Undrafted and Undeterred: Long Shots Can Still Find NBA Success
Damien Wilkins went to the draft in New York in 2004 against the advice of his agent. He sat and waited.
Wilkins lasted until the janitors were about ready to clean the place up. He never heard his name called.
Reggie Evans had high hopes for the 2002 draft when he went to watch it on television at his grandmother's house in Pensacola, Fla. He watched and watched and watched.
Evans' name never was called. He was so distraught he walked 45 minutes back to his mother's house in Pensacola because, like Greta Garbo, he wanted to be alone.
Jamario Moon believed he would be selected in the 2001 draft. He figured Milwaukee, where he had looked good in a workout, would at least snare him in the second round with the No. 52 pick.
So Moon had some friends over to watch the draft and some wings were cooked. The group kept watching, and other names kept being called, including Michigan State's Andre Hutson going No. 52 to the Bucks. Moon never did get selected.
There are plenty of stories about the disappointment players have encountered after failing to be selected in the NBA draft. And there will be more sadness after Thursday's draft from those whose names aren't among the 60 called by commissioner David Stern or deputy commissioner Adam Silver.
But it's what happens after Thursday that will matter for the undrafted. Moon never lost faith, and look what eventually occurred.
"I kept working hard, and I knew my day was going to come,'' said Moon, a forward who had declared for the draft after playing one season at Meridian (Miss.) Community College. "And I made the NBA six years later.''
Few can match the persistence shown by Moon, whose travels took him to the Lakeland Blue Ducks of the USBL to the D-League to the WBA to the CBA to the Harlem Globetrotters and to Italy and Mexico. But by 2007-08, Moon made the Toronto Raptors and started 75 games as a rookie.
Moon signed a two-year, $6 million contract last summer with Cleveland. And teammate LeBron James has talked plenty about how much he likes the defensive stalwart.
"He was hungry enough to continue to work at it, and no matter what it took for him to get to this level, he was going to get here,'' James said during the past season. "So you have to respect that.''
As for Hutson, he never played a second in the NBA.
Wilkins also refused to get down about not being drafted. In the fall of 2004, he made the Seattle SuperSonics. The swingman is now with Minnesota, and has a six-year NBA scoring average of 7.2.
"I look at it as a positive,'' Wilkins, the son of former NBA guard Gerald Wilkins and nephew of Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, said of not being drafted. "When you go undrafted, it means that no one really believed in you and nobody thought you were an NBA player. I knew I had to go out and work hard every day, and I've had a very, very solid career.''
When Wilkins arrived in Seattle as a rookie, one of his teammates was Evans. Two years earlier, Evans had put aside his tears to focus on the task at hand. He made the SuperSonics, and started 60 games as an undrafted rookie.
"That was my first time shedding tears,'' said Evans, a rough-and-tumble power forward who now usually makes others cry. "But it (eventually) worked out real good.''
Evans, now with Toronto, Wilkins and Moon are just three of the many success stories that have emerged after a player was passed over on draft night.
Of the NBA's 30 teams, only Indiana and Philadelphia didn't have at least one undrafted player at some point during the past season, and the 76ers just traded for undrafted forward Andres Nocioni. The season had begun with 49 undrafted players on league rosters.
The list of the undrafted includes such established players as Nocioni, an Olympic gold medalist with Argentina in 2004, four-time Detroit All-Star center Ben Wallace, two-time Chicago All-Star center Brad Miller, Miami forward Udonis Haslem, a starter on the Heat's 2006 title team, Toronto guard Jose Calderon, who set an NBA record in 2008-09 by making 98.1 percent of his free throws, and Chuck Hayes, coming off a season as Houston's starting center for all 82 games despite standing just 6-foot-6.
This list includes up-and-comers Anthony Morrow of Golden State, who has averaged 11.6 and 13.0 points in his first two seasons, J.J. Barea, a fan favorite in Dallas and Phoenix's Louis Amundson, who gets the crowd chanting "Loooooou'' whenever he checks into a game.
Then there's the latest undrafted sensation. After being passed over last June, Utah guard Wesley Matthews proved to be so heady he moved into the starting lineup as a rookie for demanding coach Jerry Sloan, averaging 9.4 points during the regular season and 13.2 in the playoffs.
"I didn't even watch the draft,'' said Matthews, who instead went to work out last June after having played four seasons at Marquette. "I figured if I was going to get bad news, it was going to happen if I watched or didn't watch. Nothing has ever been easy in my life. I've been the underdog my whole life. I like it. It just makes me work harder every day.''
Talk about even more of an underdog. That would be Denver's free-spirited and much-tattooed center Chris "Birdman'' Andersen, who has been in the top six in the NBA in blocked shots two straight seasons.
Andersen bolted to China in the late 1990s after playing just one year at Blinn (Texas) Junior College. He claims he had no idea in 1999 he was then eligible for the draft, which merely assured he would be a free agent since no team even remotely thought of taking the raw 6-10 Andersen.
"Being from a small town, I didn't even know about the draft,'' said Andersen, who is from Iola, Texas (population 331). "I didn't even know how it works. I was going (to become a pro) another way.''
