Fadeaway World

Every NBA season a crop of players showcase star potential and a few household names begin to decline. Every so often, though, a random player or two comes out nowhere with an extremely productive season, only to never reach that level again.

It’s unclear how some players can play so well one season and never replicate that success again. Sometimes it’s because of injuries, other times a particular system allowed that player to thrive for a brief time. To honor these once-great ones, here are the top-10 one-hit wonders in NBA history.

To qualify, a player must have one season of his career be uncharacteristically more productive than the rest, with the separating factor being exactly how more stellar the player’s one season was in comparison to his overall body of work. This list contains players ranging from high-level starters to one-time All-Stars to brief All-NBA talents, all of whom returned to a more mediocre form soon after.

Horrible Mentions: Jonny Flynn, Devin Harris, Dan Dickau, Don MacLean, Von Wafer

 

10. Lance Stephenson

Stephenson was a bolt of lightning in 2013-2014 for the 56-win Pacers. He averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists on 49.1% shooting, all career-highs, according to basketball-reference. Stephenson also maintained that production during the team’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals, in which Stephenson was a legitimate nuisance to the defending champion Miami Heat.

He displayed a unique combination of ball-handling, passing and scoring skills and led the league in triple-doubles that season with five. Stephenson never matched his production in this season, although he signed a multi-year contract with the Hornets. He was soon traded and bounced around from team to team ever since as organizations continue hoping he’ll once again put the pieces together.

 

9. Larry Sanders

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

The former Bucks center was a major surprise in 2012-2013. An end of the bench player in his first two seasons, Sanders blossomed into one of the league’s top defenders and helped carry Milwaukee to the playoffs. He averaged nearly 10 points and 10 rebounds per game, with his 2.8 blocks per contest, ranking second in the NBA.

Sanders proved capable of doing the same in the playoffs during the team’s brief four-game series against the Heat. Afterward, though, Sanders sustained a series of injuries and was suspended multiple times for Marijuana use. He appeared in just 55 forgettable games over the next four years and eventually left the game for good to seek treatment for anxiety and depression. This is a case of personal issues hindering a promising talent.

 

8. Antoine Carr

Carr enjoyed a long and successful NBA career after being drafted eighth overall in 1983. He never developed into a consistent offensive threat and instead settled into mostly a reserve role on some competitive teams, with the late 1990’s Jazz being the most successful bunch Carr was a part of. Carr did, however, score over 20 points per game on 51.1% shooting in 1990-1991 on a poor Sacramento team, displaying the elite talent he had in college.

Carr’s strong inside presence was good in spurts for good teams, but on the Kings, he was free to be the best version of himself. He had touch from midrange as well and was a mismatch for many forwards. If he wanted, Carr probably could have put up better career numbers on bad teams. Instead, he elected to adapt his game to win more at the highest level.

 

7. Isaiah Thomas

Thomas has three seasons averaging over 20 points per game and made back-to-back All-Star teams. Before his debilitating hip injury, he was in the upper-tier of scoring point guards in the league. In 2016-2017, Thomas took the league by storm and carried a decent Boston team to the Eastern Conference Finals after averaging 28.9 points per game in the regular season, good enough for a Second-Team All-NBA selection and fifth in MVP voting.

There may have never been a player at Thomas’ size so efficient at finishing in the lane. Just 5-foot-9, Thomas consistently floated past bigs for acrobatic layups and was confident shooting from all angles on the floor. His electricity was palpable and Celtics fans were crazy for him. Unfortunately, he played through a hip injury instead of getting surgery and he hasn’t recaptured his athleticism or fearlessness since. He was the other major piece in the Kyrie Irving trade but didn’t last longer than 15 games in Cleveland. Hopefully he can recapture the magic he once displayed.

 

6. Aaron Brooks

By his third year in the league, Brooks won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award in his first full season as a starter. He averaged 19.6 points and 5.3 assists on a 42-win Houston squad after giving fans a taste of his abilities in the previous season’s playoffs, displaying a knack for 3-point shooting more common in guards of today than back then. He led the league in both triples made and attempted and hit them at nearly a 40% rate.

