- 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
Penny Hardaway (1993)
Derrick Rose (2008)
Tyreke Evans (2009)
Lorenzen Wright (1996)
Elliot Perry (1991)
Sixth man: Will Barton (2012)
Why they're ranked where they are: Star power. Guard power. Stard power? Whatever weird phrase you'd like to try to coin to describe it -- and hopefully you can do better than "stard power," yeesh -- Memphis has it, plain and simple. No other team ranked below them in this top 20 can say the same.
Rose was the MVP of the National Basketball Association at the ripe old age of 22, and you surely don't need me to tell you why his inclusion dramatically boosts Memphis' pro pedigree. Rose suffered a major setback with his anterior cruciate ligament tear in the 2012 playoffs, and his standing among Bulls fans was hurt by his inability (or unwillingness, or any of the other motives the city of Chicago ascribed to a dude taking the long view of his sure-to-be-brilliant career, as though this was a bad thing) to come back in time to face the Miami Heat in the 2013 stretch run. But Rose is one of the game's brightest young stars and, barring injury, will be an MVP-level player at the point guard spot for the next decade.
The key phrase, of course, is "barring injury." Just ask the top player on the list.
If you're my age, and grew up with Lil' Penny, you probably don't need me to outline why Anfernee Hardaway is on this list, or even why he's No. 1 above Rose. But in case you're too young to remember, Penny Hardaway was the capital-T Truth. A 6-foot-7 point guard who could score and dish and do pretty much anything else, Hardaway blitzed the NBA in his first four seasons, averaging 20.9 points, 7.2 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game in his second season, when the Orlando Magic won 57 games and knocked the Michael Jordan-less Bulls out in the second round of the NBA playoffs. As a young Bulls fan, I remember being horrified by this new world order. Balance was soon restored to the force but not before Nike could sell a gazillion pairs of Hardaway's Air Pennys, enough to make me the most consistently jealous 10-year-old basketball camp attendee of all time.
Despite the injuries -- chief among them a 1997 knee injury -- that eventually derailed what would have been a surefire Hall of Fame career, Hardaway went on to play 14 seasons in the league. Even if he hadn't, his early brilliance would have been enough. I know what I saw.
The rest of this list, as you might expect, is just sort of blah. Evans gets the nod at No. 3 because he has been a very productive player in his first four seasons, even if he's done so for one of the NBA's worst franchises (Sacramento) and earned a huge heaping of scorn for his seeming unwillingness to get teammates involved. Wright is a name you might best recall thanks to his mysterious 2010 disappearance and death, but, before that, the beloved Tiger had a nice 13-season NBA career. Perry did pile together 10 years in the league, but is listed fifth mostly because of that grotesque list of the rest, almost none of which has made any impact in the NBA. (To be fair, one-time uber-prospect Dejuan Wagner would've almost certainly cracked this top 5 had he not been beset by a series of scary medical ailments.)
Why they could be ranked higher: Because Hardaway was the aforementioned truth? Because Rose is currently the truth? Because you believe Evans is misunderstood or in a bad situation and could be a brilliant player in a system that knew how to use him (or in any system at all, which isn't possible when you fire coaches as frequently as the Kings)? Any of these arguments is permissible, but none is particularly convincing. On the other other hand
Why they could be ranked lower: As much as it pains me to say this, we have no idea if Rose is ever going to be Rose again. With the possible exception of Russell Westbrook, no player in the NBA -- certainly no star -- relies as much on sheer athletic genius as Rose. He cuts, he bumps, he flies, he finishes, and when he's hitting jumpers, he's basically unguardable. What if all those cuts are a little less crisp? What if he can't do the same things he used to do physically? What does that mean for his career?
We could also argue that Hardaway, for as good as he was, was essentially a six-year player -- from 1993 to 1999 there were few guards in the game not named Michael Jordan as good as Penny. But after Hardaway's body betrayed him, he was a shell of his former self, doomed to wander the NBA wilderness until limping home with a 3.8-points-per-game season in his final year with the Heat. Don't get it twisted: I love me some Penny Hardaway. But he wasn't exactly a pillar of longevity.
Likewise, Evans is arguably trending downward. As a rookie, he averaged 20.1 points per game; he's declined in each subsequent season, from 17.8 to 16.5 to 15.2. These are not the best numbers by which to judge a young player's career, and Evans did shoot his highest field goal percentage (albeit on fewer attempts) in 2012-13. But after four seasons, Evans still lacks a consistent outside jumper, doesn't find teammates as often as he should and has too many character-related questions to project much added upside.
What’s ahead? Barton's career will be interesting to watch. A two-year player under Josh Pastner at Memphis, Barton was criminally underrated (much like the Tigers) in 2011-2012, his final season at the school, in which he finished with a 115.7 offensive rating on 25.6 percent usage. Despite putting up these All-America-level efficiency numbers, the 6-foot-6 guard was passed over until the Portland Trail Blazers selected him in the second round. Barton, who had an OK rookie season, has to improve his perimeter skills if he wants to stick as a conventional 3 in the league, but there's no reason he can't be a Kawhi Leonard type for the right team one day.
In the meantime, Pastner's program continues to recruit as well as any program in the country. Adonis Thomas killed his draft stock with an awful sophomore season, but he has the size and talent to stick in the league. D.J. Stephens is a freak of nature. Down the line, keep an eye on rising sophomore Shaq Goodwin and top freshman small forward Nick King.
Final thoughts: For a program that spent the entire aughts coached by John Calipari, Memphis suffers from a distinct lack of depth when it comes to its pro pedigree since 1989. (Where have you gone, Dajuan Wagner? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.) But at the top end, the players the Tigers have produced are undeniably stellar. Hardaway was a 6-foot-7 to whom God gifted the keys to Magic Johnson's tall-triple-double-machine legacy; only the whims of fate could slow him down. Rose, meanwhile, is still at the dawn of his career and already has one MVP -- in a LeBron James-owned league, and during a season in which Dwight Howard was insanely good -- under his belt. Even with the ACL tear, the long-term prognosis is pointing toward the Hall of Fame. Evans is divisive even within his own locker room, and his stock has taken a drastic hit, but there's no escaping the fact that he was the first player since James, Jordan and Oscar Robertson to average 20, 5 and 5 in his rookie season. That's still in there, somewhere.
Where Memphis' shot at the top 10 in this list falls apart is in the huge drop between that top three and the rest of its products since 1989. Look for Pastner to change that in the coming years. Until then, No. 15 feels right.