Many undrafted players have much different stories. They're holding to be selected on draft night until their bubbles burst. Amundson called it the "longest two hours of my life'' when his name wasn't called in 2006.
There have been more long nights for prospects the past two decades, with the NBA having cut the draft from seven rounds in 1987 to three in 1988 to two in 1989, which is how it has remained. So more quality players are left undrafted unlike in the old days when Chicago once actually used a late pick on legendary sprinter Carl Lewis.
"It seems like every year now there's about a half-dozen guys where you go, 'Man, this guy wasn't drafted,''' said Nuggets coach George Karl. "Now, the second round is such a mystery, when you throw in European guys and throw in guys you don't want to sign (due to salary cap or roster limitations) ... a lot of guys won't get drafted.''
Karl, whose son, Coby Karl, has played two NBA seasons after being undrafted in 2007 and is now on Denver's roster, said it's sometimes not all that bad to be undrafted because a player then can pick a team he has the best chance of making. Karl also believes some players become "hungrier'' after being snubbed.
The rugged Haslem did.
"I'll never forget the journey that I had to take no matter how much success I have,'' said Haslem, who went undrafted in 2002 out of Florida and played a season in France before making the Heat in the fall of 2003. "I continue to keep that chip on my shoulder.''
Haslem has had it for seven NBA seasons, averaging 10.0 points and 8.1 rebounds. He was a part-time starter as a rookie and has been fixture in the lineup since his second season.
Miami always has had among the NBA's most undrafted players. The Heat closed the season with six on the roster. The others are Joel Anthony, Carlos Arroyo, Yakhouba Diawara, Kenny Hasbrouck and Shavlik Randolph, with Anthony and Hasbrouck, like Haslem, having started with the Heat.
"It's a great story for those guys and also firmly part of our philosophy,'' said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, who also had the undrafted Chris Quinn until he was traded last January to New Jersey after he played his first 3 ½ seasons with Miami. "We try to fill in our roster every year in the summer development program with one or two or possibly three players we can develop. They might not help out immediately, not many players like that do come in and help immediately. But a lot of times, we're able to develop them and eventually they can find a role in our rotation.''
The Heat has brought Anthony, a very raw center, along slowly in his three seasons. He's been effective at times as a defensive presence, ranking second in the NBA in 2009-10 in blocks per minute.
It takes time for undrafted big men to come around. Just look at the case of Wallace, who averaged 1.1 points and 1.7 rebounds as a Washington rookie in 1996-97.
But Wallace developed into perhaps the greatest undrafted player ever. He became a four-time Defensive Player of the Year with Detroit, and his 972 games played are the second-most ever by an undrafted player, trailing the 1,054 guard Avery Johnson logged from 1988-2004.
Wallace never has been much for scoring, having a career average of 6.2. But, if you're undrafted and want to score points, Golden State is the place to go.
The high-scoring Warriors are coming off a season in which five undrafted players averaged 10 or more points. Granted, guard Kelanna Azubuike's 13.9 figure came in just nine games before he was lost for the season due to knee injury. But he averaged 14.4 in 2008-09.
Azubuike has become an established NBA player. But how obscure was he when Warriors coach Don Nelson first got word midway through the 2006-07 season Golden State was considering signing him?
"(Then Warriors general manger Chris Mullin) called me on New Year's Eve and asked me if I liked sambuca, and I said, 'Yeah,''' Nelson said at the time, mishearing the guard's last name. "I thought it was a drink, and he was talking about a player.''
At least Morrow, Anthony Tolliver, Reggie Williams and C.J. Watson are names much easier to understand. They're the other Warriors, along with Azubuike, coming off a season averaging in double figures.
Due to numerous injuries, the Warriors had nine players on the roster during the season who never were drafted, including six who finished the campaign, the other being Chris Hunter.
Williams and Tolliver were the biggest surprises in the bunch. Williams, a guard, averaged 15.2 points in 24 games after initially signing a 10-day deal in March, and Tolliver averaged 12.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in 44 games after first arriving on a 10-day deal in January.
"I think a lot of guys have a dream about getting drafted and about hearing your name called being a big deal,'' said Tolliver, a forward who was undrafted in 2007 and averaged 2.7 points in 19 games with San Antonio in 2008-09 but mostly had played in D-League before joining the Warriors. "But I didn't get wrapped up in that.
"I watched (the draft) in Omaha, Neb., where I went to college (at Creighton), hanging out with a few of my friends. I didn't throw a party or anything like that because I didn't want to get embarrassed. They didn't call my name, but I didn't let it get me down. And I've turned it into this opportunity.''
Speaking of guys wanting to hear their names called, Wilkins was once in that category. He paid his own way to New York in 2004 even though plenty of folks were telling him not to go.
"My agent (Mark Bartelstein) had called me the night before and said, 'I don't know if you should go. I'm not hearing good things,''' Wilkins said. "But I just showed up on my own. I sat five rows behind the lottery picks. ... I was (depressed about not getting drafted) for a couple of days. But I just went home and realized I had to get back in the gym.''
Since then, Wilkins has carved out a nice NBA career. As for those lottery picks he was sitting behind that night, four (Josh Childress, Rafael Araujo, Luke Jackson and Robert Swift, although Childress left on his own for Greece) are already out of the league.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson