- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the weeks leading up to the June 27 NBA draft, we’ll be taking a look at the 20 schools that have produced the best pros in the modern draft era (since 1989, when the draft went from seven to two rounds). Click here to read Eamonn Brennan’s explanation of the series, which will be featured in the Nation blog each morning as we count down the programs from 20 to 1.
Top Five NBA Draftees Since 1989:
Paul Pierce (1998)
Kirk Hinrich (2003)
Drew Gooden (2002)
Mario Chalmers (2008)
Raef LaFrentz (1998)
Sixth man: Nick Collison (2003)
The rest: Cole Aldrich, Darrell Arthur, Sherron Collins, Ben Davis, Tyshawn Taylor, Thomas Robinson, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Josh Selby, Xavier Henry, Brandon Rush, Darnell Jackson, Julian Wright, Keith Langford, Wayne Simien, Aaron Miles, Ryan Robertson, Billy Thomas, Jacque Vaughn, Scot Pollard, Greg Ostertag, Darrin Hancock, Rex Walters, Adonis Jordan, Mark Randall, Kevin Pritchard, Eric Chenowith, Sasha Kaun
Why they’re ranked where they are: By pedigree, Kansas is linked to the other high-profile college basketball programs that comprise the game’s country club. It’s a short list.
But the Jayhawks are definitely on it.
They’ve won five national titles (1922, 1923, 1952, 1988 and 2008). They’ve reached the Final Four 14 times. They’re second all-time in wins (2,101). They’ve earned 24 consecutive NCAA tournament invitations. And they’ve produced some of the greatest players in college basketball history.
Larry Brown led the program to its first national title in more than 30 years at the conclusion of the 1987-88 season. Roy Williams, who took over the following season, and Bill Self, who arrived in 2003, have maintained and enhanced the school’s tradition. Self has led Kansas to nine consecutive Big 12 championships. The Jayhawks are as relevant to the game’s past as they are to its present. They don’t have many down years in Lawrence, Kan.
Yet the team’s NBA legacy has not equaled its rich NCAA history.
We’ll discuss details soon. But Kansas earns most of its credit -- for the purposes of our rankings -- off the vast number of former players who’ve signed NBA contracts (34) since 1989. Quality, however, is lacking.
If the Jayhawks were a 1950s doo-wop group, they’d be known as “Paul Pierce and the Underachievers.” Multiple players on this list failed to match the hype attached to their names prior to their respective drafts.
A few things to consider. Kansas has a bunch of current NBA players who could transform their careers in the coming years. Mario Chalmers, the Morris (Markieff and Marcus) twins, Brandon Rush and Darrell Arthur could all make major strides in the next two or three years. So this ranking is not complete.
But Kansas has produced 19 first-round picks since 1989, the year that the NBA implemented a two-round system, and Pierce is the only true star on the list. That’s surprising because the Jayhawks have produced so many pros in the last 20-plus years.
For some players, their struggles were complicated by injuries (LaFrentz) and personal choices that affected their careers (Wayne Simien entered the ministry after a brief stay in the league). Still, it’s clear that KU’s standing in college basketball does not parallel its status at the next level.
That’s why the Jayhawks are 14th in our rankings.
Pierce is a first-ballot Hall of Famer who’s still using his 35-year-old body to put up elite numbers (18.6 PPG in 2012-13) in a young man’s game. He’s won an NBA ring, and he’s a 10-time NBA All-Star. But after Pierce, things get murky.
Give LaFrentz some credit for a nine-year career that featured some solid years in Denver. But he was the No. 3 pick in 1998. So much more was expected from him.
It’s not easy to average 12.1 PPG and 5.4 APG, while making 80 percent of your free throws and 38 percent of your 3-pointers. But Kirk Hinrich has done that over the past 10 seasons.
Drew Gooden is the consummate rotation player who’s been dependable throughout his career whenever he’s been healthy. His overall numbers are commendable (11.8 PPG, 7.6 RPG). But he’s also another top-five pick that’s fallen short of star status during his career.
Mario Chalmers has won an NBA ring and worked his way into a starting point guard role on a Miami Heat squad that should win more titles as long as LeBron James stays in town. Remember, the Minnesota Timberwolves picked him in the second round of the 2008 NBA draft and traded him to Miami for two second-round picks and cash. Who (back then) would have predicted he’d be a starting point guard in the NBA Finals (again)?
Nick Collison’s career stats aren’t mind-blowing or anything. He’s had a solid stint in the league for a player who was the 12th pick in the 2003 draft.
That’s why they’re not higher than No. 14. This is where the Jayhawks belong.
Why they could be ranked higher: Williams and Self prepared multiple players for the next level. They impressed NBA scouts and ultimately signed pro contracts. Their NBA success varied, but the Jayhawks are responsible for 34 NBA draftees since 1989.
That sum would be the program’s best argument for a higher ranking. Kansas is a pro factory for talented players. The tally is proof that players have developed into NBA prospects under Williams and Self. Some didn’t last long at the next level. Others missed the bar attached to their names once they turned pro. But they were drafted. They made it. That helps KU’s cause.
Why they could be ranked lower: Other teams ranked below Kansas were criticized for their limited star power. The Jayhawks have one superstar and many athletes who failed to crack the barrier that separates the elite players from everyone else. And there are the multiple disappointments and busts on this list.
Simien, LaFrentz and others just didn’t justify the buzz. And they’re not alone.
Pierce is one of the greatest players in league history. But Kansas did not produce another perennial All-Star during that two-decade stretch.
Perhaps that’s enough to knock the Jayhawks down a spot or two.
What’s ahead?: Andrew Wiggins is coming. If Wiggins, the No. 1 recruit in the 2013 class, fulfills his potential, then he could be an NBA superstar soon. That’s no guarantee, but adding another elite player to this list would certainly give Kansas a boost. Incoming freshman Wayne Selden has NBA tools, too.
And then there’s a group of young players on NBA rosters who’ve commenced their careers within the last five seasons. Chalmers should be a starting point guard for many years.
Rush missed most of the Golden State Warriors’ season after tearing his ACL in November. But he averaged 9.8 PPG and shot 45.2 percent from the 3-point line in 2011-12. Arthur tore his Achilles and missed the 2011-12 season. Could he return to his 2010-11 form (9.1 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 81.3 percent from the free throw line)? We’ll see.
Both Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris could compete in the league for a long time. Thomas Robinson struggled his rookie season, which included a trade from the Sacramento Kings to the Houston Rockets. But he has the drive to earn a more significant role in the near future.
Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey might have bright NBA futures, too. Both players could compete at the next level for many years. McLemore might be the most talented player in this summer's draft.
Check back in a few years. The Jayhawks could be top-10.
Final thoughts: Kansas is one of the country’s most successful college basketball programs. And it’s responsible for sending waves of players to the NBA each season.
It’s just surprising that the Jayhawks haven’t produced more NBA standouts. A lot of players have turned pro since 1989, but few have had memorable careers.
Young players -- especially Wiggins -- could change perceptions about Kansas’ NBA tradition. Right now, however, No. 14 seems like the proper spot for the program.