If you're selected in the top ten of the NBA draft, chances are you're going to be a future star. A selection in the middle of the first round could point to a solid but unspectacular career and a few starting jobs, while a late first-round selection may mean off-the-bench role player status for most of your career.
But it isn't always that cut-and-dry. In fact, it seldom is. We've seen lottery picks warm the bench, and players selected beyond #20 overall turn into superstars. A lot of factors come into play, but the long and the short of it is that for every first-rounder who has a Hall of Fame-worthy career, there's a first-rounder or two who, to put it in the words of Chael Sonnen addressing Anderson Silva, absolutely sucks. And we shall now be running 'em down — all 30 NBA teams and their worst first-round picks ever.
One important thing we should get out of the way is the fact that this list is not all about high-profile lottery draft busts. Draft position plays a key role in the criteria, but so does a player's overall on-court ineptitude. For example, Stromile Swift was undeniably a draft bust as the second pick in 2000, but if you ignore his draft position, he was a decent player for most of his NBA career. Then you've got mid-first-rounders like Yinka Dare and late-first-rounders like Ndudi Ebi, who were just about as productive as your average undrafted free agent, and pretty awful on-court.
Also, we shall be taking into account draft day trades, which means someone like Troy Bell will qualify as a Memphis Grizzlies player, despite being originally drafted by the Boston Celtics. And this list is only restricted to players who played at least one NBA game, so don't expect to see Fran Vazquez or the late Len Bias included here.
30 ATLANTA HAWKS: PRIEST LAUDERDALE (#28, 1996)
If you're drafting a U.S. collegian from a non-Division I school in the first round, he'd better be really good, like Scottie Pippen. Priest Lauderdale wasn't very good, but he was very tall at 7'4", and very heavy at 325 pounds. Did we mention he wasn't very good? Oh, right. We did. But we've got to hammer that point home — Priest Lauderdale was terrible. And whoever drafted that Priest is probably still going to confession for his sin against Atlanta Hawks basketball.
He had no range, no athleticism, and his pudgy frame ensured that he'd get gassed in less than ten minutes. Hawks lottery failures Jon Koncak, DerMarr Johnson, and Shelden Williams had a higher profile, but Lauderdale had no business being selected in the 1996 draft, let alone in the first round.
29 BOSTON CELTICS: JOSEPH FORTE (#21, 2001)
He had the looks of a late-first round steal in 2001 — in two years in North Carolina, he had dominated ACC defenses and filled up the stat sheet, winning ACC Player of the Year honors in his sophomore season. But he soon showed why he may have declared for the draft a bit too early, as he couldn't find himself a pro position. Was he a shooting guard or a point guard?
As it turned out, neither turned out to be his forte in the pros, and he wasn't even an average Joe. He was plain awful. How awful? Try 1-for-12 from the field in eight games for the Celtics in 2001-02, then 10-for-35 in limited action for the Seattle SuperSonics in 2002-03. That was pretty much it for Forte's NBA run, as he spent most of his pro career playing overseas.
28 BROOKLYN NETS: YINKA DARE (#14, 1994)
With P.J. Brown thought of as a stopgap at starting center and more of a power forward, the then-New Jersey Nets thought seven-footer Yinka Dare would be the answer in the middle. Instead, the man who dominated college defenses at George Washington University turned out to be such an embarrassment in the middle that he made the likes of Chris Dudley look like Wilt Chamberlain. He even got a particularly derisive nickname from teammate Kenny Anderson — "Stinka."
The quintessential example of Dare's NBA ineptitutde came in the 1995-96 season, when he failed to register a single assist in 58 games. Beyond that, he was tentative on both ends of the floor, especially on offense, and so far removed from the time some scouts saw him as the next great Nigerian center after Hakeem Olajuwon. On a tragic note, Dare was only 31 when he died of a heart attack in 2004.
27 CHARLOTTE HORNETS: KIRK HASTON (#16, 2001)
He had the college pedigree coming into the league as a third-team All-American for Indiana, and one of the last Hoosiers coached by Bobby Knight, who departed after his sophomore year. But Kirk Haston wasn't even Austin Croshere-lite, as the Charlotte Hornets wasted a mid-first-round selection on the unathletic, ultimately uninspiring 6'9" tweener forward.
