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In 29 years as NBA commissioner, David Stern has led his league to unprecedented heights by opening its doors to nearly every corner of...
earl monroe

Earl Monroe, like so many of his contemporaries, vaulted from a small college to NBA stardom. Are those days over for good?

In 29 years as NBA commissioner, David Stern has led his league to unprecedented heights by opening its doors to nearly every corner of the world.

He expects its next generation of stars, some of whom are playing on their franchises’ summer teams, to continue fueling growth through diversity and global expansion. A quick scan at the statistical leaders for the NBA Summer League, which wrapped Monday in Las Vegas, seems to indicate everything is on track.

There are foreigners like Candian Kelly Olynyk, Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunus and German Dennis Shroeder. There is an American, Jeremy Tyler, who played abroad after skipping college altogether.  Other Americans, like C.J. McCollum of Lehigh University, starred at the mid-major collegiate level. This fall, McCollum will start his career in Portland beside NBA Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, who played at Weber State University. Mid major, high major, when it comes to predicting future NBA stars, the difference seems increasingly minor.

But the path has not widened for all.

The NBA player who hails from a small college has all but disappeared. In past decades, the NAIA and schools from what is now NCAA Division II and III produced All-Stars like Earl Monroe, Dick Barnett, Jerry Sloan, Walt Frazier, Nate Archibald and Willis Reed. Later, Terry Porter, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen came from these ranks.

But in the 21st century, the well has gone dry. There has not been a player from DII, DIII or NAIA to make a substantial splash in the NBA since Flip Murray, Devean George and Ben Wallace nearly a decade ago. As those players have retired, it appears nobody will step in to carry the small college banner into the next era.

Indeed, small college alumni are having a harder time than ever even making an NBA squad: of the ten such players in Las Vegas, only two off them – Glen Dandridge of the now-defunct Lambuth University and Othyus Jeffers of Robert Morris University – averaged more than 10 minutes a game. Jeffers led the pack with 8.3 points a game for Minnesota but none of these ten players – including John Stockton’s son Michael Stockton – appear to be a favorite to make a final roster.

How did this happen?

An influx of foreign players in the last 30 years is a big reason, says John McCarthy, director of the NAIA’s Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship. Perhaps the most important reason, though, is the NCAA Tournament has become enormously profitable in recent years and more and more small colleges have elbowed into Division I to get a piece of the pie. Many of the historically black colleges which produced Reed, Monroe, Frazier et al have migrated to the lower fringes of Division I – which now swells at about 340 program and more than 5,000 players.

The elevated cachet of Division I, due to boosted financial dividends and exponentially increased media attention, have at the same time downgraded the appeal of the lower divisions and National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. More high school and summer league coaches believe the only route to the pros is Division I, and they pass those convictions to their players.

Which means, recruits often choose to play in Division I even when it’s not in their best interests. “I think that there are times where a Division II program may actually be a better fit for a player,” wrote McCarthy, who runs this small college basketball blog. “A good Division II program may be a better fit for a player (academically, class-size, geographically, need for his position, coach, etc.), but a player will often choose the Division I program because of the label.” The player often finds the level play at the top DII schools is higher than than the lower tier DI program he might have left.

As a tribute to the NBA’s small college legacy  – which unfortunately seems to be shrinking – below are the Top 16 small college NBA/ABA players of all time. I’ve limited the list to only players who played at schools that are still DII, DIII or NAIA today. That’s why you won’t see greats like Jerry Sloan, Dick Barnett and Maurice Stokes, Willis Reed and Bob Love, whose programs have since joined DI.

Since I’m ranking players based on performances during college and pro careers, you also won’t find scoring phenomenon Bevo Francis, who averaged more than 48 points a game for Rio Grande College in the 1950s. He chose not to play in the NBA.

