The NBA Draft is one of the most crucial nights for any NBA team. An annual tradition, the draft has changed franchises in a positive and negative way. Superstars you see on your television screen have all gone through the tedious workouts and countless interviews prior to getting their name called on the podium by the commissioner.
In many cases, the draft has not been kind to most teams. The first five players drafted do not usually mean they are the best five players of their class; in some cases, there are even undrafted players who go on and have a better career than the first overall pick. Drafting a player is similar to entering the lottery, you have to take a big risk in order to win big and most of the time the odds are completely random.
Year after year we get guys that are considered steals of their class. Being a “steal” is simply outplaying your draft position by a wide margin; so if a player drafted in the second round outplays the first five players taken, he is without a doubt a steal. For the sake of this list, we will not include anyone drafted in the top-10 of their respective draft.
This article will take a look at the seven steals from the '80s, '90s, and the 2000s. Note that the 2000s will only include the infamously weak 2000 draft up to the star-studded class of 2009.
The late, great Drazen Petrovic had a short career in the NBA. An unfortunate car accident resulted in the loss of not only a great basketball player, but a great man. Drazen only played for five seasons.
Drafted by the Portland Trailblazers with the 13th pick of the third round (60th overall) in 1986, the Croatian wing had a rough start to his career. Playing behind Clyde Drexler meant Drazen had very limited playing time even when he showed he was a capable starter.
After being traded to the New Jersey Nets, Petrovic quickly became one of the best offensive wing in the league. In his three seasons with the Nets, Drazen averaged 19.5 points per game while shooting a remarkable 43.7 percent from deep.
During the '90s, more than a handful of high school stars decided to skip college and go straight into the NBA. With Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant finding success as they did, it is hard to blame the high school kids for thinking they can do the same. Rashard Lewis was one of those kids, as he entered the 1998 NBA Draft as a 19-year-old; unfortunately for Lewis, he had to wait a couple of hours in the green room before getting his name called with the 32nd overall pick.
Lewis barely played for the Seattle Supersonics in his first year as he was only fielded in 20 games.
But from year three onwards, the sharpshooting big found his footing in the NBA. He made two All-Star appearances and multiple 20-point-per-game seasons; of course, he also made the finals with the Orlando Magic as their starting power forward.
Taken with the 19th overall pick back in 2001, Zach Randolph entered the league with the Portland Trail Blazers, and boy, was it a disaster. Averaging only 6.5 PPG and 3.5 RPG in his first two years, it was not until his third season where Z-Bo showed flashes of potential greatness.
In his last four years for the Blazers, Randolph averaged 20.2 PPG and 9.6 RPG and was very efficient. But of course, Z-Bo will always be remembered as a part of the grit-and-grind Memphis Grizzlies, where he averaged 16.8 PPG and 10.2 RBG in his eight seasons.
To this day, Z-Bo is still a serviceable role player. He currently is a veteran presence for the young and upcoming Sacramento Kings.
Before Jeff Hornacek roamed the sidelines as a head coach, he was a scoring guard that was designated to be the main three-point threat for Utah and Phoenix. The undersized shooting guard was one of the best spot-up shooters in the league during his time; a career 40.3 percent shooter, Hornacek is considered by many one of the more underrated players of his generation.
Drafted with the 46th pick during the 1986 draft, Jeff was viewed as a serviceable shooter off the bench and nothing more. He quickly dismissed the stigma in his third year as he averaged 13.5 points and 6.0 assists per game, solidifying himself as a starter in the NBA.
Hornacek made his only All-Star team in 1992 where he averaged a career-high 20.1 PPG on 43.9% from the three-point line.
Much like Lewis, Jermaine O’Neal was another high school player who decided to take his talent to the NBA. At the young age of 18, O’Neal made was drafted with the 17th pick of the 1996 draft where he was selected by the Portland Trailblazers.
Even with limited minutes, league personnel viewed Jermaine as a potential star that needed to be in a better situation. He was, of course, traded to the Indiana Pacers back in the summer of 2000, where his talent quickly blossomed. In his second year at Indiana, O’Neal made the first of six All-Star appearances for the franchise. Jermaine averaged 18.6 PPG and 9.6 RPG with the Pacers which included a Most Improved Player of the year award in 2001.
O’Neal also made three All-NBA teams.
Speaking of the grit-and-grind Grizzlies, Marc Gasol was another factor for the best team Memphis has ever seen. This year will be Gasol’s 11th year with the franchise, and in his first 10 years, he averaged 15.2 PPG, 7.7 RPG, and 3.3 APG to go along with three All-Star appearances and a Defensive Player of the Year to boot.
Marc was drafted 47th overall back in 2007 by the Los Angeles Lakers, he was then traded to the Memphis Grizzlies for his older brother, Pau Gasol, who helped the Lakers win their first championship in six years.
His numbers won’t jump out at you, but Marc is without a doubt one of the best centers this decade. Mix his skill, IQ, and strength, you have one of the most unique players to play the game.