In two seasons for the Hornets, Haston had extreme difficulty getting off the bench, never seeing more than 12 minutes of action in 27 NBA games. Without the strength needed for the four or consistent enough shooting for the three, Haston was out of the NBA after just two pro seasons.
26 CHICAGO BULLS: DAVE SCHELLHASE (#10, 1966)
The Chicago Bulls' first-ever first-round pick was also their worst — how about that? To be fair, the Bulls achieved a very rare feat for an expansion team in 1966-67, making the playoffs in their maiden season. But it was largely on account of the All-Star backcourt of Guy Rodgers and future Utah Jazz coaching legend Jerry Sloan, not their disappointing first-rounder, first-team NCAA All-American Dave Schellhase.
Schellhase was a 6'3" college small forward who burned the nets to the tune of 32 ppg at Purdue, but he wasn't able to adjust to his pro position of shooting guard, and averaged just 2.8 ppg in two pro seasons. He later turned to college coaching, where he had much more success than he did in his brief NBA stint.
25 CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: CHUCKIE WILLIAMS (#15, 1976)
No, it's not Anthony Bennett, though he makes a good case for being the worst of all time, despite having only been drafted in 2012. It's not 2004 first-rounder Luke Jackson either. The Cleveland Cavaliers' worst first-rounder ever was someone from their earlier years, a shooting guard from Kansas State named Chuckie Williams.
A long-range shooter and big-time scorer drafted to provide depth behind Austin Carr, Williams was a "shoot first, ask questions later" type who played a grand total of 65 minutes in 22 NBA games. He probably should have asked a question or two, as he made just 14 of 47 shot attempts — 29.8 percent if you haven't done the math.
24 DALLAS MAVERICKS: BILL GARNETT (#4, 1982)
First off, let's address the elephant in the room — Bill and Kevin Garnett are not related. The latter is a future Hall of Famer and one of the best power forwards in modern NBA history, a fifth-overall pick well spent. The former was picked fourth overall in 1982, and aside from 1982 being a poor year for rookie big men, it still boggles the mind as to why the Mavericks went the mid-major route with such a high pick.
The Mavs could have gone with LaSalle Thompson if they needed help at center, but instead went with Garnett, who lasted just four years in the NBA and couldn't earn a regular starting job. If it's any consolation, Dallas picked fourth again in 1984, and went with the right big man that time around, selecting Sam Perkins right after the Bulls got his North Carolina teammate, a certain Michael Jordan.
23 DENVER NUGGETS: JAMES EARL RAY (#5, 1980)/NIKOLOZ TSKITISHVILI (#5, 2002)
It's bad enough that he fully shared a name with Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassin. But this James Earl Ray was a reach at fifth overall in 1980, and couldn't beat out fellow rookie (and 1979 third-rounder) Cedrick Hordges for minutes at power forward for the Denver Nuggets. If you can't beat out such an obscure name as Hordges for a starting job, you're likely toast in the NBA, and that's what he was in three benchwarming years in Denver.
Twenty-two years later, the Nuggets were picking fifth once again, and they thought they had the next Dirk Nowitzki in Nikoloz Tskitishvili. Instead, they got a guy with an impossible-to-spell name and an impossible-to-improve game. Supposedly a great shooter for a seven-footer, Skita (now that's more like it) averaged just 2.9 points per game and shot an abysmal 30.4 percent from the field in four NBA seasons.
22 DETROIT PISTONS: MATEEN CLEAVES (#14, 2000)
What could have gone wrong here? Mateen Cleaves was as close as the Pistons could get to a hometown hero. A winner in high school at Flint and in college at Michigan State, the starting point guard job was virtually gift-wrapped for Cleaves, but he was beaten out by the incumbent Chucky Atkins, whom the Pistons brought back home from the European leagues the season prior.
