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We’re not giving anything away by saying that Devean George, the first Division III player drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft, is high on this list.
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports
 

By Ryan Scott
D3hoops.com

One of the best things about Division III basketball is that many athletes aren’t entirely focused on their playing career. Very few could ever go pro, and even fewer choose to do so. It’s not uncommon for even the best players to try it out for a year or two and then head back to “regular” life. Many of the best players simply move on to work or grad school. A few, though, attempt to make a career of basketball, and this is a list of the best to ever do it.

Any list has rules, right? For me, the player in question had to be primarily a Division III player – meaning guys who transferred out, like Duncan Robinson or Freddie Gillespie, are out. It also means that alums of current Division III schools that weren’t Division III when they played are also out. Sorry to Hall of Famer Jack Sikma (Illinois Wesleyan), NBA All-Star Terry Porter (UW-Stevens Point), and their respective fans.

Finally, this is a ranking of professional careers by Division III players; it is not a list of the best Division III players who happened to go pro. Division III career scoring leader, Salisbury’s Andre Foreman, undoubtedly one of our best, starred in Finland for most of a decade, but that pro career wasn’t quite enough to get him on this list.

I also want to recognize that non-NBA professional careers didn’t really exist for U.S. ballers in the 1970s. The NBA draft took more than 200 players each season through the late ‘80s, some of them were Division III players, but few ever saw the court.

Dwain Govan went to Bishop, in Texas. He was the leading scorer in Division III’s very first year (1974-75) at 33.2 points per game and was drafted as the 84th overall pick by the Seattle Supersonics. LeMoyne-Owen won the national championship that season, led by, among others, junior Willie Parr. Upon graduating the next year, the Sonics also drafted Parr, 63rd overall. Neither made the league.

Another ’70s draftee (57th overall to the Hawks in 1979) is Donnie Marsh, star of Franklin & Marshall’s first Final Four squad and long-time college coach (currently an assistant at Detroit Mercy). He played a few exhibition games, but was ultimately cut before the season. There were no other professional options.

For Marsh and others there was one shot at the chance of a lifetime, and if it didn’t work out, you had to go find a job. There was no minor league or path to work your way into being a professional. There were certainly guys from the ’70s capable of being on this list, but the opportunity just didn’t exist.

One final confession: I may have missed someone. Players from the ’80s and early ’90s are a lot harder to track. Even more difficult is knowing which teams were actually in Division III in, say, 1977. It’s also very difficult to gauge which foreign leagues were better in which years, and judging between an early ’80s pro career and one in the present day is an exercise in making your best guess.

I’ve tried to do just that. And now, the list:

1. Devean George, Augsburg (1995-99)

The top guy on this list is no secret, so there’s no point in counting down to a big reveal. Devean George remains the only Division III player taken in the first round of an NBA draft – the 23rd overall pick of the Los Angeles Lakers. George became a key rotation player for three NBA championship teams in LA. He played 11 seasons, the last four with Dallas and Golden State, scoring more than 3,500 career points. George played in 86 playoff games, starting every game of the 2004 Finals, and earned more than $28 million in salary. He scored 2,258 points in his career at Augsburg, which culminated in him being on the second-ever D3hoops.com All-America team as a first-team selection.

2.  Michael Harper, North Park (1976-80)

Harper was one of three North Park players to be drafted (56th overall) by the NBA in 1980, after their third consecutive Division III national championship. He was the only one to see game action, playing in 123 games over two seasons with the Portland Trailblazers, starting most of his second year. He went on to play an additional six seasons in the top leagues of Italy and France before ending his career in the Spanish ACB (widely considered the best non-NBA league in the world) where he averaged 20 points per game.

North Park College President Bill Hausman presents a jersey to Michael Harper on the night his jersey was retired in 1981.
North Park University Historical Photograph Collection
 

3.  Greg Grant, TCNJ (1986-89)

After being drafted 52nd overall by the Phoenix Suns, Grant bounced back and forth between the NBA and CBA (the main U.S. minor league through the mid-90s) for nearly a decade. While a prolific scorer in college, his 5-7 height lent itself to more of a setup role in the pros (he led the CBA in assists in 1995). Grant appeared in 274 NBA games over six seasons at the highest level and left an imprint larger than his stat line. Always a crowd favorite, Grant detailed his improbable journey in a 2009 autobiography, 94 Feet and Rising.

