Not Great...Until Unusually Late
By Jordan Armstrong
The usual sequence for an NBA all-star: early first round pick, shows promise in rookie season, progresses substantially in the next few seasons, and receives a big contract before or right after rookie contract is up.
Especially in today's NBA, where it seems that young, high drafted players are handed the reigns of a team almost immediately; it is strange to think of a player needing more than two or three years to develop. How many players are abandoned by their teams because they don't show the productivity the team had hoped for? Then, how many of those players move on to become go-to players and All-Stars for good teams later on? Few, seldom players in the last twenty years fit this criteria, but there are a few and with the short leash of NBA GMs and NBA fans today, there could be more in the near future.
Steve Nash, drafted with the 15th pick by the Phoenix Suns in the 1996 draft, is probably the most obvious and well-known "late bloomer" the NBA has seen in the last two decades. Nash played a back-up role his first two seasons in Phoenix before being traded to the Dallas Mavericks. After two seasons in Dallas, Nash was able to develop his niche as a crafty point guard that could shoot; however, after six seasons in Dallas, the Mavericks did not feel that their aging point guard was worthy of an extension and let him go.
At this point in his career, Steve was an eight-year NBA veteran that would turn 30 before the next season's end. In his eight years, he had now been given up on by two NBA teams and had accumulated averages of 12.47 points per game to go along with 6.04 assists per game.
The first team that had relinquished Steve Nash, the Phoenix Suns, were ready to give him a second chance as they signed him to be their point guard for the 2004-2005 season. In his ninth NBA season, Steve Nash transformed from an overlooked, satisfactory player - to a game-controlling superstar and the Most Valuable Player in the NBA. This unheard of, late breakout season was no fluke either, as Nash would earn a consecutive MVP in the '05-'06 season. Never averaging even nine assists per game in his first eight seasons in the league, Nash, in years nine through seventeen (next eight) of his career would average 10.95 apg to go along with 16.26 ppg.
If Nash is the best-known example of a late bloomer, Chauncey Billups is the next in line. Billups was drafted with the third pick of the 1997 draft by the Boston Celtics. The Celtics gave up on Billups before he could even finish his rookie season and traded him to Toronto. Billups finished the season in Toronto before moving on to the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets weren't impressed with Chauncey, and moved him to Orlando, where he wouldn't play a single game due to injury. The young journeyman would then sign with Minnesota to play a back-up role. During his sixth season in the NBA, Billups finally caught a break when starting point guard Terrell Brandon went down with an injury. In the starting role, Billups contributed to the Wolves making the playoffs and finished the season averaging a career high at the time, 12.5 ppg and 5.5 apg.
At the end of the '01-'02 season, the Wolves would also part ways with Chauncey, and the nomadic guard would make Detroit his sixth different franchise in as many years. With the Pistons, Billups would make a name for himself by leading the team to become NBA champions in '03-'04 and earning himself Finals MVP honors. In his first seven years in the league, Billups was let go by five teams and had accumulated career averages of 13.11 ppg and 4.38 apg.
After becoming known as as "Big Shot Billups" due to numerous cold-blooded shots during the Pistons' championship season, Chauncey flourished in the next seven years of his career. He would go on to be selected to five all-star games and, in years eight through fourteen of his NBA career, average 17.56 ppg and 6.56 apg.
How many people, before the '07-'08 season, had ever heard of Hedo Turkoglu? Aside from people in Turkey and avid NBA followers, probably not many. That is because after being drafted with the 16th pick in the 2000 draft by the Sacramento Kings, Turkoglu spent his first seven years in the league as a mediocre point-forward. During those seven years he played for three teams (Kings, Spurs, and Magic) and had averages of 10.07 ppg and 2.4 apg.
