Path to the Draft: Top 25 players

Which college players have turned into the best pros in the modern draft era?

Originally Published: June 26, 2013
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

It's been a slow offseason in college basketball, but for the past month we managed to find a highly enjoyable way to keep ourselves entertained.

For our Path to the Draft series, we took to ranking college basketball programs and their relationships to the NBA in a way we hadn't seen before. That is, we decided to rank the NBA pedigree of college basketball programs based on the cumulative careers of the respective players those programs produced.

We began a month ago with No. 20 Syracuse. We concluded Wednesday, on the eve of the 2013 NBA draft, with No. 1 North Carolina. We've laughed, we've cried, we've second-guessed ourselves approximately 85 times. It's been fun.

Then, last week, we realized something was missing: We needed a master list. If we took a step back and used the same criteria to rank the best college-borne NBA players since 1989 (the year the draft went from seven to two rounds), what would that list look like? And perhaps most interestingly, how would that list compare to a list of the best NBA players who didn't spend some time on a college campus? What could it tell us about the modern relationship between college basketball and the NBA -- if it could tell us anything at all?

You already know where this is going. Let's dispense with the niceties and dig right in:

Best college-produced NBA players since 1989

1. Tim Duncan (Wake Forest, 1997): Duncan's credentials -- 16 seasons, 14 All-Stars, 14 first-team All-NBA selections, four championships, the nearly unanimous consensus that he's the best power forward of all time -- speak for themselves. They also don't do him justice. Did you know Duncan has ranked outside the top 10 in Player Efficiency Rating just three times in 16 seasons? Or that, while he's best known for his fundamental work on the offensive end, he's blocked the ninth-most shots in NBA history and ranks No. 2 all time in defensive rating? Or that, after averaging 31-17-6 in seven games against the Lakers and Mavs in the 2003 playoffs, he closed out the Nets in the Finals two blocks short of a quadruple-double?

There's all sorts of stuff like this, and I haven't even mentioned the flabbergasting year-over-year consistency. In 2012-13, en route to the NBA Finals, Duncan averaged 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks (his highest rate since 2007) at age 36. Trying to describe Duncan's career by listing the All-Star appearances is like trying to praise the "The Sopranos" by counting up its Emmys. Yeah, you might get the gist, but the true wonder is in the details. That's why he's No. 1.

[+] EnlargeShaquille O'Neal
Catherine Steenkeste/Getty ImagesShaq was a giant at LSU and became a legend in the NBA.

2. Shaquille O'Neal (LSU, 1992): The all-time discussion regarding Shaq has shifted in recent years, as the dominance of his peak with the Lakers has begun to slightly fade from memory, and the comparatively minor knocks -- the casual attitude toward fitness and/or the regular season, the atrocious free throw shooting, the late-career decline, "Kazaam" -- have come to the fore. Five years ago, it was not unusual to see Shaq ranked above Duncan all time; it is far less usual now. But wherever he stands in the all-time discussion, O'Neal was surely the most dominant force in the modern draft era, and when he was at his best -- during the 2000-02 three-peat, when he averaged (repeat: averaged) 30 points, 14 rebounds and 55 percent shooting in 58 playoff games -- no one came close.

3. Dwyane Wade (Marquette, 2003): Take it from someone who knows: It's a lot of fun to dislike Dwyane Wade. It's not like he makes it difficult. The questionable capri pants and self-imposed nicknames (even LeBron James said "Way of Wade" was corny) would be grating enough, but it's the stuff D-Wade does on the court -- the flopping, flailing, call-baiting, constant appeals to officials -- that is especially difficult to swallow. Wade is way too good to be so cheap. Hate all you want, but in just 10 years the Marquette product has established his legacy as one of the best shooting guards in the history of the game. That was sealed before the Heat's back-to-back titles; it's especially true now.

4. Steve Nash (Santa Clara, 1996): In 17 seasons, Steve Nash has shot 49.1 percent from the field, 42.8 percent from 3 and 90.1 percent from the free throw line. That free throw mark is the best in NBA history, but Nash also is the eighth-most-accurate 3-point shooter of all time, ranks 10th in 3-point field goals made and is fourth on both the all-time assists and assists rate lists. He is simultaneously one of the best shooters and passers the game has ever seen and, oh by the way, revolutionized the modern NBA. Not bad for a skinny Canadian unknown, eh?

