The Lesson to Learn from Failed NBA Players

Pranav Guru
11 min readNov 4, 2021

The years 2014 and 2015 made me proud to be an NBA fan and a person of Indian origin.

On August 14, 2014, Sim Bhullar — despite going undrafted in the 2014 NBA draft after a decorated college basketball career at New Mexico State — signed a contract with the Sacramento Kings. This made the Canadian center the first player of Indian descent to join an NBA team.

Less than a year later, on June 25, 2015, the Dallas Mavericks drafted Satnam Singh Bhamara in the second round of the 2015 NBA draft with the 52nd overall pick. This made Singh — a native of Punjab — the first NBA draft pick who was born in India. But unlike Bhullar (who had college basketball experience under his belt), the 7’2” Singh did not immediately qualify for the draft following his fourth year of high school basketball at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. To meet the rules to qualify as an early entract (as specified by the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement), the young center remained in high school for one more year before entering the 2015 draft at the age of 19. This also made him the first player drafted directly prep-to-pro since 2005.

Satnam Singh (left) and Sim Bhullar during the 2015–16 NBA G League season

But for the Indian diaspora, these love affairs would be short-lived.

Bhullar would be cut by the Kings before the start of the 2014–15 season. He would get picked up by Sacramento’s D-League (now G-League) affiliate, the Reno Bighorns (now known as the Stockton Kings) in November of that year. After a successful season in which he was named to the D-League’s All-Rookie Third Team and All-Defensive Second Team, he signed a 10-day deal with the Kings on April 2, 2015.

Five days later, Bhullar appeared on the court for 16 seconds as the Kings played the Minnesota Timberwolves. The next day, he scored one basket for the Kings against the Utah Jazz. These milestones made him the first player of Indian descent to play in an NBA game as well as the first to score points in an NBA game. But after spending the following season in the D-League (with diminishing returns compared to his previous season), his chances at the NBA all but ended.

Bhullar finished his NBA career with 3 on-court appearances for the Kings. Averaging one minute per game, he recorded a total of 2 points (out of a total 2 field goal attempts), 1 rebound, 1 assist, and 1 block. At 7’5”, he is also the sixth-tallest player to ever appear in an NBA game.

Meanwhile, Singh was sent by the Mavericks to their own G-League affiliate, the Texas Legends. Unlike Bhullar, he would neither be called up to an NBA game, nor even receive any awards from the G-League. He would, however, spend one more season in the G-League before his career in American basketball came to an end.

While now seems like the ample timing to put in a stereotypical Indian joke about being disappointed these two didn’t make it in the big leagues, it’s obvious that even being a journeyman in the NBA is an achievement in and of itself. Lasting — let alone being a star — in the NBA is a superhuman feat.

As of 2021, Bhullar and Singh are both currently unsigned.

Despite the fact their NBA careers ended before beginning, they still had arguably successful careers thanks to the opportunities that followed overseas.

From 2016 to 2020, Bhullar played in Taiwan’s Super Basketball League. He played for the Dacin Tigers as well as the Taipei Fubon Braves and the Yulon Luxgen Dinos, winning the SBL championship title in 2017. Additionally, as a member of Canada’s national men’s basketball team, he won a silver medal at the 2015 Pan American Games. Meanwhile, Singh attempted a comeback when he joined the St. John’s Edge of the National Basketball League of Canada for the league’s 2018–19 NBA season. Internationally, he has represented India at the 2009 FIBA Asia Under-16 Championship, the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship, the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship, the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup, and the 2019 FIBA World Cup qualification.

Their overseas accolades continue the trend of basketball players whose NBA careers were considered underwhelming, but managed to achieve much greater success overseas.

Especially among the ranks of some of the biggest draft busts in the history of the league.

Adam Morrison, who was selected third overall in the 2006 NBA draft, has been regarded as one of the most disappointing draft choices ever since his career in the NBA lasted only four seasons. Despite winning back-to-back NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009 and 2010, he played in only 39 total games for the team those two seasons before he was cut.

