Column | Former Panthers with the best chance to win an NBA Finals ring


Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP

Toronto Raptors’ Khem Birch (24), a former Pitt player, scores over Houston Rockets’ Kevin Porter Jr. during an NBA game in Toronto in April.

By Will McGlynn, Staff Writer

Pitt has produced a couple of NBA prospects, four of whom are actively playing on championship-contending teams. Which begs the question, which former Panther has the best chance of winning a championship?

Former Pitt player Steven Adams (13).
(TPN File Image)

Currently, there are four former Pitt players actively playing in the NBA. There’s Steven Adams who left Pitt in 2013 and plays on the Memphis Grizzlies. Cameron Johnson plays for the Phoenix Suns, who drafted him in 2019. Khem Birch plays for the Toronto Raptors, leaving Pitt in 2014. And last, Justin Champagnie, who went undrafted in 2021, also plays on the Raptors.

Former Pitt player Justin Champagnie (11) shoots during a game in 2020.
(TPN File Image)

Each former Pitt player made the playoffs in some capacity, but each team fell short of making the NBA finals.

The player with the best odds to win a title going forward is probably Adams. Adams is a solid rotational center in Memphis and the team around him has flourished. The Grizzlies will contend for a title next year and for years to come. Memphis has young stars like guard Ja Morant and forward Jaren Jackson Jr. as well as great rotational pieces like Adams, guard Dillon Brooks and forward Desmond Bane to round out its roster. 

Most major betting organizations claim the Suns have better odds of winning the title. But the Grizzlies’ youth and impressive season this past year show they are capable of making a title challenge.

The only major hindrance for Adams is his age. Adams is a seasoned NBA veteran at this point in his career and his best years on the Oklahoma City Thunder are behind him. Adams’ window to win a championship is closing. But some believe the Grizzlies can claim a title as soon as next season.

The next most likely player to win a title is probably Johnson. Phoenix is a great team, having the best regular-season record in the NBA this season as well as losing in the finals the year prior. The Suns are certainly contenders this season — however, some of their key pieces are aging. Chris Paul is entering his eighteenth season and turning 37 years old in 2023.

Former Pitt player Cameron Johnson (23) during a game in 2017. (TPN File Image)

The Suns didn’t make the playoffs before Paul got there and as he declines, the Suns will too. 

But Johnson himself is a young player who has seen lots of improvement these few seasons and is a reliable role player. Johnson shot over 40% from beyond the three-point line and had a career-high in points per game as well as rebounds, assists and steals in the 2021-2022 season. Johnson has tremendous upside as a player, but the Suns might have some shuffling around to do to become champions.

The Toronto Raptors seem to have the furthest to go before contending for a championship. The first-round exit along with Khem Birch’s age makes it tough to see Birch have a championship run with the Raptors. 

Birch played well with the Raptors in 2021 which earned him a spot on the team again this season. His production dipped a bit this season in a reduced role, and the Raptors continued to slowly fall out of championship contention after the win in 2019. If Birch is going to win an NBA championship it might need to be back in the United States.

As for Champagnie, he has so many years ahead of him. He only averaged 2.25 points per game in the NBA last season, but he is also only 20 years old. He still has a lot to prove as an undrafted rookie this past season, but he has potential. 

On the Raptors 905 — the Toronto Raptors NBA G-league team — Champagnie averaged 21.1 points per game shooting 40% from beyond the three-point line as well as hauling over eight rebounds a game. The Raptors 905 also had the best regular-season record in the G-league and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals before losing to the Delaware Blue Coats.

Champagnie is currently on a two-way contract, but with such a long career ahead of him he might find himself a true contender in the coming seasons. As it stands now, though, both Birch and Champagnie aren’t quite on a contending team and will likely need to move to a new situation in order to win an NBA championship.