Michigan State Basketball: The Biggest NBA Success Stories in Spartans History
Michigan State has produced a multitude of successful NBA players through the years. From the days of head coach Jud Heathcote leading the Spartans to the ongoing era under Tom Izzo, MSU's players have translated their success from the college to professional spectrum.
Some are role players, others have set unique records and a select few have compiled magical careers. There have been 38 Michigan State players to have played in the ABA or NBA.
In ranking the greatest success stories, the focus was mainly on individual accomplishments in regards to statistics, awards received and team results. Favor was also given to a good player who sustained quality play over an inordinately long career than a great player whose tenure in the league wasn't anything to admire.
These are the five most successful NBA careers played by ex-Spartans, along with the mentioning of a few noteworthy careers that just missed the cut.
Honorable Mention: Ralph Simpson
Ralph Simpson’s electric ABA career during the 1970s earns him a spot on this list. He averaged over 20 points in five of the six dominant seasons he played in Denver to begin his career.
The 6’5” shooting guard from Pershing, Michigan was heralded for his quickness and smooth offensive game. He is the all-time leader in points, assists and steals for the Rockets/Nuggets, Denver’s ABA team.
But once he entered the NBA, his numbers fell considerably. In his six seasons in the league, he only averaged double digits in points once.
Simpson’s overall professional career was impressive, despite his sharp decline upon entering the NBA.
Honorable Mention: Jay Vincent
The third piece to the Magic Johnson and Greg Kelser combination, Jay Vincent assembled a fantastic career in East Lansing. He was a dominant scorer in his final years as a Spartan, which he steadily continued into his pro career.
Vincent’s most productive season as a NBA player was in his rookie year. He finished 15th in the NBA at 21.4 points per game for the Dallas Mavericks.
Though his subsequent years saw Vincent’s scoring production regress, he still hovered around 15-18 points per contest and averaged a career-high 8.9 rebounds in his fourth season.
The athletic Vincent blossomed as a Maverick. Once he left, he shone for a couple of years but started to fade in the waning stages of his career.
Honorable Mention: Scott Skiles
Scott Skiles’ dynamic scoring that he displayed at MSU never completely translated to the NBA. However, his averaged 11 points throughout his career, and his 6.5 assists per contest are the second most by an ex-Spartan in the NBA.
The memorable performance that inserted him into the record books came as a Magic player in the 1990-91 season. Skiles remarkably dished out 30 assists in that game, a NBA record that still comfortably stands today.
Skiles was a complete, steady point guard in the pros. He was named as the NBA’s Most Improved Player in his fifth season, when he posted a career high in points (17.4) along with 8.4 assists per game.
As the former all-time leading scorer in MSU history, Skiles played 10 solid years for five different teams in the league.
5. Kevin Willis
The longevity of the productive 7-footer’s NBA career is astounding. Kevin Willis played for 20 years in the league and didn’t retire until he was 44 years old.
A one-time All Star, Willis was a dominant rebounder and constant mismatch due to his long frame. He averaged a double-double in seven seasons as a professional, highlighted by his 18-point, 16-rebound averages in the 1991-92 campaign.
The former Spartan gradually morphed from a dominant post player to a journeyman in the league. He played for nine NBA teams.
Willis’ prolonged NBA tenure was spectacular in multiple regards. He was an All-Star, an NBA champion and the oldest player to appear in multiple games of a season.
Not a bad career.
4. Steve Smith
With one of the sweetest shooting strokes in Michigan State history, Steve Smith engineered a tremendous 14-year career in the NBA.
His shooting touch and scoring ability transferred smoothly to the pros. Smith recorded averages of 16 points or more in eight straight NBA seasons. His four most productive years came in Atlanta, where he averaged over 19 points and appeared in one All-Star game.
Later in his career, the former Michigan State marksman joined the San Antonio Spurs, helping the organization win its first NBA Championship. He was primarily a three-point threat in the waning stages of his career. Smith shot at a 47.2 percent clip from behind the arc in his first season as a Spur, which led the league.
Also an Olympian and a gold medalist, Smith engineered an excellent career in the pros.
