985 at Division II Bridgeport University (CT). Bol was originally from Sudan and was not deemed eligible at Cleveland State, so he enrolled at Bridgeport because of their English program for foreign students. Bol stood 7'6" tall and averaged 22.5 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 7.1 blocks in his season at Bridgeport. Bol played for 10 NBA seasons with 4 teams and stifled opponents with his wingspan and shot blocking ability. There were rumors about Bol's age: many believed he was many years older than any of his documentation indicated. He worked as a political activist and humanitarian beyond his NBA playing career to help the people of Sudan.

Terry Porter
photo courtesy of UWSP Athletics

Terry Porter grew up in Milwaukee and got a late start in basketball, playing for legendary coach Dick Bennett at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, which was an NAIA school at the time. Porter was selected with the last pick (24th) of the 1st round of the 1985 NBA Draft by the Portland Trailblazers. He went on to have a 17-season NBA career, was a 2-time All-Star, and had his number retired in Portland. Porter was known for his defensive motor and ability to play either guard spot well. Porter has been an assistant and head coach for several NBA teams, and is currently the head coach at the University of Portland.

Dennis Rodman
photo courtesy of SE Oklahoma State

Before Dennis Rodman was known as a flamboyant rebounding machine, he was a 3-time NAIA All-American at Southeastern Oklahoma State. He led the NAIA in rebounding in both 1985 & 1986. Rodman was drafted in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft by the Detroit Pistons and became a key member of the Bad Boys teams that won NBA titles in 1989 & 1990. During the 1991-92 season, Rodman not only led the league in rebounding, but did it with a career-high 18.7 rebounds per game. After playing with the San Antonio Spurs for 2 seasons, Rodman was traded to Chicago and was the defensive-minded, rebounding post presence that allowed the Bulls to 3-peat as NBA Champions in 1996, 1997 & 1998. Rodman was a 5-time NBA Champion, 2-time All-Star, 2-time Defensive Player of the Year, and is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Scottie Pippen
photo courtesy of UCA Athletics

The rise of Scottie Pippen at Central Arkansas is more than a fairy tale – he started as the team manager, then a member of the team, then was granted a scholarship, then was the best player on his team and became NAIA All-American in 1987. Pippen grew 7 inches while at college and dominated the competition with guard skills in his new 6'8" frame. Drafted 5th overall, he played 17 NBA seasons, mostly with the Chicago Bulls and Portland Trailblazers. Pippen was a 6-time NBA Champion and 7-time All-Star with the Chicago Bulls, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, and Olympic gold medalist in 1992 as part of the Dream Team.

Virginia Union might as well have been named Tough Guy University. Three of the most aggressive and hard-nosed low-post players in the NBA during the 1980s and 1990s came from Virginia Union, a Division II school.  Charles Oakley was the Division II Player of the Year for Virginia Union in 1985. Oakley played 19 NBA seasons, starting with the Chicago Bulls, but was most known as a longtime dominant rebounder for the New York Knicks. Terry Davis (1989) played 10 seasons in the NBA, most notably for the Dallas Mavericks. Ben Wallace (1996) played for 16 NBA seasons and 5 different teams, beginning with the Washington Bullets/Wizards. Wallace was an NBA Champion in 2004 and 4-time Defensive Player of the Year with the Detroit Pistons. Both Davis and Wallace were undrafted, but found their way to the NBA for successful careers.

                       Charles Oakley                                          Terry Davis                                                  Ben Wallace
photos courtesy of Virginia Union University

Greg Grant led Division III in scoring in 1989 at Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey). Standing just 5'7" tall, Grant was still selected in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft and played for 6 NBA teams over 6 seasons, and despite his small stature, was very shifty and never seemed to have trouble getting his shot off.

Mike Penberthy
photo courtesy of The Master's University

One of the craziest accounts is that of Darrell Armstrong. At Division II Fayetteville State (NC), Armstrong was a walk-on kicker on the football team who ended up playing basketball later. He was an all-conference selection as a senior in 1991 and began to blossom as a post-collegiate basketball player in the USBL. Armstrong played in the CBA and overseas in Cyprus and Spain before signing a free agent deal with the Orlando Magic. His athleticism and hustle were trademarks and made him a fan favorite instantly. Despite his late start in the NBA, he played 14 seasons. He was the NBA Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player in 1999, and eventually had his number retired by the Orlando Magic.

Mike Penberthy (1997) broke a bunch of scoring and 3-point records while at NAIA school The Master's (CA). He bounced between the CBA and Germany before landing with the Los Angeles Lakers for the 2000-01 season. That team featured Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, but Penberthy was a flamethrower off the bench for the eventual NBA Champions that season. While his NBA playing career was rather short, Penberthy had success overseas before becoming a shot mechanics coach in high demand among NBA circles. He is currently working as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Devean George
photo courtesy of Augsburg College

Growing 4 inches and adding 40lbs of muscle during his college years completely changed basketball for Devean George. He went from a guard with good ball-handling and long-distance shooting ability, to a player that was a force everywhere on the floor with his solid frame and leaping ability. In 1999, George was MIAC Player of the Year at Division III Augsburg College (MN) and went 23rd overall in the 1st round of the NBA Draft. George enjoyed 11 seasons in the NBA and won 3 NBA Championships as a key rotation player with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Since 2000, smaller schools have struggled to produce NBA players with meaningful roles or long careers. Yuta Tabuse (BYU-Hawaii, 2002) was a 5'9" Japanese point guard that had a brief stint with the Phoenix Suns. Junior Harrington (Wingate University (NC), 2002) broke into the league as a backup point guard with the Denver Nuggets, but never stuck with any team for more than a season. Jerome Beasley (North Dakota, 2003) was drafted by the Miami Heat, but only appeared in 2 games. Jeremy Richardson (Delta State (MS), 2006) was an athletic forward that bounced around between 5 teams in 3 NBA seasons. Garret Siler (Augusta State (GA), 2009) was a big-bodied post that had a short time of action with the Phoenix Suns. Jaylen Morris (Molloy College (NY), 2017) got a couple of 10-day contracts with the Atlanta Hawks.

Duncan Robinson
photo courtesy of Williams College

Ronald (Flip) Murray had a couple of hot stretches where it looked like he could become a star, but he was never able to sustain it. Murray was the Division II Player of the Year in 2002 at Shaw University (NC). Murray was drafted in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft and played for 8 teams over 8 seasons, experiencing the most success as a part-time starter with the Seattle Supersonics.

The greatest recent success story lies with Duncan Robinson, who only played one season at the Division III level for Williams College (MA). When head coach Mike Maker left Williams for Marist in 2014, he let his friend and head coach at Michigan, John Beilein, know that Robinson was exploring opportunities to transfer to a Division I school to finish his college basketball career...and the rest is history. Robinson was an integral part of a Michigan team that had great success, which lead to opportunities in NBA Summer League to showcase his shooting ability and high basketball IQ, and now he is playing a key role for the Miami Heat.

Rooting for the underdog is a big part of college basketball and what makes the NCAA Tournament such a popular event and sports phenomenon. The same applies for the longshots of college basketball chasing their NBA and professional basketball dreams. The players that were told they weren't tall enough, or weren't good enough, and had to scratch and claw their way to being noticed in smaller or empty gyms to get recognition can provide some of the greatest success stories the NBA has to offer.

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