Five NBA Players Who Never Reached Their Potential

Lamar Odom Kobe Bryant
Photo: ESPN

There isn’t one single player who goes into the NBA with the intention of being bang average. From the moment they first realize that they have skill with the ball to the day they break into their college team and start dreaming of a professional career, all of them want to be the best. Very few are capable of making it to the promised land. As much as every rookie dreams of being the next Michael Jordan, LeBron James, or the late, great Kobe Bryant, the bar has been set very high, and only the very best can reach it. That’s a fact of life. Sometimes, though, there have been players who should have reached those heights but never did. 

There are dozens of reasons why a player might never reach their true potential. Some of those reasons are outside of the player’s control. We’re constantly reminded that a career in the sport can work out like the ‘Basketball Stars’ game that’s popular on so many online slots websites like KongCasino.com. You can study the game all you like and carefully plan your strategy, but success and failure with an online slots game are governed by nothing more than chance. You can sometimes spend several hours and several hundred dollars on an online slots game and walk away with nothing, only for the next player to step up and instantly hit the jackpot. Fortune is fickle. In other cases, though, bad decisions have played their part in keeping a player from the top. 

When we look back over the long history of players who failed to deliver on their early promise, these are the five names that come to mind most of all. 

Larry Johnson

Everybody who ever saw Larry Johnson play for the Runnin’ Rebels in Nevada as a college basketball player said that he was destined for greatness. With his incredible physical presence and accuracy with three-point shots, he looked and played like he was the total package. In terms of skill, he probably was. Unfortunately for Johnson and all the people who had high hopes for him, his body had other ideas. Back injuries started to upset his momentum early on in his career, and even though he managed to play through the pain for several years, he was never able to physically impose himself on a game the way he could when he was at college. Add to that his apparent unwillingness to focus on or improve his defensive game, and you’re left with a player who was good but never great. 

Yao Ming

The “Great Wall of China” was a giant of a man, standing a legitimate 7’6” and blessed with footwork and technical ability that belied his enormous size. Giants tend to be powerhouses, with games based on physicality and presence. Ming could step around opponents with the ease of someone a full foot shorter than him. He was graceful and elegant and, because of his nationality, a marketing dream for the NBA. Unfortunately for him, that elegance and grace came with physical vulnerability. Ming was plagued by injuries for his whole career, with his feet seemingly unable to support his enormous frame. He was only a touch over thirty when he retired after his contract with the Houston Rockets expired. His team still thought enough of him to retire his number 11, but he never became a global megastar in the way he was once expected to. 

Grant Hill

Some players shrivel up under pressure when compared to Michael Jordan and try to distance themselves from the hype. Grant Hill positively embraced it. The press was sure that he was going to become the next Jordan, but even they didn’t believe it as much as he did. He might not have been wrong. Hill could play any role that was asked of him, scoring, creating, and defending superbly during the peak points of his nearly twenty-year career. Ultimately, though, he fell short of the level that so many people expected to him because his all-action style put so much pressure on his ankles. They appeared to be almost made of glass by the end of his time on the court, and they’d limited his ability to secure the legacy of a truly world-class player. 

Lamar Odom

What was it that truly stopped Lamar Odom from becoming one of the greatest of all time? Was it his apparent love of the limelight, as seen through his multiple appearances on reality television shows?? Was it the drug problems that so nearly claimed his life in 2015? Was it a combination of the two coupled with a reluctance to focus on the game of basketball as much as he would have needed to in order to reach the highest of all heights? We’ll probably never know, and it might be that Odom never finds out either. Even Kobe Bryant couldn’t persuade Odom to pay less attention to the trappings of fame and more attention to his game, and that meant that when the time came to end his career, the sense we were all left with was one of missed opportunities and failed potential. 

Len Bias

Tragically, Len Bias will always be remembered as the greatest NBA player who never was. He was the most outstanding player of his generation during his college career with Maryland, with incredible jumping ability and a presence that made him seem even taller than his 6’8″ frame. When he joined the Boston Celtics in 1986, he did so as the second overall draft pick and the heir apparent to Larry Bird. Just two days later, he was dead. Bias went home to the University of Maryland to celebrate the draft with friends, and overdosed on cocaine. Despite medics doing everything they could, he was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. We’ll never know how good he would or could have been in the pro game, but Red Auerbach was so convinced of his skill that he spent three years putting together the move that brought him to the Celtics. Bias could have been shoulder to shoulder with Jordan as the greatest player of the 1990s and perhaps one of the greatest of all time. The fact that we never got to find out is and will always remain one of the sport’s greatest sorrows. 

More articles like this will be written in years to come, and more seemingly great young stars will fall short of the expectations that are placed upon them. You need talent, dedication, a winner’s mindset, and more than a little good fortune to make it to the top of the NBA – and sadly, there are far more near-misses than there are legends.