Hedo landed with the Magic in 2004 and after getting adjusted, had a breakout season during the '07-'08 campaign at the age of 28 years old. That year he won the NBA's Most Improved Player award, becoming the second oldest player ever to win the award (Darrell Armstrong, age: 30 in '98-'99). After his career season of 19.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg and 5.0 apg - Turkoglu put up similar numbers as he helped lead the Orlando Magic to their first finals appearance since 1995, where they eventually lost to the Lakers. Established as a go-to playmaker in the NBA, Turkoglu left the Magic in a sign and trade deal with Toronto, where he inked a contract of five years / $52.8 million. In years eight through twelve of his NBA career, Turkoglu would average 14.13 ppg and 4.53 apg.
The last player that currently meets the criteria of being a late bloomer, is the second overall pick in the 2001 NBA draft, Tyson Chandler. Chandler was drafted by the Clippers and traded to Chicago to become part of a dominate one-two punch down low for the Bulls, who drafted Eddy Curry two picks later in the same draft. Unfortunately, while showing enough promise for the Bulls to sign him to a long term extension, the Bulls later gave up on Chandler, trading him to New Orleans. In his five seasons with the Bulls, Chandlers best season was one in which he averaged 8.0 ppg, 9.7 rpg and a field goal percentage of 49.4%.
In New Orleans, paired with All-Star point guard, Chris Paul, Tyson would average career highs in ppg, rpg, and fg%. These improvements can probably mostly be attributed to the abilities of CP3 to find Chandler for easy dunks; and without Paul, Chandler's numbers would plummet once again. After nine seasons in the NBA, Chandler's career averages allotted to 8.07 ppg, 8.78 rpg and 55.7 fg%. Take away his first two seasons with the Hornets - with a healthy Chris Paul - and those averages fall to 7.17 ppg, 7.64 rpg and 52.4 fg%. Not exactly the numbers of an elite NBA center.
Since Tyson Chandler was drafted at the ripe age of 18, he entered his tenth NBA season at the age of only 28; as a member of the Dallas Mavericks. In the 2010-2011 season Chandler would average nearly a double-double every game and shoot a then career high 65.4 percent from the field. Chandler would also anchor the defense of the Mavericks, who became NBA champions that year. Chandler found his niche in the NBA as a defensive center that takes only good shots and makes a high percentage of them. These qualities have led to him become an all-star and defensive player of the year. In years 10-12 of his career, Chandler has averaged 10.86 ppg, 10.00 rpg and a 66.33 fg percentage.
Four players in the last twenty years have developed their role to stardom significantly slower than the typical star. With the "what have you done for me lately" attitude that surrounds almost all professional sports of today, will there be more instances like these in the future? Some players that could potentially appear in a similar article in the future are: Channing Frye, Michael Conley Jr. and Michael Beasley.
Channing Frye was drafted as the eighth pick in the 2005 NBA draft. After having mediocre success as a Knick and little as a Blazer, he signed with the Suns as a free agent. With the Suns he established himself as a power forward that can stretch the floor all the way to the 3-point line. If he can regain his health and continue to grow in this role, he could average numbers like like those of Ryan Anderson this year (16.8 ppg 6.4 rpg).
Michael Conley Jr. was selected with the fourth pick of the 2007 draft and has been with Memphis ever since. While he has been a serviceable starting point guard for his entire six year career, he has yet to break out and become a star. Also, he has not yet been given up on by Memphis. If this were to happen and Conley were to play for a more fast-paced offensive team, it would be less than a surprise to see him average substantially better numbers than his current 13.5 ppg and 5.9 apg.
Michael Beasley was selected with the second pick of the 2008 draft by the Miami Heat. Since then, Beasley has been moved to Minnesota and then to the Phoenix Suns. In his five seasons, Beasley has shown flashes of the ability that led to him being such a high pick; however these flashes are usually quick and spaced out. What is holding Beasley back has nothing to do with his physical tools and talent, instead it seems to be his mental understanding of the game along with work ethic. If he can realize his potential and take advantage of it, the former K-State standout could re-write the book on what it means to be a "late bloomer."
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