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Late bloomers of the NBA

Late bloomers of the NBA
1/Doug Pensinger // Getty Images

Late bloomers of the NBA

Greatness is intoxicating to watch, but for fans there's also a romance to the idea of the “late bloomer.” Ultra-gifted superstar Michael Jordan managed to have it both ways: While Jordan soared as a professional basketball player, he was once was cut from his high school team. The late bloomer reminds us that hard work can pay off and that we aren't trapped in our current circumstances. Of course, at least in a league filled with the tallest, strongest, highest-leaping men, the late bloomer's arrested development is often caused by things outside of his control: the shadow of a more famous player an unstable franchise. Sometimes the bloom is tied to maturation or grit; sometimes it's simply linked to leaving a dysfunctional team.

The idea of a late bloomer is worryingly subjective, so Stacker dove into the numbers to find a formula with which to anchor a list. Stacker used data from the website Basketball Reference, calculating a combined average for where every NBA player ranked for BPM, VORP, PER, and WS in a given season.

BPM stands for Box Plus/Minus which weighs a player's shooting efficiency, minutes, rebounds, steals, blocks, assists, and more to find how a player stacks up compared to an average NBA player. VORP stands for Value Over Replacement Player and is quantified by dividing a player's BPM by a theoretical replacement player to see how many times more or less valuable they are than that minimum salary player. PER is a stat that measures a player's per-minute efficiency. WS stands for Win Shares and measures the number of points a single player produces and attempts to credit the percentage of his team's wins that he created.

From there, Stacker found players that did not finish in the top 50 average rankings in the NBA during the first five years of their career, but who then made it into the top 25 for at least one season after that. In total, 19 players since 1974 fit the bill; they're ranked from 19 to one based on the gap between their highest scoring year and their first five-year, pre-bloom average.

NBA playoffs prominently featuring late bloomers like Tobias Harris and D'Angelo Russell—two stars who needed a change of scenery to come into their full potential—offer the perfect moment to read about the most dramatic late blooms of the NBA's from 1974–2017.

You may also like: The most improved players on every NBA team

#19. Tom Chambers
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#19. Tom Chambers

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #92
- First season in top 25: 9th
- Best rank: #23 (9th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 2.9 (#37), PER: 20.9 (#22), BPM: 1.8 (#57), WS: 11.2 (#13)
- Best season statistics: 27.2 PPG, 2.3 APG, 7.0 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 0.6 BPG
- Career statistics: 18.1 PPG, 2.1 APG, 6.1 RPG, 0.8 SPG, 0.6 BPG

Though it took Tom Chambers a few years and an improved situation to hit his peak in the NBA, the 6'10” power forward had his first bloom in high school. As a sophomore, Chambers was a 6'2” point guard; a growth spurt that shot him up seven inches in six months made him a Division-1 prospect and an eventual first-round pick for the San Diego Clippers. Chambers's first flashes of stardom came after a move to the Seattle Supersonics, but it was landing on the Phoenix Suns in the late 1980s that elevated him to the NBA's elite. Chambers is one of only two players with 20,000 career points to not be in the Hall of Fame.

#18. Mike Gminski
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#18. Mike Gminski

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #118
- First season in top 25: 6th
- Best rank: #22 (6th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 2.3 (#34), PER: 19 (#30), BPM: 1.7 (#46), WS: 9.2 (#16)
- Best season statistics: 16.5 PPG, 1.6 APG, 8.2 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 0.9 BPG
- Career statistics: 11.7 PPG, 1.3 APG, 6.9 RPG, 0.5 SPG, 1.1 BPG

Mike Gminski was twice picked as an All-American during his four-year college career, but in the pros, it took longer for Gminski to become an impact player. In his sixth season, as the team's starting center, Gminski began a four-year run of averaging more than 16 points and eight rebounds per game. He was a famously great free-throw shooter for a big man.