16. Devean George
College: Augsburg (Minneapolis, Minn.)

NBA Draft: Round 1/Pick 23rd by Los Angeles Lakers
NBA Playing Career: 1999-2010
All-Star Appearances: 0

Career High Averages (for one season)
Points per game: 7.4
Rebounds per game: 4.0
Assists per game: 1.4
Steals per game: 1.0
Blocks per game: 0.5
43.2 % FG
39.0 % 3PT

George was a dominant scorer in Division III, averaging 27.5 ppg as a senior, but will forever be remembered as a sort-of-vital glue guy bench player during the Lakers’ 2000-02 threepeat. His career apex came in 2003-04, when he started 48 games and played nearly 24 minutes a game.

15. Flip Murray
College: Shaw University (Raleigh, N.C.)
NBA Draft: Round 2/Pick 42 by Milwaukee Bucks
NBA Playing Career: 2002-10
All-Star Appearances: 0

Career High Averages
Points per game: 13.5
Rebounds per game: 2.5
Assists per game: 3.5
Steals per game: 1.4
Blocks per game: 0.3
44.8% FG
38.9% 3PT

(boldfaced statistics are from the 28-game stint Murray spent with Cavaliers in 2006)

As a senior, Murray set a Shaw University record of 23 ppg while racking up Division II Player of the Year honors. He made another splash as a Supersonic in 2003-04, when he scored 20 or more points 10 times in the season’s first 11 games (he started in absence of an injured Ray Allen). During the partial season Murray played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, he averaged nearly 37 minutes a game.

14. Manute Bol
College: University of Bridgeport (Conn.)
NBA Draft: 1st time: Round 5/Pick 97 by San Diego Clippers (in 1983)
2nd time: Round 2/Pick 35 by Washington Bullets (in 1985)
NBA Playing Career: 1985-1995
All-Star Appearances: 0

Career High Averages
Points per game: 3.9
Rebounds per game: 6.0
Assists per game: 0.5
Steals per game: 0.4
Blocks per game: 5.0
60% FG
60% 3PT

The 7’6” Bol averaged 22.5 points, 13.5 rebounds, 7.5 blocks in leading DII Bridgeport to a 22-6 record in his one season there. His rookie season ended up being his best in the pros, and he remains the only player in NBA history with more blocked shots (2,086) than points (1,599).

Bol’s legacy reaches far beyond his record-setting 8’6” wingspan. He spent most of the money he made as a basketball player to alleviate the poverty and war afflicting the people of his native Sudan. He told Sports Illustrated in 2004 “God guided me to America and gave me a good job. But he also gave me a heart so I would look back.”

Indeed, when Bol’s fortune dried up, he raised quick cash through publicity stunts in which he turned himself into a humorous spectacle – horse jockey, hockey player, celebrity boxer.

As John Shields wrote for the Wall Street Journal after Bol’s death in 2010:

Bol agreed to be a clown. But he was not willing to be mocked for his own personal gain as so many reality-television stars are. Bol let himself be ridiculed on behalf of suffering strangers in the Sudan; he was a fool for Christ.

Shields noted many sportswriters covering Bol’s death from severe kidney problems labeled him a “humanitarian” rather than “Christian.. Shields argues Bol’s Christian faith is fundamental to his identity, and whatever good he did for man was an outcome of first and foremost serving God.

Similarly, the mainstream media has avoided stressing the faith of other famous athletes, Shields wrote. “The remarkable charity and personal character of other NBA players, including David Robinson, A. C. Green and Dwight Howard, are almost never explicitly connected to their own intense Christian faith. They are simply good guys.”

13. Darrell Armstrong

College: Fayetteville State University (Fayetteville, N.C.)
NBA Draft: Undrafted
NBA Playing Career: 1994-2008
All-Star Appearances: 0

Career High Averages
Points per game: 16.2
Rebounds per game: 4.6
Assists per game: 7.0
Blocks per game: 0.2
Steals per game: 2.2
44.1% FG*
36.8% 3PT

*Excluding 1995-96 season in which Armstrong played only 41 total minutes.