5. Kevin Durant (Texas, 2007): Durant hasn't had as much time as most of the players on this list to rack up career accolades, but he's already done enough by age 24 -- three scoring titles, one Finals appearance and a 2013 season in which he shot 51.0 percent from the field, 41.6 from 3 and 90.5 percent from the charity stripe -- to warrant the lofty placement you see here. Then you start thinking about the next decade or so, and … well, yeah. Wow.

6. Jason Kidd (California, 1994): For all of the gaudy numbers Kidd put up in his immensely durable NBA career -- the 12,091 assists (second all time), the 2,684 steals (ditto), the 50,111 minutes (third-most in history) -- perhaps the most impressive thing is that the great Cal point guard who could do everything but shoot from the outside so thoroughly reinvented himself late in his career that he eventually finished third all time in the most unlikely of categories: 3-point field goals.

7. Gary Payton (Oregon State, 1990): When you think of Payton, you probably remember the lobs to Shawn Kemp. You might forget that "The Glove" wound up playing 17 years, at least 12 of which were at an absurdly high level. Payton finished his career with 21,813 points, and ranked fourth in the all-time assists rankings. In 1995-96, he became the first (and is still the only) point guard to win NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

[+] EnlargePaul Pierce
Debby Wong/USA TODAY Sports Paul Pierce is the best player Kansas has produced in the modern draft era.

8. Paul Pierce (Kansas, 1998): Playing alongside Antoine Walker on those early-aughts Celtics could have doomed Pierce to a long career of frustrating journeyman chuckery. He could have even picked up the Toine shimmy. Instead, "The Truth" stuck out the leanest years in Boston long enough to join forces with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett and is almost certain to finish his career as one of the best Celtics ever.

9. Allen Iverson (Georgetown, 1996): His gleefully unapologetic style made Iverson a polarizing player during his career; the hoops cognoscenti's newfound analytical appreciation for efficiency has made his hoops legacy nearly as polarizing since. Perhaps most impressive is that despite being just 6 feet and 165 pounds, Iverson led the NBA in minutes played in six separate seasons. Personally and professionally flawed? Yes. A defy-all-odds warrior? That, too.

10. Ray Allen (Connecticut, 1996): Iverson and Ray Allen in the same class: How's that for a Big East draft harvest? Allen added his latest indelible moment in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, when his last-second 3 saved the Heat from regulation elimination, which was fitting: With 2,857 makes on 7,150 career attempts, Jesus Shuttlesworth is undoubtedly the best 3-point shooter of all time.

11. Chris Webber (Michigan, 1993): It's entirely possible that, at some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s, Chris Webber made a "Damn Yankees" deal with the devil: He would get to be a massively rich, incredibly talented NBA star, but he would always be remembered for that timeout. Either way, his was a great NBA career, particularly when he developed into the best passing big man in recent memory during the Sacramento Kings' aesthetically glorious heyday.

12. Chris Paul (Wake Forest, 2005): It's hard to believe CP3 has been in the league for just eight seasons -- blame his otherworldly court sense and already-balky knees for making him seem more wizened than he really is -- but in that span he's already racked up 10,311 points and 5,449 assists and led the league in steals five times.

13. Vince Carter (North Carolina, 1998): You know you're gifted when you can so rarely appear to care about basketball and still rank so highly on this list. That's the ballad of Vince Carter distilled: One of the greatest dunkers in the history of the game; one of the most inarguably productive players of the past 25 years; still massively disappointing in nearly every respect.

14. Derrick Rose (Memphis, 2008): Even Chicagoans are down on Rose right now. Their metropolis-wide freak-out over his sketchy ACL recovery timetable this spring was truly something to behold; never have we seen a player so locally beloved be so relentlessly trashed for treating his $100 million legs with caution. But if Rose returns to his prior form in the fall -- friendly reminder: Rose was MVP of the league at age 22 -- Bulls fans will just as quickly forget the whole thing happened.

[+] EnlargeNash/Hill
Noah Graham/Getty ImagesGrant Hill (left) and Steve Nash are two of the best college products in the modern draft era.

15. Grant Hill (Duke, 1994): To talk about Hill's career is to talk about devastating injuries and what could have been, but if you choose to focus on what came before the four-year ankle nightmare, you get 9,393 points, 3,417 rebounds and 2,720 assists in Hill's first six seasons, historic numbers matched by only Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird and LeBron James.

16. Alonzo Mourning (Georgetown, 1992): Remember the mid-1990s, when dominant centers roamed the earth? David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and Shaq were joined in their glorious age by Mourning, who averaged 17.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game but was always at his best on the defensive end, where he averaged 2.8 blocks, sixth-best all time.

