This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! From retrospectives of basketball games and their interesting features, to republished articles and looking at NBA history through the lens of the virtual hardwood, Wednesdays at the NLSC are for going back in time. This week, I’m taking a look back at players who only played a single season in the NBA, but ended up being regular starters.
On top of the players that have just one appearance in the NBA – “cups of coffee“, as Basketball Reference labels them – there are many players who spent just a single season in the league. While this is still a tremendous accomplishment, it may be surprising, not to mention disappointing for seemingly promising prospects. Usually, these players only appeared in a handful of games, playing sparingly. You generally wouldn’t expect them to be starters, at least outside of a game or two when injuries opened up a rare opportunity.
Surprisingly, several single season players were starters for a respectable chunk of their only NBA campaigns. For the purposes of compiling the most interesting and relevant list – i.e. not just including anyone who played one season and started a few games – I’ve set the cut-off at starting in at least 20% of their appearances. That might still seem generous, but considering that most single season players have ridden the bench, it represents some regular forays into the starting five. Let’s take a look back…way back…
Chris Porter (Golden State Warriors, 2000-2001)
When a team is low on talent and lottery-bound, it’s not unusual for players who’d normally play sparingly off the bench to instead get the starting nod. Look at the stats for expansion teams in their first seasons, and you’ll see journeymen, benchwarmers, and rookies having their best years while frequently starting. The 2001 Warriors were no expansion team, but they did go 17-65 that year. A lack of healthy talent at forward allowed Chris Porter, the 55th pick in the 2000 Draft, to start 35 of the 51 games he played. Sadly, legal issues derailed his NBA career in the 2001 offseason, and Porter never made it back to the league. His lone season is represented in NBA Live 2001.
Jay Williams (Chicago Bulls, 2002-2003)
I remember my excitement in the lead up to NBA Live 2003’s release. The series was returning to PC, and the Bulls had just drafted a highly touted prospect – Jay Williams – after some rough years. Franchise mode was set to be a lot of fun! Of course, things didn’t quite go to plan. While I do appreciate NBA Live 2003 for what it is, it wasn’t as sim as I would’ve liked. Williams didn’t exactly set the NBA on fire either, posting modest numbers while starting 54 out of 75 games. Still, there was potential for both NBA Live and Williams, but whereas NBA Live 2004 was a huge leap, Williams had a motorcycle accident and sustained career-ending injuries after his lone NBA season.
Khalid El-Amin (Chicago Bulls, 2000-2001)
Speaking of the early 2000s Bulls, Khalid El-Amin is a name that’s etched into my memory. As such, he springs immediately to mind when I think of single season players who were starters. El-Amin started 14 of his first 25 games as a rookie, before being relegated to the bench for the next 25, and subsequently cut before the season was over. He was still getting minutes and also played in the 2001 Rookie Challenge, making his release somewhat surprising. It looked like he was going to be a fixture on their roster, but instead he’s just one of the first players that I think of when NBA Live 2001 is mentioned. He also has a couple of phantom stints represented in later games.
Dragan Tarlac (Chicago Bulls, 2000-2001)
Of course, Khalid El-Amin isn’t the only player that I can’t forget when I recall that infamous era in Bulls history. Fellow rookie Dragan Tarlac finished the year on their roster, having started in 12 of his 43 games. However, he too wouldn’t play another minute in the NBA. A second round pick in 1995, Tarlac joined the Bulls some five years later. He’s a prime example of Jerry Krause’s MO of drafting European stars who wouldn’t come over for a few years. This worked out extremely well with Toni Kukoc; Tarlac, not so much. I don’t need to fire up NBA Live 2001 to remember him, but doing so brings back memories of struggling to make trades in Franchise mode!
DeMarcus Nelson (Golden State Warriors, 2008-2009)
Although DeMarcus Nelson has been credited as the first undrafted player to start on opening night, there’s another player on this list who did it some fifteen years earlier. Nevertheless, Nelson’s career is interesting, as while he only played 13 NBA games, he started in five of them. Indeed, his five starts all came in the first five games of his career, though he would soon be assigned to the D-League with fellow rookie Richard Hendrix (who appeared in more video games than NBA games). Nelson was cut in January 2009 and later signed with Chicago, though he never suited up for them. His Warriors stint (and phantom Bulls stint) were seen in NBA Live 09 and NBA 2K9.
