Dennis Hopson – Sam Bowie Exemption




Synopsis: Dennis Hopson is often considered an all-time bust because he was drafted before two future Hall of Famers: Scottie Pippen and Reggie Miller. While that assessment might seem to be appropriate on the surface, the reality is much more complicated. As discussed in numerous posts already, a bad draft pick can be determined by looking at passed-over superstars, but a bust can’t. Even though I have ranked Hopson as the 8th all-time worst draft pick, I will use the following post to show why he isn’t a Top 10 Bust. As someone who scored over 3,600 career points, he has earned the Sam Bowie Exemption (i.e. too productive to be declared a Top 10 Bust), but there were other contributing factors that preclude him from even being an Honorable Mention.


As mentioned in my previous post, I had the good fortune of being able to watch two of this site’s Top 10 Worst NBA Draft Picks (i.e., #1 – Sam Bowie and #8 – Dennis Hopson) play in a game together for the New Jersey Nets during the 1989-90 season. Despite that introduction, Bowie (14.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game) and Hopson (15.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game) arguably were the two best players on the team that season. Then again, that team went 17-65 so my previous statement has as much weight as saying that Dennis Miller and Jon Lovitz were the best cast members on the 1985-86 season of Saturday Night Live.


snl season 11
Recognizable “One and Done” cast members that season included Randy Quaid, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Michael Hall, Joan Cusack. Given the expected strength of the group, Dennis Miller wasn’t even included in the cast photo at the beginning of the season. Somehow the show survived – just like the Nets.

I’ve already written an extensive post regarding Sam Bowie and why he shouldn’t be considered a Top 10 Bust. While it’s true that the Portland Trail Blazers made a big mistake taking him over Michael Jordan, Bowie was actually a decent NBA player (even with his numerous leg injuries). In over 500 NBA games, Bowie averaged approximately 11 points, 7.5 rebounds and two blocks per game. Those numbers clearly aren’t Jordanesque, but they’re not bustworthy either. Since Bowie’s NBA career was better than people seem to remember, I established the Sam Bowie Exemption for him and other players who were too productive to be considered a Top 10 Bust. Dennis Hopson is such a player deserving of the exemption.

Like Bowie, Hopson was a top three overall draft pick based on an impressive college career. As the following table shows, Hopson showed steady improvement during his four years at Ohio State.

Shooting % Per Game Averages
Season Games FG FT Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Points
1983-84 29 47.4% 82.9% 3.7 0.8 0.7 0.5 5.3
1984-85 30 49.4% 73.6% 4.7 1.5 0.6 0.3 9.8
1985-86 33 54.5% 77.8% 5.8 2.2 1.6 0.5 20.9
1986-87 33 51.8% 81.4% 8.2 3.6 2.2 0.6 29.0
Career 125 51.9% 79.3% 5.7 2.1 1.3 0.5 16.8


Of note, Hopson finished his senior year as the 2nd highest scorer in the NCAA with 29 points per game. He also averaged approximately 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steal per game that season en route to being named Big 10 Player of the Year (ahead of Indiana’s Steve Alford) and a consensus 2nd team All-American (somehow behind Alford). Based on Hopson’s success in college, it was not surprising that the New Jersey Nets took him with their 3rd overall pick. Unfortunately, his legacy as an NBA player is overshadowed by the players whom the Nets could have taken instead.