17. Carmelo Anthony (Syracuse, 2003): With the exception of Durant, there is no better pure scorer -- and certainly none more versatile, including KD -- in today's NBA. The problem is Anthony has never truly excelled (or had much interest in excelling) at most other areas of the game, and when he tunes out his teammates (like in the 2013 playoffs, when his usage spiked to an insane 38 percent), he can be an anchor in the least complimentary sense of the term. His next five years are going to be fascinating.

18. Chris Bosh (Georgia Tech, 2003): People seem to genuinely dislike Dwyane Wade. Chris Bosh, on the other hand, is mostly the muse of the Internet's best hoops humorists. He cried on TV once, which people thought was pretty funny. But easily lost in all this mirth is just how solid Bosh has been. Despite contorting his game into an unrecognizable perimeter-oriented pretzel in the past three years (and seeing his counting stats suffer for it, even as he became a two-time NBA champion), Bosh's career averages of 19.3 points and 8.9 rebounds on 49.6 percent shooting is the kind of foundation upon which Hall of Fame résumés are built.

19. Kevin Love (UCLA, 2008): If it seems early to place a guy who has yet to play in the playoffs on this kind of list, let's keep in mind that (A) it's not Love's fault he was drafted by the Timberwolves, (B) Love broke Moses Malone's consecutive double-doubles record (55) at age 22, (C) he followed that season with a 26-and-13 age-23 campaign, (D) he managed to rebound that well while also developing a reliable 3-point shot, and (E) he might be the best passing big man since Bill Walton. The sky is the limit.

20. Russell Westbrook (UCLA, 2008): Much the same is true of Westbrook, Love's college teammate, who is second only to LeBron (and maybe a healthy D-Rose) in sheer explosive ferocity. Westbrook was also, before this spring's freak knee injury, freakishly durable: In five pro seasons, he had yet to miss a regular-season game.

21. Shawn Kemp (Trinity Valley CC, 1989): Here's another way the NBA has changed: In 1989, when Kemp was a 20-year-old rookie, he was the youngest player in the league. By his second season he had the hang of things, and over the next six years in Seattle he basically played actual professional basketball like he his pixelated avatar in "NBA Jam."

[+] EnlargePenny Hardaway
Andy Lyons/AllsportPenny Hardaway was on a Hall of Fame trajectory before injuries began to pile up.

22. Penny Hardaway (Memphis, 1993): Hardaway was not so durable, but before injuries derailed his career -- like in 1995-96, his third season, when he posted 21.7 points, 7.1 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 2.0 steals a game while shooting 51.3 percent from the field -- he wasn't just a great player in the making. He was a 6-7 world-destroying point guard who could quite literally do it all. If only NBA careers came with alternate endings.

23. Robert Horry (Alabama, 1992): Horry, an otherwise unremarkable NBA role player, has, count 'em, seven NBA rings. He played a crucial role in nearly all of them. If there is such a thing as clutch, Horry was it.

24. Stephen Curry (Davidson, 2009): This past spring, when Warriors coach Mark Jackson called Curry and Klay Thompson the "greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the NBA," most people scoffed. But Jackson might not have been that far off: Curry's lights-out shooting and old-school interior finishing was the most purely entertaining part of the playoffs (at least before the Finals). In 2012-13, Curry averaged 23 points, six assists and four rebounds while shooting 45.1 percent on his -- brace yourself -- 600 3s, the most by any player in the league. When's the last time shooting like that came from a player who could handle, penetrate, dish and create its own shot? Steve Nash?

25. Tim Hardaway (UTEP, 1989): Before he was better known as the father of Tim Hardaway Jr., Hardaway Sr. was also a basketball player -- surprise, I know -- and an awfully good one at that. Not only did he average 17.7/8.2/3.3/1.2 for his career, he played in five All-Star Games and was selected to six All-NBA teams. He also ranks in the top 15 all time in assists and made 3s. Plus, Hardaway essentially invented -- or at least popularized -- the crossover dribble. When your move is so good everyone else spends the next decade trying to recreate it, I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt.

Honorable mentions: Deron Williams, Chauncey Billups, Shawn Marion, Glen Rice, Ben Wallace, Elton Brand, Zach Randolph, Rasheed Wallace, Dikembe Mutombo, Sam Cassell, Rajon Rondo, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Metta World Peace, Stephon Marbury, Carlos Boozer.

That's the college list. You might disagree with a few names on there, but just like our overall Path to the Draft rankings, it's OK if your mileage varies. That's kind of the whole point.

