As it is with any professional sport, drafting the right players can be a crapshoot. There are very rarely some “sure things” like LeBron James and even those types of players don’t always work out in the end. Franchises have the chance to select a player that can carry them to a championship, or several, but they have to be very careful on not passing up those types of players.
We have seen some players that were taken after the first couple of picks in the NBA Draft evolve into some of the game’s all-time greats. When that happens, it becomes a “what if?” game where franchises are left kicking themselves over the talent that they could have had. Even players that had solid NBA careers like Rasheed Wallace, Deron Williams and Glenn Robinson were taken just before guys that would put up even better NBA careers.
But what about those that didn’t find the type of success that those three did? Let’s take a look at some of the players that were selected just before Hall of Famers or players that are guaranteed locks for the hall. Here are 20 NBA players drafted before legends and how they fared in their careers.
20 O.J. Mayo
Our list begins in 2008, where Derrick Rose was taken with the top overall pick. There was a ton of potential in this draft and the Thunder (then the SuperSonics) were able to find someone that could unleash this potential in the form of Russell Westbrook with the fourth overall pick. Right before him, the Timberwolves drafted USC star O.J. Mayo and sent him to Memphis in a trade that involved Kevin Love.
Mayo would put up some decent numbers and was named an All-Rookie, but was only an above average player for his eight NBA seasons. Mayo got disqualified from the league in 2016 after violating the anti-drug program, so it’s safe to say that Oklahoma City has certainly fared better with their draft pick. Mayo finished with 13.8 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game, never becoming an All-Star.
19 Terry Cummings
The 1982 NBA Draft had some strong players at the top, with the top three seeming pretty obvious to most scouts. James Worthy was selected with the top pick by Los Angeles and Dominique Wilkins would be taken third overall. Sandwiched in between the two was Terry Cummings from DePaul, who became a member of the Clippers.
While Worthy and Wilkins would find themselves in the Hall of Fame after their careers, though the same did not happen for Cummings. Cummings didn’t have a bad career, though, as he made two All-Star Games and a pair of All-NBA teams (no first-team appearances). Cummings would score 16.4 points and add 7.3 rebounds per game. Cummings is definitely one of the better players on our list, but he couldn’t live up to the expectations that the 1982 Draft set.
18 Derrick Coleman
There was not much star power in the 1990 NBA Draft, but the top selections ended up being solid, especially with Gary Payton as the second overall pick. The Seattle SuperSonics (now the OKC Thunder) were able to get The Glove after the Nets had taken Derrick Coleman out of Syracuse with the top pick. Payton would become a Hall of Famer, while Coleman made just on All-Star appearance in his 15 NBA seasons.
Coleman appeared to be a strong player in his first five seasons, as he topped out at 20.5 points per game in the 1994-95 season and was hauling in 11.3 rebounds per game the season before. However, his numbers would take a sharp decline and he finished his career with an average of 16.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.
17 Darko Milicic
If you’re under 30 years old like I am, then the 2003 NBA Draft was without a doubt the best one that we’ve seen. The top five selections in the draft included LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. LeBron was the obvious choice at number one for the Cavaliers, so it was up to the Pistons to select from any of those other future Hall of Fame players. Instead, they wound up selecting Darko Milicic out of Serbia. Carmelo Anthony, who's been a terrific NBAer, who end up going third to Denver.
Milicic would never become much more than a bench player that peaked at 24.4 minutes per game (seven seasons into his career) and he only lasted three seasons in Detroit where he averaged 1.6 points per game. Milicic would be done after the 2012-13 season, notching 6.0 points and 4.2 rebounds on average over his career.
16 Sonny Dove
Time to turn on the way back machine as we head to the 1960s for our next two players. The first came in the 1967 NBA Draft that had a top five which included both Earl Monroe (number two) and Walt Frazier. Frazier was taken with the fifth selection by the Knicks and the player taken right in front of him was Sonny Dove out of St. John’s.
Dove joined the Pistons, where he would play in just 57 games over two seasons, averaging 3.1 points and 2.0 rebounds per game. Dove didn’t last long, as he hopped over to the ABA for three seasons before calling it quits after an accident left his leg completely shattered. Dove had been finding his stride in the ABA as he was a double-digit scorer nearly averaging a double-double, but he would only play in 222 career professional games.
15 Fred Hetzel
There was a lot of star power in the 1965 NBA Draft, which included Bill Bradley and Gail Goodrich being taken in the territorial selections. The San Francisco Warriors landed the player that would be their franchise’s best for a long time in the form of Rick Barry, but he was taken with the second overall selection. The Warriors also had the first overall pick, whom they spent on Fred Hetzel out of Davidson.
