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
Sixth man: Keon Clark
Why they're ranked where they are: When we first conceived of this list, UNLV was one team I expected to be in the top 10, if almost by default. The 1991 team produced three good pros, the best of which was Larry Johnson, whom I remember from his "Grandmama" apex. Shawn Marion, meanwhile, keeps extending an already-excellent NBA career. Without truly digging in, or considering other schools, I had the Runnin' Rebels in around No. 10 on this ledger. If not higher.
After digging, No. 13 feels right.
Johnson was the marquee player on the legendary early-'90s Rebels teams, which not only won the 1990 national title and went 27-0 in the 1991 regular season, but produced one of the greatest college posters of all time. After being drafted No. 1 overall by the Charlotte Hornets in 1991, to absolutely no one's surprise, he played immediately at an All-Star level.
At the time, some said Johnson would have been drafted in the first round had he declared for the draft after two otherworldly junior college seasons at Odessa College. That might be a bit of a stretch, but in any case everyone expected Johnson to dominate when he got to the NBA, and he didn't disappoint. As a rookie, Johnson averaged 19.2 points and 11.0 rebounds per game. In his second season, he led the league in minutes (40.5) and averaged 22.1 points and 10.5 rebounds. He was an All-Star that year (1993) and again in 1995 and, alongside Muggsy Bogues and Alonzo Mourning, made the Charlotte Hornets and their strange green and purple uniforms -- not to mention "Grandmama" -- a mainstay of my fellow millenials' basketball childhoods.
Given all this, it would be a stretch to try to call Johnson's career a disappointment, but it's also fair to say he might have left something on the table. Injuries pockmarked his prime years, particularly in 1993-94, when a back injury forced Johnson to play a less overpowering, more well-rounded brand of basketball. (According to Basketball-Reference's Win Shares metric, Johnson's best season actually came as a rookie. I'm not sure what this means, if anything, but it is interesting.) When tension between Mourning and Johnson led to both players being traded in the summer of 1995, Johnson was shipped to the Knicks in exchange for Anthony Mason and Brad Lohaus. Though he played a key role in the Knicks' Eastern Conference title run in 1999, he never reached his Charlotte heights again. In 2001, at the age of 31, Johnson retired. He played only nine years in the NBA.
What of Johnson's old 1991 Rebels teammates, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony? Augmon (whom Bill Walton unfortunately dubbed the descendant of Magic Johnson, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) likewise played his only noteworthy years early in his career, during his first five years for the later-Dominique Wilkins-era Atlanta Hawks. Augmon averaged 13.7 points per game in those seasons, but was never a double-digit scorer from there on out. Anthony fashioned an OK career as a defensive specialist and a backup/spot guard (he averaged 20.9 minutes per game during his career). His best season (14.0 points, 11.3 field goal attempts, 30.4 minutes, etc.) came as the featured guard on the abysmal inaugural edition of the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies.
Marion, meanwhile, is now 34, but is still putting productive seasons on the board. Marion's best years -- when he earned the moniker "The Matrix," one of the least likely nicknames in NBA history -- came during the glory days of the Seven Seconds or Less era Phoenix Suns. That was when Steve Nash and Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo system revolutionized the league. Rangy, fast and high-flying, Marion was the perfect small forward for D'Antoni's system.
When Phoenix general manager Steve Kerr traded Marion to Miami for a washed-up Shaquille O'Neal, it was the Suns' death knell. It also eventually landed Marion on a rebuilding Toronto team, where he could have spent the rest of his days in the basketball wilderness. Instead, Marion made his way to the Dallas Mavericks in time to play an ensemble role on the team that won the 2011 NBA title. In 2012-13, Marion averaged 12.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.1 steals. He's still plugging.
J.R. Rider averaged 29.1 points per season as a senior at UNLV and he was just as thrilling in his first moments in the league. In 1994, Rider won the 1994 NBA Slam Dunk Contest with the "East Bay Funk Dunk." Rider was a good but never great pro from 1993-94 through 1999. But he was out of the league two years later, at the age of 30. He was dogged by off-court issues (including several arrests) throughout his career and in subsequent years. In 2009 he attempted a somewhat sad, if archetypal minor league comeback, and in 2012 announced he was planning to release a documentary about his life in the hopes of helping other young kids avoid a similar fate.