#17. Brent Barry
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#17. Brent Barry

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #119
- First season in top 25: 7th
- Best rank: #11 (7th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 6 (#4), PER: 19.3 (#36), BPM: 5.8 (#9), WS: 12.1 (#9)
- Best season statistics: 14.4 PPG, 5.3 APG, 5.4 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 0.5 BPG
- Career statistics: 9.3 PPG, 3.2 APG, 3.0 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 0.3 BPG

The son of one of the all-time NBA greats (Rick Barry), it took a little while for Brent Barry to find his stride in the league. Barry was drafted by the Denver Nuggets but was traded to the Clippers before playing a single game. The lanky wing was an early 3-point specialist, but in 1996 he unexpectedly won the Slam Dunk Contest. In the 2001—2002 season, a 30-year-old Barry had his best season of his career with the Seattle Supersonics; he won two NBA Championships over the course of his 15-year career.

#16. Kermit Washington
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#16. Kermit Washington

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #126
- First season in top 25: 7th
- Best rank: #16 (7th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 3.9 (#12), PER: 18.2 (#38), BPM: 3.8 (#15), WS: 9.1 (#17)
- Best season statistics: 13.4 PPG, 2.1 APG, 10.5 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 1.6 BPG
- Career statistics: 9.2 PPG, 1.4 APG, 8.3 RPG, 0.8 SPG, 1.1 BPG

Kermit Washington was a standout in college and was drafted fifth overall by the Los Angeles Lakers, but he struggled transitioning from a small college to one of the NBA's premiere franchises. He played sporadically, never appearing in more than 60 games in a season until his first standout season (1979–1980) when he played all 82 games for the San Diego Clippers. He made the All Star game in 1980 as a Portland Trailblazer, but unfortunately for Washington, he will always be best known for an infamous courtside brawl.

#15. Dana Barros
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#15. Dana Barros

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #127
- First season in top 25: 6th
- Best rank: #9 (6th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 5.3 (#9), PER: 20.9 (#19), BPM: 4.3 (#23), WS: 12.7 (#6)
- Best season statistics: 20.6 PPG, 7.5 APG, 3.3 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 0.0 BPG
- Career statistics: 10.5 PPG, 3.3 APG, 1.9 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 0.1 BPG

In 1989, Dana Barros was drafted in the middle of the first round by the Seattle Supersonics and spent the first part of his career backing up talented and feisty point guard Gary Payton. But it was a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers in 1993 that unlocked another level for Barros. Finally given the starting job, Barros started to show some flashes of the scoring guard he'd been in college at Boston College. In his second season in Philadelphia, he became one of the best guards in the Eastern Conference, putting up 20.6 point and 7.5 assists per game. He was named the NBA's Most Improved Player for the 1994–1995 season.

#14. Rik Smits
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#14. Rik Smits

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #152
- First season in top 25: 6th
- Best rank: #25 (6th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 2.3 (#50), PER: 19.7 (#32), BPM: 2.3 (#47), WS: 7.8 (#32)
- Best season statistics: 15.7 PPG, 2.0 APG, 6.2 RPG, 0.6 SPG, 1.1 BPG
- Career statistics: 14.8 PPG, 1.4 APG, 6.1 RPG, 0.4 SPG, 1.3 BPG

Known as The Dunking Dutchman, the 7'4” center from the Netherlands went second overall to the Indiana Pacers in the 1988 NBA Draft. Smits was instantaneously able to score in the NBA, using his size and his effective mid-range shot to put up 15 per game in his second year. But it took longer for the towering big man to be able to rebound and defend at an NBA level. The Pacers center reached his only All Star game as a 31 year old in 1998.