In September 2011, Morrison joined KK Crvena zvezda, a Serbian professional team, prior to the Adriatic League’s 2011–12 season. In just 8 games, he became the team’s top scorer, averaging 15.5 points per game. In January 2012, Morrison signed with the Turkish team Besiktas Milangaz, and was part of their Turkish Cup championship-winning team that year.

Morrison in October 2011

Meanwhile, Hasheem Thabeet has become notorious in NBA circles since he was selected second overall in the 2009 NBA draft (ahead of All-Stars like James Harden and Stephen Curry) before lasting a total of just five seasons in the league before bouncing in and out of the NBA’s minor leagues. However, his luck seemingly changed in September 2020 after he joined the Hsinchu JKO Lioneers of Taiwan’s P. League+. At the conclusion of the season, he was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year after leading the league in rebounding and blocked shots.

Thabeet playing for Hsinchu

But few busts are as infamous as Anthony Bennett. After he was selected first overall in the 2013 NBA draft, he spent the next four seasons each with a different team. In January 2017, he signed with Turkish Basketball Super League powerhouse Fenerbahce. That year, the team won their first EuroLeague championship title. Subsequently, Bennett was able to return to the U.S. and spend the next two seasons in the G League. Currently, he has returned to playing overseas since signing with the Cangrejeros de Santurce of Puerto Rico’s Baloncesto Superior Nacional (BSN).

The dubious list of players banned from the NBA for life includes O.J. Mayo. Selected third overall in the 2008 NBA draft, his career would last just eight seasons across three different teams before he would be permanently banned from the league for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Although he became eligible for reinstatement in 2018, he would never play in the NBA again.

But he’s arguably accomplished more ever since than he did throughout his eight years in the NBA. He signed with the Dacin Tigers of Taiwan’s aforementioned SBL on October 22, 2018. In 2019, he was named an SBL All-Star and member of the All-SBL Second Team as well as winner of the SBL’s Three Point Contest. On October 17, 2019, Mayo joined the Taipei Fubon Braves of the ASEAN Basketball League (ABL), and was named a member of the All-ABL First Team at the end of the season.

So why do basketball players with disappointing NBA careers seem to always find more success overseas?

At the end of the day, there’s no single answer to that question. Every basketball fan knows there’s plenty of gray area between future Hall of Famers whose tallies of teams they played for can be counted on one hand…and fringe players whose careers end after barely beginning.

And we’ve seen subsets of these gray areas. We’ve seen star players tending towards playing overseas once their NBA careers start fading, even among the ranks of Hall of Famers such as Dennis Rodman and Allen Iverson. Additionally, we’ve also seen how when a player comes to be regarded as a draft bust, they tend to stick around the league as journeymen bouncing from one team to the next (from the Michael Olowokandis to the Kwame Browns).

But this new strain is just developing; Drafts bust who disappear from the league almost instantly, only to reemerge brighter than before with an overseas team.

Which begs the question; Why?

It’s easy to say that the NBA stage is the brightest of them all, or that competition overseas isn’t the same. But the fact of the matter is; Lottery picks, even draft busts, have an unquestionable heart for the game.

Robert Traylor is synonymous with arguably the most lopsided draft-day trade in NBA history. Selected sixth overall by the Dallas Mavericks in the 1998 NBA draft, he was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks for the ninth overall pick (whose name happened to be Dirk Nowitzki). Needless to say, the rest was history.

While Dirk Nowitzki went on to play 21 seasons and have a Hall of Fame career, Robert Traylor’s NBA career would span seven seasons and four different franchises.

Traylor’s playing career would span even more franchises overseas after his NBA career ended, as he played in Turkey, Italy, and Mexico. But his best seasons arguably came in Puerto Rico’s BSN, where he played for Cangrejeros de Santurce and Vaqueros de Bayamón. Not only was he the BSN’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2010, but his tragic death in 2011 while still a member of the latter team showed his true colors.