Averaged 16.4 points, 4.7 assists and 2.9 steals during his senior year in Division II. The waterbug-esque point guard broke into the league with Orlando, where he started for a few of his nine years. Most significantly, in 1999 Armstrong became the first NBA player to win the Sixth Man of the Year Comeback Player of the Year awards in the same year.

12. Robert Reid

College: St. Mary’s University (San Antonio, Texas)
NBA Draft: Round 2/Pick 40 by Houston Rockets
NBA Playing Career: 1977-91
All-Star Appearances: 0

Career High Averages
Points per game: 15.9
Rebounds per game: 7.1
Assists per game: 4.3
Steals per game: 2.0
Blocks per game: 1.0
49.2% FG
38.2% 3PT

Before guys like Barry Sanders and Michael Jordan retired (for the first time) near their athletic primes, there was Robert Reid.

And before former Celtics guard Delonte West worked at a big box chain store to make ends meet, there was Robert Reid.

The second-leading scorer* on the Rockets’ 1980-81 team, Reid abruptly retired before the 1982-83 season to devote more time to his Pentecostal beliefs. He ended up working at a discount store, on a construction crew and at a pharmaceutical firm while taking firefighting classes at local community college.

No surprise he un-retired the next season.

*Surprisingly, Reid was not that much better of a scorer during his DII college days than as a pro. In his best season at St Mary’s, he averaged 19.6 ppg, along with 10.3 rpg.

11. Wil Jones

College: Albany State (Georgia)
NBA Draft: Round 5/Pick 69 by Los Angeles Lakers
ABA Playing Career: 1969-76
NBA Playing Career: 1976-77
All-Star Appearances: 1 as ABA All-Star

Career High Averages
Points per game: 14.9
Rebounds per game: 10.4
Assists per game: 3.0
Steals per game: 1.3
Blocks per game: 1.0
48.3 % FG
77.5 % FT

One of the more dominant rebounders in NAIA history, Jones averaged 23.9 boards his senior season at Albany State. Although only 205 pounds, the 6-8 interior player also became of the ABA’s best rebounding forwards during his early years in Memphis. He then was an important role player on the Kentucky Colonels’ 1975 championship squad.

10. Caldwell Jones

caldwell

This brother could play.

College: Albany State (Georgia)
NBA Draft: Round 2/Pick 32 by Philadelphia 76ers
ABA Playing Career: 1973-76
NBA Playing Career: 1976-90
All-Star Appearances: 1 as ABA All-Star

Career High Averages
Points per game: 19.5
Rebounds per game: 10.0
Assists per game: 2.1
Steals per game: 1.1
Blocks per game: 4.0
50.7 % FG
83.7 % FT

One of six brothers to play at Albany State, “CJ” left with his family’s highest career rebounding average at 20.3 rpg. Even before his first pro game, the 6-11 post man made quite an impression on his rookie head coach, 37-year-old Wilt Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, then 7-1 and approaching 300 pounds, was “Godzilla in sweat pants and Converse All-Stars,” with “nostrils flaring, chest heaving, grinning a grin that had some evil in it,” as former San Diego Union sports reporter Joe Hamelin put it.

On the Conquistadors’ first day of drills, Wilt the Stilt lined up his new players to test their manhood. They “stood in a row until summoned, one by one, to dribble down the lane to their doom, to where Chamberlain was waiting like a Mayan god demanding sacrifice,” Hamelin wrote.

With little apparent effort he rejected their pitifully human layups, fly-swatting them to various distant parts of the USD gym. Contempt was etched into his face. Whap! Whap! Wilt was letting them know who was boss.
And then came CaIdwell Jones.
The rest had tried to go around Chamberlain. Jones, 6-11, built like a fence post and full of flight, chose to go over him!
Launching himself into the air like some enormous bony bird, Jones went up over Chamberlain till his waist was even with the big fellow’s unbelieving eyes. Then he brought the ball down with all the youthful exuberance in him, slamming it through the cords so hard it struck Chamberlain solidly on the shoulder and bounded 10 feet in the air. From the look on Wilt’s face, you’d have thought he’d been shot.