That was as good as it got for Cleaves, who left Detroit after his rookie year and barely left the bench in stints with the Sacramento Kings, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Seattle SuperSonics. Again, he was a big winner in high school and college with great leadership skills. But as he showed upon reaching the NBA, he just didn't have any other pro-level point guard skills or tools to speak of.
21 GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS: CHRIS WASHBURN (#3, 1986)
You can almost say that the Warriors have been cursed as a donut team for the most part ever since Wilt Chamberlain headed back to Philadelphia in the middle of the 1964-65 season. They've tried several times to draft a good center since then, often failing — see Todd Fuller, Adonal Foyle, and Patrick O'Bryant for some classic examples. But none disappointed on the same level as Chris Washburn, who had the height, heft, and physical tools to be an NBA star. He also had a poor work ethic and a nasty drug habit.
After two underwhelming starts, Washburn was sent to the bench early in the 1986-87 season, and he'd remain there in one year each with Golden State and Atlanta. The NBA banned him for life in 1989 after he flunked three drug tests in three years, and he struggled to get clean for years after leaving the NBA.
20 HOUSTON ROCKETS: ROYCE WHITE (#16, 2012)
Oh, was he an interesting prospect — a 6'8"-270 point forward. Yes, you read that right. Royce White was officially a power forward, but he was such a good passer you could consider him a point forward, and the Houston Rockets did need some help at the four, which is why they picked him 16th in the 2012 draft. But White's anxiety disorder was so debilitating he missed the entirety of his rookie year, and he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers the year after, then cut by the Sixers before the start of 2013-14. Was this guy ever going to play in the NBA?
He eventually did, and had one of the quickest careers for a first-rounder in NBA history — three games, nine minutes, one missed shot and two fouls for the Sacramento Kings. He's only 25, so who knows — maybe it's not too late for him to begin his NBA career in earnest.
19 INDIANA PACERS: SCOTT HASKIN (#14, 1993)
Don't get them mixed up: Scott Hastings is a mediocre NBA center who had a long career because of his size. Scott Haskin is a terrible NBA center who had a short career despite of his size. While the pickings at center were rather slim (Luther Wright or Acie Earl, anyone?) for the Pacers at #14 in the 1993 draft, they could have reached for Ervin Johnson and made the pick count. Then again, they probably didn't need a center anyway, as this was, after all, the heyday of the Dunking Dutchman, Rik Smits.
Haskin could have given the Pacers the rebounding Smits had often lacked in his successful NBA career. But he was a garden-variety slow and hulking center who may have been worth a flyer early in the second round, but not in the middle of the first.
18 LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: YAROSLAV KOROLEV (#12, 2005)
The one thing that stuck out about Yaroslav Korolev ahead of the 2005 draft was how well he spoke English compared to the average European prospect. He did have some impressive ball-handling and passing skills for a 6'9" small forward, but most scouts had cautiously pegged him as a late first-rounder due to his age (18) and lack of elite competition. Not the L.A. Clippers, though, who reached for him at 12th overall.
Like many other young Europeans selected early in the draft as teams searched for the next Dirk Nowitzki or Pau Gasol-type success story, Korolev flopped in the NBA. But he was probably the biggest flop of them all, playing just 34 games and averaging less than five minutes in two forgettable seasons. He promptly headed back to Russia after his NBA stint, and announced his retirement last month at the tender age of 29.
17 LOS ANGELES LAKERS: EARL JONES (#23, 1984)
Earl Jones' journey to the NBA is an interesting one indeed. A dominant high school center, he chose to attend a Division II school (University of the District of Columbia), where he naturally put up gaudy stats. But as it turned out, this 7'0"-210 beanpole of a man had zero court awareness and no passion for the game (according to former teammate James Worthy), and parlayed that into an ignominious 14-game stint with the Showtime Lakers.
Jeff Pearlman's excellent 2014 book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty has its share of hilarious Earl Jones stories, so if it's something, he was quite the character during his brief NBA run, even if he wasn't much of a player.