3. Jason Richardson
The high-flying shooting guard was an integral part of the 2000 national championship team and quickly established himself as one of the premier shooting guards in the NBA. Now, he will enter his 15th season of his career as a member of the 76ers.
As the No. 5 pick in the 2001 draft, Richardson quickly became one of the NBA’s best athletes and outside shooters. During his rookie campaign, he averaged 14.4 points for the Warriors and continued to increase his scoring for the next four years.
J-Rich made his official splash in the league at All-Star Weekend. He emphatically won the dunk contest in back-to-back years, displaying his freakish athleticism.
But Richardson was even more productive as he was entertaining.
After a successful stint with the Warriors, he briefly joined the Bobcats, averaging nearly 20 points throughout his two years.
Richardson was traded to the Suns and immediately developed a fantastic rapport with Steve Nash. Together, the duo helped lead Phoenix to a Western Conference Finals appearance.
Despite his solid production, Richardson was dealt to the Magic, but he continued his effectiveness as a shooter on the wing. Soon after, he joined the 76ers but unfortunately missed all of last season with a torn ACL.
Throughout his tenure in the NBA, he has scored 10 points or more in every season and remained a reliable player on both ends of the floor. He also places at 15th all time in career three-pointers made.
J-Rich’s combination of pure athleticism, accurate perimeter shooting and durability has propelled him to a fantastic NBA career.
2. Zach Randolph
Z-Bo was a rare "one-and-done" out of Michigan State, but his decision to leave East Lansing early appears to have been justified. Zach Randolph has epitomized consistent play at the power forward spot.
Now entering his 14th season, he has recorded a double-double average for points and rebounds in eight seasons. Despite starting his career in Portland slowly, Randolph exploded in his third season for averages of 20 points and 11 rebounds. Ever since, his production has remained remarkably steady.
Z-Bo impacts games by assuming low-post position and dominating in the paint. He doesn’t possess the ridiculous athleticism of some of his contemporaries, but his savvy post moves and soft touch have made him just as effective as any other power forward in recent memory.
He and Marc Gasol have formed arguably the best frontcourt combination in the game today. Two seasons ago, the pair led the Grizzlies to a Western Conference Finals appearance.
Last season, as a 32-year-old, the former Spartan averaged 17.4 points per game, the most he has recorded in his last three seasons. His formidable presence in the paint hasn’t faltered even as he has aged.
Randolph is a two-time All Star but has resembled one throughout his time in the league. As one of the most consistent big men of the last decade, Z-Bo registers at the No. 2 spot for all-time best Spartans in the NBA.
1. Earvin 'Magic' Johnson
This shouldn’t serve as a surprise to anyone.
Magic revolutionized the game of basketball and the point guard position with dazzling no-look passes, an unbreakable will to win and a charismatic personality. Widely considered as the best of all time at the position, Earvin Johnson led the Lakers to five NBA titles.
Additionally, his 11.2 assists per game for a career are the most of all time. Magic’s innate ability to control games with his vision and leadership is still unmatched.
Just one year into his pro career, he conquered the NBA world in heroic fashion.
The 6’9” Johnson was asked to start at center for Game 7 of the NBA Finals due to teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s ankle injury. Not only did Johnson play center, but he dominated, scoring 42 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. It was an iconic performance for Magic, which he capped by sinking a sky-hook in the paint to seal the victory.
A legend was born at that moment.
Magic went on to capture three MVPs, continue his popular rivalry with his nemesis, Larry Bird, and assert himself as arguably the greatest player of that era.
Unfortunately, his career essentially ended with his diagnosis of HIV. The deadly virus forced Johnson out of the game for four subsequent years. He staged a comeback in the 1995-96 season but only played in 32 games.
What this former Spartan managed to accomplish in just 12 seasons of playing is truly remarkable. He fueled his team to nine NBA Finals appearances, winning five of them, and he established himself as the best point guard of all time. Despite the consensus that Michael Jordan is the greatest to ever play, it remains unknown how the early 1990s era would have unfolded with Johnson’s presence.
As a high school kid, he earned the nickname, “Magic.” During his time at MSU, he reinvigorated America’s interest in college basketball. As an NBA player, he broke the mold, became a legend and cemented his legacy.