Best Cali NBA College Grads of All Time

Some of the NBA’s best players of all time studied and honed their basketball skills in California. The following are arguably the top college graduates from the Golden State who have gone on to find success in the pro league.

Kawhi Leonard led M.L. King to CIF Southern Section title in 2009. Photo: Scott Kurtz.


Kawhi Leonard

Born in Los Angeles, Kawhi played his high school basketball at Canyon Springs and Martin Luther King before going to study at San Diego State University between 2009 and 2011. During that time, he was named an All-American. However, he decided not to not at college for his last two years, opting instead to join the NBA draft in 2011.

Kawhi was chosen by the Indiana Pacers as the 15th pick but was traded to the San Antonio Spurs, with whom he won an NBA Championship in 2015 and was named as the MVP in the Finals. After this, he joined the Toronto Raptors, where he helped them collect their first-ever championship, and again picked up the Finals MVP award.

Forging a reputation as one of the best NBA players of all time, Leonard won titles such as the Defensive Player of the Year as well as earning a place in the league’s 75th Anniversary Team. He moved back to Los Angeles in 2019 when decided to sign for the Clippers as a free agent.

The Clippers had an underwhelming regular season and according to the odds on Bovada website, Kawhi obviously is not among the favorites to become the MVP this year with his injured status.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Although he was born in the Harlem neighborhood of New York rather than California, Kareem went to college at UCLA and is fondly remembered as possibly the finest Bruin ever. He was already over 7-foot tall when he joined the college team and was put straight into the freshman team in his first year.

Playing under his original name of Lew Alcindor, the player made an immediate impact by helping the freshman team beat the UCLA varsity squad for the first time in history. He picked up 31 points and 21 rebounds in that memorable victory. The freshman team went on to rack up a 21-0 record as it blew away the opponents.

Kareem’s first varsity game saw him labeled a superstar after he scored 56 points against USC to break the UCLA record for a single game. He then scored an average of 29 points as they set a 30-0 record on the way to a national championship. He was so good in the college scene that the dunk was banned to try and stop him from scoring so much.

His long career has given him some outstanding records, both in college basketball and in the NBA. His most productive spell came with the LA Lakers, where Kareem won five NBA championships. He is still the league’s all-time leading scorer and also leads the way in terms of total career wins.

Bill Walton

Born in La Mesa and a graduate of Helix High School, Walton followed Alcindor to UCLA, where he played between 1971 and 1974. Regarded as one of the best centers to play college basketball, he was part of coach John Wooden’s remarkable winning spell where the Bruins were virtually unstoppable.

Bill won three national college player of the year awards in a row and won the NCAA championship in 1972 and 1973 as the team put together an 88-game winning streak that ran until a loss to Notre Dame in 1974. He is thought of as one of the best college players of all time, with a string of awards and records added to the fact that UCLA retired his number 32.

Walton joined the Portland Trail Blazers as the first pick in the 1974 draft and had an amazing NBA career with them and the Boston Celtics. He also had a spell with the Clippers, who were known as the San Diego Clippers in those days. However, injuries stopped Walton from being as influential there as he should have been.

Bill Cartwright

One of the best players to turn out for the University of San Francisco, Bill Cartwright was born in Lodi and went to Elk Grove High School before joining the San Francisco Dons. He helped them to become the nation’s top college team for a spell with an 80% winning record, and it’s worth remembering that this was one of the tallest college basketball teams in the history of the sport.

Bill picked up a couple of conference titles and four appearances in post-season games. He also still retains the record for all-time scoring and field goals for the college. The Dons built an outstanding team around him, and Cartwright responded with an average of 19.1 points.

The former Mr. Basketball State Player of the Year for 1974 and 1975 joined the New York Knicks as third pick in the 1979 draft but injuries limited his impact there. After signing with the Chicago Bulls and joining superstar Michael Jordan, the center helped them win three consecutive championships and go down in history as another of the best college graduates to come out of California and join the NBA.


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