NBA Players Who Never Appeared in the NCAA Tournament

Not every big-named prospect gets to enjoy The Big Dance. Here's a list of NBA star players who never got the chance to play in the NCAA tournament during the collegiate careers.
Publish date:

It's March. With the NCAA tournament just around the corner, a portion of the country will finally be acquainted with some of college basketball's biggest stars and, perhaps subsequently, some of the NBA's future stars. But a portion of NBA rosters are composed of players who didn't even have the opportunity to put their talents on display during The Big Dance. 

Below, we take a look at some of the most recognizable NBA players who never got the chance to compete in the NCAA tournament throughout their college careers.

Image placeholder title

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

College: LSU
College stats: 19.8 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 4.8 apg
Collegiate seasons: 2015-16
National recruiting rank:five-star
NBA draft: 1st overall, 2016 (Philadelphia 76ers)

Despite Ben Simmons’s arrival being bolstered with the addition of fellow five-star recruits Antonio Blakeney and Brandon Sampson, LSU would miss the NCAA tournament during Simmons’s lone season in Baton Rouge.

The Tigers jumped out to a 3–0 start, followed by respectable defeats to Marquette and NC State. But then LSU fell to the College of Charleston, 70–58, and signs were perhaps all too telling that the team would go on to struggle throughout the rest of the campaign. LSU lost four of its last six regular-season contests, including a 33-point loss to Texas A&M in the 2016 SEC tournament semifinal.

The Tigers finished 19–14 and announced they wouldn’t compete in any postseason games. Simmons was universally regarded as the top prospect in college basketball, but his 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game (all team highs) weren’t enough to carry LSU into The Big Dance. The 2015-16 season was Simmons’s lone shot at reaching the Tourney, as he declared for the NBA draft at the end of the year.

Image placeholder title

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

College: Weber State
College stats: 18.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.5 apg
Collegiate seasons: 2008-12 (medically redshirted 2010-11)
National recruiting rank:three-star
NBA draft: 6th overall, 2012 (Portland Trail Blazers)

Weber State posted winning records during each of Damian Lillard’s four seasons there, but were kept out of the NCAA tournament each year. Lillard was named Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year and garnered first-team All-Big Sky honors during his first season, averaging 11.5 points per game. Weber State reached the NIT, but was eliminated during the first round.

The next season, Lillard started all 31 games for the Wildcats as a sophomore, earning Big Sky Player of the Year honors in addition to an Associated Press All-American team honorable mention. The Wildcats were eliminated in the first round of the NIT for the second straight season.

Lillard was forced to take a medical redshirt during his junior season, when he sustained a foot injury 10 games into the campaign. Weber State played in the CBI, but lost in the first round.

Lillard was dominant upon his return during his junior season, averaging 24.5 points per game, leading the country in scoring for a significant portion of the year, en route to earning his second Big Sky Player of the Year award. Weber State didn’t reach the NCAA tournament despite a 25–7 campaign, instead playing in the CIT. The Wildcats were eliminated in the second round of the competition. Lillard elected to forgo his final year of eligibility to enter the NBA draft.

Image placeholder title

Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

College: Washington State
College stats: 17.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.6 apg
Collegiate seasons: 2008-11
National recruiting rank:four-star
NBA draft: 11th overall, 2011 (Golden State Warriors)

Klay Thompson’s shooting prowess was immediate apparent during his freshman season. He shot 41.2% from behind the arc, averaging 12.5 ppg as he started all 33 games for the Cougars. He was additionally named to the Pac-10 All-Freshman Team, however Washington State finished 17–16, falling short of the NCAA tournament.

During his second season, he was named to the All-Pac-10 First Team and became the third-fastest Cougar to score 1,000 points. Washington State didn’t reach The Big Dance again, posting a 16–15 mark despite Thompson averaging 19.6 ppg.

Thompson returned for his junior year. He was named to the All-Pac-10 First Team for the second straight year, averaging 21.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg and 3.7 apg. He also set the school record for points scored in a single season and was named a midseason candidate for National Player of the Year. However, Washington State’s record of 22–13 wasn’t enough to reach the NCAA tournament. Thompson declared for the NBA draft following the campaign, finishing his Cougars career as third all-time leading scorer.

Image placeholder title

Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

College: Fresno State
College stats: 15.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.4 apg
Collegiate seasons: 2008-10
National recruiting rank:three-star
NBA draft: 10th overall, 2010 (Indiana Pacers)

Paul George started all 34 games he appeared in for Fresno State as a freshman, averaging 14.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. But the Bulldogs’ 13–21 record wasn’t good enough to earn an NCAA tournament bid. However, George had emerged—Sports Illustrated named him one of the nation’s 16 most entertaining players in college basketball entering his second year.

During his sophomore season, George averaged 16.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg and 3.0 apg. He earned All-WAC second-team honors. However, Fresno State finished with a 15–18 record, preventing them from reaching the NCAA tournament. George departed for the NBA draft the following season.

Image placeholder title

Trevor Ariza, Washington Wizards

College: UCLA
College stats: 11.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.1 apg
Collegiate seasons: 2003-04
National recruiting rank:five-star
NBA draft: 43rd overall, 2004 (New York Knicks)

Only three UCLA men’s basketball teams between 2000 and 2010 missed the NCAA tournament. Trevor Ariza’s 2003-04 Bruins were, unfortunately, one of them.

Ariza appeared in 25 games (23 starts) during his lone season with UCLA. He tallied 11.6 ppg and 6.5 rpg en route to being named to the All-Pac-10 Freshman Team. The Bruins finished the year 11–17, including a 7–11 mark in conference play, keeping them out of the postseason. Ariza declared for the draft following the conclusion of the campaign.

Image placeholder title

Jamal Crawford, Phoenix Suns

College: Michigan
College stats: 16.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 4.5 apg
Collegiate seasons: 1999-00
National recruiting rank:N/A
NBA draft: 8th overall, 2000 (Cleveland Cavaliers—traded to Chicago Bulls)

Jamal Crawford’s stint at Michigan was brief and notably impeded by two suspensions. The first, a six-game ban, was handed down by the NCAA over living arrangements while he was a high-school player in Seattle. The second suspension, an eight-game ban, was handed down after it was reportedly discovered that Crawford had attempted to make himself eligible for the NBA draft while in high school, despite having already signed a letter of intent to play basketball at Michigan.

Altogether, Crawford’s Wolverines career lasted 17 games. He averaged 16.6 ppg and 4.5 apg as Michigan finished 15–14, missing the NCAA tournament. Crawford declared for the NBA draft after the campaign.