There’s always a certain level of excitement and optimism tied to having the lottery balls fall your team’s way and earning the right to draft first overall. But while that first pick obviously offers the greatest chance at a game-changing, franchise-boosting superstar to join the ranks, getting a new franchise cornerstone with the No. 1 selection can feel more like luck than savvy drafting. In most years, after all, fans, analysts and mock drafters alike have already established a clear favorite to be tabbed with the top pick, even as the team holding said pick keeps things close to the vest.
That’s why it’s decidedly more rewarding to find a diamond in the rough later on in the draft. Sure, you might not get that bonafide, blue chip stud that instantly infuses hope, but it’s worth remembering that the team that picks first is likely far more bereft of talent than the one picking later on in the round. If you can add a promising young talent to a roster that is already both skilled and proven, that’s how a general manager can forge a reputation. Of course, if it was as easy as simply identifying an under-the-radar future superstar and snapping him up, then every GM would be lauded as a genius. Finding that rare star who remains available deep into the draft takes a combination of keen-eyed insight from one GM and a distinct lack of it from a number of other teams’ talent evaluators. This can prove even more elusive in an era where no stone is unturned in researching widely available video, stats and scouting information on prospects entering the league.
Even in an era of endless scouting data, mistakes are made. Draft busts are selected too high and productive, NBA ready contributors are taken too low. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was selected with the No. 15 pick of the 2013 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks, looks poised to become the best player in what was an admittedly weak draft year and represents a recent example of an elite prospect that somehow fell through the cracks. Over time, though, every team manages to find an Antetokounmpo of their own.
Here are the biggest draft steals from each NBA franchise:
29 Atlanta Hawks: Kevin Willis (No. 11, 1984)
The Hawks of the 1980s and early 90s were defined primarily by their gravity-defying superstar, Dominique Wilkins. But the electric nine-time All-Star couldn’t do it alone. During a stretch that saw Atlanta reach the Conference Semifinals in three consecutive seasons (they could never surpass Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics or the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons), it was Kevin Willis who remained active on the boards as the club’s leading rebounder, not to mention a physical enforcer who had Wilkins’ back amidst some testy opposition.
Willis shared a place in the historic 1984 draft class, taken well after Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan came off the board but before John Stockton was selected. He would play nine years in Atlanta, including one All-Star campaign in 1992, before making nine more stops around the league, including an NBA title in Houston and a brief return to Atlanta as the oldest player in the league.
28 Boston Celtics: Danny Ainge (No. 31, 1981)
Few questioned BYU prospect Danny Ainge after he enjoyed All-American honors and a WAC Player of the Year award during a standout four-year college career. What gave NBA evaluators pause, however, was his status as a two-sport star, sharing his love of basketball with a deep passion for baseball. In fact, he had already been under contract with the Toronto Blue Jays for four years and even reached the big leagues while still in college when he decided to give up baseball and make himself eligible for the 1981 NBA Draft.
The Boston Celtics were willing to navigate some potentially choppy waters in getting Ainge out of his MLB contract and into the NBA, using the 31st pick that they had acquired in a previous blockbuster deal with the then-San Diego Clippers. After Boston completed the buyout, they were rewarded handsomely with another key cog in a Celtics’ core that included Bird, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson. Ainge won two NBA titles while playing for the Celtics and was named to the 1988 All-Star Game. He would move onto other NBA destinations in his career, but would cycle back as an executive and remains the team’s current general manager.
27 Brooklyn Nets: Ryan Anderson (No. 21, 2008)
In hindsight, it’s hard to believe that a 6’10” sharpshooter would be overlooked as long as Cal standout Ryan Anderson was in entering the NBA in 2008. As a Golden Bear, he averaged 18.7 points and nine rebounds per game over two seasons, including leading the Pac-10 in scoring during his sophomore campaign. Plus, his combination of size and shooting serves as a highly valued asset in today’s’ NBA, helping him secure a four-year, $80 million contract from the Houston Rockets this past summer.
Over nine NBA seasons, Anderson seems to have fallen short of stardom but has settled into a formidable career as a solid starting-caliber player. He has served as an effective floor-stretcher during stops in Orlando, New Orleans and Houston after spending just one year in New Jersey (this was before the Nets were in Brooklyn) before being traded in the Vince Carter deal. As of present time, his 6,498 career points would place him 9th in his 2008 draft class, ahead of higher drafter players like Michael Beasley (No. 2) and Danilo Galinari (No. 6).
