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The Best Undrafted NBA Players Who Beat The Odds

While many good players are selected in the early rounds, sometimes talent slips through the cracks. Here are the best undrafted players in the NBA – now and throughout basketball history.

The best undrafted NBA players now and throughout basketball history
Credit-NBA/Joker Mag Illustration

If you are wondering why the NBA is one of the most exciting major sports leagues in the world, we can tell you. The draft system encourages parity, with the idea of preventing any single team from having a monopoly on the best players.

This makes professional sports unpredictable, and we get to witness more exciting matchups and spectacular comebacks.

The NBA’s lottery system offers perhaps the most interesting variation of the traditional sports draft.  And while many good players are selected in the early rounds, sometimes talent slips through the cracks.

Here are the best undrafted players in the NBA – now and throughout basketball history.

Table of Contents

How Do NBA Teams Miss on Great Players?

In the age of modern analytics and advance scouting, it’s hard to imagine a player slipping past every level of due diligence.  However, it seems to happen every year.

All too often we see undrafted free agents from small schools and late bloomers who got their start overseas.

Who is The Best Undrafted NBA Player of All-Time?

Ben Wallace on going undrafted in 1996: "I went back to the gym that night. I was on a mission to let everybody know, ‘Y’all missed one.’"

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Ben Wallace is the greatest undrafted NBA player of all time. He is also one of the game’s all-time greats.

Coaches and scouts alike totally missed all signs of greatness with Wallace, and he made a name for himself at the Division 2 level.

In 2004 he became an NBA champion. He was also a four-time Defensive Player of the Year, four-time All-Star, six-time All-Defensive team, five-time All-NBA, the two-time rebounding leader, and a one-time blocks leader.

Ben Wallace is now enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame – proving that you can reach the pinnacle of your game, no matter where you start.

READ MORE: The Inside Story of Ben Wallace: From D2 No-Name to Hall of Famer

Top Undrafted Free Agents in NBA History

JJ Barea: 2001–2020

Barea is a Puerto Rican player who studied and played at Northeastern University. It was quite a shock that he went undrafted after a great college career and winning a gold medal with the Puerto Rican national team.

Barea ended up playing a season in the Baloncesto Superior Nacional (BSN) before joining The Golden State Warriors at training camp. He was later signed by the Dallas Mavericks and helped them win the NBA championship in 2011.

Avery Johnson: 1988–2004

Avery Johnson is another NBA champion who was undrafted. You may now know him as a coach but he also had a fascinating career as a player.

The 5’10” point guard, known as the “Little General”, had an amazing college career with Southern University and broke many of their college records. It came as a surprise to many when he went undrafted in 1988.

After spending that summer in the now-defunct United States Basketball League, Johnson joined the NBA and ended up playing for 10 different teams throughout his career. In 1999, he won the NBA championship with the Spurs.

RELATED: The Shortest NBA Players of All-Time

Bruce Bowen: 1993–2009

You’re probably stunned to see this name on our list. Bruce Bowen was a three-time NBA champion and an eight-time all-defensive player who went undrafted. But it’s true. Bowen’s road to success was a long one.

After going undrafted, Bowen spent several years playing for French teams before signing a 10-day contract with Miami Heat.

After that, Bowen signed with the Boston Celtics in 1997 and played 61 games in his first full year in the NBA. He then moved on to the 76ers, back to Miami, and finally settled with the Spurs.

It was with the Spurs that he won his 3 titles and 8 all-defensive team honors.

John Starks: 1988–2002

John Starks on bagging groceries during his time away from basketball: "When I was back there [at Safeway], I was thinking 'Is this all I want out of life.'"

John Starks played for 4 different colleges during his education and ended up not getting drafted despite a fantastic final season at Oklahoma State. He signed with the Golden State Warriors as a free agent but only played 34 games with the team.

Starks headed to the CBA and WBL and played a year in each before returning to the NBA. He signed with the Knicks and made his mark in New York, where he won the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award.

“I didn’t follow him in the CBA,” Michael Jordan said after “The Dunk” in the 1993 NBA Playoffs. “I didn’t know about him in college. But I know about him now.”

RELATED: The Best Undrafted NFL Players of All-Time

Connie Hawkins: 1961–1976

The late, great Connie Hawkins (also known as the Hawk) deserves a place on any greatest players list – not just the undrafted players.

Hawkins was one of those rare players who headed to another league to prove NBA coaches wrong and actually did it.

Despite never officially being involved in a point-shaving scandal, Hawkins was expelled from the college and couldn’t join the NBA Draft. Instead, he bounced between the ABA and the Harlem Globetrotters. He won every possible award in the ABA before joining the NBA.

Hawkins went on to be a four-time NBA all-star.

Check out the rest of our undrafted series:

Written By

Sports writer and digital marketer.



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