It’s Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Draymond Green. That’s the top of the list. The top two NBA players ever from Michigan State.
It’s been that way for a while. But Green’s fourth NBA championship with Golden State last week cemented his place there — ahead of notable Spartan NBA standouts like Zach Randolph and Steve Smith.
There are lots of ways to measure MSU’s greats. When I originally ranked the top 50 in 2014 — and every update of that list since — I’ve set the criteria as performance at MSU and program impact only. NBA careers and/or pro potential were irrelevant. Green, on that list, began 11th and is now 13th all-time in my book, sliding two spots to make room for Cassius Winston (3) and Denzel Valentine (7). Perhaps Green should climb on that list, too, because he continues impact the program, both financially and as an unwavering ambassador.
Here are the 12 in front of him: (1) Magic Johnson, (2) Mateen Cleaves, (3) Cassius Winston, (4) Scott Skiles, (5) Steve Smith, (6) Shawn Respert, (7) Denzel Valentine , (8) Greg Kelser, (9) Johnny Green, (10) Mike Robinson, (11) Jay Vincent and (12) Morris Peterson.
MORE: The updated top 50 rankings of MSU’s greatest basketball players of all-time
It’s an illustrious group. But among it, only Magic had a better and more significant pro career than Draymond. And it’s no longer close between Draymond and the rest. Same goes for the rest of the top 50 all-time at MSU — a list that, in my book, doesn’t include Randolph or Jaren Jackson Jr, one-and-dones who had impactful freshman seasons, but weren’t great players yet at MSU.
MORE: Couch: Cassius Winston, two years later, is fighting for his NBA dream, with Michigan State still on his mind
In contrast, here are who I consider the top 13 NBA players from MSU all-time (with where I have them in my top 50 during their time at MSU in parentheses):
1. Magic Johnson (1)
2. Draymond Green (13)
3. Zach Randolph (NR)
4.Steve Smith (5)
5. Kevin Willis (NR)
6. Johnny Green (9)
7. Jason Richardson (34)
8. Miles Bridges (14)
9. Gary Harris (30)
11. Jay Vincent (11)
12. Eric Snow (38)
13. Jaren Jackson Jr. (NR)
FROM 2017: Couch: The top Michigan State NBA draft picks, bargains and busts of all-time
Harris is still playing. Bridges and Jackson are just entering the prime of their careers. I’d expect both to move up this list over the next few years. I’ll be surprised if either ever catches Draymond, who I think, after this last title run, is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, if he wasn’t already.
Draymond’s four NBA championships are double the combined total of the 11 players below him on this list, with Smith and Willis each winning a title as role players with the 2003 San Antonio Spurs. Draymond’s place as a catalyst for winning on one of the great teams of this or any generation separates him. His ability to both facilitate offense and defend centers a half-foot taller has played a significant part in the collective success of the Warriors with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and, for a couple years, Kevin Durant. Draymond’s rightly seen as part of the core trio that’s dominated the NBA at times over the past eight seasons. Draymond’s ability on the ball offensively has allowed the Warriors to maximize Curry’s abilities moving without the ball.
In recent years, he’s been well off the pace of his best season statistically — 14.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.4 blocks per game, while shooting close to 39% on 3-point attempts during the Warriors 73-9season in 2015- 16. But he’s remained the soul of that team, the dirty-work guy who gets in opponents’ heads and gives all of himself to winning.
Draymond is a four-time NBA All-Star, twice All-NBA and the league’s defensive player of the year in 2017.
Among former Spartans (other than Magic), only the other Green, Johnny Green, has four All-Star appearances.
Randolph twice made NBA All-Star teams, in 2010 and ’13. Willis has one All-Star appearance, in 1992, and was All-NBA that same year. Smith made the All-Star game in 1998.
Randolph, statistically, makes a run at Draymond on this list. Randolph averaged better than 20 points and 10 rebounds five times during a 17-year NBA career. He did so on some good teams, too, averaging 22.2 points and 10.8 rebounds for the Memphis Grizzlies during the 2011 playoffs, when the eighth-seeded Grizzlies upset top seed San Antonio in six games and then fell to Oklahoma City in the next round in seven. Randolph had 31 points in that series-clinching Game 6 against the Spurs.
He averaged 17.4 points and 10 rebounds in the postseason two years later, when the Grizzlies made it all the way to the conference finals.
Smith averaged better than 20 points per game three times during the prime of his career, as a shooting guard for the Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks, and became a valued role player and sharpshooter for the Spurs late in his career, making 47.2% of his 3-point tries in 2001-02, before winning a title the following season.
He was a headliner on three Hawks teams that reached the second round of the playoffs and averaged 17.1 points for a Portland team that reached the 2000 Western Conference Finals.
Smith and Randolph were very good-to-great NBA players at their peaks. They did not have the fortune of playing alongside Curry and Thompson, or with Durant. There is no doubt that Draymond was dealt a perfect hand in the NBA. He’s made the most of it, though. And, without him, there’s no way the Warriors of this era have four championships, if any at all.
The Warriors are barely a .500 team in games Draymond has missed during his career. When he plays, they win close to 70% of the time.
For further context, in 2015-16, for example, Draymond’s wins above replacement total was 23.5, according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR ratings. That was second in the NBA to Curry. Next, behind Draymond, was LeBron James at 19.9 and then Kawhi Leonard at 17.5.
Not bad for a second-round pick who, 10 years ago when he left MSU, didn’t have a clear fit in the NBA.
FROM 2021: Q&A: Wiser, older Draymond Green reflects on his love for MSU, what’s next for him
Contact Graham Couch at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.