Biggest What-If Players in NBA History

By Alexander Wildes
Jul. 07, 2020

Every year, new players come into the NBA, shouldering expectations from team personnel, fans, and analysts. The teams that draft these players want them to exceed all expectations, so these players are given every possible advantage they could have: trainers, meal plans, training gear, and more.

Some of these top players become superstars in the NBA, leading their respective teams to incredible heights. On the other hand, many top players with extreme potential may falter due to unforeseen reasons, such as injuries, death, and more.

These are the top 10 biggest what-if players in NBA history.

10. Penny Hardaway

Penny Hardaway started off his career as part of the one-two punch with Shaquille O’Neal. Hardaway and O’Neal were an instant success, leading the Magic to the NBA Finals in just his second year in the league. Hardaway also was able to receive plenty of individual success, as he made the All-NBA First Team in both his second and third seasons in the league. However, very soon after, Hardaway became incredibly injury prone and could not score as efficiently as he used to, ending his career with only four All-Star game appearances when most believe he was a Hall of Fame-caliber player.

9. Greg Oden

The consensus number one pick in the 2007 NBA draft (even over Kevin Durant), Greg Oden had a ton of hype that the Portland Trail Blazers bought into, selecting him with their first overall pick. In college, Oden averaged 15.7 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game, and was the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-America. However, injuries befell Oden, and the surefire superstar ended up playing in only 3 seasons and 105 games total. On the other hand, Durant (who Colin Cowherd laughably called “just another wing guy”), has gone on to have an incredible, Hall of Fame career.

8. Tracy McGrady

Coming out of high school, Tracy McGrady was not as good as the Toronto Raptors thought he would be. However, once leaving the Raptors, T-Mac turned into a superstar, making the All-Star team four years in a row with the Orlando Magic, leading the league in points per game in two of those seasons. Sadly, while having some solid seasons in Houston, he was also very injury prone, with his last fully productive season coming at age 28. McGrady was out of the NBA by the age of 33, which is incredibly early for a player with the talent that he had. The only reason why McGrady is not higher on this list is that he was still a Hall of Fame player with all the injuries.

7. Reggie Lewis

Reggie Lewis was an extremely talented swingman who played was supposed to help carry the Celtics franchise after their aging core of Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale retired. Lewis was starting to live up to the hype, as in his last two seasons he averaged 20.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.1 blocks per game. However, during a playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets, Lewis fell to the ground without any contact. While recovering and training for the upcoming season, Lewis collapsed and passed away. Lewis was only 28 years old and would have gone on to be a multiple-time All-Star and potential Hall of Famer.

6. Dražen Petrović

Considered one of the best European players ever, Dražen Petrović was among the greatest shooters in NBA history. After a fantastic career overseas, Petrović came to the NBA, playing for the Portland Trail Blazers. After a forgettable season and a half, Petrović was traded to the Nets and instantly flourished. Every year, Petrović seemingly improved, and in his age-28 season, Petrović finally put all the pieces together. As the starting shooting guard for the Nets, Petrović averaged 22.8 points, 3.5 assists, 1.3 steals, and 51.8/44.9/87 shooting splits (and making All-NBA Third Team). Over the 1993 summer, Petrović died in a car accident, ruining what could have been one of the best European NBA careers.

5. Gilbert Arenas

Gilbert Arenas was an absolute star for a few years but is only remembered for being the instigator for the most infamous locker room moment in NBA history. After getting drafted right out of high school, Arenas proved he belonged in the NBA. While spending his first two seasons with the Golden State Warriors, Arenas spent the majority of his career with the Wizards and was a superstar for them in the mid-2000s. However, Arenas peaked at the age of 25, as he went from averaging 29.3 points per game to missing the majority of three straight seasons due to injuries and almost starting a gunfight in the team’s locker room. Arenas, after an incredible start to his seemingly Hall of Fame career, found himself out of the NBA by 30.

4. Brandon Roy

Brandon Roy was drafted sixth overall by the Portland Trail Blazers, and immediately produced incredible numbers. Roy was voted into the All-Star game in his second, third, and fourth seasons in the NBA, averaging 21.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 5.2 assists in those three seasons. Roy was also rewarded for his excellent play by being selected to the All-NBA second team one year, and the All-NBA Third Team another year. However, after constantly battling injuries in his knees, Roy suddenly retired at the age of 26 due to his knees. After sitting out for a year, Roy decided to try to make a comeback but played in only 5 games with the Timberwolves before he needed another season-ending surgery, ending his comeback and his career at the age of 28.

3. Bill Walton

One of the best big men of all time when healthy, Bill Walton was an NBA superstar from the second he stepped onto an NBA court. Walton was a feared rebounder, passer, and shot-blocker, and helped lead the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA title. The following season, Walton was voted as the league’s MVP, along with All-NBA First Team and All-NBA Defensive First Team. However, Walton’s injuries were his downfall, only playing in 468 games from 1974-1988, missing over half of the potential games. Despite his injuries, Walton made the Hall of Fame but could have been a top 15 player in league history had he stayed healthy throughout his career.

2. Derrick Rose

The go-to player when discussing what-if players, Derrick Rose has had a very productive NBA career thus far, but nowhere near where people would have predicted him to be 10 years ago. In his third NBA season, Derrick Rose won the MVP award, becoming the youngest ever to do so. However, after multiple meniscus and ACL tears (among other minor injuries), Rose became a shell of his former self, not scoring or passing with the same flare or efficiency that he used to. While he has revived his career with Minnesota and Detroit, Rose will never become the Hall of Fame player we all thought he would, and will become the only MVP winner to not make the Hall of Fame.

1. Len Bias

Len Bias was a once-in-a-generation type player, being compared to Michael Jordan throughout his college career. In his senior season at Maryland, Bias was first-team All-American, putting up over 23 points and 7 rebounds a game for the Terrapins. Bias was drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics and was supposed to play big minutes, helping relieve some of the heavy load from the Celtics’ aging superstars. However, just two days after being drafted, Bias passed away from a cocaine overdose. If Bias never overdosed, we may have seen another Celtics championship, the Celtics’ stars last an extra year or two in the NBA, and the team would have been much better throughout the 1990s.

Honorable Mentions:

Grant Hill

Grant Hill was a superstar in every sense of the word in the beginning of his career. In his first six seasons in the league (all with the Pistons) Hill averaged: 21.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.6 steals, and missed just 25 (out of 492) games in those six seasons. In the next seven seasons (all with the Magic), Hill averaged 16.4 points, 5 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.1 steals, missing a whopping 374 games (out of 574) in those 7 seasons. While Hill was relatively healthy for the rest of his career, his production was nowhere near the level where it was with the Pistons (and the Magic, for that matter). Though Hill made the Hall of Fame, the potential that he had is something that will make fans wonder “what if” for as long as basketball is around.