26 Charlotte Hornets: Kobe Bryant (No. 13, 1996)
It seems like a pretty obvious no-brainer to include Kobe Bryant, who was drafted out of Lower Merion High School with the 13th pick of the 1996 NBA Draft, as one of the biggest steals in the history of the league’s selection process. However, the details surrounding the drafting of the future Black Mamba have become somewhat muddled in retrospect.
First, there is the matter of which organization drafted Bryant, since the Charlotte Hornets that drafted him aren’t the same ones that exist today. But when those Hornets moved to New Orleans and Charlotte returned to the NBA as the Bobcats, the new Charlotte franchise was ultimately gifted the Hornets name and, with it, their entire history. Furthermore, that history includes the embarrassing indignity of actually trading Bryant to the Lakers on draft night for Vlade Divac, thereby making this a rather dubious distinction.
25 Chicago Bulls: Toni Kukoc (No. 29, 1990)
Although Taj Gibson (26th overall in 2009) continues to try and make his case for biggest draft steal in Chicago Bulls history, the honor currently belongs to Toni Kukoc, a key contributor to the MJ-led Bulls’ dynasty of the 1990s. Modern NBA teams would lose their minds at the prospect of a sharp-shooting and slick-passing European big man who can play all five positions on the floor, but Kukoc still fell to the second round in 1990.
When he finally reported to the Bulls in 1993, Jordan had just retired but Kukoc still managed to contribute off the bench to a club that reached the Eastern Conference semifinals. Soon thereafter, Jordan returned and the Croatia native found himself serving as a super-sub during three consecutive title runs. He even won Sixth Man of the Year honors in 1996 after averaging 13.1 points per game while shooting 49% off the bench.
24 Cleveland Cavaliers: Carlos Boozer (No. 35, 2002)
Assuming that Carlos Boozer’s NBA days are behind him (he signed on to play in China this past summer), the Duke star leaves behind something of a mixed legacy thanks to a career that veered from very good to unproductive. After two solid seasons, his tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers was mired in controversy on account of a free agency fiasco in which he was granted restricted free agency for the purposes of signing an extension with the Cavs, only to spurn them in favor of a bigger offer in Utah.
Boozer’s seasons with the Jazz were some of his best, particularly as he led them to the 2007 Western Conference Finals and was named to two All-Star teams. From there, however, his reputation came to associate more with being an expensive and injury-prone bust during stops in Chicago and Los Angeles. Still, 861 games and a 16.2 PPG career scoring average (along with 9.5 RPG) makes for a pretty productive playing career for a second round pick.
23 Dallas Mavericks: Mark Price (No. 25, 1986)
Everyone remembers the 1998 draft day trade that brought Dirk Nowitzki to the Dallas Mavericks for NBA tragic figure Robert Traylor, but less is made of the lopsided draft day trade made by the Mavs 12 years earlier. In a move that Dallas would probably like to forget, they drafted Mark Price in the second round of the 1986 Draft, only to flip him to Cleveland for a 1989 second rounder (Jeff Hodge was later selected).
Price would be one of the few shining lights in an otherwise dreary draft year. Best known for the tragic death of No. 2 pick Len Bias, the 1986 draft produced exactly one All-Star (No. 1 pick Brad Daugherty) among the first 23 selections. From that point, however, came an unlikely run of standout players, including Price, Arvydas Sabonis, Dennis Rodman and, later, Jeff Hornacek. Price starred in Cleveland, being named to four All-Star games and making four All-NBA teams.
22 Denver Nuggets: Rudy Gobert (No. 27, 2013)
The only thing that the Denver Nuggets seem to do better than using high draft choices on international busts (we hardly knew ye, Raef LaFrentz and Nikoloz Tskitishvili) is to draft productive NBA players for other teams. In recent years, Brent Barry, Jameer Nelson, Jarrett Jack, Rudy Gobert and Doug McDermott are just some of the players to have popped on a Nuggets ball cap on draft night, only to never suit up for them. Of the aforementioned names, it is the 7’1” defensive force known as The Stifle Tower that particularly stings.
After drafting him with the No. 27 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, the Nuggets traded the rights to Gobert to the Jazz for Erick Green (No. 46 in 2013) and cash considerations. While Green has 52 career NBA games to his credit, Gobert has become a franchise cornerstone in Utah and one of the best rim protectors in the league. On Halloween, the big Frenchman signed a four-year contract extension that will pay him $102 million.