16 MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES: TROY BELL (#16, 2003)/HASHEEM THABEET (#2, 2009)
Bad draft picks come in all shapes and sizes. Just take a look at this tie entry. Troy Bell was actually a Boston Celtics draft pick traded to the Grizzlies on draft day, and at 6'1", he was quite the diminutive scoring machine (25+ ppg as a senior) for Boston College. But he was limited to just six games in his sole NBA season, on account of two things — he was way, way, WAY too short for the two, and way too lacking as a floor leader to play the one.
The second half of this entry, Hasheem Thabeet, had many thinking Dikembe Mutombo when the Grizzlies picked him second overall in 2009. Instead, they got a slightly-upgraded, taller version of DJ Ilunga-Mbenga, a 7'3" stiff who could block some shots, but do little else. Not to mention, the most disappointing top two draft pick until Anthony Bennett came along four years later.
15 MIAMI HEAT: TIM JAMES (#25, 1999)
A true hometown hero, Tim James starred at Miami Northwestern in high school and had a stellar career at the University of Miami. But for a relatively young NBA team that hasn't had too many first-round duds, James was ironically the biggest dud in Miami Heat history, playing just four games for the Heat as a third-string small forward, then warming the bench for the (old) Hornets and the Sixers and playing the rest of his pro career overseas.
James is best-known not for his limited success in the NBA, but rather for his military service, which included a tour of duty in Iraq. He currently serves as head coach for Vance-Granville Community College in North Carolina.
14 MILWAUKEE BUCKS: JOE ALEXANDER (#8, 2008)
One would think Kent Benson deserves this "honor" for being one of the most disappointing first-overall picks of all time. Or what about the late Robert Traylor, whom the Bucks got in a draft day trade that sent their original first-rounder, Dirk Nowitzki, to the Dallas Mavericks? Not him either. That's because the Bucks were blinded by Joe Alexander's athleticism and picked him eighth overall in the 2008 draft. That same day, Richard Jefferson joined Milwaukee via trade, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out who won the starting small forward job.
With loads of hops and loads of holes in his game, Alexander was gone from the Bucks midway through what was supposed to be his second pro season. He hasn't played in the NBA since an even more unremarkable eight-game stint with the Chicago Bulls in 2010.
13 MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES: NDUDI EBI (#26, 2003)
In 2003, two things were really in style when it came to the NBA draft — drafting European prospects and drafting high schoolers. It was hit-or-miss in both cases, and for the Minnesota Timberwolves, they were hoping they'd luck out like they did with Kevin Garnett when they chose Ndudi Ebi 26th-overall. Not exactly where you'd be expecting the next KG, but you'd at least hope he'd turn out to be decent, right?
Instead of a decent player, the T-Wolves got someone who was rawer than sushi, and they ended up fielding him in just 19 games in two seasons. Hey, at least he got to average 13.5 points and 8.0 rebounds in his second year...with the obvious caveat being the fact that he posted those averages in two no-bearing late-season games.
12 NEW ORLEANS PELICANS: JULIAN WRIGHT (#13, 2007)
Due to the former Charlotte Bobcats and 1988-2001 Charlotte Hornets sharing team history and records, there's not much to choose from here. But few draft picks disappointed in the Big Easy as much as Julian Wright did. He was a high school stud with versatility and athleticism, as well as the ability to play multiple positions. And while he was inconsistent in two years with Kansas, he had enough potential to warrant the 13th overall pick in the 2007 draft.
Alas, Wright couldn't find a pro position to excel in, and he was still maddeningly inconsistent in three years with the then-New Orleans Hornets. A year with the Raptors offered more of the same, and Wright has bounced around in the European leagues since then.
11 NEW YORK KNICKS: TOM STITH (#2, 1961)
The oldest example in this list, Tom Stith was virtually unstoppable at St. Bonaventure University, averaging 31.5 points as a junior and 29.6 as a senior. As such, the home state New York Knicks thought he'd make a sound selection at second overall in the 1961 draft, and probably had him in mind as a future starter at small forward.