Are you sensing the common undercurrent here? Relative to how we remember them -- Rider from the dunk contest, Johnson as Grandmama, Augmon as Plastic Man, and so on -- most of the best post-1989 UNLV products' careers have been at least slightly disappointing. Or short-lived. Sometimes both.
When you factor that in alongside the rest of the list, No. 13 feels appropriate, doesn't it?
Why they could be ranked higher: While our memories of Johnson, Augmon, Anthony and Rider have probably improved, relative to their performance, you could just as easily argue that Marion has been drastically underrated from Day 1. Phoenix's trade for O'Neal was an intentional (and misguided) effort to make the Suns more conventional (slower, bigger, etc.). Instead it revealed just how effective and important Marion was running the floor alongside Nash. Marion has never been a gifted scorer, but his athleticism made up for that in the early years, and his craftiness does now. Despite occasional rumblings that he wasn't the best teammate, Marion has been a huge asset on every team that has employed him. You simply don't find athletic 3s who can rebound and guard the same variety of players as Marion very often. When you do, you should appreciate them. Maybe Marion is still underrated -- and if he is, doesn't that boost UNLV's overall score?
Plus, let's not totally overlook Keon Clark, a solid if forgettable pro, and Joel Anthony, who went undrafted but turned himself into an invaluable defender and rebounder on Miami's 2012 NBA title team (before the Heat went small in 2013, which sent Anthony to the bench, and you know the rest).
Louis Amundson isn't terrible. That's probably all we need to say about Louis Amundson.
Why they could be ranked lower: We don't spend a ton of time dwelling on the lesser lights of any team's list, but it certainly doesn't hurt a team's rankings to have a deep collection of tenured, productive veterans. UNLV does not have that. As I wrote above, outside of Johnson and Marion, the best Rebels were either disappointing or merely mediocre (or both). Further down the list, even if you set aside Clark, Anthony and Amundson -- which is generous in the first place -- resides a big whole bag of bad. I'm all about Marion, and I love me some Grandmama, but how good is the overall list here, really?
What’s ahead? After legendary coach (and frequent, brazen NCAA target) Jerry Tarkanian was forced out by university president Robert Maxson in 1992, UNLV went dormant for more than a decade. Even when Lon Kruger resurrected the program in the mid-aughts, he did it with the kind of unassuming, defense-first players who fit his system. It had hardly the kind of elite future pros Tarkanian so successfully courted. Only since former Tarkanian player Dave Rice took over in the spring of 2011 have the Rebels looked to run once more. As such, Rice has recruited well, and this summer uber-talented freshman Anthony Bennett is likely to be a top-five pick. (Chad Ford's latest mock draft has Bennett going fourth to the Charlotte Bobcats.) Center Khem Birch could be a lottery pick next summer or beyond. After Katin Reinhardt's transfer to USC, that's about it as obvious potential pro prospects go. But keep an eye on incoming freshman Christian Wood, a great shooter with a lanky 6-foot-10 frame who might have hybrid-obsessed NBA scouts drooling, even if he still has much to add to his game.
Final thoughts: I was six in 1991, and 10 in 1995. My memories of Grandmama and the Charlotte Hornets were always going to be inflated. Which is not to say Johnson wasn't good. Of course he was. There is no getting around how dominant he could be when healthy.
But the overall story of Johnson's career isn't one of undeniable dominance -- it's one of obvious brilliance at least partially derailed by circumstance. (Nobody tell 10-year-old Eamonn's best friend Jason. Jason owned a Hornets Starter jacket. He'd be crushed.) To an even greater extent, Plastic Man and Anthony never really reached the potential they seemed to have when they ran roughshod over college basketball for two straight seasons. At this point, Rider is a classic mid-'90s NBA cautionary tale. Only Marion, born of a different era in UNLV basketball, has been an above-average NBA player for more than a few years. Marion has been that for 14 seasons, to be precise.
I don't know about you, but when I hear "UNLV" and "pro products" in the same formation, my brain instinctually calls up that classic early-'90s All-Americans poster. It remembers Johnson in the glory days, Augmon back when people thought he was the next Magic Johnson, Rider from the dunk contest. UNLV's draft history since 1989 -- while still very good, and worthy of its spot in the top 15 -- was never going to be so simple.