Sergei Monia (Portland Trail Blazers/Sacramento Kings, 2005-2006)
Video games have a way of implanting names in the back of your mind, even if the players in question weren’t around for very long. When you do dust off an old game and comb through the rosters, those names will jump out at you immediately. Sergei Monia is such a player, having played just 26 games in the NBA, while starting 15 of them. Those 15 starts came in his 23 games for the Blazers, with Monia playing three games for the Kings after a deadline day trade. Monia can be found on the Blazers in the default rosters of NBA Live 06 and NBA 2K6. He returned to his native Russia in the 2006 offseason, but did appear as a free agent in a few video games thereafter.
Vincent Yarbrough (Denver Nuggets, 2002-2003)
During the 2003 season, the Denver Nuggets and Cleveland Cavaliers were in a race to the bottom. Both finished 17-65, with Cleveland winning the lottery and selecting LeBron James, while Denver got the third pick and Carmelo Anthony. This heralded a turnaround for both clubs, but their rosters the year before…well, there’s a reason they went 17-65! The Nuggets fielded a variety of lineups, but one of the most consistent starters was rookie Vincent Yarbrough, who started in 39 of his 59 games. He can be found on the Nuggets in NBA Live 2003 and NBA 2K3, as well as NBA Live 2004 and ESPN NBA Basketball, since he wasn’t cut until just before Opening Night 2003.
Anthony Tucker (Washington Bullets, 1994-1995)
The 1995 Washington Bullets were more interesting than their 21-61 record suggests. They had the tallest player in the league in 7’7″ Gheorghe Muresan. They had a top rookie in Juwan Howard, and had acquired his college teammate Chris Webber from the Warriors. A variety of veterans, including Scott Skiles, 1989 Dunk Champ Kenny “Sky” Walker, Kevin Duckworth, Rex Chapman, and Don MacLean, rounded out the roster. And then, there was rookie Anthony Tucker. He started 13 of his 65 games, wasn’t in NBA Live 95, and then went to the Knicks, a phantom stint represented in NBA Live 96. Injuries cut his NBA career short, and he ultimately retired in 1998.
Warren Kidd (Philadelphia 76ers, 1993-1994)
Undrafted in 1993, Warren Kidd started the first 14 games that he played for the Philadelphia 76ers. I’m not sure if there’s some caveat I’m unaware of, but from my research, he’s a much earlier example of an undrafted rookie starting on opening night than the aforementioned DeMarcus Nelson. Kidd may not have been the first to do so either, but he did have an impressive debut, hitting all five of his shots and grabbing nine rebounds to go along with two blocks and two steals in just 29 minutes. He was moved to the bench in favour of veteran Tim Perry, and that’s where you’ll find him in the 16-bit versions of NBA Live 95. Kidd then went on to play in Europe until 2003.
Juan Carlos Navarro (Memphis Grizzlies, 2007-2008)
A legend in the EuroLeague – with an award to show for it – Juan Carlos Navarro had a stellar career playing for FC Barcelona, and also representing Spain in international competition. He was drafted by the Wizards in 2002, and after his Draft rights were traded to Memphis, played a single season for the Grizzlies in 2008. Navarro played all 82 games as a sharpshooting sixth man, but did start 30 games; a little over a third of his NBA career. He appears on the Grizzlies in NBA Live 08 and NBA 2K8, after previously making a cameo in NBA Live 2004 as part of the Spanish national team. He’s easily the most accomplished of the single season players who were starters.
I’m sure it’s obvious by now, but I really enjoy player trivia like this, and looking at it through the lens of basketball video games. Along with trading cards, video games are one of the main reasons we remember these players who weren’t in the NBA for long, but nevertheless have some interesting stories. Considering that most rookies who are starters tend to be destined for bigger things, the players who left the league after a single season are intriguing cases. There are some tantalising and melancholy “What Ifs”, notable achievements, and nostalgia for seasons gone by – and the video games that represent those years – which will surface whenever we see their names.