Draft Pick Team Player Position Games Points Rebounds Assists PPG RPG APG

Win Shares


SAS David Robinson C 987 20,790 10,497 2,441 21.1 10.6 2.5 178.7
#2 PHO Armen Gilliam PF 929 12,700 6,401 1,088 13.7 6.9 1.2



NJN Dennis Hopson SG 334 3,633 939 539 10.9 2.8 1.6 7.1
#4 LAC Reggie Williams SF 599 7,508 2,393 1,492 12.5 4.0 2.5



SEA Scottie Pippen SF 1178 18,940 7,494 6,135 16.1 6.4 5.2 125.1
#6 SAC Kenny Smith PG 737 9,397 1,454 4,073 12.8 2.0 5.5



CLE Kevin Johnson PG 735 13,127 2,404 6,711 17.9 3.3 9.1 92.8
#8 CHI Olden Polynice C 1058 8,265 7,110 744 7.8 6.7 0.7



SEA Derrick McKey SF 937 10,266 4,387 2,254 11.0 4.7 2.4 61.8
#10 CHI Horace Grant PF 1165 12,996 9,443 2,575 11.2 8.1 2.2



IND Reggie Miller SG 1389 25,279 4,182 4,141 18.2 3.0 3.0 174.4
#12 WSB Muggsy Bogues PG 889 6,858 2,318 6,726 7.7 2.6 7.6



NYK Mark Jackson PG 1,296 12,489 4,963 10,334 9.6 3.8 8.0 91.8
#22 BOS Reggie Lewis SG 450 7,902 1,938 1,153 17.6 4.3 2.6



With respect to the top 12 picks from the 1987 NBA Draft, it’s clear that Hopson was the least productive player in the group. Heck, Muggsy Bogues almost doubled Hopson’s career point total despite being only 5’3″ (on tippy toes) and weighing only a buck forty (fully clothed). Then again, that draft class was quite deep with three Hall of Famers (David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, and Reggie Miller) as well as four additional All-Stars (Kevin Johnson, Horrace Grant, Mark Jackson, and Reggie Lewis). Based on win share totals for all players taken with comparable picks since 1970, the 14 highlighted players from that draft class included:

  • Six top 10% picks: Robinson, Pippen, Johnson, Grant, Miller and Jackson;
  • Five top 25% picks: Smith, Polynice, McKey, Bogues, and Lewisl; and
  • One top 50% pick: Gilliam

Only Hopson (bottom 10%) and Reggie Williams (bottom 30%) were below average picks. As a top 10 overall pick who fell into the bottom 10% of all players selected in a similar draft position, Hopson is a prime candidate for a Top 10 Bust. However, that assessment falls apart upon a further review.

Games Shooting % Per Game Averages
Season Team Played Started FG FT Rebounds Assists Steals Points
1987-88 NJN 61 19 40.4% 74.0% 2.3 1.9 0.9 9.6
1988-89 NJN 62 36 41.9% 84.9% 3.3 1.7 1.1 12.7
1989-90 NJN 79 64 43.4% 79.2% 3.5 1.9 1.3 15.8
1990-91 CHI 61 0 42.6% 66.3% 1.8 1.1 0.4 4.3
1991-92 CHI/SAC 71 0 46.5% 70.8% 2.9 1.4 0.9 10.5
Career   334 119 43.1% 76.5% 2.8 1.6 1.0 10.9

During Hopson’s first three years in the league, he transitioned from being a decent bench player with 10 points in 22 minutes per game to a productive starter with 16 points in 32 minutes. Despite his development as a player, Hopson was on the trading block because he didn’t get along with head coach Bill Fitch. After the Nets traded for veteran shooting guard Reggie Theus two days before the 1990 draft, Hopson became expendable. The Nets took power forward Derrick Coleman with the 1st overall pick that year and already had two young players at point guard (Mookie Blaylock) and small forward (Chris Morris) so they looked to Theus as the leader for their inexperienced team. Sandwiched between trading for Theus and drafting Coleman, the Nets traded Hopson to the Bulls for one 1st round and two 2nd round picks. Presumably, the Bulls had hoped that Hopson could relieve Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, but there just weren’t many minutes available. As a result, Hopson’s numbers fell dramatically during his brief stint in Chicago. On the bright side, he was there long enough to pick up a championship ring.