Brooks never repeated his prolific long-range production from this season. He put together a couple of decent years following his lone season playing in China but was limited mostly to a reserve role. Had he come into the league today, Brooks may have become a dangerous scorer from the beginning of his career and maintained that success. Instead, he’ll be remembered as a spark-plug who couldn’t play much defense.

 

5. Richard Dumas

Drafted 46th overall in 1991, Dumas was suspended for his rookie season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, according to NBA. He returned to the Suns in 1992-1993 to average 15.8 points per game and was a major reason the team won 62 games and went to the Finals. He could get getting red-hot for stretches and was truly fearless.

Dumas’ story, however, is a tragic one. He checked into rehab following the Suns’ Finals loss after once again being suspended for an entire year. He’d play brief stints in Phoenix and Philadelphia before transitioning to overseas leagues, never able to shake his personal troubles. Had Dumas remained an integral member of the Suns, the team could have potentially returned to the Finals in the mid-1990s before Charles Barkley’s departure.

 

4. Don May

Coming off a 1970 NBA Finals victory during which he mostly rode the bench, May was drafted by the Buffalo Braves in the NBA expansion draft. May averaged 20.2 points and 7.5 rebounds in his first season as a starter on a poor Buffalo team, good enough for the team to trade him away for more assets the following year.

What ranks May so highly on this list is how much better his 1970-1971 season was than any other year of his career. May never eclipsed eight points per game in any of his other six seasons and retired before turning 30. For a player who showed such a scoring acumen, it’s odd he never got much of a chance to have the ball in his hands afterward.

 

3. Mike James

James is arguably the strangest example of a one-season wonder on this list. He came into the league as an undrafted 26-year-old, won a championship in his third season in Detroit and peaked at age 30 on a horrible Toronto team. Like Brooks, James was a dangerous 3-point shooting point guard during a period when that type of player wasn’t as common. He averaged 20.3 points and 5.8 assists per game in 2005-2006, with his 44.2% 3-point shooting on nearly five attempts per game placing him amongst the league’s best shooters.

James played for 12 teams in 12 seasons, never finding a home despite his long-range prowess. He never averaged over 12 points in any other season and was mostly a reserve scoring guard. How he hit so many triples in 2005-2006 and never again is unclear, but he’d certainly be more sought after if he played in the modern NBA.

 

2. Dana Barros

Barros had a couple of solid seasons before and after his 1994-1995 campaign, but that year he was truly lights-out. He averaged career-highs in points (20.5), assists (7.5), 3-point shooting (46.4%) and steals (1.8), as well as several other categories. His Most Improved Player Award was one of the lone positives from an awful 76ers season.

That year was Barros’ lone All-Star appearance and the only consistent playing time he ever received. He never maintained a starting point guard job before or after that year even though he displayed star qualities. He signed as a free agent for Boston the following year and earned a good amount of money in his career until his final substantial season in the NBA in 2002, so at least he got paid for his efforts. It’s curious why Barros never got a true opportunity to start for a winning team.

 

1. Jeremy Lin

Fans still wonder what happened to “Linsanity.” Why did Lin decline after 2012? Was he ever that good?

For those who watched it, Lin’s run in 2012 was one of those rare magical moments in sports. An unlikely star, Lin entered a random February game for a faltering Knicks team to spark a seven-game winning streak during which he averaged 24.4 points and 9.1 assists, including a 38-point effort against Kobe Bryant and a game-winning triple in Toronto. He took the entire league by storm and almost single-handedly got New York into the playoffs.

Lin came back down to Earth in his next 19 games following emergence, but he was still playing quality basketball. A season-ending knee injury kept him from continuing his run in the playoffs and he’d sign a large contract with the Rockets that offseason. Lin got paid, though his knee was never the same and the pressure of living up to his unsustainable play in New York constantly put unfair scrutiny on him as he jumped from team to team. Lin had several decent seasons before leaving the league after last year. He just always endured a setback whenever he finally appeared comfortable. Lin is the ultimate example of fleeting success in the NBA. He enjoyed life in the NBA from the highest to the lowest points and luckily completed his career on a championship Raptors team in 2019.

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