21 Detroit Pistons: Dennis Rodman (No. 27. 1986)
To the surprise of absolutely no one who has followed the NBA over the past three decades, Dennis Rodman was basically a walking red flag upon entering the NBA in 1986. Sure, he had led the NAIA in rebounding twice while at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, but he was undersized at 6’7” and had built up a resume against some questionable collegiate competition after not having the grades or talent to generate NCAA interest.
The Detroit Pistons, who had come to be intrigued by Rodman after seeing him win MVP honors at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, were happily waiting with the No. 27 pick after 26 other teams passed. He fit well within the framework of a team that had come to be known as the “Bad Boys” for their rough-and-tumble style of play. Rodman immediately made an impact on the floor and off, winning two NBA Championships with Detroit and generating headlines for suggesting that Larry Bird was overrated because he was white. Detroit, who later retired Rodman’s No. 10 jersey, marked the first stop of The Worm’s Hall of Fame career.
20 Golden State Warriors: Draymond Green (No. 35, 2012)
In this era of endless data, video and information on draft-eligible prospects, players like Draymond Green aren’t supposed to slip through the cracks. Of course, before anyone could see the high octane Golden State Warriors coming, Green’s 6’7” frame proved to be an obstacle that many NBA scouts just couldn’t overcome in their assessment of him. He would eventually land in Golden State with the No. 35 pick, although not before even the Warriors had already used two earlier picks on other players (Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli, neither of whom remain with the team).
Fast forward four years and Green has come to exemplify the modern NBA. He isn’t a power forward in any traditional sense, but that hasn’t stopped the Michigan State alum from being named to two All-Defensive first teams, an All-NBA second team and the 2016 All-Star Game. From a team standpoint, there’s also been the 2015 title Green was integral in helping the Warriors win and the club’s record-setting 73-win season, of which Green started 81 games.
19 Houston Rockets: Calvin Murphy (No. 18, 1970)
Younger Rocket fans would probably point to their drafting of Chandler Parsons (38th in 2011) or Nicolas Batum (25th in 2008) as examples of finding value with later picks. However, fans of a certain vintage will recall Calvin Murphy, the diminutive point guard out of Niagara University who would defy height-based expectations with a Hall of Fame career.
Murphy enjoyed three-time All-American status at Niagara, but still found himself overlooked going into the 1970 NBA Draft. His 5’9” frame clearly played a role in leading him to last until the first pick (18th overall) of the second round. It didn’t take long for Murphy to begin proving scouts wrong, however. Alongside fellow Rockets’ draftee Rudy Tomjanovich, Murphy made the All-Rookie First Team to kick off a 13-year career in which he also set the all-time franchise scoring mark before it was broken by Hakeem Olajuwon. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993 and had his No. 23 retired by the Rockets.
18 Indiana Pacers: Antonio Davis (No. 45, 1990)
The Pacers offer plenty of interesting draft steal options over the course of their history, including Travis Best (No. 23 in 1995), Al Harrington (No 25 in 1998) and Danny Granger (No. 17 in 2005). But it was the second round steal of Antonio Davis in 1990 that helped further bolster a roster that would be in title contention for the better part of the mid-nineties. Between 1987 and 1991, Indiana added Davis, Reggie Miller, Rik Smits and Dale Davis through the draft, forming the core of a team that would win 11 playoff series between 1993 and 2000.
Davis was a frontcourt fixture during his time in Indy up until a 1999 trade sent him to Toronto. He, along with the other Davis (not related) provided some muscle and toughness inside for a team defined by their sharp-shooting star, Miller. He gained an even larger role upon being sent to the Raptors, serving as the No. 2 option to Vince Carter and even getting invited to the All-Star Game in 2001.
17 Los Angeles Clippers: DeAndre Jordan (No. 35, 2008)
There must be something about that 35th pick. Within a 10-year period between 2002 and 2012, the No. 35 pick was used on future stars Carlos Boozer, DeAndre Jordan and Draymond Green, not to mention a steady veteran power forward in P.J. Tucker and the immortal Glen “Big Baby” Davis. Although Green has become an integral cog in the elite Warriors machine, Jordan might be the best of the bunch.