Dennis Hopson (third from the left) – Photoshopped?
Dennis Hopson - Bulls reunion
Hopson is in between the two “suits” with the red ties

Hopson led the Nets in scoring but was unhappy because the team was a perennial loser. He won a championship with the Bulls, but was unhappy because he couldn’t get on the floor and only served mop-up duties during the playoffs. Given MJ’s reaction to (or more appropriately, personal vendetta against) anyone involved with passing him over in the draft, I can only imagine the treatment Hopson received for being taken ahead of Pippen. By the time Hopson was traded to the Sacramento Kings at the beginning of the 1991-92 season, it was as if he were a rookie all over again. Since the Kings already had future Hall of Famer Mitch Richmond starting at shooting guard, Hopson had to prove himself by coming off the bench. By averaging over 10 points in under 20 minutes per game, Hopson received a one-year offer to stay with the Kings for the 1992-93 season; however, he rejected it based on the advice of his agent. In particular, Hopson’s agent thought his client deserved a multi-year deal even though the Kings couldn’t work it under the salary cap.

In an interview with Jose Bosch from, Hopson expressed his frustration with the decision when he said, “Now I could’ve stayed in the NBA but I made the mistake by listening to an agent when I had guaranteed money on the table.” Furthermore, he recounted conversations he had with former NBA player and Ohio State teammate Brad Sellers who recommended that he take the deal and stay in the NBA. In particular, Hopson said, “I’ll never forget, because he [Sellers] called me every hour on the hour telling me I should take the guaranteed money. OK, but not doing that caused me to go overseas because they [the Kings] ended up signing somebody else in my place. That caused me to go overseas and once you go overseas, you get stuck overseas.” What’s most interesting about Sellers comments is that he had just finished playing one year in Greece and was desperately trying to get back to the NBA so his advice would have been extremely relevant.  Whereas Sellers ultimately made it back to the NBA, Hopson never did.

Hopson wasn’t the first, or last, victim of the league’s salary cap (or a misinformed agent). Perhaps envisioning himself as the 16 ppg starter in New Jersey, Hopson overestimated his value as a 10 ppg bench player. In essence, NBA players can be divided into four groups.

  1. Superstars (i.e. All-Stars and/or All-NBA selections): Accounting for the top 10% of all players, they are able to sign max or near-max contracts for $12+ million per year.
  2. Stars (i.e. players just below all-star status): Accounting for next 10% of all players, they generally sign for 60-80% of max dollars or $7-10 million per year.
  3. Role Players (i.e. decent starters or good bench players): Accounting for the next 30% of all players, they generally sign for $3-6 million per year.
  4. Everyone else (i.e. players happy to be in the league): Whether young and trying to catch on or old and trying to delay the inevitable, these players are willing to play for league minimums or whatever teams can afford under the cap.

Of course there are exceptions on both ends of the spectrum. In particular, big men who can clog up the middle tend to get paid a lot more than their numbers might dictate while future stars / superstars are underpaid while they work through their rookie contracts.

Even though Hopson was a role player, he and his agent presumably were holding out for a star contract. As a result, his NBA career ended prematurely because he overestimated his market value and not because he couldn’t play in the league. In fact, he showed that he was capable of putting up numbers similar to Houston’s Corey Brewer, who has made over $27 million since coming into the league as the 7th overall draft pick in 2007.

NBA Career Stats for Dennis Hopson and Corey Brewer
Shooting % Per Game Averages
Player FG FT Rebounds Assists Blocks Steals


Dennis Hopson

43.1% 76.5% 2.8 1.6 0.5 1.0 10.9
Corey Brewer 41.0% 72.2% 3.0 1.4 0.3 1.4



Perhaps the biggest difference between both players is the fact that Brewer apparently has accepted his role as someone who “only” gets paid like an average player despite being slightly more productive than one. Given the current NBA average salary of approximately $5 million per year, it would be nice to think that the same mistake wouldn’t happen today. Then again, Hopson’s decision was based on ego and not rational thinking. As someone who showed he could play in the NBA but made an error in judgment, Hopson should not be considered an all-time bust.