Hetzel played for three seasons in San Francisc, and was putting up solid numbers in his final year there (19.0 points, 7.1 rebounds per game). Hetzel would end up playing for Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Los Angeles over his final three seasons and his production waned quickly. Overall, Hetzel played for six seasons and averaged 11.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, never becoming an All-Star.
14 Ennis Whatley
The 1983 NBA Draft fell apart pretty quickly after Ralph Sampson was taken with the top overall pick. However, there would be a future Hall of Famer later in the first round, as Portland selected Clyde Drexler 14th overall. The Kansas City Kings had the 13th selection and they scooped up Alabama’s Ennis Whatley, but he made his debut with the Bulls.
Whatley struggled to make it in the NBA and even left for international leagues a few times, making several different returns. Whatley never did become a star and he played for seven different NBA teams. Whatley would only average 5.6 points with 4.6 assists per game in his NBA career. Whatley’s career came to an end after the 1997-98 season as he went from the Hawks to Zalgiris Kaunas in Lithuania.
13 Darrell Griffith
Joe Barry Carroll was a decent player that was taken at the top overall spot in the 1980 NBA Draft, but that was nothing compared to who was taken at number three. The Celtics selected Kevin McHale out of Minnesota, who would go on to become one of the franchise’s best players (which is saying something) and wound up in the Hall of Fame.
Before him at number two was Darrell Griffith, whom the Utah Jazz selected out of Louisville. Griffith put up some great numbers in his first five seasons, even winning the Rookie of the Year award over McHale, as he was averaging more than 20 points per game in that span. However, a foot injury benched Griffith for the 1985-86 season and he would never be the same. By the time the 1980s ended, Griffith was pretty much done. He played 10 seasons for Utah before retiring, averaging 16.2 points per game, but was never an NBA All-Star.
12 LeRoy Ellis
We head back to the 1960s for our next pick, who was taken in the 1962 NBA Draft that included some very memorable names. The most memorable of the bunch was another Celtics legend, John Havlicek. Havlicek was selected seventh overall and the sixth spot belonged to the Lakers, who took LeRoy Ellis out of St. John’s.
Ellis would not become a Lakers legend like Havlicek became a Celtics legend, spending just his first four seasons there (and returning later in his career). Instead, his two best seasons came in Baltimore and Portland. Ellis won an NBA Championship with the Lakers in 1972, but Ellis did not play a big part. Though he had a long career, Ellis averaged just 9.7 points with 8.3 rebounds per game.
11 Reggie Williams
The 1987 NBA Draft featured some great players, including David Robinson being the first overall selection. Since there was nobody drafted in front of him, we look a little farther down the list to number five. It was there that Scottie Pippen was taken out of Central Arkansas and traded to the Chicago Bulls. Before that, the Clippers drafted Reggie Williams, a forward out of Georgetown.
Williams was a Clipper for just a bit more than two seasons before being traded and he actually put up some respectable numbers over more than a decade in the league. However, his numbers and career weren’t comparable to Pippen’s, as Williams was scoring 12.5 points with 4.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game in his career. Williams was an NCAA Champion, but never an NBA Champion or All-Star.
10 Jonny Flynn
The most recent NBA Draft on our list comes in at number 10, which is the same draft where superstars like Blake Griffin, James Harden and DeMar DeRozan were selected. The biggest star of all in that draft, though, is Steph Curry out of Davidson. The Timberwolves had their chance to take Curry with either the fifth or sixth overall spot, but instead opted for two other point guards, Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn.
Flynn would last just two seasons with the Timberwolves and his production floundered terribly in his second season. Flynn would play just one more season in the NBA (with both Houston and Portland), but never returned. Flynn averaged just 9.2 points and 3.9 assists in his three NBA seasons, leaving us all to wonder what would have happened if the Timberwolves would have used one of those two picks on Curry.
9 Greg Oden
Our final draft of the 2000s also involves a current Golden State Warrior that seems destined for the Hall of Fame, Kevin Durant. Durant was the second choice by Seattle out of Texas before the team moved to Oklahoma City. Portland could have taken Durant (or even Al Horford), but decided to take what some thought was a sure thing in the form of Greg Oden out of Ohio State.
Unfortunately, injuries would plague Oden early and often in his short career, as he played in just 105 career NBA games with both the Trail Blazers and Heat. Oden’s final season came in 2013-14 and he said that injuries have made it so that he simply cannot return to an NBA court. He would finish his career with 8.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, while Durant has been a perennial MVP contender.
8 Terence Stansbury
Just like there are arguments about who is the best ever between LeBron James and Michael Jordan, there are arguments about which draft that involved them was the better one overall. The 1984 NBA Draft is legendary and we have three players from that season that make the top eight of our list. The first one is Terence Stansbury, who was selected 15th overall by Dallas just before the Jazz selected John Stockton.
