- 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
Kevin Love (2008)
Russell Westbrook (2008)
Baron Davis (1999)
Arron Afflalo (2007)
Jrue Holiday (2009)
Sixth man: Trevor Ariza (2004)
The rest: Matt Barnes, Darren Collison, Luc Mbah a Moute, Jordan Farmar, Ryan Hollins, Malcolm Lee, Tyler Honeycutt, Jason Kapono, Dan Gadzuric, Earl Watson, Cedric Bozeman, Dijon Thompson, Jerome Moiso, Toby Bailey, Jelani McCoy, J.R. Henderson, Charles O'Bannon, George Zidek, Ed O'Bannon, Tyus Edney, Mitchell Butler, Richard Petruska, Darrick Martin, Tracy Murray, Don MacLean, Gerald Madkins, Keith Owens, Greg Foster, Trevor Wilson, Pooh Richardson
Why they're ranked where they are: Because Ben Howland did a few things right.
Many things can be said about the Howland era at UCLA, many of them unflattering; his final season in Westwood felt like one long postmortem. After Sports Illustrated's George Dohrmann made public a litany of stories about Howland's penchant to coddle stars, it took a last-gasp recruiting class just to keep Howland around for that final 2012-13 season. For most of his UCLA tenure, he was the guy who resurrected Bruins basketball with three straight Final Four runs. At this point, he's more likely remembered as the guy who gave Reeves Nelson license to torment teammates, student managers, his roommate and pretty much everyone else.
This is the prevailing narrative of Howland's final years, and deservedly so. But it shouldn't be the only thing we remember about his tenure, because no UCLA coach since John Wooden has done more to add to the storied ranks of UCLA products in the NBA.
The funniest thing about this? There was a time not too long ago when Howland was considered anathema to NBA prospects. While Coach K was returning from the 2008 Olympics with a new Suns-style up-tempo offense and John Calipari was touting the benefits of the dribble-drive to every talented high school basketball player in the Virgo Supercluster, Howland was taking talented guys and cramming them into his slow, grinding man-to-man style. With the occasional exception of a jaw-dropping Kevin Love outlet pass, UCLA's best teams embodied this style, which to many NBA types had the alleged adverse effect of "hiding" the abilities of some of Howland's best players, causing them to be drafted lower than their eventual NBA performance deserved. Other coaches began using this against Howland. That may not have been as important as the recruiting bridges Howland burned within California, but it was one piece in the larger puzzle.
And yet, for all the theoretical back-and-forth here, at the end of the day Howland sent some top-notch talent the NBA's way. (This exercise doesn't care where a player was drafted; it judges only his career after the fact.)
We can start with Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook, two of the best young players in the NBA at any position. Westbrook's brilliance has at times been overshadowed by his role alongside Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, but there are few scoring guards in the league better at creating points than Westbrook, and no players -- with the possible exception of LeBron James and Derrick Rose -- who harness more speed and fast-twitch athleticism when attacking the rim. Westbrook is a sight to behold.
Love, meanwhile, has a legitimate chance at the Hall of Fame. Saying that about a guy who has played just five seasons for one of the worst teams in the league feels like hyperbole, but it really isn't: When healthy in 2010-11 and 2011-12 (his 2012-13 season was limited to 18 games due to injury), Love averaged 23 points and 14.3 rebounds per game. In 2011, he broke Moses Malone's record for most consecutive double-doubles (51) and led the league in offensive and overall rebounds; in 2012, he averaged 26.0 points and 13.3 rebounds. When Love entered the league, he was regarded as a generational passer with a decent outside shot who had to figure out whether he was a small forward or a power forward. Instead, he's become a stretch 4 who makes 3s (he shot 39 percent in 2011 and 2012) while also somehow managing to be the best rebounder in the league. There aren't any players in the league -- and few in NBA history -- who have combined these disparate skills so successfully. The best part? Like Westbrook, Love is still just 24 years old.
But the noteworthy Howland-era NBA draft products don't stop there. Arron Afflalo has morphed into one of the league's best shooting guards on both ends of the floor (the shooting guard position is in drastic straits in the NBA these days, so that feels like faint praise, but it really isn't -- he's genuinely good). Jrue Holiday struggled in 2013 but has otherwise looked like a very promising young scoring point guard, promising enough to get an adidas deal and an appearance in those weird A$AP ads. In each of his four seasons, Darren Collison has averaged double-digit points and at least five assists. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has turned into a readier player than anyone expected and Trevor Ariza has carved out a nice brand at small forward. Jordan Farmar and Ryan Hollins are ... well, they're in the league. Let's give them that much.