Free throw issues aside, it is hard to see how so many teams whiffed on the Los Angeles Clippers star. Whispers about maturity issues plagued the 6’11” big man coming out of Texas A&M, prompting a draft stock plummet that saw him fall from lottery potential to being out of the first round entirely. The Clips happily stopped his slide and have been reaping the benefits ever since. Jordan has served alongside Chris Paul and Blake Griffin as one of the cornerstones of Lob City, being named to two All-Defensive teams and finishing first in the NBA in both rebounds and field goal percentage a few times.
16 Los Angeles Lakers: Nick Van Exel (No. 37, 1993)
For as rich and storied a franchise as the Los Angeles Lakers are, it comes as no surprise that there are a number of viable contenders for biggest draft steal. Though better known for acquiring their superstar talent through trade or free agency, the draft has brought them coveted blue chippers like Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Magic Johnson while also bringing in later gems like Norm Nixon, A.C. Green, Vlade Divac, Derek Fisher and Marc Gasol.
You could make a number of arguments for the biggest draft steal in Lakers’ history, but we're going to go with 1998 All-Star Nick Van Exel, who lasted until the 37th pick of the 1993 NBA Draft before being snapped up by Los Angeles. Though he had the misfortune of coming along too late for the Showtime era and too early for the Kobe/Shaq era, he still anchored a Lakers squad that reached the postseason in four consecutive years before he moved onto Denver.
15 Memphis Grizzlies: Kyle Lowry (No. 24, 2006)
Tracing back the short and rather unremarkable history of the Vancouver / Memphis Grizzlies franchise doesn’t yield a great deal of elite basketball talent that has been drafted, either with an early or late pick. Even current franchise star Marc Gasol only came into the fold when his draft rights were dealt to Memphis in exchange for his brother, Pau. Still, for every draft bust like Bryant “Big Country” Reeves and Hasheem Thabeet, there has been a solid late round grab of Matt Barnes, Kendrick Perkins and DeMarre Carroll.
To date, the Grizzlies franchise has only drafted two multi-time All-Stars that actually played for them. One was Steve Francis, who was selected second overall and soon proved to be a headache for the team while they were in Vancouver. The other was Kyle Lowry, a heavy-set guard out of Villanova taken 24th in the 2006 draft. In Memphis, Lowry found himself sliding down the point guard pecking order when the team drafted Mike Conley with the fourth overall pick one year later. He would not realize his full potential until joining the Raptors six years after being drafted.
14 Miami Heat: Caron Butler (No. 10, 2002)
Let’s call a spade a spade – the Miami Heat have a horrendous draft history. Outside of nabbing Steve Smith and then Dwyane Wade with the No. 5 pick, Miami’s track record at the draft, among the picks they haven’t traded away anyway, has produced a litany of middling bench players and those who have lived on the fringe of the NBA, if at all. Prior to taking Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson in what looks like a strong 2015 draft haul, the Heat had gotten all of eight games out of their previous six draft choices.
You wouldn’t typically consider a player selected with a top 10 pick to be a steal, but that’s about as low as Miami has ever gotten consistent, standout production, at least unless Richardson morphs into a star in the coming years. Caron Butler was snapped up with the 10th pick in the 2002 draft, still available after the selection of notable busts like Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Dajuan Wagner. Butler paid immediate dividends for the Heat, being named to the All-Rookie team. The future All-Star would later serve Miami well as a trade asset, becoming a key cog in the Shaquille O’Neal deal two years later.
13 Milwaukee Bucks: Alex English (No. 23, 1976)
The Milwaukee Bucks of the early 1980s were a perennial powerhouse, reaching the Conference Finals in three of four seasons thanks to Sidney Moncrief, Marques Johnson and the coaching of Don Nelson. Still, it had to be tough for Bucks fans to be left to wonder if Alex English, the league’s offensive dynamo at the time, would have helped them get over the hump against the Philadelphia 76ers or Boston Celtics.
Once the 23rd pick of the 1976 NBA Draft, English had spent two unremarkable seasons in Milwaukee before the club elected to trade him to Indiana, where his scoring averaged promptly spiked and he showed flashes of the superstar he’d become. As Milwaukee was going deep in the playoff in the early eighties, English had moved onto Denver and was now routinely leading the league in scoring, capped off by a 28.4 point per game average in the 1982-83 season. The eight-time NBA All-Star was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997 and remains 18th on the all-time NBA scoring list.