Caldwell Jones put up his biggest numbers in the ABA and went on to serve as a defensive anchor for the Dr. J-led 76er conference champion teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

charles-oakley

9. Charles Oakley
College: Virginia Union University (Richmond, Va.)
NBA Draft: Round 1/Pick 9 by Cleveland Cavaliers
NBA Playing Career: 1985-2004
All-Star Appearances: 1

Career High Averages:

Points per game: 14.6
Rebounds per game: 13.1
Assists per game: 3.6
Steals per game: 1.6
Blocks per game: 0.6

52.4% FG
85.1% FT

The ever-solid “Oak” killed the competition from the get-go at Virginia Union, eventuallyaveraging 24 points and 17.3 rebounds as a senior. He spent his first three years unable to help Michael Jordan get over the hump, then spent the next decade futilely trying to help get Patrick Ewing past Michael Jordan. Oakley was nothing if not consistent.

And really, really strong.

8. Vern Mikkelson
College: Hamline University (Saint Paul, Minn.)
NBA Draft: Territorial by Minneapolis Lakers
NBA Playing Career: 1949-1959
All-Star Appearances: 6

Career High Averages
Points per game: 18.7
Rebounds per game: 11.2
Assists per game: 2.8
40.3% FG
76.6% FT

Mikkelson, who helped lead the Lakers to four NBA titles, was a pioneer in a few ways. He was one of the game’s great musicians who could have chosen a pro music career after playing basketball at Hamline, now in NCAA Division III. The 6-7 post had been the first small-college player ever in the East-West College All-Star Game, held annually at Madison Square Garden in New York (he led all scorers).

Mikkelson became known as the NBA’s first power forward.

7. Jack Sikma
College: Illinois Wesleyan University
NBA Draft: Round 1/Pick 8 by Seattle Supersonics
NBA Playing Career: 1977-1991
All-Star Appearances: 7

Career High Averages

Points per game: 22.0
Rebounds per game: 10.0
Assists per game: 5.5
Steals per game: 1.3
Blocks per game: 1.4
52.4% FG
50.0% FT

After averaging 27.0 points and 15.4 rebounds his senior year in Division III, Sikma soon broke into the highest ranks of the NBA by helping Seattle win its only title in 1979. His long, flowing blond hair, long limbs and rangy defense make appear in old footage as some kind of proto-Kirilenko, but Sikma was a far better offensive player. As a 6-11 center, he led the league in free throw shooting accuracy, and patented a step-back, reverse pivot jumper that is an embryonic version of the one-foot fadeaway Nowitzki has mastered:

6. Dennis Rodman
College: Southeastern Oklahoma State
NBA Draft: Round 2/Pick 27 by Detroit Pistons
NBA Playing Career: 1986-2000
All-Star Appearances: 2

Career High Averages
Points per game: 11.6
Rebounds per game: 18.7
Assists per game: 3.1
Steals per game: 0.9
Blocks per game: 0.9
59.5 % FG
31.7 % 3PT

Rodman was a dominant force at NAIA Southeastern Oklahoma State, not only on the boards (career average 15.7 rpg) but also scoring (career average 25.7 ppg). That, of course, changed once the 6-8 forward hit the NBA, where he focused on defense and rebounding for the Pistons, then Spurs and Bulls. By 1998, he was a five-time NBA champion.

5. Elmore Smith
College: Kentucky State
NBA Draft: Round 1/Pick 3 by Buffalo Braves
NBA Playing Career: 1971-79
All-Star Appearances: 0

Career High Averages
Points per game: 18.3
Rebounds per game: 15.2
Assists per game: 2.5
Steals per game: 1.1
Blocks per game: 4.9
53.1 % FG
69.2 % FT

The mascot of Division II Kentucky State is the Thorobred, and the 7-0 Smith certainly played like one during his tenure there. Smith averaged more than 20ppg and 22rpg and kept being a dominant force during his first three professional years in Buffalo and Los Angeles. In one game for the Lakers, he blocked 17 shots – a NBA record which stands to this day.