In hindsight, it was a bad deal for the Pacers, who decided to trade for the pick. Stansbury was in Indiana for two seasons and barely registered on the stat sheet every night. Stansbury would then end up in Seattle for the 1986-87 season, which ended up being his final one in the league. Stansbury would end up playing less than 200 NBA games and averaged just 6.3 points per game.
7 Sam Perkins
The next entry on our list also comes from the famous 1984 NBA Draft and this time it’s Sam Perkins. Perkins was the fourth overall selection by the Dallas Maverickcs, just before the 76ers took Charles Barkley. Perkins had a very long NBA career, but was never really celebrated like some of the other members of his 1984 brethren. Perkins played his first six seasons with the Mavericks, where he was putting up an average of 14.4 points and 8.0 rebounds per game.
Not bad numbers, but not legendary ones like the other players were putting up. Perkins would eventually land with the Lakers, SuperSonics and Pacers, playing until the end of the 2000-01 NBA season. Despite never making an All-Star Game, Perkins was by no means a bust, he just happened to be completely overshadowed.
6 Larry Hughes
The 1998 NBA Draft will always be remembered by how much of a bust Michael Olowokandi was for the Clippers at the top overall spot, but there was a lot of good players to be found later in the first round, including Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter at the four and five spots. The nine and 10 selections were even better as Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce were selected next to each other. Just before that, though, the 76ers selected Larry Hughes out of Saint Louis.
Hughes lasted for just a season and a half in Philly before being traded and it looked like the change of scenery would make him a star. Hughes would be the ultimate journeyman for most of his career, as he found himself on eight different NBA teams in a career that lasted from 1998 to 2012. 14.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game won’t put you in the Hall of Shame, but Nowitzki or Pierce would have been huge gets for the 76ers.
5 Kenny Green
The favorite draft of NBA conspiracy theorists everywhere, the 1985 NBA Draft featured Patrick Ewing at the top, but our focus comes in the middle of the round where Karl Malone was selected out of Louisiana Tech by the Jazz with the 13th selection. The Bullets (now Wizards) had their chance to take Malone, but opted for Kenny Green out of Wake Forest. His career in Washington would last for just 20 games.
Green became a member of the 76ers for the rest of the 1985-86 season and would play in just 19 more NBA games the next year before he was done. All in all, Green played in 60 NBA games over two seasons, scoring 4.4 points and pulling in 1.7 rebounds per game. Just to think, the Malone and Stockton combo could have never happened.
4 Vitaly Potapenko
As a sports fan, I at least remember just about all of the names of these players that were picked in front of legends, but this is one that I forgot about before going through my research. In the 1996 NBA Draft, everyone remembers the block of players from 13-15 that were made up of Kobe Bryant, Peja Stojakovic and Steve Nash. Before we could get there, the Cavaliers had to take Vitaly Potapenko out of Wright State.
Potapenko was a Cavalier for just over two seasons and drafting him instead of the other three greats could have eventually landed LeBron James outside of Cleveland. Potapenko was in the league for a decade, but was barely ever a starter. He would finish his career with an average of 6.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
3 Sihugo Green
One of the greatest NBA players of all-time, Bill Russell became a Celtics legend out of San Francisco when he was traded to the team from the St. Louis Hawks after being drafted with the number two pick in 1956. While it’s easy to say in hindsight that he should have been the top overall pick, that honor actually belonged to Duquesne guard Sihugo Green.
Green had a decent rookie season, but then missed the next year to serve in the United States army. When he returned, Green wasn’t putting up big numbers and the Royals sent him to the Hawks. Green played for four different franchises in his career (including two that moved). Over the course of his career that lasted more than 10 years, Green averaged 9.2 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
2 Purvis Short
When it comes to Larry Bird, a lot of people assume that he was the top overall pick since he was such a legend at Indiana State. Instead, Bird had to wait until the Celtics selected him sixth overall in the 1978 NBA Draft. The players ahead of him weren’t much to write home about, including the fifth overall pick, Purvis Short.
Short was a star at Jackson State that the Warriors selected and he would spend nine seasons with Golden State. Short put up some great numbers while in Golden State, averaging 19.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. The last three years of his career weren’t very noteworthy in Houston or New Jersey, as he ended his career in 1990. Short was a solid player, but never an All-Star or Hall of Famer like Bird.
1 Sam Bowie
As you probably would have guessed before reading the list, the number one spot belongs to Sam Bowie, whose career is remembered mostly as the answer to the trivia question “Who was selected just before Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA Draft?” Bowie was the second selection inbetween Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon, and he was putting up some so-so numbers in his first two seasons.
In year three, Bowie suffered a leg injury that would sideline him for just about two full seasons. Bowie would find some success in New Jersey as he topped out at 15.0 points per game in 1991-92, but didn’t have any long term success. Bowie would play for 10 total NBA seasons, averaging 10.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Though some call him the biggest bust ever, he certainly was not the worst player taken at number two overall.