Compared to other programs in the Big Ten, Illinois basketball has seldom represented well in the NBA Draft over the last 15 years. Since 2000, only eight former Illinois players have been drafted—and few of those made much of an imprint in the NBA. In fact, most of the success the program has seen in the draft largely coincides with years where Illinois saw tremendous national success, in particular the 2005 and 1989 seasons.
Below is a brief history of the Illinois Fighting Illini and the NBA Draft.
Last Player Drafted
The last Illinois player selected the draft was Meyers Leonard in 2012 by the Portland Trail Blazers as the 11th overall pick.
Leonard hasn’t been much more than a reserve that plays occasional minutes with a career average of 16 minutes per game. He has only started a combined 26 games during his four-year NBA career, averaging 5.8 points per game. Leonard’s best season as a pro came last year when he averaged 21 minutes, eight points and five rebounds.
It is doubtful that he will become anything more than a guy that can come off the bench and play about 20 minutes per game.
The 2005 Squad
You have to go back 11 years to when Illinois was last a national powerhouse to last find some success in the NBA Draft. That team—that will forever live in Illinois basketball lore—made it all the way to the national championship game, and eventually ended up producing four draft picks.
In 2005, standouts Darren Williams and Luther Head were both taken in the first round. Williams was drafted third overall by the Utah Jazz, while Head was drafted 24th overall by the Houston Rockets.
In 2006, Dee Brown and James Augustine were both selected in the second round. Brown was drafted 41st overall by the Utah Jazz, and Augustine was drafted 46th overall by the Orlando Magic.
Of the four, Deron Williams has had far and away the best NBA career. As a three-time All-Star, Williams has averaged 16 points and eight assists throughout his 12-year career. It wasn’t even that long ago that he was discussed among the best point guards in the league. But, alas, a feud with former Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan abruptly ended his tenure in Utah, concluding with a trade to Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, and now in Dallas, Williams is still moderately productive, though is now mostly an afterthought in the NBA.
Luther Head played seven seasons with Houston, Miami, Indiana and Sacramento, averaging eight points and 22 minutes throughout his career. His biggest career highlights include scoring 11 points per game in 2006-2007 and making the All-NBA Rookie Second Team in 2006.
Dee Brown played three seasons with Utah, Washington and Phoenix, appearing in only 69 games in those three years. Augustine did not fare much better as a pro with Orlando, playing in 27 games in parts of two seasons.
Considering how successful the 2005 squad was, it is somewhat disappointing that—with the exception of Deron Williams— most that did go on to be drafted left little imprint in the NBA.
The Flyin’ Illini
Prior to the 2005 final four team, Illinois’ most celebrated single-season team was the "Flyin’ Illini" squad in 1989. That team also made it to the Final Four, producing a total of five future NBA Draft picks. The 1989 draft saw the selection of Nick Anderson as the 11th overall pick for the Magic and Kenny Battle as the 27th overall pick for the Pistons.
1990 saw the selections of Kendall Gill, Stephen Bardo and Marcus Liberty. Gill was drafted fifth overall by the Charlotte Hornets, Bardo was drafted 41st overall by the Atlanta Hawks and Liberty was drafted 42nd overall by the Denver Nuggets.
Of each of the five players that went on to be drafted from the 1989 team, Nick Anderson had by far the best NBA career. Anderson played 10 seasons in Orlando alongside Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway, playing on the team that reached the NBA finals in 1995. He averaged 14 points per game during his 13-year career.
Illinois has had 68 players selected in the NBA Draft since the event began in 1947. In that time, the program has produced 15 first-round draft picks. The entire list of every Illini drafted can be seen here.