While a member of the Vaqueros de Bayamón, Traylor died in 2011 of an apparent heart attack at just 34 years of age. In response to the passing, team manager Jose Carlos Perez told ESPN, “He was a leader of the team…He was very, very friendly. He got along very well with everyone. The fans loved him, idolized him.”

But it wasn’t just his overseas reputation that showed his love of the game. After his death, the Milwaukee Bucks themselves paid tribute, issuing a statement saying, “The entire Milwaukee Bucks organization is saddened by the news of Robert Traylor’s death…Robert was a fierce competitor on the court who helped the Bucks reach the playoffs in each of his two seasons in Milwaukee.” The team (which acquired Traylor in the aforementioned infamous 1998 draft day trade) added, “Off the court he was a gentle giant, displaying his smile and care, especially toward young people through his involvement in school visits and his work with the Special Olympics clinic.”

Meanwhile, Jimmer Fredette won the NCAA Player of the Year award after the 2010–11 NCAA Division I season, his senior year at BYU. But after he was selected tenth overall in the 2011 NBA draft, it would be the start of an itinerant career. By 2016, his NBA career seemingly ended after the New York Knicks — his fourth NBA team — did not extend his contract.

Fredette’s luck would change — however — when he would be signed by the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association on August 2, 2016. Over the next three seasons, his career would peak. He was named the CBA’s International MVP his first season in 2017, scoring a career-high 75 points on November 11 of that year (compared to his NBA career high of 24 his rookie season). Additionally, he would be a league All-Star each of the next three years.

Although Fredette would attempt a comeback to the NBA, signing with the Phoenix Suns on March 22, 2019, this would be short-lived as the team would not extend his contract. By July 15 of that year, he returned overseas and signed with Panathinaikos of the Greek Basket League, winning the league title with them in 2020. On September 6, 2020, he returned to the Shanghai Sharks.

When he became the subject of a VICE Sports segment entitled “Jimmer Fredette’s Journey From Top to Bottom”, he compared the difference between the NBA and his new market by saying that he would “play a lot smaller cities, sometimes there’s almost no one in the stands.” He went on to add, “You know, you’re kind of just focusing on the basketball aspect of it.” When asked about his younger brother, Fredette’s older brother T.J. Fredette described him with, “He was the type of kid that, he was so competitive from such an early age.”

But ultimately, that aforementioned level of competitiveness hasn’t proven to be enough to keep him in the NBA.

But is that really the point?

When drafting is stripped down its bare bones, you realize it’s basically using the same concept as gambling. A team picking an NBA prospect first overall in the draft isn’t all that different from showing an envelope full of cash to your bookie and telling him “let’s head on over to the racetrack.”

Sometimes, the horse you bet on is the one that wins…and so do you. On the converse end of the spectrum, you may lose your house in a heartbeat.

LaRue Martin is considered by many to be the original NBA draft bust. Drafted first overall in the 1972 NBA draft, he was chosen ahead of future Hall of Famers Bob McAdoo and Julius Erving before going on to last just a mere four seasons in the NBA.

Despite being the butt of jokes years after his NBA career ended, he later found peace with the life he had after basketball. To quote; “I don’t believe in saying anything negative, you have no control over that, I took care of my family, did what I had to do and I’m the type of person I can’t dwell off the negatives. I can’t. I kept my head up high and moved onto a positive mode of life and it has treated me very well.”

Since ending his playing career, LaRue Martin has joined the Board of Directors of the National Basketball Retired Players Association

The term “draft bust” has become the one label that not only every basketball player — but every professional athlete — fears the most. Whenever a player becomes a lottery pick in the annual draft, they — and the team that picks them — would like to envision a long career full of championships, awards, and All-Star games.

But at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than a label. Nowadays, it’s a rather overused one.

Those drafted — whether or not they become superstars or fade into irrelevance — all have two things in common;

  • They are human beings, imperfect like all of us.
  • They enter nurturing a passion for the game.

It’s easy to lose sight of those facts once you see mega-salaries and endorsement deals. But it’s also important not to lose sight of the fact that professional basketball players are humans, and suffering is part of the human experience.

That is, before making peace with one’s self.

--

--