4.  Clinton Wheeler, William Paterson (1977-81)

Wheeler was the 150th pick in the NBA draft and worked his way through three CBA seasons before getting a shot in the NBA. He played 87 games for Indiana, Miami, and Portland, averaging 10 minutes and three points per game. He then went to Germany and won four top-flight titles with Bayer Leverkusen before finishing his career back in the CBA.

5.  Horace Jenkins, William Paterson (1998-2001)

Jenkins played just fifteen games in the NBA, but they included one memorable experience. He was on the bench for the Detroit Pistons – Indiana Pacers brawl on Nov. 19, 2004. Jenkins had come to the attention of Joe Dumars after scoring 20 points per game in the EuroLeague for AEK Athens the year before. He would go on to play in Israel, Turkey, and Italy. Jenkins also has a unique personal story, which was highlighted in a special video presentation during the television broadcast of the 2005 NBA Finals.

6.  Andy Panko, Lebanon Valley (1995-99)

Panko played 20 seasons of professional basketball, including one minute at the end of one game for the Atlanta Hawks in 2001. He spent the bulk of his career in the Spanish ACB, where he was named league MVP in 2012. He was the ACB’s top scorer three times. Panko was also the CBA MVP early in his career. He later played in Greece, France, and Mexico, among other nations. Panko averaged 10 points per game in 21 career EuroLeague contests.

7.  John DiBartolomeo, Rochester (2009-13)

John DiBartolomeo, the 2013 D3hoops.com Player of the Year, shoots over the top of L.A. Lakers guard Lou Williams, with Kobe Bryant under the basket in a 2015 exhibition game.
Photo by Seth Ribnick, Maccabi Haifa Basketball Club 
 

DiBartolomeo is the highest ranked player without an NBA game on his resume, largely because he’s also the youngest, and still active. DiBartolomeo has been able to take advantage of basketball’s explosion in international popularity and opportunity. He’s a four-time Israeli League champion, as well as a regular season, playoff, and cup MVP. He’s played 106 EuroLeague games to date and will likely continue to rise up this list as his career progresses. DiBartolomeo has dual citizenship and has been part of the Israel National Basketball team since 2018.

8.  Jeff Gibbs, Otterbein (1999-2002)

Still balling in the TBT, Kyle Gibbs was a D3hoops.com All-American and a D3football.com All-American as a tight end for Otterbein.
Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC
 

Gibbs is truly the ageless wonder of Division III. A 6-2 post player, Gibbs was the leading rebounder in the German top flight for four straight seasons before moving to Japan, where he continues to star for Link Tochigi Brex. He has won league and cup championships in Japan as well as the TBT tournament in the US, playing for Carmen’s Crew, the (largely) Ohio State alumni squad.

9.  Derrick Rowland, Potsdam (1977-81)

Following a national championship his senior year, Rowland was selected 211th in the NBA draft. He played seven seasons in the CBA in the ’80s, with a two game stint for the Milwaukee Bucks in 1986. Rowland was the scoring champ in the French top league in 1990, before finding his place as a star import for Shell Rimula X in the Philippines, where he played his final four seasons.

10.  Lamont Strothers, Christopher Newport (1987-91)

Strothers was taken 43rd overall by the Golden State Warriors and played 13 NBA games for Portland and Dallas before embarking on a 21 year career around the world, including six years in the Philippines, where he won multiple titles, and one season in the Spanish ACB.

Speaking of Christopher Newport, this column would be lacking if I didn’t take a moment to point out 2011 CNU grad, Chelsie Schweers. Without nearly as many opportunities for women basketball players to make a living around the world, she’s managed to carve out a 10-plus year career in Greece, Australia, Iceland, and Portugal. Some of these leagues are semipro but Schweers has worked hard to improve her all-around game as an undersized sharpshooter and has won numerous team and individual awards. 

There are an increasing number of former Division III players plying their trade around the world, giving themselves and their peers more exposure, and opening the eyes of the basketball community to the level of talent available in Division III.

Aston Francis, Eric Demers, and Brian Cameron are all currently on NBA G League rosters, while Ty Sabin has been working his way up the European ranks, now in the Italian second division. Which one of them will be the next to make this list? Or will it be a current player at your favorite school? Even in Division III, with enough talent and hard work, the sky is the limit!

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