#13. Al Jefferson
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#13. Al Jefferson

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #146
- First season in top 25: 8th
- Best rank: #17 (8th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 2.6 (#23), PER: 22.8 (#15), BPM: 3 (#41), WS: 7.5 (#20)
- Best season statistics: 19.2 PPG, 2.2 APG, 9.6 RPG, 0.8 SPG, 1.7 BPG
- Career statistics: 15.7 PPG, 1.5 APG, 8.4 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 1.2 BPG

Al Jefferson, a 6'10” center, was drafted by the Boston Celtics, but he didn't start to shine until he was moved to the Minnesota Timberwolves as the centerpiece of the Kevin Garnett trade, which jump-started the Celtics late-2000s championship run. Jefferson tore his ACL during his second season with the Wolves (he was putting up an impressive 23 points and 11 rebounds per game), which further slowed the big man's rise. It wasn't until another trade moved him to the Utah Jazz that Jefferson began to reach his peak. Finally, as a 29 year old, on his fourth team, Jefferson became an NBA All Star.

#12. Larry Hughes
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#12. Larry Hughes

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #153
- First season in top 25: 7th
- Best rank: #24 (7th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 3.6 (#26), PER: 21.6 (#30), BPM: 4.1 (#23), WS: 7.7 (#38)
- Best season statistics: 22.0 PPG, 4.7 APG, 6.3 RPG, 2.9 SPG, 0.3 BPG
- Career statistics: 14.1 PPG, 3.1 APG, 4.2 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 0.4 BPG

Larry Hughes, one of the great players to come out of St. Louis, declared for the NBA draft after his freshman year at Saint Louis University and was drafted eighth by the Philadelphia 76ers. The young guard played beside Allen Iverson before being traded to the Golden State Warriors in a three-team deal. Hughes next played with Michael Jordan on the Washington Wizards before signing a giant deal to play alongside Jordan's heir apparent, LeBron James, in Cleveland. Hughes's best season came in Washington when he averaged 22 points per game and led the league in steals per game with 2.9.

#11. Elden Campbell
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#11. Elden Campbell

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #159
- First season in top 25: 6th
- Best rank: #25 (6th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 3.3 (#28), PER: 18 (#53), BPM: 2.9 (#45), WS: 8.2 (#31)
- Best season statistics: 13.9 PPG, 2.2 APG, 7.6 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 2.6 BPG
- Career statistics: 10.3 PPG, 1.1 APG, 5.9 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 1.5 BPG

Elden Campbell, a 6'11” center, was drafted at the end of the first round by the Los Angeles Lakers after playing four years at Clemson University. The young player arrived on the legendary franchise in 1990, the year before Magic Johnson retired from the league after being diagnosed with HIV. Campbell played serviceable seasons for the franchise before having his best year of his career in 1995–1996. That season, Campbell's defense and passing bloomed: he had a career high assist rate and defense box plus/minus (an advanced stat that charts how much better than average a positional player is on defense). Fittingly enough, his best late-career moment came when he defended Shaquille O'Neal for an important stretch in the 2004 NBA Finals.

#10. Hedo Turkoglu
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#10. Hedo Turkoglu

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #162
- First season in top 25: 8th
- Best rank: #25 (8th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 4.1 (#17), PER: 17.8 (#72), BPM: 3.3 (#33), WS: 9 (#25)
- Best season statistics: 19.5 PPG, 5.0 APG, 5.7 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 0.3 BPG
- Career statistics: 11.1 PPG, 2.8 APG, 4.0 RPG, 0.8 SPG, 0.3 BPG

6'10” forward Hedo Turkoglu was one of the first big men to start taking and making 3-pointers at a high rate. The Istanbul native played for a Turkish professional team for four seasons before being drafted by the Sacramento Kings in 2000. He spent three years coming off the bench on a much-loved team that Sports Illustrated dubbed “The Greatest Show on Court.” The sharp-shooting forward's best season came in 2007–2008 while playing alongside Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis. The next season, Turkoglu's Magic team made it to the NBA Finals.

