First Annual Gators in the NBA rankings

A couple of years ago, I started what I believe to be the most comprehensive rankings of former Gators in the NFL. I still haven’t seen or heard of one more thorough. I’m a big “list” guy so that column has been one of my favorites to write. Well as the 2013 NBA Finals are underway featuring three Gators, it is time to debut the inaugural Gators in the NBA rankings.

The reason I began ranking the former Gators in the NFL back in 2011 was because it was perhaps the greatest cumulative year ever for alums in the pro ranks. And while you could certainly debate whether another football season was stronger (1993?), there is no debate that this recent NBA season saw the most widespread success for ex-Gator hoopsters.

These rankings are my own based partly on raw numbers, partly on what I read and heard from experts around the league and partly on my own biases. When you put together lists, there is always debate and I welcome that. But what you can’t debate is that it was great to be a Florida Gator on the hardwood this year.

TOP 10

Marreese Speights (8.3 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 45% FG, 77% FT)
Rank: 10
Category: Supporting Actor
Mo Speights is never going to be a star in the NBA but he is going to play in the league for a long time. For that reason alone, you can’t argue with his decision to leave Florida early. At the time, Speights seemed like he still had a lot to learn from Billy Donovan and surely would have benefited from another year or two of seasoning. No one can say whether that time would have given him the tools to become a starting center in the league, but regardless, Speights has carved out a role as a reliable backup big with a nice offensive touch. In fact after the midseason trade to Cleveland, he scored in double figures in his first seven games with the Cavs, including two double-doubles. He has one more year on his contract and therefore could be on the move again, which would mean a fourth NBA team. But he’ll find a role as the first big of someone’s bench and again be productive.

Matt Bonner (4.2 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 44% 3PT FG)
Rank: 9
Category: Lifetime Achievement Award
Matt Bonner has now played nine seasons in the NBA, surely one of the least athletic players to ever do so. Bonner might be the smartest player to have come through Gainesville, so it is no surprise his brain figured out a way to overcome his lack of brawn. When Bonner graduated, there weren’t many who expected him to make the NBA, let alone play a while. He had a great career at Florida and showed off a knack for putting the ball in the basket. Rebounding and defense figured to be a deterrent to sticking in the league. However, those aforementioned brains and a dead-eye shot from long range have made him a perfect complimentary piece in Gregg Popovich’s Spurs Orchestra. Bonner ranks 14th on the all-time NBA three-point field goal percentage list. He has one ring and if the Spurs can shock the world, he’ll tie Vernon Maxwell and Udonis Haslem for the most rings by a former Gator. Plus, he’s the Red Mamba… and he’ll always have that.

Kobe gave Bonner the nickname and he’s taking it to his grave.

Bradley Beal (13.9 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.4 APG, 0.9 SPG, 39% 3PT FG)
Rank: 8
Category: Future Star
It took Brad Beal a while to find his NBA legs. In fact, his first couple of months had some people around the league whispering bust. But Beal showed what kind of player he is going to become in February and March when he averaged over 16 per game and shot close to 48% from downtown. He finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting, despite the abysmal start. Beal has Wizards fans finally seeing some blue skies after years of suffering.

Corey Brewer (12.1 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.4 SPG)
Rank: 7
Category: Supporting Actor
Corey Brewer had his most successful NBA season after seemingly finding a home in Denver. His athleticism made him a nice fit in the up-tempo Nuggets attack, where his skills as a defender and finisher on the fast break made him a key cog of Denver’s second unit. He established himself as one of the better perimeter defenders in the league, ranking 25th in the league in steals per game. To take the next step, he needs to spend this offseason shooting 3s every day because if he can become even a 35% shooter from long range, he can develop into an excellent role player and ensure himself another 6-8 years in the league. The leaps and bounds he’s made in the past couple of years make me believe he can do just that.

Udonis Haslem (3.9 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 51% FG)
Rank: 6
Category: Lifetime Achievement Award
When U.D. went undrafted after his senior season at Florida, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to have never heard from him again. Making it in the NBA is tough enough, but undrafted, undersized frontcourt players simply don’t have a strong track record. Of course, Haslem had been overlooked before, as the fourth member of the legendary Gators recruiting class that really put Billy Donovan on the map. Teddy Dupay, LaDarius Halton and Mike Miller were the stars, Haslem the lunch bucket guy. He embraced that role all four years at Florida, leaving it all on the court each time and anchoring the middle of a Gators squad that redefined Florida hoops and led to the perennial success we take for granted now. After that initial setback in his pro career, Haslem has rebounded (pun intended). He has already been a part of two championships with the Heat (few remember he was the third best player on that 2006 championship team, putting up 17 and 10 in the series clincher). He’ll retire as the leading rebounder in franchise history, the only undrafted player ever to do that in the NBA. Even in these playoffs at the ripe age of 33 (happy belated birthday!), he has outplayed Chris Bosh at different points. Never flashy, always solid, Haslem is the one the greatest Gators to ever lace them up.

