When Stephen Curry took tiny Davidson College to the brink of the Final Four, any college basketball fan could tell the NBA what it has learned in recent years: Curry is something special.
The point guard this week earned NBA MVP honors, leading the Golden State Warriors to the best record in the league this season.
As the son of another NBA star, Curry path has been rare on a number of fronts. But he’s also the rare NBA superstar to come from outside of the college basketball power structure.
Of the last five NBA MVPs, two came directly from high school (LeBron James and Kobe Bryant), one from Europe (Dirk Nowitzki), one from Texas (Kevin Durant) and one from Memphis (Derrick Rose).
The last NBA MVP from a mid-major or low-major program was Santa Clara’s Steve Nash in 2005 and 2006. Before that, it was Karl Malone in 1999.
In honor of Curry’s rise from Davidson to NBA MVP, we’re looking back at the best small school players in the NBA, going back to Larry Bird.
1. Larry Bird, Indiana State
A Hall of Famer, three-time MVP, two-time Finals MVP and All-Star Game MVP, Bird is on the short list of best NBA players of all time. His career started at Indiana, but the French Lick, Ind., native found the Bloomington experience overwhelming. He landed at Indiana State to set up a legendary NCAA Tournament championship game with Michigan State and Magic Johnson for the first round in one of the greatest NBA rivalries.
2. Karl Malone, Louisiana Tech
A Hall of Famer and two-time NBA MVP, Malone stayed in his home state of Louisiana and led Louisiana Tech to its first NCAA Tournament bid in 1984 and a Sweet 16 in 1985. Since Malone left, the Bulldogs have won one NCAA Tournament game in three trips, none since 1991.
3. John Stockton, Gonzaga
A bit of an asterisk here: Gonzaga is a major program now, but not when Stockton signed with the Bulldogs in 1980. By the time Stockton left, the Zags would still have to wait 11 years for their first NCAA Tournament bid. Meanwhile, Stockton was on his way to becoming a Hall of Famer and the NBA’s all-time assist leader.
4. David Robinson, Navy
The Admiral was a National Player of the Year at Navy, leading the Midshipmen to a 30-win season and an Elite Eight. With the San Antonio Spurs, Robinson became a 10-time All-Star and a Hall of Famer before handing the torch to Tim Duncan.
5. Steve Nash, Santa Clara
Santa Clara reached the NCAA Tournament three times with Nash, a run that included an upset of Maryland in 1996. The Broncos haven’t made the NCAA Tourney since. Nash waited until his sixth season in the league to become a star, but since then, he became the top point guard of his era.
6. Scottie Pippen, Central Arkansas
Central Arkansas is a Division I program now, but Pippen played there, it was in the NAIA, making his rise to the No. 5 pick in the draft and Michael Jordan's running mate all that more impressive.
7. George Gervin, Eastern Michigan
Gervin’s college career did not end on high note. He was suspended and his coach resigned after Gervin punched a Roanoke College player unconscious during a Division II semifinal. Gervin’s career was less eventful as he won four NBA scoring titles, earned 12 ABA/NBA All-Star selections and landed in the Hall of Fame.
8. Dennis Rodman, Southeastern Oklahoma State
Like Pippen, Rodman was a star on the NAIA level before finding his way to the NBA. The public persona may have outweighed his on-court play, but Rodman finished his career with five championship rings, two All-Star selections and a spot in the Hall of Fame.
9. Stephen Curry, Davidson
In 2008, Curry led Davidson to NCAA Tournament upsets of Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin before a two-point loss to Kansas in the Elite Eight. His NBA career is young, but he’s an MVP, a two-time All-Star and two-time league leader in 3-pointers made and 3-pointers attempted.
10. Robert Parish, Centenary
Parish averaged 24.8 points per game and 18 rebounds per game for an AP top-20 team during his final season at Centenary, but his college career was destined to obscurity due to NCAA sanctions at Centenary. The same wouldn’t happen in the NBA as the Hall of Fame center won four NBA titles in his career with the Celtics and Bulls.