Path to the Draft: No. 18 LSU

In the weeks leading up to the June 27 NBA draft, we’ll be taking a look at the 20 schools that have produced the best pros in the modern draft era (since 1989, when the draft went from seven to two rounds). Click here to read Eamonn Brennan’s explanation of the series, which will be featured in the Nation blog each morning as we count down the programs from 20 to 1.

Top five NBA draftees since 1989

  1. Shaquille O'Neal (1992)

  2. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf/Chris Jackson (1990)

  3. Glen Davis (2007)

  4. Marcus Thornton (2009)

  5. Brandon Bass (2005)

Sixth man: Tyrus Thomas (2006)

The rest: Stromile Swift, Stanley Roberts, Justin Hamilton, Anthony Randolph, Jabari Smith, Randy Livingston, Ronnie Henderson, Ricky Blanton, Geert Hammink

Why they’re ranked where they are: Shaq. It’s that simple.

The future Hall of Famer pushed LSU into these rankings.

He’s a gold medalist (1996, Atlanta). He’s a 15-time NBA All-Star. He’s a four-time champion and former MVP.

One of the greats. Obviously.

Our “Path to the Draft” list is not about numbers alone. But they were factors in our discussions. And LSU has sent 15 players to the NBA since 1989. That’s solid. If you analyze the list, however, you won’t find many true standouts. That’s why Shaq is so essential for LSU’s placement.

I don’t know why or how. But there’s a factory somewhere in Baton Rouge that continues to pump out 6-foot-11, athletic forwards who never quite evolve into consistent threats at the next level. Anthony Randolph, Stromile Swift and Tyrus Thomas were essentially clones. Same “high ceilings” at the collegiate level. Same NBA struggles magnified by limited skill sets. They’re the poster children for pre-draft assessments that include comments such as “he runs like a gazelle” or “he can jump out of the gym.” Doesn’t mean much if you can't hit 15-footers.

Stanley Roberts had star power in college. But injuries and personal problems hindered him throughout his career. "He had it all, he was unstoppable. He was the better player,” O'Neal, who played with Roberts at LSU, told Sports Illustrated in 2009.

Similar fate for Swift, who was the second pick in the 2000 NBA draft. His NBA tenure ended at 29 years old when he averaged just 3.0 PPG for the Phoenix Suns during the 2008-09 season (13 games).

But Glen Davis has found a niche early in his career. He’s evolved into a forward with a reliable offensive arsenal and comfortable weight that hasn’t fluctuated the way many assumed it would when he was the size of a small cottage during his time at LSU.

The kids don’t know much about Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who was previously known as Chris Jackson. But he was one of the league’s best point guards throughout the 1990s. He also hit more than 90 percent of his free throws in his career, one of the greatest marks in league history. Many remember him for his refusal to stand during the national anthem due to his religious beliefs, but that doesn’t erase his accomplishments.

Marcus Thornton hasn’t equaled that amazing stretch in 2010-11, which included a 21.3 PPG average for the Sacramento Kings. But he’s already surpassed most second-round picks. In five years, he’s averaged 14.3 PPG. And Brandon Bass is certainly a stud among the NBA’s second-tier centers. You could do a lot worse than positioning Bass in the middle of your favorite NBA team’s offense and defense.

And then there’s Shaq, one of the greatest centers in NBA history. That’s a definite boost.

Why they could be ranked higher: Without Shaq, however, that’s not exactly a breathtaking pro legacy.

The LSU program was like many that barely made this list. A bunch of draft picks but not much star power. So Shaq is a difference-maker.

And he would be the only reason -- a very logical reason -- to elevate LSU above the 18th position in our “Path to the Draft” rankings.

The Tigers have given the league a player who’s in the “greatest big man in NBA history” discussion with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Tim Duncan.

How good was Shaq? Well, let’s take a look at the “bad” Shaq years. In his last four seasons in the NBA, Shaq played for four different squads (Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns, Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers). If you remember Shaq’s debut in the early '90s, then the final few seasons of his career were certainly disheartening. This wasn’t the backboard-breaking, pulverizing, position-altering Colossus who’d owned the paint in the NBA for more than a decade. This was an out-of-shape, lumbering big man who was only serviceable due to his size, experience and ability to help teams in small spurts.

He wasn’t completely healthy, either. But he managed to average 13.1 PPG over the course of his last four seasons. He never shot under 56.6 percent from the field during that stretch. And when he was 36 years old, he averaged 17.8 PPG, 8.4 RPG and 1.4 BPG in 75 starts with the Phoenix Suns.

Yeah, Shaq helps a lot.

And a number of players on this list (Bass, Thornton, Davis, Thomas) could blossom in the coming years. I’m not sure any player on that list is a future All-Star. But many are young enough to elevate their respective stocks in the near future. Abdul-Rauf was an above-average floor general for nearly a decade in the NBA, too. That enhances the program’s argument for a higher ranking.

Why they could be ranked lower: Well, Thomas is the sixth man. And Bass, Davis, Thornton and Swift were all considered for this program’s starting five (since 1989).

There’s just a lot of unproven and inconsistent talent connected to the program. And if you remove Shaq, you don’t have a lot to work with. There’s no real depth with this crew.

To sustain this slot, LSU’s young NBA products will have to grow. And that’s no guarantee. Thomas had his best season three years ago and his field goal percentages have declined each season since 2009-10. Thornton hasn’t proved doubters wrong by equaling that brilliant burst a few years ago.

So the Tigers could fall in these rankings because Shaq is just one player and this chart is also about history, breadth and continuity. And the Tigers’ current standing at No. 18 on our list is partially tied to its current athletes in the league who still have a lot to prove.

What’s ahead: Davis, a former NBA champion, had the best season of his career in 2012-13 (15.1 PPG, 7.2 RPG and 45 percent from the field). With the second pick in this summer’s draft, there’s a strong chance that the Magic will seek another big man (possibly Nerlens Noel) to join him inside. That would help Davis, who’s now a rising star for that franchise.

Bass could assume a bigger role with the Boston Celtics soon, especially if Kevin Garnett retires or joins another team. And Thomas and Thornton can’t be dismissed due to a few lukewarm seasons in recent years. Thornton is just 25 years old. Thomas is only 26 and he’s averaged 1.3 BPG. He could play for a long time simply because of his athleticism and ability to alter shots. The book on their careers is not finished.

And Randolph is only 23. His five years in the NBA have featured two promising stretches. He averaged 11.6 PPG in 2009-10. And then, he recorded an 11.7 PPG clip after a midseason trade from the New York Knicks to the Minnesota Timberwolves. He’s averaged 2.2 BPG throughout his career, too.

And current players Johnny O’Bryant and incoming freshman Jarell Martin, a McDonald’s All American, will give the Tigers one of the nation’s most intriguing frontcourts in 2013-14. Both could develop into legit NBA prospects over the next 12 months.

So in a few years, LSU’s NBA tradition could be jolted by the progress of its current pro reps.

Final thoughts: Louisiana State basketball has managed to create a respectable slate of NBA prospects over the past quarter-century. In the next five years or so, multiple Tigers draftees could become vital components in the rotations of their respective NBA squads.

That’s no guarantee. But the potential exists.

You can’t ignore the players who failed to meet expectations.

But there are only a few blue-chip programs on our list that boast an anchor with a more impressive NBA résumé than the one Shaq possesses.

The Tigers are worthy of this list. Barely. That program can thank Shaq for this one.