We know that what Hassan Whiteside is doing this season is both ridiculous and completely unexpected, but he is by no means the first surprise star to take the NBA by storm. There have been others before him, and this list looks at the best of them.
The players considered for this list were either undrafted or selected later on in the second round. Successful late first-round or early second-round picks can hardly be considered true surprises because teams took them with high picks knowing there was a strong chance they’d work out. To be considered, the guys below had to come out of nowhere.
All that said, here are the top five surprise NBA stars:
#5 – John Starks – Like a lot of the players on this list, Starks wasn’t drafted, and his road to finding NBA success was a rocky one. The Golden State Warriors gave him his first shot in the league, but they cut him after that first season and forced him to find work elsewhere for the 1989-90 season. That included time with the Cedar Rapids Silver Bullets of the CBA and the Memphis Rockers of the WBL, all of which prepared him for a tryout with the New York Knicks in the summer of 1990. Unfortunately, it looked as though his time with the Knicks would be over and done with pretty quickly, too. Starks didn’t make an immediate impact with the team and actually injured his knee trying to dunk on Patrick Ewing during a practice.
Since teams couldn’t cut a hurt kid, they were forced to hang onto him. This gave Starks the opportunity to heal up and prove himself, and he ended up starting at shooting guard for a ‘90s Knicks team that might have done some big things were it not for Michael Jordan. His best season was 1993-94, in which he averaged 19 PPG and 5.9 APG.
#4 – Brad Miller – Because of the 1999 NBA lockout, Miller played the first professional basketball of his career in Italy, but that sort of thing happens all the time for undrafted free agents, lockout or not. It wasn’t long before the Charlotte Hornets signed him for the 1999-00 season, but despite flashes of brilliance Miller was mostly unremarkable during his first couple of seasons in the league. Even with a slow start, brief stints with Chicago and Indiana furthered his development enough that Miller eventually made the All-Star team his first two years with the Sacramento Kings. In 2003-04, he averaged career highs of 10.3 RPG, 1.2 BPG and 4.3 APG, while chipping in 14.1 PPG.
#3 – Ben Wallace – In his rookie season with the Washington Wizards, Wallace played a measly 5.8 minutes per game, but by year three in D.C. he was averaging over 8.0 rebounds a night. That paired with a paltry 6.0 points per game didn’t necessarily turn heads, so before his fourth season he was moved to the Orlando Magic. Just one year later, he drew the interest of the Detroit Pistons, who hauled him in as part of the trade that reluctantly sent Grant Hill to the Magic in 2000.
His first year with Detroit, those rebounds per game jumped up to 13.2, and it would not dip below 12 RPG for five seasons. He ended up winning Defensive Player of the Year four times, leading the league in rebounds twice and even making five All-NBA Teams during that span. After four seasons playing solid but unremarkable basketball, Wallace transformed into the best defensive player in the NBA for half a decade. And nobody drafted him.
#2 – Hassan Whiteside – From a statistical standpoint, there’s a strong argument that Whiteside could be considered the most surprising star in league history, particularly considering how much has been made of the fact that seven-footers with talent simply don’t come out of nowhere in this league. Guys that big, long and athletic are literally always employed by some team, not toiling away in Lebanon and the D-League for three years.
Now that he’s getting the first significant NBA playing time of his career, Whiteside is averaging 11.0 PPG, 9.8 RPG and 2.4 BPG in only 22 minutes a night. That makes him the third-best per-game shot-blocker and 14th-best per-game rebounder in the league this season despite playing significantly fewer minutes than the players putting up similar stats. His per-36 numbers are through the roof (18 points, 16.1 rebounds and 3.9 blocks) and it looks as if he’s just starting to scratch the surface of what he’ll be able to do as a pro. He’s not a household name (yet), but he’s playing better than some All-Stars right now. The fact that he came literally out of nowhere in an era where scouts simply don’t miss this kind of talent makes his story all the more incredible.
#1 – Jeremy Lin – Lin’s NBA success story was unlike anything the league had ever seen before and, frankly, will probably ever see again. The fact that Lin, an Asian-American out of Harvard, set the league on fire back in 2012 was one of the most unexpected rises to fame in any sport ever. When Carmelo Anthony went down that season, there was a big question as to who would score points in his absence, and Lin surfaced from obscurity to pour in points with insane regularity while Anthony was out. In his first NBA start, he scored 28 points and dished out eight assists, helping ignite a seven-game win streak for the Knicks that included some really massive scoring games from the kid. His best game may have been his 38-point gem against the Lakers that was enough to get Kobe Bryant to finally understand what all the fuss was about this young man he’d never previously heard of. Things have obviously fallen off for Lin since the Year of Linsanity, but the national media attention he got that year made him more famous than almost anybody else in the game. For a short time, at least, he was the biggest surprise star the league had ever seen.
David Wesley – At 6’1, Wesley was one of those guys that scouts said was too small to play shooting guard in the NBA. For the most part, that’s generally proven to be true, but Wesley served as a nice exception to the rule. He didn’t get to be that exception right away, though. His first year after college was spent playing for the Wichita Falls Texans of the CBA, and in 1993 he latched on with the New Jersey Nets and finally got his opportunity in the league. It took two more seasons for him to find his groove, but by 1995 he was averaging double figures in the scoring column, and he wouldn’t stop averaging double figures in the scoring column for 11 more years.
Bruce Bowen – Unlike a lot of other players on this list, Bowen has had his number retired by the team for which he starred. But the eight-time All-Defensive team selection didn’t have an easy road to NBA success prior to playing for the San Antonio Spurs. He went undrafted in 1993 and then spent the next four years bouncing around Europe trying to earn a paycheck. Bowen made his NBA debut in 1997, playing a single game for the Miami HEAT, and didn’t find his way back until the next season when he played his first full year with the Boston Celtics.
He didn’t end up with the Spurs until 2001, but by that point he had established himself as a premier perimeter defender, and it was then that he’d rattle off his string of eight straight All-Defensive team selections. He’d win three rings with the Spurs during that span and go down as one of the top defenders in league history. All that after almost five full seasons overseas delaying the start of his NBA career.
Paul Millsap – It didn’t take Millsap long to make his impact on the league, as there were some people talking about the power forward as a Rookie of the Year candidate for the 2006-07 season. He didn’t win it, obviously, and his overall numbers (6.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG) were pretty modest when that year was all said and done, but to have that spoken at any point during the season was pretty remarkable for the 47th overall pick in the 2006 draft. A 6’8 power forward out of Louisiana Tech taken that late doesn’t step into his NBA career with huge expectations, but now in 2015, he’s a two-time All-Star.
The theme here is that, for the most part, these players weren’t given the opportunity to shine early in their pro careers. Many had to find the right team and/or an injury to someone ahead of them on the depth chart to finally break out as legitimate NBA players. In every case, the emergence of these guys blew our minds, just like Hassan Whiteside is doing in Miami.
Stories that good are as juicy as they are because they come out of nowhere. That’s why Lin was such a big deal in 2012, and why so many sensational stories were also done on Ben Wallace and John Starks and Bruce Bowen. It’s part of what makes sports so fun, and all we can do is hope that kids like Whiteside and Lin keep coming along. If history is any indication, they will.
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