Stith missed all of his rookie year, and was only able to suit up in 1962-63, but he was so rusty he ended up third in the SF depth chart behind future Hall of Famer Tom Gola and journeyman Dave Budd. After 25 games, he contracted tuberculosis, and never played in another NBA game. Scouting may have been in its prehistoric days back in the early-'60s, but given how unremarkable and brief Stith's career was, he was a draft bust way before the term became in vogue.
10 OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: RICH KING (#14, 1991)
First, the good news — the Oklahoma City Thunder haven't had a truly bad first-round pick, though D-League mainstay Josh Huestis is quite close to getting there. The bad news? They had their fair share of bad first-rounders in their previous incarnation as the Seattle SuperSonics. And while Robert Swift, Mouhamed Sene, and Danny Vranes all make good cases for being the worst Sonics first-rounder ever, they're all edged out by another big man — 7'2" center Rich King.
Height was the only asset King brought to the table as a 1991 mid-first-rounder. He was soft, poorly-coordinated, and made less than 40 percent of his shots in four NBA seasons — inexcusable if you're as tall as he is. Indeed, the SuperSonics were poorer for having selected Rich King so early in the 1991 draft.
9 ORLANDO MAGIC: GEERT HAMMINK (#26, 1994)
Geert Hammink had the unenviable task of replacing Shaquille O'Neal as LSU's starting center. And it did make some sense for the Orlando Magic to use a late first-round pick on the seven-foot Dutchman in 1993, thus allowing Hammink to reprise his usual role as Shaq's backup. Though many saw him as a project and a reach, it wasn't like he had much competition for second string — how about Greg Kite and the ancient Tree Rollins as Shaq's other caddies for 1993-94?
In the end, Hammink was too slow on the floor and too soft as a rebounder and defender, and played in a grand total of eight NBA games over three seasons, including one each for the Magic in 1993-94 and 1994-95. Now you know why Kite and Rollins still got minutes behind Shaq despite their myriad limitations.
8 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS: MONTI DAVIS (#21, 1980)
It would be too easy to mention someone like Shawn Bradley, but if you come to think of it, he wasn't really that bad if you discount the fact he was picked second overall in 1993. Instead, we're going way back to 1980, when the Sixers drafted undersized (6'7"-205) power forward Monti Davis out of Tennessee State with a late first-round selection.
While Davis was quite the rebounder in college, he couldn't make his game translate to the pros, and he lasted just one game before Philadelphia cut him in October 1980. He then signed a ten-day contract with the expansion Dallas Mavericks, played one game, and never saw action in the NBA again. Sadly, Davis died in 2013 at the age of 54, and not much is known about him apart from what we told you above.
7 PHOENIX SUNS: WILLIAM BEDFORD (#6, 1986)
The 1986 NBA draft came with its fair share of drug washouts, including the aforementioned Chris Washburn and second-overall pick Len Bias, who fatally overdosed just days after he was drafted. Then you've also got William Bedford, a legit seven-footer and college All-American who was picked at sixth overall as Alvan Adams' heir apparent at center for the Phoenix Suns. He did play well in a few rookie starts, but six seasons and a year in rehab later, he was out of the NBA.
Bedford did win an NBA championship with the Detroit Pistons as a backup to Bill Laimbeer, but his drug habit prevented him from having any sort of success in the NBA. As of the 2010s, he's clean and sober, though it did take him decades, which included eight years out of a ten-year jail sentence, to finally get there.
6 PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS: LARUE MARTIN (#1, 1972)
LaRue Martin had only one claim to fame as a 6'11" center from Loyola-Chicago — he outplayed Bill Walton when Loyola faced UCLA. Not even discounting the possibility of a fluke, the Portland Trail Blazers chose Martin ahead of Bob McAdoo in the 1972 draft, despite McAdoo being a virtual no-brainer for top selection that year. McAdoo went second overall, won Rookie of the Year, and won multiple scoring titles in the '70s. Martin, on the other hand, ended up as fellow rookie Lloyd Neal's backup. Yes, that Lloyd Neal who stood just 6'7" yet jumped center for the Blazers.
In a delicious bit of irony, Martin was still with Portland in 1974, when the Blazers got it right and selected Walton first-overall. No prizes if you guess who started and who came off the bench.