Much like Hornacek, John Starks was never supposed to be as good as he was back then. Undrafted in 1988, Starks’ NBA career was off to a shaky start as he only averaged 4.1 PPG in his first year with the Golden State Warriors. The following year, Starks played overseas before making his return to the NBA for the New York Knicks.
In New York, Starks quickly became a fan favorite because he embodied the New York spirit. Fearless with a mean streak, Starks was a vital reason why the Knicks made the finals back in 1994 where he made his only All-Star appearance as he averaged 19.0 PPG and 5.9 APG.
Undersized for his position, the 6’3" shooting guard is certainly an inspiration to all the players who went undrafted.
Another member of the 1996 NBA Draft, Peja Stojakovic was drafted three spots higher than the aforementioned O’Neal. Drafted 14th overall by the Sacramento Kings, Stojakovic had a lot of promise as a shooter.
A fan favorite because of his beautiful shooting stroke, Peja made his presence known back in the 2000-01 season where he first averaged north of 20 points per game. Of course, a year later came the championship-caliber 2002 Kings, who pushed the Los Angeles Lakers to an intense seven-game series full of controversy in the Western Conference Finals.
The Croatian finally got the elusive championship ring in 2011 when he won with the Dallas Mavericks.
Peja is a career 40 percent shooter from deep and an 89 percent free throw shooter. If you told us he was the greatest shooter you have ever seen we can’t blame you; he was that good.
One of the most underrated players of his generation, Paul Millsap still continues to produce today. Just two seasons ago Millsap was an All-Star for the Atlanta Hawks at the age of 31.
Taken in the second round with the 47th overall pick, Millsap was drafted by the Utah Jazz back in 2006. In his seven years at Utah, Millsap averaged 12.4 and 7.0 RPG.
It was not until he got to Atlanta to play for the Hawks where Millsap showed he is one of the best power forwards in the NBA. In his four years at Atlanta, Millsap averaged 17.4 PPG and 8.3 RPG while making the all-star team four times out of for; he also led the Hawks to the number one seed back in 2015.
Speaking of undersized players, Dennis Rodman is arguably the greatest one yet. Standing at 6’8", Rodman somehow overcame all the odds and led the league in rebounding in seven different seasons.
Drafted with the 27th overall pick back in 1986, Rodman joined the notorious Bad Boy Pistons, where his animated personality instantly fitted right in.
Nicknamed “The Worm,” Rodman was one of the best defensive players the NBA has ever seen. Winning two Defensive Player of the Year and making it to eight All-Defensive teams, Rodman was a presence on the defensive end. In fact, there was a seven-year stretch where he averaged 16.7 rebounds per game.
All his work culminated in 2011 when he was inducted in the Naismith Hall of Fame. That's pretty darn good for the 27th pick.
Arguably the greatest undrafted player in the history of the NBA, Ben Wallace was part of the 1996 draft. Famed as the “Shaq stopper”, Wallace was a menace on the defensive end of the court and his four Defensive Player of the Year award prove that.
Similarly to Dennis Rodman, Wallace was one of the best rebounders and defenders in his time. He led the league in rebounding on two different occasions including a 15.4 RPG season back in 2003. In his nine years with the Detroit Pistons, Wallace averaged 2.3 blocks per game and 1.4 steals per game as well.
Although he had a rough start with the Washington Bullets and the Orlando Magic, the journey for Wallace was worth it as he was part of the history-making 2004 Pistons team that overcame the odds and defeated the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers.
Back in 2001, the Golden State Warriors took a sharp-shooting point guard with the 31st overall pick. Gilbert Arenas was a scoring point guard out of the University of Arizona. In Arenas’ first year he already showed flashes. He averaged double-digit scoring with 10.9 PPG to go along with 3.7 APG.
When Arenas got to Washington, it was there where he proved he was a star. In his second year for the Wizards, Arenas was already averaging 25.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG, and 5.1 APG; the following year, he averaged 29.3 PPG, and 6.1 APG, certainly one of the best scorers in the entire league.
Although the tail-end of Arenas’ career could have gone better, there is no doubt that he is one of the best draft steals of his decade.
The previously mentioned Clyde Drexler was the heir to Bill Walton as the face of the Portland Trail Blazers. Drafted 14th overall back in 1983, Drexler gained national attention in his third year where he made the All-Star team at age 23.
Drexler was often called “The Glide” because of how smooth he was in the air. Often making it on highlight plays with his acrobatic finishes, Drexler was more than a fancy dunker. In his best season during the 1997-1998 season, Drexler averaged 27.0 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 5.8 APG, and 2.5 steals per game, showcasing the all-around package
Unfortunately for Drexler, he had to play against Michael Jordan, meaning the Blazer was never considered the best shooting guard of his time.
Clyde was inducted into the Hall of Fame back in 2004.
The San Antonio Spurs has been famed for finding talents all over the draft. Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, DeJuan Blair, Tiago Splitter, Dejounte Murray, etc., were all fine picks for their draft positions but no one embodied the term “Spurs steal” better than Manu Ginobili.