#9. Mike Conley
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#9. Mike Conley

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #150
- First season in top 25: 6th
- Best rank: #13 (6th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 4.3 (#12), PER: 18.3 (#58), BPM: 4.1 (#17), WS: 9.9 (#11)
- Best season statistics: 14.6 PPG, 6.1 APG, 2.8 RPG, 2.2 SPG, 0.3 BPG
- Career statistics: 14.9 PPG, 5.7 APG, 3.0 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 0.2 BPG

Mike Conley played alongside Greg Oden and Daequan Cook on the National Championship runner up Ohio State Buckeyes team before being drafted fourth overall by the Grizzlies in the 2007 NBA Draft. Conley had a strikingly slow start, having to battle for his job seemingly every year after that. But in his sixth season in 2012–2013, Conley finally solidified his spot on the Grizzlies and in the league, making the All-Defensive 2nd Team while putting up 14.6 points and 6.1 assists.

#8. Nene Hilário
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#8. Nene Hilário

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #171
- First season in top 25: 7th
- Best rank: #10 (8th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 4.6 (#8), PER: 18.9 (#49), BPM: 4.7 (#13), WS: 10.8 (#10)
- Best season statistics: 13.8 PPG, 2.5 APG, 7.6 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 1.0 BPG
- Career statistics: 11.3 PPG, 1.8 APG, 6.0 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 0.7 BPG

Brazilian big man Nene entered the NBA as Nenê Hilário when he was drafted seventh overall by the New York Knicks in 2002. Before he played a game in New York, he was traded to the Denver Nuggets. During his first six seasons with the Nuggets, Nenê missed more than 40% of his games—he was plagued by a flood of leg injuries during that period. But starting in his seventh season, playing center on a team run by Carmelo Anthony, Nene put together his best three-year run of his career, leading the league in Offensive Rating and making more than 60% of his FG attempts.

#7. Ben Wallace
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#7. Ben Wallace

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #180
- First season in top 25: 6th
- Best rank: #14 (6th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 5.9 (#6), PER: 18.6 (#50), BPM: 5.9 (#8), WS: 11.6 (#10)
- Best season statistics: 7.6 PPG, 1.4 APG, 13.0 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 3.5 BPG
- Career statistics: 5.7 PPG, 1.3 APG, 9.6 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 2.0 BPG

There is probably no better example of a late bloomer than Ben Wallace on this list, because there's probably no more unlikely Hall of Fame-level player than Wallace in the modern era. The undersized center signed as an undrafted free agent with the Washington Bullets and played sparingly in Orlando before finding his home in Detroit in 2000. During an incredible five-year run from 2001 to 2006, Wallace won four Defensive Players of the Year, made five All NBA teams, made four All Star Games, and even got MVP votes in three different seasons.

#6. Goran Dragic
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#6. Goran Dragic

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #196
- First season in top 25: 6th
- Best rank: #15 (6th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 4 (#14), PER: 21.4 (#23), BPM: 3.9 (#25), WS: 10.3 (#15)
- Best season statistics: 20.3 PPG, 5.9 APG, 3.2 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 0.3 BPG
- Career statistics: 13.7 PPG, 4.8 APG, 3.1 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 0.2 BPG

Slovenian guard Goran Dragic was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs (and then instantly traded to the Phoenix Suns) near the end of the 2008 draft and played like a late-2nd Rounder for his first five years. The lefty made his first impact in the 2010 playoffs against the Spurs; the 23 year old exploded off the bench with 26 points in 17 minutes. The Suns traded Dragic to the Rockets, but he resigned with the Suns a year later and finally broke out as a point guard. In the 2013–2014 season, at the age of 27, Dragic won Most Improved Player, putting up 20 points per game and shooting more than 40% from 3-point range.

#5. Zach Randolph
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#5. Zach Randolph

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #202
- First season in top 25: 10th
- Best rank: #20 (10th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 3.1 (#28), PER: 22.6 (#16), BPM: 2.5 (#48), WS: 10.5 (#12)
- Best season statistics: 20.1 PPG, 2.2 APG, 12.2 RPG, 0.8 SPG, 0.3 BPG
- Career statistics: 16.6 PPG, 1.8 APG, 9.1 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 0.3 BPG

Zach Randolph entered the league on the unfortunately (if, at times, aptly) nicknamed Portland “Jail Blazers”—a talented squad ultimately derailed by a lack of cohesion and a stirring number of run-ins with law enforcement. He then had quick stops in two other recklessly run franchises, before finding his spiritual home in Memphis. The late-20s forward's toughness rubbed off on the entire Grizzlies team (which became known as “Grit and Grind”) and his pairing with Marc Gasol made for one of the most formidable frontcourts in the league. Randolph reached the All Star Game in 2010 and 2013, at 28 and 31 years old, respectively.

