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NBA player Fred VanVleet

Never say die: Some of the best undrafted NBA players

The lead-up to this year’s NBA draft was special to us for one reason: Kai Sotto. I know we were all hoping to see one of our country’s best players making it to the big leagues, so we might have all been a little disappointed that he went undrafted.

While the draft is a huge stepping stone for basketball players, it isn’t exactly everything. In fact, there are more NBA players that went undrafted than you probably realize.

So, if you have reasons to stay hopeful for our local basketball players like Kai, here are five more for you.

Fred VanVleet

Toronto Raptor Fred VanVleet was a promising player for his university Wichita State, and he has the accolades to show for it.

In both his sophomore and senior years, he was awarded the Missouri Valley Conference Men’s Basketball Player of the Year and in 2014, he was named the NCAA Men’s Basketball All-American.

But even so, he went undrafted in 2016.

Undrafted, he signed with the Toronto Raptors, spent time playing with their G-League team the Raptors 905, and was part of their 2017 championship team.

And a season later, he found himself as a mainstay on the floor with the Raptors’ first ever NBA championship team. Playing against the Warriors, he was crucial in defending against their strong offensive scheme, and in Game 6 of the series (where they sealed in the win), he contributed 22 points to their 114-110 win.

What a way to cap off just his fourth year with the Raptors.

Alex Caruso

Now a point guard for the Chicago Bulls, Alex Caruso also went undrafted after his college ball days.

He played for Texas A&M University’s team, the Aggies. While his team didn’t make it to the finals of the NCAA tournament throughout his time there, he did top off his college career with the ost assists and steals in the University’s history.

Alex went also went undrafted in 2016 like VanVleet, but he too found himself on a path to the NBA. After spending that year with the Oklahoma City Blue in the NBA G-League, he later went on to join the Lakers in 2017 in the Summer League.

In the same year, he led the team right into the summer championship and then proceeded straight to make his debut for the Lakers. With the team, he won his first NBA championship in 2020 against the Heat. In 2021, he signed with the Chicago Bulls.

In spite of being an undrafted player, Alex Caruso went on to play for some of the biggest franchises in the NBA already.

Matthew Dellavedova

Matthew Dellavedova played for eight years in the NBA despite going undrafted in 2013.

He played for the Saint Mary’s College of California’s Gaels, and in his first year, he started in all of the team’s 34 games. And, like Alex Caruso, he also finished his college career as a leader for the school for scoring, assists, and games played.

Saint Mary’s even retired his jersey.

Though he wasn’t drafted in 2013, he signed with Cleveland Cavaliers and in 2015, was a crucial player for the team in making it through the playoffs.

He was an aggressive player, but it proved to be crucial when it came to the finals where he stepped in for Kyrie Irving to defend Stephen Curry, even forcing four turnovers from him in Game 2.

Though they lost the championship that year, he resigned with the team the next year when they got the chance to redeem themselves yet again against the Warriors in the finals.

He later went on to play for the Bucks and then again for the Cavaliers. Now, he plays in his home country’s league, the Australian NBL. He made it back home with a championship to show for his eight years in the NBA.

Bruce Bowen

With Bruce Bowen’s previously retired Spurs jersey number, it’s surprising that he was also an undrafted NBA player.

But because he went undrafted, he played everywhere. Here’s a quick rundown of where he ended up before finally making a breakout in the NBA:

  • French professional basketball club Évreux
  • Continental Basketball Association team Rockford Lightning
  • French professional basketball club Besançon
  • Miami Heat
  • Boston Celtics
  • Philadelphia 76ers
  • San Antonio Spurs

Bruce Bowen was as bounced around as players come. From 1994 to 2000, he only stayed for a year with every team except the Celtics where he stayed for two. But it was in 2001 when he joined the Spurs that things started to heat up for him.

In his first season with the Spurs, he quickly found his place on the team as a starter, and come the second season, he won his first NBA championship at the age of 31. He stayed on with the Spurs until 2009 and won two more championships with them.

Bruce’s jersey number 12 was retired by the Spurs up until 2015. Despite a relatively slow start to his career in comparison to most NBA players who get drafted, getting bounced from team to team for years, he found a way to make a name for himself.

Avery Johnson

You might know Avery Johnson better as a coach or a commentator from his recent years, but he is also one of the most successful undrafted NBA players.

Avery played for two colleges before finally ending up at Southern University. But in spite of being the first Division I player to average in double figures for points and assists in a single season, he went undrafted.

Before he went on to the NBA, like Bruce Bowen, he bounced from team to team for several years. Here’s a rundown of his previous teams:

  • United States Basketball League team Palm Beach Stingrays
  • Former NBA team Seattle SuperSonics
  • Denver Nuggets
  • San Antonio Spurs
  • Houston Rockets
  • Minnesota Timberwolves
  • Golden State Warriors

Those are a lot of teams to test run in the short span of five years. But during his stay with the Spurs from 1994 to 2001, he was finally able to solidify his stay with a team, proving his place in the league as a champion.

In the 1999 NBA finals between the Spurs and the Knicks, it was Avery Johnson who scored the sealing shot in Game 5 that won San Antonio the championship. The Spurs retired his jersey number 6 and they inducted him into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame.

After retiring in 2004, he began his coaching career. He went on to coach the Mavericks and the Brooklyn Nets and in 2006, was named the NBA Coach of the Year.

Though undrafted, he went on to have a long career in basketball that even went past his championship with the Spurs.

Kai Sotto?

So while the NBA draft is a huge deal for many players, it isn’t necessarily the end-all-be-all for everyone, and it might not be so for Kai Sotto, either.

Certainly, the odds of getting into the NBA after going undrafted are much slimmer—but it isn’t impossible. It’s players like these five that show that a never-say-die attitude can pay off.