Top Arizona NBA Alumni: #2 Gilbert Arenas

We continue our countdown of the best NBA players to come from Arizona. Next up is number two, Gilbert Arenas.

Just one UA alum ever could get into a shootout with a prime Kobe Bryant and maintain a reasonable expectation of winning the showdown against the most prolific scorer of the post-MJ era.

And just that happened at the Staples Center on December 17, 2006.

Seemingly every time Gilbert Arenas dribbled the ball in the open court, he utilized his unsurpassed speed and first step to terrorize Smush Parker, or, later in the game, Kobe Bryant. Whether relying on his trademark body control or streaky, yet prolific, jump shooting prowess, Arenas couldn’t be stopped this game.

At the end of a 147-141 Wizards overtime victory, Arenas accumulated 60 points on 17 of 32 shooting from the field and 21 of 27 from the free throw line, while Bryant finished with 45 points.

Unlike other ex-Wildcats on this list, Arenas’ NBA career didn't appear preordained.

An afterthought recruit, Arenas was also extremely young, not turning 18 until the second semester of his freshman year at the U of A.

Perhaps the startling success should have been foreseen. It was, after all, apparent from day one that Arenas was one of the most gifted players to come through the program.

His raw ability was such that rising sophomore and eventual national scoring champion Ruben Douglas transferred to the University of New Mexico before Arenas ever played a collegiate game.

Long-limbed, with unique quick twitch muscle strength and explosion, Arenas checked off every physical attribute box in resounding detail. In addition, he showcased, along with Sean Elliott and Michael Dickerson, one of the three most explosive first steps in school history.

The game of basketball came easy for Arenas.

The relationship he shared with classmate Jason Gardner was typical of the Arenas life experiment. The backcourt mates were inseparable because of how different they were. Gardner worked long hours to excel at basketball whereas Arenas treated the game as more of a hobby.

The same went for video games and girls. You name it. Where Gardner put forth maximum effort into most ventures, Arenas didn’t need to try and still received the desired results.

And, quite frankly, Arenas didn’t care. He just wanted to have fun, which was a perfect fit for the focused Gardner.

After the 2001 National Championship game loss to Duke, Arenas elected to forgo his final two seasons of eligibility and enter the NBA draft. Like so many aspiring pros, he soon encountered the harsh realities of the NBA.

It didn’t matter that Arenas was (age-wise) a freshman or the leading scorer for the second best team in the country, or the product of a program renowned for outstanding guard play, he was still a 6-3 shooting guard and viewed by many as the ultimate tweener.

Selected by Golden State with the 32nd overall pick, it didn’t take long for Arenas to show he could handle the ball and excel as a lead guard. By mid-season Arenas had pushed Larry Hughes out of the lineup and proceeded to average 10 points per game.

His second season he averaged 18 per game while emerging as an All-Star caliber player. And, fortunately for Arenas, his second round draft position rendered him a free agent after the season.

The Wizards emerged as the winner in the Arenas sweepstakes, and his next three seasons would be among the best in franchise history, certainly the three best NBA seasons by any UA alum.

Where the Wizards would make the playoffs, they weren't exactly legitimate contenders in the East, but that didn't prevent Arenas from averaging 25.5, 29.3 and 28.4 while finishing his eight year Wizards career with a 25 point per game average.

His penetration ability was such that even if the jumper wasn’t falling, a large number of points would almost assuredly come from the free throw line.

That three year window also witnessed Arenas named to three All-NBA awards. No other UA player has ever been selected to an All-NBA team.

Playing in an era with Nash, Allen Iverson, Kobe and Dwyane Wade, among others, it was never going to be easy for another guard to stand out.

But Arenas did just that. And he performed with a smile and stylistic flare all his own.

Unfortunately, as quickly as Arenas catapulted to NBA fame, his powers left him.

The crippling knee injuries began toward the end of 2007 and by the end of the 2010 season Arenas had become a shell of his former self.

This also coincided with a gun scandal that engulfed the seemingly naive Arenas, who was out of the league by 2012.

Because of the perceived selfish persona, lack of defensive initiative and quirky on and off court antics, many wondered whether Arenas was truly a winner.

Due to the debilitating injuries Arenas suffered in his late 20’s, this question was never answered.

But there is no doubt that at his peak, Gilbert Arenas was the best UA player to ever play in the NBA.

No UA alum has approached his stat lines or earned the type of money Arenas garnered.

Due to his unrivaled apex it’s somewhat difficult to imagine a current UA player surpassing Arenas.

And for a player that once seemed destined for the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame, Arenas can still reconcile himself to the fact that at his peak he was the best UA player in NBA history.


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