#4. Anthony Mason
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#4. Anthony Mason

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #204
- First season in top 25: 8th
- Best rank: #17 (8th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 5.2 (#11), PER: 18.9 (#48), BPM: 4.5 (#24), WS: 11.4 (#13)
- Best season statistics: 16.2 PPG, 5.7 APG, 11.4 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 0.5 BPG
- Career statistics: 10.9 PPG, 3.4 APG, 8.3 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 0.3 BPG

Anthony Mason, along with John Starks, Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley, came to embody the toughness that became a hallmark of the mid-'90s New York Knicks teams. He was tough, but he was also a bit player in an era of the Eastern Conference dominated by Michael Jordan. But when Mason got the chance to play meaningful minutes starting in 1995, he showed that he could be one of the best forwards in basketball. From 1995–1998, he was in the Top-18 in Wins Above Replacement in the league.

#3. DeAndre Jordan
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#3. DeAndre Jordan

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #203
- First season in top 25: 6th
- Best rank: #14 (7th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 4.3 (#11), PER: 21 (#38), BPM: 4.1 (#23), WS: 12.8 (#5)
- Best season statistics: 11.5 PPG, 0.7 APG, 15.0 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 2.2 BPG
- Career statistics: 9.6 PPG, 0.9 APG, 10.9 RPG, 0.6 SPG, 1.6 BPG

The athletic 6'11” Texan was drafted to the Clippers, which for decades was terrible news. But two years into DeAndre Jordan's career, Blake Griffin joined him in the frontcourt and became a star, and a year after that Chris Paul arrived to run point. By 2013, as a 25 year old, Jordan had become an integral part of Lob City. Jordan had a successful run from 2014 to 2017 when he made more than 70% of his shots while pulling down more than 13 rebounds per game.

#2. Donyell Marshall
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#2. Donyell Marshall

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #210
- First season in top 25: 7th
- Best rank: #19 (10th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 3.9 (#20), PER: 18.9 (#53), BPM: 3.2 (#30), WS: 10.4 (#11)
- Best season statistics: 14.7 PPG, 1.5 APG, 9.9 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 1.5 BPG
- Career statistics: 11.2 PPG, 1.4 APG, 6.7 RPG, 0.8 SPG, 0.9 BPG

Donyell Marshall entered the NBA draft after an All-American junior season at University of Connecticut; he was taken fourth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves before being flipped to the Golden State Warriors halfway through his rookie year. But when Marshall made it to Utah at 27, he arrived on a team led by ferocious and fastidious coach Jerry Sloan. Marshall shot less and rebounded more, making himself into a winning forward.

#1. Jermaine O'Neal
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#1. Jermaine O'Neal

- Average rank first five seasons in league: #250
- First season in top 25: 7th
- Best rank: #19 (7th season)
- Best season advanced stats: VORP: 3.3 (#28), PER: 21.4 (#18), BPM: 2.6 (#45), WS: 10.5 (#13)
- Best season statistics: 20.8 PPG, 2.0 APG, 10.3 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 2.3 BPG
- Career statistics: 13.2 PPG, 1.4 APG, 7.2 RPG, 0.5 SPG, 1.8 BPG

Part of the reason it took a few years for Jermaine O'Neal to find his sea legs in the NBA was that he entered the league at 17 straight out of high school in South Carolina. The physically gifted 6'11” center could not find his footing during the four seasons on the Portland Trail Blazers that many players spend in college, averaging just 3.9 points per game during that stretch. But when O'Neal relocated to the Indiana Pacers, he started to realize his potential, making the All Star game six years in a row from 2002–2007 (he was just 23 when he made his first All Star appearance).

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