Part 1 – An analysis of the past 25 years of Syracuse players’ careers in the NBA
I spent the NBA’s preseason scouring box scores and fan blogs of NBA teams that I have no historical affinity for, watching pixilated games on my computer whenever I had the chance… which means I’m either a HUGE loser or really invested in how former Orangemen do in the NBA. Or perhaps both. In any case, it’s my contention that any die-hard Syracuse basketball fan should have a vested interest in the success of our boys at the next level. Programs are judged not just by their number of wins and losses, conference championships and tournament success, but also by their ability to develop and produce players who become quality pros. And when it comes to recruiting, that matters.
When a highly touted high school prospect would visit Connecticut, Jim Calhoun was famous for taking them into his office and showing them a wall of photos of his former players who had starred in the NBA, (guys like Ray Allen, Rudy Gay, Rip Hamilton, Ben Gordon, Caron Butler, Cliff Robinson, Emeka Okafor, Charlie Villanueva, Donyell Marshall, and on and on) and he’d ask the recruit, “Do you want to be on that wall?”
It was a good pitch—one that unfortunately Jim Boeheim hasn’t been able to make nearly as effectively. In the past 25 years, Syracuse has had 23 players drafted into the NBA (15 of them in the first round), and those players have made a combined six appearances in the all-star game (five of them by Carmelo Anthony). Now all-star games aren’t exactly a scientific measure of success, but they do speak toward something unpleasant that most Syracuse fans feel in their hearts: for a program of our caliber, former Orangemen have been wildly disappointing in the NBA.
Syracuse fans often debate whether we’ve become an “elite” program. Tournament disappointments not withstanding, Syracuse’s consistency over the past two and half decades has established us as a top-tier program, on the verge of being “elite.” A few more Final Fours would certainly help us join the likes of UNC, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA, but so would more success in the NBA. Below, I’ve grouped every Syracuse player to play and/or be drafted into the NBA (over the past 25 years) by success tiers.
The all-star (aka the Carmelo Anthony) tier
- Carmelo Anthony (drafted 3rd in 2003, is in his 10th season in the NBA)
If you remove ‘Melo from the list of Syracuse players in the NBA, it becomes especially sad, as he’s the one genuine superstar we’ve managed to produce over the past quarter century. As a perennial all-star, Olympic champion and one of the most dominant scorers in the game, Anthony has established himself as his own global brand. His contributions to Syracuse go well beyond the National Championship he helped us win in 2003, both as a benefactor of the university (and major donor of one of the preeminent college basketball training facilities in the country: The ‘Melo Center) and a global ambassador of Syracuse basketball. Carmelo’s impact, particularly on potential recruits, simply cannot be over-stated.
The disappointing success (aka the Derrick Coleman) tier
- Derrick Coleman (Drafted 1st in 1990, played 15 seasons in the NBA)
How can a guy who won rookie of the year, made an all-star team and averaged better than 16 points and nine rebounds in his 15-year career be considered a disappointment? Because that guy was expected to be, and by all accounts could’ve and should’ve been one of the game’s all-time great power forwards. Not only did DC have all of the physical gifts to dominate the league, Larry Brown called him one of the smartest players he ever coached. Sadly, Coleman was lazy, and instead of developing into a hall of famer, he bounced around the league underachieving everywhere he went.
The over-achievers tier
- Rony Seikaly (Drafted 9th in 1988, played 11 seasons in the NBA)
- Sherman Douglas (Drafted 28th in 1989, played 12 seasons in the NBA)
Seikaly was never an all-star, but during his 11-year NBA career, he managed to establish himself as one of the league’s better centers, averaging close to 15 points and 10 rebounds a game, and proving to be a very good defender (all while DJ’ing on the side!). Douglas was the first pick of the second round and wasn’t expected to do much in the NBA but had an especially solid career, playing starter’s minutes and averaging 11 PPG, while maintaining close to a 3:1 assist to turnover ratio.
The solid but not spectacular tier
- Jason Hart (Drafted 49th in 2001, played 10 seasons in the NBA)
- Etan Thomas (Drafted 12th in 2000, played 10 seasons in the NBA)
- Hakim Warrick (Drafted 19th in 2005, is in his 8th season in the NBA)
Both Hart and Thomas had respectable NBA careers, each playing 10 seasons and bouncing around the league, largely because of their defensive prowess. Warrick, another journeyman, has proved to be an effective scorer, but a suspect defender. All three guys have had solid careers, and while it would be unfair to say that any of them disappointed, they haven’t exactly exceeded expectations either.
The meh(t) expectations tier
- Stephen Thompson (Undrafted, played 1 season in the NBA)
- Damone Brown (Drafted 36th in 2002, played 4 seasons in the NBA)
- Demetris Nichols (Drafted 53rd in 2008, played 3 seasons in the NBA)
- Darryl Watkins (Undrafted, played 2 seasons in the NBA)
Very little was expected from any of these guys, and very little was produced.
The disappointment tier
- Pearl Washington (Drafted 13th in 1986, played 3 seasons in the NBA)
- Billy Owens (Drafted 3rd in 1991, played 10 seasons in the NBA)
- Leron Ellis (Drafted 22nd in 1991, played 3 seasons in the NBA)
- Dave Johnson (Drafted 26th in 1992, played 2 seasons in the NBA)
- Conrad McRae (Drafted 38th in 1993, never played in the NBA)
- Lawrence Moten (Drafted 36th in 1995, played 2 seasons in the NBA)
- John Wallace (Drafted 18th in 1996, played 7 seasons in the NBA)
- Donte Greene (Drafted 28th in 2009, played 4 seasons in the NBA)
- Jonny Flynn (Drafted 6th in 2010, played 3 seasons in the NBA)
Billy Owens, a member of the first-team all-rookie team and a guy who averaged 15 points and eight boards over his first three years in the league, gets an asterisk, as his failures were largely due to a series of injuries. Pearl and Moten, two of the most beloved Syracuse players of all-time, had games that just weren’t suited for the NBA. Ellis, Dave Johnson and McRae never played enough to have an impact in the league. Wallace was an above-average scorer everywhere he went, but couldn’t or at least didn’t play enough defense. While their careers aren’t technically over, neither Greene nor Flynn has lived up to their potential, and both find themselves (currently) out of the league well before anyone expected them to be.
The Jury’s Still Out Tier
- Wes Johnson (Drafted 4th in 2010, is in his 3rd season in the NBA)
- Andy Rautins (Drafted 38th in 2010, has played 1 season in the NBA)
- Dion Waiters (Drafted 4th in 2011, is in his 1st season in the NBA)
- Fab Melo (Drafted 22nd in 2011, is in his 1st season in the NBA)
- Kris Joseph (Drafted 51st in 2011, is in his 1st season in the NBA)
Wes struggled in his first two seasons in Minnesota, but has shown signs of life since being traded to Phoenix. Andy just signed with the Tulsa 66’ers and is still trying to find his way onto some NBA team’s bench. Much is expected of Dion this year, much less so of Fab and Kris, but all three rookies have something to prove going forward.
The good news is that the state of affairs of Syracuse basketball is as good as it’s ever been. With six guys currently on NBA rosters, two or three more with the possibility to catch on, several (likely) future draft picks on our current squad and top tier recruiting classes coming in nearly every season, Syracuse has the opportunity to improve upon our “disappointing” history in the NBA. So the question becomes will it?
Part 2 of this article analyzes the popular beliefs of why Syracuse players have “disappointed” at the next level and then compares our history to that of other “elite” programs.