Mike Miller (4.8 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 42% 3PT FG)
Rank: 5
Category: Lifetime Achievement Award
I tend to go back and forth with Haslem and Mike Miller as to who is the most successful NBA Gator of all time (some have mentioned Vernon Maxwell in that conversation but I just can’t do it – bad shooting numbers, lots of turnovers, too unreliable). Today I give the nod to Miller. He has a shot at his second ring in these Finals with the Heat. Given that this is most likely his last season, he’ll end up 700+ points shy of Maxwell for the most points scored in the league by a former Gator but their scoring averages are basically the same while Miller is a way better shooter and averaged almost twice as many boards as Mad Max. Miller was Rookie of the Year in 2001 and Sixth Man of the Year in 2006. He’ll finish his career 20th in NBA history in three-point field goal percentage. And he’ll always have Game 5 of last year’s Finals, a 23-point, 7-of-8 on threes performance for the ages.

Plus, remember that Miller has taken us from this look:

The young Mike Miller was straight outta the Corn Palace in South Dakota

To this:

The old Mike Miller is often mistaken for one of the local South Beach meth heads.

Chandler Parsons (15.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 3.5 APG, 49% FG)
Rank: 4
Category: Future All-Star
Chandler Parsons might have the most interesting career arc of any Gator hoopster. Overshadowed by Nick Calathes when he arrived on campus, many of us frankly didn’t know what to expect from the tall, athletic, but ultra-skinny kid. He flashed potential at times but not enough for anyone to expect much more than an average college hoops player. It wasn’t a straight line of progress for Parsons, but he improved each year and eventually made the leap to team leader and SEC Player of the Year his senior season. He had the misfortune of following the 04s into Gainesville, suffered through the lean years thereafter and helped rebuild the program into an Elite Eight regular. Upon graduation, his NBA future was anyone’s guess. Was he quick enough to play the 3? Was he strong enough to play the 4? Could he shoot well enough to play the 2? Now after only two seasons, Parsons is one of the most coveted young players in the game. Around the league, analysts rave about his game as an athletic wing that attacks the glass, runs the break and shoots it well from three-point range. His two most glaring weaknesses – defense and free-throw shooting – are questions no more. He has shown the foot speed to hang with with smaller, quicker 3s and improved to 73% from the line. Parsons should only continue to get better which will put him into All-Star territory.

Al Horford (17.4 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.1 SPG, 1.1 BPG, 54% FG)
Rank: 3
Category: All-Star
The next three guys on this list are interchangeable in the rankings and all will eventually lay claim to the greatest NBA Gator ever once their playing days are more complete. I think Al Horford is the best of the bunch and he had his best season yet. So why did I rank him behind the next two guys? The other two were All-Stars and their teams went further in the playoffs, simple as that. Horford should have been an All-Star, of course, and arguably should have been named to the All-NBA team. Here’s the list of players in the NBA this year who averaged at least 17 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 rebound and 1 steal per game – Al Horford. That’s it, that’s the list. He’s does so many things on the court that make his team and his teammates better, certainly a rare attribute for a Center. Quietly, there are many executives around the league hoping Atlanta blows things up, makes a run at Dwight Howard and decides to move Horford. He’s one of the best 25 players in the league right now and keep in mind he’s still only 27 and getting better every year.

Joakim Noah (11.6 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 3.9 APG, 2.1 BPG, 1.2 SPG, 48% FG)
Rank: 2
Category: All-Star
If Jo Noah had been healthy this year, he easily would have been the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. I mean he played half the season on a bum foot, missed 16 games and was still fourth in the voting, as well as being named to the first-team all-defensive squad. Noah played through significant pain all season to post a career high in blocks and anchor one of the NBA’s top defensive units. On the offensive end, Noah’s scoring and shooting were down slightly, but both stats belie how integral he was the Derrick Rose-less attack. The Bulls ran their offense through Noah in the high post, relying on the NBA’s best passing center to get clean looks for other players. Then there are the intangibles to his game, leadership and passion, that make him as beloved in Chicago as he was in Gainesville. But is he having more fun in Chicago than he had in Gainesville:

Love this guy and it is why we are still fiercely protective of him. Your first reaction when you saw this pic was probably laughter… followed by anger at that crazy piece of Miami trash.

Noah has always made opposing fans feel like this. And that’s always made my heart swell with pride and love.

All in, those qualities will keep him the discussion for the title of the NBA’s best center for years to come, assuming he can stay healthy. That’s the one knock that’s unquestionable… he’s missed significant time now in four straight years. Stay healthy, Jo.

David Lee (18.5 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 3.5 APG, 52% FG)
Rank: 1
Category: All-NBA
Despite strong seasons from Horford and Noah, David Lee claims the top spot on our inaugural list. Lee made his second All-Star appearance this year and then topped that by being named to the All-NBA third team. He is one of the premier scoring and rebounding power forwards in the game, sustaining his place in that group with career averages over eight seasons of 16 and 11. In fact, he already is the career leader in rebounds among former Gators and is third in points. The knock on Lee has been defense and toughness. Addressing the first, Lee has always been a prolific rebounder and improved his defense enough to help Golden State finish in the middle of the pack in the league. For the latter issue, Lee was back on the court days after tearing his hip flexor, doing what he could in limited minutes to sustain the Warriors’ season. He earned a lot of respect with that grit and he earned his spot atop the rankings for this past season.

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