The NBA playoffs are officially upon us, a time for pro basketball fans to rejoice and for those of us who love (and cover) the college game to say “Wait, is that guy really in the NBA?”
That’s right, for all the talk about the Durants, Kyries and D-Wades - players who seemed destined for superstardom long before they got to the league - there are plenty of others who are having success that few saw coming.
From superstars to key role players and guys some fans know very little about, here are the 11 most unlikely NBA playoff success stories, based on their college careers.
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Jimmy Butler, F, Chicago Bulls (Marquette)
Butler’s story has been well-documented, but it’s still worth repeating here, if only because it’s so darn impressive. The current Chicago Bull actually began his college career in the junior college ranks and even after arriving at Marquette, never earned any accolades beyond “All Big-East honorable mention” while in school.
That also makes Butler’s rise to becoming one of the NBA’s true superstars that much more incredible. He’s averaged at least 20 points in each of the past three seasons (he never averaged more than 15 a game at Marquette) earning three straight All-Star nominations. He also won a gold medal as a member of the 2016 Olympic team.
Khris Middleton, F, Milwaukee Bucks (Texas A&M)
Like so many players on this list, Middleton could best be described as a “fine” college player; he wasn’t bad at Texas A&M but never did anything very notable either. In his three years at the school he averaged double-figures twice, but never even garnered All-Big 12 first-team honors, let alone any national accolades.
Yet that hasn’t stopped him from becoming a key player for a Bucks squad which has made the playoffs in two of the past three seasons. He averaged a career-best 18.2 points per game in 2015-16, and even after both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker (pre-injury) turned into stars this season, still tallied nearly 15 points a contest in 2017.
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Steven Adams, C, Oklahoma City Thunder (Pittsburgh)
Adams was rated as one of the top players in the high school class of 2012, but his impact in one season at Pitt was negligible at best. He finished fifth on his own team in scoring at just 7.2 points per game, behind such notable names as Talib Zanna and J.J. Moore. That’s also why it was so surprising to see Adams declare for – and get drafted in the top 15 – after just one season.
Adams quickly proved the doubters wrong however, earning second-team All-Rookie honors, before evolving into one of the most valuable role players in the NBA. After serving as a thorn in the side of the Golden State Warriors in last year’s Western Conference finals, he averaged career-highs virtually across the board in 2017, including in points (11.7) and rebounds (7.7. The scary part is that Adams is still just 23 years old.
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Kent Bazemore, G, Atlanta Hawks (Old Dominion)
Bazemore is the classic case of “it’s not where you start, it’s where you end up.” He began his career at Old Dominion by redshirting and averaged just four points as a redshirt freshman. He eventually became one of the better mid-major prospects in college basketball, but that wasn’t until he was a 23-year-old, fifth-year senior. Even then, at 6-5 with modest but not elite athleticism, no one pegged him as someone who’d find a place – or stick – in the league.
Boy, what a difference a few years make. Despite being undrafted Bazemore ended up spending a season-and-a-half with the Warriors, before a breakout stretch-run on a bad Lakers’ squad in 2014. That eventually led him to where he is now, as a guy who started 75 games and averaged 11 points a contest for the Hawks in 2017.
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Dewayne Dedmon, C, San Antonio Spurs (USC)
Dedmon took the floor for USC during the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 seasons, but if you can’t remember him it’s hard to blame you; he never averaged more than seven points or seven rebounds in a season with the Trojans.
Since reaching the NBA though he’s found a niche in San Antonio, where he’s made his name as a big-body, do-a-little-bit-of-everything center. He averaged five points and six rebounds this season.
Jonathon Simmons, G, San Antonio Spurs (Houston)
Simmons might have the most unique backstory on this list, playing two years of junior college ball and then redshirting at Houston before finally seeing the college court in 2011-2012. During only season he got playing time at Houston, Simmons averaged 14 points per game for a forgettable, 15-15 Cougars’ squad.
Since then it’s been a whirlwind to get to the NBA, but now that he’s there, has found a nice role. Simmons averaged nearly 18 minutes a game this season, scoring in double-figures four times in the final month of the regular season. He played 14 minutes in San Antonio’s Game 2 win over Memphis on Monday.
JaMychal Green, F, Memphis (Alabama)
Believe it or not, Green is one of the most decorated basketball players ever to sign at Alabama, but once there, never became the star some expected. His best year in Tuscaloosa was during his junior season, when he averaged 15 points per game, but those numbers dipped as a senior in 2012.
Despite that modest college career however, Green began to reach his full potential once he got to the NBA. Four years after going unselected on draft night, he started 75 games for the Grizzlies this year, averaging just less than nine points and seven rebounds per game.
Mike Muscala, F, Atlanta Hawks (Bucknell)
In the pantheon of “this dude never once looked like an NBA player while he was in college” Muscala has to top this list. During his four years at Bucknell, Muscala carved out a niche as a not-particularly-athletic, low post big man, winning Patriot League Player of the Year honors in 2011 and 2013. But even in doing so, he never looked like a guy who would play a major role in the NBA. Or get there at all.
He has most certainly proved the doubters (myself included) wrong since then, becoming a key rotation player for the Hawks. What might be most surprising is the overall evolution of his game. That low post player (who made only four 3-pointers his senior year) has become a lethal outside shooter, hitting 46 threes this season and shooting 39 percent from deep.
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Ian Clark, G, Golden State Warriors (Belmont)
Like Muscala, Clark had a respectable college career, averaging 18 points per game as a senior at Belmont. Still, there are a lot of guys who have 18 points per game as mid-major basketball players who never get a sniff in the NBA, let alone stick there.
Yet Clark has, becoming a key player off the bench for the Warriors the past two seasons. He averaged a career-high seven points per game this season, and tallied 12 points in Sunday’s Game 1 win over Portland. Not bad for someone who went undrafted in the historically awful 2013 NBA Draft.
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Andre Roberson, F, Oklahoma City Thunder (Colorado)
Even dating back to his college days Roberson has always been considered a role player. But what’s been so fascinating is to watch how that "role" has changed since he got to the NBA.
At Colorado, Roberson basically played as an undersized power forward, where he averaged 10 points and 11 rebounds a game. In the NBA though he plays almost exclusively on the wing, where he’s considered one of the best defenders at that spot in the league.
Bobby Brown, G, Houston Rockets (Cal State-Fullerton)
Brown is another mid-major success story as a player who – despite averaging 20 points his senior year at Cal State-Fullerton - went undrafted in 2007. He found a brief role in the NBA from 2008-2010 before spending the past six seasons overseas.
Then in an incredible twist of luck, Brown was given a shot with the Rockets – based in large part on the recommendation of star James Harden. He hasn’t played a ton this year (averaging just 2.5 points per game) but remains one of the true, surprise success stories of these playoffs.