Here's the kicker: It's especially interesting to contrast the list you just read with this …

Best pros who didn't play in college (since 1989)

1. LeBron James. Two-time NBA champion; four-time MVP; laughably dominant owner of six straight Player Efficiency Rating titles; headband enthusiast; former child star; devourer of worlds.

2. Kobe Bryant: Five-time NBA champion; fourth-highest scorer in NBA history; best Lakers player ever, according to Magic Johnson; competitive maniac; helicopter aficionado.

3. Kevin Garnett: Modern preps-to-pros paragon; Tim Duncan antagonist; participant in 47,801 NBA minutes, seventh-most all time.

4. Dirk Nowitzki: Best international player of all time; NBA champion at the expense of the reviled Miami Heat in 2011; antecedent to the thousands of devastatingly effective wrong-foot fadeaway jumpers on deck for the next 30 years.

[+] EnlargeShawn Bradley
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesTracy McGrady and Yao Ming never played in college, but certainly made their mark in the NBA.

5. Dwight Howard: Dominant defender and rebounder (when healthy); six-time rebound champ; disappointingly stunted offensive player; world's largest and least decisive 11-year-old.

6. Tracy McGrady: One-time would-be Grant Hill teammate; 2002-03 scoring champ with 32.9 PPG, a figure eclipsed just twice since; cousin of Vince Carter.

7. Tony Parker: Five-time All-Star; annually overlooked MVP candidate; former husband of Eva Longoria; Frenchman.

8. Pau Gasol: Two-time NBA champ; owner of the following career per-game splits: 18.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.2 blocks, 51.8 percent shooting; another eldest brother forced to deal with the fact that his little brother is now better than he is; criminally underused Lakers asset.

9. Yao Ming: Guy who was 7-6 and remarkably agile, responsive and skilled for his height; briefly dominant NBA center; seemingly awesome dude; eventual victim of biology, physics.

10. Amar'e Stoudamire: Electrifying finisher around the rim; crucial component in Phoenix Suns' revolutionary seven-seconds-or-less system; overpaid by the New York Knicks; upstaged by Carmelo Anthony.

We could keep going, but from there the list starts to move into Arvydas/Manu/Peja territory, with Tyson Chandler thrown somewhere in the mix, depending how highly you regard him. (I would go below Sabonis and Ginobili and above Stojakovic, for what it's worth.)

Still, the comparisons are instructive. There are some incredible players who jumped straight from high school to the pros: James, Bryant, Garnett, McGrady, etc.

The college list, meanwhile, is not merely longer, although it certainly is that. It's also arguably deeper, even within the restraints of the top 10. Once you start digging past Chandler, things get ugly in a hurry. (Brandon Jennings? No? OK.)

What does it all mean? Drawing sweeping conclusions about these lists would be unwise; there are plenty of extenuating factors at work. Prospects didn't really begin migrating to the draft en masse until after Garnett (and later Bryant) made the idea seem not just a way to get paid faster but a viable, respectable career strategy. On the other bookend, since 2006, NBA prospects have been for the most part unable to get to draft night without playing in college. Jennings' decision to go to Europe has worked out just fine, but few seem eager to follow.

Still, as a broad overview, there may be something to this. College basketball's relationship with the NBA -- not unlike that between fans who self-identify as only a fan of one or the other -- has not always been an easy one. Decades ago, college hoops was the dominant cultural brand; now the NBA calls all the shots, including use of NCAA basketball as a minor league training ground. At various points along the way, it has been gauche to dismiss college basketball's role in the development process. LeBron and Kobe seem to be handling it just fine, the line goes. You can develop in the NBA, too. Would they have been better risking injury for a year college?

No. Obviously not. But every player is not James or Bryant or Garnett or McGrady. They are outliers among outliers, the best of the best, and for each of them there must be 10 Eddy Currys and Kwame Browns lost in the world. College basketball has had a active hand in ushering along many of the NBA's greatest players toward their eventual destinies. Some would have succeeded regardless, sure. But what about Steve Nash, scrawny pride of Santa Clara? What is it about the college game's ability to surface NBA talent that allows it to stay so seemingly inelastic?

I don't know if there are answers for that, but if nothing else, we now have a list of the best 25 college-produced NBA players drafted since 1989. The master list exists, which in turn means something even more exciting: You are officially free to disagree with the master list.

Hey, it's the offseason. Small blessings, right?

Editor's note: To read breakdowns of all 20 schools ranked in our Path to the Draft series -- along with top-10 lists from the major conferences -- read the entire series thread here.