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Final Four stardom not always followed by long NBA career

Jeff Sheppard works as a financial planner now, more than two decades removed from the time he helped Kentucky win the NCAA Tournament.

Yet he still gets asked regularly about his role in the Wildcats’ 1998 national championship.

Sheppard went undrafted after that glorious run and played part of one NBA season with the Atlanta Hawks in 1998-99 before playing a few years in Italy. He is not the only most outstanding player from a Final Four to play fewer than 20 games in the NBA.

In Sheppard’s case, he decided to redshirt the 1996-97 season as a senior at the prompting of Rick Pitino, Kentucky’s coach at the time. Sheppard was stuck behind future NBA lottery picks Derek Anderson and Ron Mercer at shooting guard.

The wait proved worthwhile. As a fifth-year senior, Sheppard helped that 1997-98 team win a national title for Tubby Smith, who took over when Pitino left for the Boston Celtics job.

Sheppard scored 27 points in an 86-85 overtime semifinal victory over Stanford and 16 more in the 78-69 championship game triumph over Utah.

Staying in school an extra year meant Sheppard entered the draft at the relatively advanced age of 23, though he doesn’t think that played much of a factor in his short pro career.

Some other former Final Four most outstanding players without long NBA track records:

JOEL BERRY, UNC (2017)

Berry still has time to play his way off this list because he doesn’t turn 25 until April 1, but he hasn’t yet appeared in a single NBA game.

The 6-footer scored 20 points when North Carolina lost 77-74 to Villanova in the 2016 championship game, and he followed that with a 22-point performance when the Tar Heels beat Gonzaga 71-65 in the 2018 NCAA Tournament final.

IRWIN DAMBROT, CITY COLLEGE OF NEW YORK (1950)

Dambrot helped CCNY go on one of the more remarkable postseason runs ever when it won both the NCAA Tournament and the NIT in the same year. The New York Knicks made Dambrot the seventh overall pick in the 1950 draft, but he attended Columbia’s dental school instead.

MILES SIMON, ARIZONA (1997)

Simon was an All-America guard who played for Arizona from 1994-98 and averaged 22 points in the 1997 NCAA Tournament. Simon scored 30 points as Arizona edged Kentucky 84-79 in the championship game.

The 6-foot-5 Simon went to Orlando in the second round of the 1998 draft but appeared in just five games with the Magic. He spent a handful of seasons playing overseas.

and in the Continental Basketball Association.

He is now an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers.

KEITH SMART, INDIANA (1987)

Smart made one of the most memorable shots in NCAA Tournament history when he sank a 16-footer with five seconds remaining to give Indiana a 74-73 victory over Syracuse in the 1987 championship game.

Smart played one more year at Indiana. He was drafted in the second round by the Golden State Warriors in 1988, but his only NBA playing time was a two-game stint with San Antonio in 1988-89.

He continued to play several seasons internationally and in the CBA. He followed that with a long coaching career that has included head coaching stops with the Cleveland Cavaliers (2002-03), Golden State (2010-11) and Sacramento Kings (2011-13).

DONALD WILLIAMS, NORTH CAROLINA (1993)

Williams scored 25 points each in North Carolina’s semifinal victory over Kansas and its championship game triumph over Michigan.

He played two more seasons at North Carolina after that, though a shoulder injury hindered him his junior year. Williams went undrafted and never played a game in the NBA.

But he did play professionally in several different countries and also had stints in the CBA and with the Harlem Globetrotters.

Williams now runs basketball camps and coaches the girls basketball team at Wakefield High School in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“All my life as a kid I dreamed of going to college and playing basketball, playing professional basketball and becoming a coach after that,” Williams said. “My life just lined up into that. The only thing I can say was bad was that I didn’t get drafted by the NBA. Outside of that, my basketball career was wonderful. I’m blessed.”

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