It has been almost 30 years since Duke standout Christian Laettner was picked over to Isiah Thomas to represent America in the Olympics with the 1992 Dream Team. He is the only individual member of that team that is not currently in the Hall of Fame.
It’s almost unfathomable to think that a man who was seen as arguably the best college basketball player in the country disappoint in the NBA. While he did last 13 years in the league and did make an All-Star team, he only averaged 12.8 points per game in his career and never averaged more than 8.8 rebounds per game.
After hearing the quotes that analysts like Jay Bilas said to Benjamin Hoffman of the New York Times about Laettner, you would think that he’d be destined for greatness in the NBA.
“There are very few players in the history of the game that can match his college career,” said Bilas, an ESPN analyst who played at Duke and was an assistant coach during Laettner’s time there. “You’re talking Walton, Alcindor, Elvin Hayes. He had one of the greatest college careers in the history of the game.”
Let’s be clear about something here; Laettner wasn’t necessarily a bust in the NBA, as he was a solid rotation player who was able to carve out a space for himself in the league for more than a decade. But perhaps those high expectations for Laettner got in his head and were just too lofty for him to live up to.
Laettner started off his career pretty well for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as he averages a promising 18.2 points per game and 8.7 rebounds per game and was a member of the 1992-93 All-Rookie team.
Laettner couldn’t quite capture the high potential from his rookie season until he made the All-Star as an Atlanta Hawk in the 1996-97 season on his way to averaging 18.2 ppg and 8.8 rpg on the season.
There are a number of factors that could have contributed to Laettner not living up to expectations, whether it be said expectations being too high, the Dream Team experience shattering his confidence, and his lanky frame not quite translating with the grit-and-grind that was ever so prevalent in the 90s era of the NBA.
After retiring from the NBA in 2005, it hasn’t gotten much better for Laettner. Although he was close to filing for bankruptcy in 2016, he seemed at peace with how his basketball career had went in the 2015 documentary of his life, perfectly titled ‘I Hate Christian Laettner’.
While he will be remembered as a college basketball superstar and the perfect villian for college basketball in the late 80s and early 90s, it would be interesting to see how Laettner’s career would have been different if he entered the league today.
The era of pace-and-space would help Laettner avoid the physicality that he couldn’t quite overcome in the NBA, and his decent mid-range stroke could translate well in today’s league. It would be interesting to see him in an offense like that of today’s Houston Rockets, where he could roam the three-point line and be the beneficiary of pick-and-pops with James Harden and Russell Westbrook.