Bad knees cut Smith’s career short, but at his best he was better than the likes of Rodman and Sikma. He remains one of the most underrated post players of the 1970s.

4. Ben Wallace
College: Virginia Union
NBA Draft: Undrafted
NBA Playing Career: 1996-2012
All-Star Appearances: 4

Career High Averages
Points per game: 9.7
Rebounds per game: 15.4
Assists per game: 2.4
Steals per game: 1.8
Blocks per game: 3.5
57.8% FG
49.0% FT

It’s 1991. On a steamy Alabama afternoon at Charles Oakley’s summer basketball camp. Oak’s glaring at the kids in front of him, who for the last few minutes have been more interesting in goofing off than listening to him.

He has a point to make.

So, he chooses some random 6-4, 170 pound high schooler to make an example of. Oak fires the ball at the kid as soon as he hits the court. The leather hits young Ben Wallace square in the chest: It’s one-on-one time.

Giving up four inches and 70 pounds, Wallace took everything Oakley dished. They both ended up with bloody lips and noses. “I was impressed,” Oakley told nba.com. “Here I thought this group [of campers] were soft, unmotivated, unwilling to work. Then Ben stood up—he didn’t even want to play me at first—and showed me a good game. I could see a real fire in him.”

That fire led to a senior year in Division II averaging 12.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.68 blocks per game. It then led to so much more: four NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards and a world championship.

3. Terry Porter
College: Wisconsin-Stevens Point
NBA Draft: Round 1/Pick 24 by Portland Trailblazers
NBA Playing Career: 1985-2002
All-Star Appearances: 2

Career High Averages
Points per game: 18.2
Rebounds per game: 4.6
Assists per game: 10.1
Steals per game: 2.0
Blocks per game: 0.2
51.9% FG
43.5% 3PT

Porter’s improvement within the first two years of college was stunning. The 6-3 shooting guard went from a 2 ppg, .08 apg player as a freshman, to a 11.4 ppg, 5.2 apg, 3.9 rpg producer as a sophomore and then 18.8 ppg, 4.2 apg, 5.2 apg monster as a junior.

Porter successfully transformed into a point guard in Portland, which he helped lead to two NBA Finals. He remains the Blazers’ all-time assist leader.

2. Earl Monroe
College: Winston-Salem State University (N.C.)
NBA Draft: Round 1/Pick 2 by Baltimore Bullets
Playing Career: 1967-80
NBA All-Star Appearances: 4

Career High Averages
Points per game: 25.8
Rebounds per game: 5.7
Assists per game: 4.9
Steals per game: 1.5 (likely higher as he played eight years before this stat was kept)
Blocks per game: N/A
51.7 % FG
87.5 % FT

During his senior year at Division II Winston-Salem State, Monroe averaged 41.5 ppg while shooting over 60% from the field. “Earl the Pearl” was still able to employ his improvisational, juke-and-jive style in the NBA, where he helped lead the New York Knicks to the 1973 title. In New York, the 6-3 guard teamed with Walt Frazier to form one of the greatest backcourts of all time.

1. Scottie Pippen

College: University of Central Arkansas
NBA Draft: Round 1/Pick 5 by Seattle Supersonics
Playing Career: 1987-2004
All-Star Appearances: 7

Career High Averages
Points per game: 22.0
Rebounds per game: 8.7
Assists per game: 7.0
Steals per game: 2.9
Blocks per game: 1.2
52.0 % FG
37.4 % 3PT

Of all stories in which a player swings from utter anonymity to eventual superstardom, the most celebrated belongs to Pippen. From 6-1, 150-pound team manager as a freshman to 6-8, 200-pound all-conference player just a year and a half later, it’s likely no star’s story will ever come close to matching Pippen’s rise. By the time he was a senior at his Conway, Ark. NAIA school, Pippen averaged 23.6 ppg, 10.0 rpg and over three steals a game.

In the pros, the six-time champion’s calling card was defense but it shouldn’t be forgotten he packed a devastating arsenal on offense, too:

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