- Eamonn Brennan, 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
Joakim Noah (2007)
David Lee (2005)
Mike Miller (2000)
Al Horford (2007)
Jason Williams (1998)
Sixth man: Udonis Haslem
The rest: Chandler Parsons, Matt Bonner, Corey Brewer, Bradley Beal, Marreese Speights, Dwayne Schintzius, Andrew DeClercq, Donnell Harvey, Orien Greene, Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh, James White, Chris Richard, Taurean Green, Vernon Macklin
Why they're ranked where they are: Seventeen years ago, the University of Florida took a chance.
It was time. Florida basketball -- a program that from 1933 to 1980 finished higher than fourth in the SEC exactly twice -- had finally experienced some success under Lon Kruger, who in 1994 led the Gators to their first-ever Final Four. In 1996, Kruger left Gainesville to take over at Illinois, just one more step toward fulfilling his destiny as the Sufjan Stevens of college basketball coaching, and Florida was left at a crossroads. It could slowly tilt toward respectability with a proven coaching entity, or it could seize the opportunity to do something bold. The Gators walked through door No. 2, hiring a 31-year-old former Providence star and Rick Pitino protégé with five years as an assistant and two as a head coach on his résumé. The rest, as they say, is history.
Before Billy Donovan arrived at Florida in 1996, the Gators had just four NCAA tournament appearances in school history. The first came in 1987, when Vernon Maxwell (who left Florida as the second-leading scorer in SEC history behind only Pete Maravich) pushed through to the Sweet 16. Since Donovan's arrival at Florida, the Gators have gone to the tournament 13 times, advanced to the Elite Eight in six seasons (including each of the last three) and won two national titles, in 2006 and 2007. Seventeen years after the Gators took a chance on the hotshot 31-year-old with the Pitino pedigree, Florida is now something close to a basketball power.
Nothing illustrates this point quite as well as the list you see above.
Florida has produced a staggering number of NBA players in the post-1989 era, almost all of whom were recruited, developed and shipped under Donovan. The Gators have 10 active players on current NBA rosters, and three (the San Antonio Spurs' Matt Bonner and the Miami Heat's Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem) facing off in the 2013 NBA Finals. The breadth of Donovan's success is evident here. Some schools in our rankings derived most of their draft pedigree from one dominant team, or a singularly brilliant player -- think UNLV, Syracuse, LSU.
You might expect the only program in college hoops history to win back-to-back national titles with the same starting lineup to draw most (if not all) of their draft attractiveness from that memorable 2006-07 run. Not so. Joakim Noah and Al Horford are among the best Florida products, sure, and Corey Brewer is still a nice rotation player for the Nuggets, but David Lee was drafted in 2005, Matt Bonner in 2003, Jason Williams in 1998 and Udonis Haslem came into the league in 2003 after going undrafted. Others have come since: Marreese Speights in 2008, Chandler Parsons in 2011, Bradley Beal in 2013.
Even more impressive: All of these players I just named have made some varying impact on the NBA. The best of them -- Noah -- has morphed from the gangly, goofy kid with the crazy hair into arguably the NBA's best defensive big man, the spiritual and physical anchor in Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau's ruthless defensive scheme. Lee is a two-time All-Star who scores and rebounds at a double-double rate when healthy. Horford is a very solid NBA big man, if not more. Miller is a 12-year veteran who has shot above 40 percent from 3 for his career, and has been key in Miami's title chases the past three seasons. Williams, better known as White Chocolate, was lauded and derided in equal measure for his flashy style, but he did more than get '90s kids like me to make our AAU coaches angry when we attempted the elbow-pass in a game; he racked up 4,611 career assists and essentially defined the open-air style of the Chris Webber-era Sacramento Kings.
Go down the list: Bonner has been a spot-shooting matchup nightmare and a Gregg Popovich favorite for years, Haslem is a multiple title winner and a pro's pro, Brewer is a solid piece and Speights is a decent backup big man. Meanwhile, Parsons has been fantastic in his first two seasons in Houston, and Beal looks like one of the best young 2-guards in a league that badly needs good young 2-guards.
This is a deep group of NBA veterans, with a tiny dash of exciting young talent. In fact, that's what this list lacks, and the only thing keeping it outside the top 10 -- an elite, franchise-changing, face-melting NBA talent. Everything else is here.
Why they could be ranked higher: If you're pitching a 15-year-old with NBA dreams on your basketball program's NBA draft pedigree, it always helps to have a truly elite young NBA star on your side. Most kids don't grow up dreaming of being a 10-year NBA rotation journeyman; they grow up wanting to be Kevin Durant. But the adults among us can recognize the attractiveness of a stable, well-paying career, and Florida has lots of those type of players -- they might not pop up on "SportsCenter" all that often, but they are playing consistent minutes and stacking consistent NBA paper, and there's something especially impressive about a school that consistently produces that kind of guys.
Why they could be ranked lower: Some might quibble with my choice to rank Noah higher than Lee, given the difference in their statistics (Lee averages five more points and one more rebound per game for his career) and Lee's advantage in All-Star appearances (two to Noah's one). I was tempted to put Lee at the top, too, but there's this thing called defense, and you have to play it about 50 percent of the time you're on the floor, and while Noah is one of the best defenders in the game, Lee is one of the worst. Which gets me around to my point: You could argue that Lee has been overrated thanks to his impressive scoring and rebounding numbers, a status that is beginning to unwind in the analytics era. That might cause you to lower Florida's ranking slightly, I suppose. You could also argue that we shouldn't project Parsons and Beal too aggressively. Or maybe none of these guys do all that much for you, NBA-wise. I would disagree. But I'd also understand.
What’s ahead? Beal and Parsons are the two young Gators to keep an eye on, because you don't even have to give them the hilariously generous NBA2K13-level development curve to think both could be All-Stars one day very soon. (Parsons especially has been a revelation in Houston -- he's perfect for its uptempo scheme, but more malleable and versatile than anyone previously guessed.) But you could also argue that more is in store for Noah, who just went to his first All-Star Game this season, and Horford, who still seems to add incrementally to his game each season.
Stretch 4 Erik Murphy is the most likely player to be drafted this summer; Kenny Boynton isn't drawing much attention from scouts. Next June, senior forward Patric Young will be too big and too athletic (and, if 2012-13 is any indication, too good a defender) to not be selected somewhere on draft night. The Gators also have two elite five-star freshmen -- No. 2-ranked PG Kasey Hill and No. 4-ranked power forward Chris Walker -- arriving in Gainesville this summer. Expect the steady churn of quality players to continue.
Final thoughts: A couple of decades ago, Florida's basketball program woke up. Norm Sloan, Vernon Maxwell and Lon Kruger all played a part in its rebirth, but the true departure from a remarkably ineffectual past came when Donovan was hired. Since then, he's been as successful as any coach in the country, and in the process has elevated the Gators from a laughingstock to a program with as many solid current NBA players as any in the country. It's been a remarkable run, and at age 48, with his own NBA wanderlust seemingly behind him, Donovan is going to be at this for quite some time.