The best mid-major stars in NBA history

Profile Picture: Dan Halverson

March 22nd, 2021

March Madness is once again showing that players from smaller schools can hold their own against 5-star recruits from college basketball's blue bloods.

Join us now as we celebrate their improbable success by looking at the five best players to emerge from the NCAA's mid-major programs.

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Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard points to a teammate. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

5. Damian Lillard (Weber State)

Position: Point guard
Accolades: 6x NBA All-Star, 5x All-NBA, NBA Rookie of the Year
Years Active: 2013-present

Damian Lillard is in the hunt for an MVP award this season, and yet he still somehow feels underrated. Some of this could be a result of his undistinguished start at Weber State, a school that most basketball fans couldn’t locate on a map with 10 guesses.

Lillard has averaged 24.6 points and 6.6 assists per game as a member of the Trail Blazers, and is already tied with LeBron James for most 50-point games in his career. He has developed into a remarkably clutch competitor who cherishes the opportunity to take the most important shot in the biggest moment.

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Steve Nash (13) during game 2 of the NBA Playoffs Western Conference Finals between the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers. (Photo by Icon Sports Media)

4. Steve Nash (Santa Clara)

Position: Point guard
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 8x NBA All-Star, 7x All-NBA, 2x NBA MVP, 5x assist champion
Years Active: 1997-2014

Gonzaga is the star program of the West Coast Conference and has sent a number of players on to the NBA, but it can’t claim to have delivered the very best player to the NBA in conference history. That claim lies with Santa Clara, Steve Nash’s alma mater.

Nash was an eight-time NBA All-Star and two-time MVP whose style of play was beautifully erratic. The Canadian point guard averaged a double-double for points and assists seven times, and finished his Hall of Fame career third on the all-time assists leaderboard.

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Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (left) and Los Angeles Lakers Guard LeBron James jockey for position. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

3. Kawhi Leonard (San Diego State)

Position: Small forward
Accolades: 5x NBA All-Star, 4x All-NBA, 6x All-Defensive, 2x Finals MVP, 2x NBA champion
Years Active: 2012-present

A very convincing argument could be made that San Diego State Aztecs star Kawhi Leonard has been the best player in the NBA over the last five years. He has won NBA championships with both the San Antonio Spurs and the Toronto Raptors, claiming finals MVP in both of those efforts.

Leonard is a ballhawking defender, who can also score with the best of them, as evidenced by the fact he has averaged over 26 points per game in each of his last three seasons. The Los Angeles native can do nearly everything on the court, and has proven to be a player that always improves his team’s chances of winning.

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Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry warms up. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

2. Steph Curry (Davidson)

Position: Point guard
Accolades: 7x NBA All-Star, 6x All-NBA, 2x NBA MVP, 3x NBA champion
Years Active: 2010-present

Steph Curry rose to fame during March Madness, leading a feisty Davidson deep into the 2008 NCAA Tournament. His 40-point outburst against Gonzaga remains the stuff of legend.

Arguably the greatest shooter in NBA history, Curry hosts a long list of league records. He is a career 43.3% three-point shooter, has won three NBA titles, and has quite literally changed the game with his incredible ability to stretch the floor.

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Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. (Photo by John M. McDonough/Icon Sportswire)

1. Larry Bird

Position: Small forward
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 12x All-Star, 10x All-NBA, 3x NBA champion, 3x MVP
Years Active: 1980-1992

Prior to LeBron James, Larry Bird was considered the greatest small forward of all time. The Indiana State alum took the Boston Celtics to five championships, winning three, and contributed in all facets of the game.

Averaging a double-double over his entire career, Bird proved that big time players can come from small towns and little-known schools.