And that's just the Howland-era haul. There is also the matter of Baron Davis, plus the rest of the veteran/glue/specialist guys on the list (Jason Kapono, Earl Watson, Tracy Murray, Greg Foster, even Dan Gadzuric). Put it all together -- recent star power combined with sheer strength in numbers -- and this No. 7 slot feels just about right.
Why they could be ranked higher: I don't think they could, honestly, not above the teams we still have on our list. If you were someone who did think they belonged higher it's probably because you think Davis is underrated at No. 3 here and that he deserves more credit than he is being given. So let's talk about Baron Davis. After two seasons and arguably the greatest behind-the-back fake in the history of college basketball (just Google it, you'll see what I mean), Davis was drafted third overall by the Charlotte Hornets in 1999. In 2002, he averaged 18.1 points, 8.5 assists and 2.1 steals; in 2004, he went for 22.9, 7.5 and 2.4 steals. He was an All-Star both seasons.
In 2005, Davis was traded by the Hornets to the Golden State Warriors for (wait for it) Dale Davis and Speedy Claxton. The 2007 playoffs brought arguably his finest moments as a pro, when Golden State shocked No. 1-seeded Dallas and the reigning MVP in one of the most entertaining upsets in the history of pro hoops. (Mavs fans prepped for a redemptive title run after the brutal 2006 loss to the Dwyane Wade Foul Machine did not find it so entertaining.) That was the same year Davis destroyed Andrei Kirilenko with a one-handed dunk which, again, just Google it.
And then, at 29, with plenty of basketball left in the tank, Davis signed a five-year, $65 million deal with his hometown L.A. Clippers and just ... fell off. Not only did he not play well, he didn't even play hard. The team was always bad (the Elton Brand opt-out just killed it), but Davis was also frequently out of shape, and by the time the team started to get exciting with Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon, he had worn out his welcome. The Clippers had to throw Cleveland a first-round pick (which would eventually become Kyrie Irving) to get Mo Williams and Jamario Moon in return.
Nothing grates on NBA fans (or maybe it's just me) more than wasted potential. At the very least, everyone can work hard, right? In Davis' case, work ethic and clashes with management almost constantly undercut his performance and value around the league. He was talented enough to be Chris Paul before there was a Chris Paul, but he squandered too many valuable years. When he did pop up and flash that talent -- as in 2007 -- it was only more frustrating. Why couldn't Davis do this all the time?
That's why, despite the differences in tenure, I've got Westbrook and Love above Davis. Has either of them had a better individual career than Davis? Not quite yet. But both are almost guaranteed to, and not because they're more talented. Sad, but true.
Why they could be ranked lower: If you are even lower on Davis' career than I am, you could make this argument. You could also argue that for all of UCLA's many picks since 1989, only Love and Westbrook are blue-chippers, and the rest are just mediocre. I don't agree -- there are some solid players in that group, Afflalo, Holiday, Collison and Ariza especially -- and actually, based on where we are in the list right now, I think the Bruins' combination of young players and long-term depth fits in perfectly here.
What’s ahead? Tyler Honeycutt's and Malcolm Lee's decisions to leave UCLA in 2011 were widely panned at the time, and they've panned out about as well as anyone expected. There is a bit more hope for the future, though. Not only are the Bruins' top current players in the league all very young, but Shabazz Muhammad is a likely lottery pick in this year's draft, and his future looks like Cuttino Mobley Part Deux at the bare minimum. Kyle Anderson is a wildly intriguing talent back at UCLA for another season under new coach Steve Alford; if Alford can figure out how to best meld his unique talents, there's no reason he can't play in the league.
Final thoughts: Before 2004, any accounting of UCLA's pro products was bound to be disappointing. Even the best years under Jim Harrick were led by players (the O'Bannons, Tyus Edney) who never panned out in the NBA, and Davis was the only non-role player in the group. But 2004 was the first year under Howland. For everything else his tenure at UCLA will be remembered for -- from the three straight Final Fours to Nelson missing his plane to the Maui Invitational, and all that followed -- Howland should also be remembered for putting a large number of players into the NBA draft, a couple of whom are already among the best of their generation.