5 SACRAMENTO KINGS: KEN DURRETT (#4, 1971)
Lionel Simmons was a small forward from La Salle with ridiculously good college numbers who was a high draft pick by the Sacramento Kings. He was pretty good in the pros till injuries slowed him down. But many years before that, Ken Durrett was a high Cincinnati Royals draft pick, also from La Salle, and also with big (27 ppg, 12 rpg) college numbers. He wasn't good at all in the pros.
Like Simmons, Durrett also had injury problems, but this time, they dated back to college, and the then-Cincinnati Royals thought he would overcome them in the NBA. Instead, he hobbled his way through four uninspiring pro seasons, with averages of 4 points and 1.9 rebounds. You'd expect much, much more from a fourth-overall pick.
4 SAN ANTONIO SPURS: ALFREDRICK HUGHES (#14, 1985)
This dude with two first names in one was drafted 14th overall in 1985 after a high-scoring, high-leaping four years at Loyola-Chicago, as the San Antonio Spurs were looking for someone to replace the recently-traded (and past-his-prime) George Gervin. One-dimensional as he turned out to be, the man who alternately went by Rick, Alfred, and Alfredrick in his pro career seemed to be putting it together midway through his rookie year. But toward the end of 1985-86, he was an afterthought on the bench as the Spurs fought for a playoff spot.
With scoring being his only NBA asset, Hughes was cut after his rookie year, and spent the rest of his pro career playing in the U.S. minor leagues, in Europe, and as this writer still remembers because of his unique name, the Philippines.
3 TORONTO RAPTORS: RAFAEL ARAUJO (#8, 2004)
He was big, burly, and powerful in the middle, a 6'11"-280 beast who seemed like a polished prospect as the first senior drafted in 2004. But BYU big man Rafael Araujo came with a couple of red flags — a steroid violation in 2002, and a dirty attack on tiny (5'9") UNLV guard Jerel Blassingame in his senior season. It also didn't help that Utah center Andrew Bogut often outplayed him despite being a freshman when Araujo was a senior.
Unswayed by those red flags and intrigued by his size, Toronto picked Araujo eighth overall in 2004, as Hoffa easily became the Raptors' worst first-rounder ever. He couldn't shoot (40.5 percent career FG shooting), couldn't block shots, and committed a ton of fouls, and was unsurprisingly finished as an NBA player after three painful seasons.
2 UTAH JAZZ: LUTHER WRIGHT (#18, 1993)
As you've noticed now that we're close to the end of this article, a lot of these picks were selected in 1993. Sure, the 1993 draft gave us Chris Webber, Penny Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn, Vin Baker, and Allan Houston, but a lot of the players selected after the lottery weren't worth 10-day contracts after they showed how bad they were in the NBA. Our latest case in point is Luther Wright, the 18th pick in 1993 and someone the Utah Jazz hoped would replace Mark Eaton at center.
Instead of getting a dominant 7'2" rebounder and shot blocker, the Jazz got an out-of-shape 300-pounder who lasted just 15 games and played just six minutes a game before getting cut. The weight problems that plagued him in college were back with a vengeance, but on a sad note, his NBA career actually ended when he left the Jazz midway through the 1993-94 season due to his bipolar disorder.
1 WASHINGTON WIZARDS: JAN VESELY (#6, 2011)
Do a Google search for Jan Vesely and the first suggestion you'll find is "Jan Vesely wife." Isn't that post-draft selection smooch he shared with his pretty girlfriend the only thing most of us remember about this rather recent Euro-bust? If so, allow us to jog your memory. Expectations were quite high for Vesely, an athletic seven-footer who showed lots of potential on defense, but a lack of shooting range, and a lack of improvement in three NBA seasons with the Wizards and Nuggets.
Vesely is only 26, so there's an outside chance he'll emerge out of nowhere and live up to his draft hype. But with the Airwolf now playing in the Turkish leagues and seemingly quite happy there, he remains one of the biggest draft busts in Washington Wizards history, keeping some good company with Kwame Brown, Calbert Cheaney, and Tom Hammonds.