Taken 57th overall back in 1999, Ginobili was an unknown coming out of Argentina. In fact the NBA didn’t even know how to properly pronounce his last name by then. But after a good showing in his first two years, Ginobili quickly became one of the craftiest players in the league; he even made the All-Star team in his third year, where he averaged 16.0 PPG and 3.9 APG.
Famous for being one of the best sixth men to ever play in the NBA, Ginobili was a two-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA member, and most importantly a four-time champion.
Kyle Lowry’s career has certainly gone through some ups and downs. On draft night back in 2006, he fell all the way to 24th to the Memphis Grizzlies, where he barely played in his rookie year. In his second year, he played all 82 games for the Grizz but he did not produce the numbers expected of him.
But all that matters is how Lowry is performing right now. And right now he plays for the Toronto Raptors, where he has made four consecutive All-Star appearances, averaging 19.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG, and 6.7 APG, while being celebrated as one of the five best point guards in the NBA.
Many believe this is Lowry and the Raptors’ best chance of making it into the finals. And if they do then Lowry is definitely worth more than the 24th pick, in fact, his last four years has proven that he should have been drafted in the top-five of his class.
The 1984 NBA Draft is heavily considered one of the, if not the, best class of all-time. Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, and Charles Barkley all spearhead the class as the best players, but at the very middle of the first round was John Stockton, a scrappy point guard out of Gonzaga who was taken 16th overall by the Utah Jazz.
Stockton revolutionized the game with his pick and roll offense with partner Karl Malone. Breaking records on both offense and defense, even to this day Stockton still leads the NBA in all-time assists and steals. In a remarkable nine-year run from 1988 to 1996, Stockton averaged 13.1 APG and 2.6 SPG to go along with 15.7 PPG.
Certainly the benchmark for greatness at his position, the blue-collar point guard was a 10-time All-Star, 11-time All-NBA player, a five-time All-Defensive player and of course, a Hall of Famer.
The situation could not have gone worse for Steve Nash when he was drafted 15th overall by the Phoenix Suns back in 1996. Playing behind not one, but two Hall of Fame players in Jason Kidd and Kevin Johnson, Nash had no chance of cracking the rotation in his first stint with the Suns.
After a couple of years, he was then traded to Dallas Mavericks where he paired with Dirk Nowitzki. In Dallas, Nash became one of the best floor generals in the NBA as he made the All-Star team twice.
It wasn’t until he returned to Phoenix when Nash made a case for being one of the five best point guards to ever play the game. Donning the purple and orange, Nash won two MVPs and made six more All-Star appearances.
Nash was certainly one of the greatest players of all time and he was taken number 15.
The last of a dying breed, Rajon Rondo is a pass-first point guard who looks to get his teammates open shots as opposed to getting a shot off by himself. Rondo led the league in assists in three different seasons, he did it twice with the Boston Celtics and once with the Sacramento Kings.
Rondo was the 21st overall pick back in 2006 by the Phoenix Suns. Rondo never played for the Suns as he was traded to the Boston Celtics where Rondo enjoyed his best years as a player.
A four-time All-Star, and a one-time NBA champion, Rajon Rondo is one of the best passers in his generation, maybe even one of the best of all time. He certainly has outplayed his 21st spot by a wide margin.
Karl Malone was the Batman to John Stockton’s Robin. The power forward was certainly the better player of the two and at one point, he was heavily considered the greatest power forward of all-time.
Drafted at the very tail end of the lottery back by the Utah Jazz in 1985, the 13th overall pick came out of the gates running. Averaging 21.7 PPG and pulling down 10.4 RPG in his second year, Malone was already viewed as the player of the future for the Jazz.
Malone averaged 25.0 PPG and 10.1 RPG in his stellar 19-year career.
The resume speaks for itself; Malone was a 14-time All-Star, 14-time All-NBA, a two-time MVP, and of course a Hall of Famer.
Was there any doubt who the number one steal is for the '90s? Kobe Bryant is a household name who broke the mainstream with his killer mentality and his greatness on the court. Taken 13th overall in the 1996 NBA Draft, Kobe was immediately traded from the Charlotte Hornets to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he spent his entire career.
If for some reason you are still not convinced, here is his resume: 18-time All-Star, two-time scoring champion, five-time NBA champion, 15-time All-NBA team, 12-time All-Defensive team, two-time Finals MVP, one-time regular season MVP, and an 81-point game to boot.
Looking back, all the teams back in 96 should have done their best to get a hold of the Black Mamba.
You got to hand it to the San Antonio Spurs; not only did they find Manu Ginobili with the 57th pick but they also took Tony Parker 28th overall back in 2001. Parker is part of the legendary Big Three over at San Antonio with Tim Duncan and the previously mentioned Manu Ginobili.
A six-time All-Star and a four-time NBA Champion, Tony Parker is a shoe-in for the hall of fame. Averaging 15.8 PPG and 5.7 APG for his career, Parker has also been the greatest basketball player to come out of France.
Although he is now a shell of his former self, Parker is still going strong entering his first year with the Charlotte Hornets and his first year away from San Antonio.
The former Finals MVP is the greatest steal to come out of the 2000s and it will take a lot to change it anytime soon.