12 Minnesota Timberwolves: Nikola Pekovic (No. 31, 2008)
Much is made of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2009 draft, when GM David Kahn bizarrely picked point guards with consecutive top 10 selections, neither of whom were Steph Curry, who remained on the board. While those decisions deserve their rightful mocking, the focus on 2009 obscures what was a remarkably strong 2008 draft, when the T’Wolves swapped O.J. Mayo for Kevin Love and then used second round picks to add Nikola Pekovic and Mario Chalmers (later traded).
Love was obviously the centerpiece of that draft haul, but it has been Pekovic that has remained in Minnesota all these years later. Though the addition of Karl-Anthony Towns has significantly cut into his role with the Wolves, Pekovic continues to be a tough interior force in Minnesota. Just two years removed from a season in which he averaged 17.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, the Serbian big man is now used sparingly off the bench, but could bring value as a trade asset down the line.
New Orleans Hornets: David West (No. 18, 2003)
There is no better way for a newly relocated franchise to jumpstart its presence in a new city than to draft well and the New Orleans Hornets absolutely nailed their first few drafts after moving from Charlotte. Over the first three drafts after setting up shop in the Big Easy, the Hornets selected David West, J.R. Smith, Chris Paul and Brandon Bass, all of whom are still in the NBA. Yes, Paul is the biggest difference-maker of the four by a wide margin, but the other three were all taken outside the lottery, making them better value given their draft position.
Of the aforementioned trio, West has arguably enjoyed the best career. The first draft choice in franchise history still owns the franchise record in games, rebounds and points, at least until Anthony Davis overtakes him in every category. Although he is far removed from his back-to-back All-Star appearances in 2008 and 2009, West remains a valuable veteran contributor to championship-contending teams, having played for the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors over the past two seasons.
11 New York Knicks: David Lee (No. 30, 2005)
Few NBA players are as under-appreciated as poor David Lee, who came to be unfairly defined by a lucrative contract signed with the Golden State Warriors that he struggled to live up to. Now 33, Lee has actually cobbled together a rather impressive career resume in the NBA, twice being invited to the All-Star Game, once making the All-NBA third team and even being a part of the Warriors’ 2015 title-winning team.
It all started as the last pick of the first round of the 2005 NBA Draft. When he was named as a replacement to the East All-Star roster in 2010, he became the first Knick since Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell to take part in the annual mid-season exhibition. Since then, injuries and some performance regression have kept his minutes down and left him with numbers well below his career averages of 14.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. Could a stint under Gregg Popovich with the Spurs provide a much-needed spark for the underrated Lee?
10 Oklahoma City Thunder: Dennis Johnson (No. 29, 1976)
Since moving from Seattle to Oklahoma City in 2008, the former Supersonics have struck draft gold with the likes of Russell Westbrook and James Harden and have even found late gems in the form of Serge Ibaka, Eric Bledsoe and Reggie Jackson. But for as impressive a haul as the Thunder have accumulated in a relatively short span, they still can’t match the rich draft history of the Sonics before them.
While more contemporary NBA fans might point to Rashard Lewis (No. 32 in 1998) or Shawn Kemp (No. 17 in 1989) as the biggest steals in Sonics / Thunder history, the distinction has to go to the Finals MVP from the franchise’s lone championship season. One year after going 0-14 in game seven of the Finals to send Seattle to a heartbreaking loss, Dennis Johnson helped the Sonics back to the 1979 Finals and averaged nearly 23 points en route to ousting the same Washington Bullets that had beaten them the previous year.
9 Orlando Magic: Courtney Lee (No. 22, 2008)
To the credit of the Orlando Magic, the franchise has absolutely nailed its top picks, drafting Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber (although they didn’t keep him) and Dwight Howard with their three No. 1 selections in club history. High lottery picks have also landed them Dennis Scott, Mike Miller, Victor Oladipo and Aaron Gordon over the years. But when it comes to sifting through the latter picks to find value, Orlando hasn’t managed to muster much Magic.
Courtney Lee narrowly edges out Zaza Pachulia and Anderson Varejao as the best of a pretty underwhelming group. No disrespect intended to the 11-year veteran, who has forged a solid career as an elite wing defender and occasional three-point threat. He has now bounced around seven NBA teams, averaging 9.6 points per game over a career that surpassed 600 games early this season. The New York Knicks should be perfectly pleased by the addition of Lee, one of their key off-season pick-ups. But you would still expect a team to have produced a little more value than a solid role player out of a late pick after 27 years worth of draft selections.
8 Philadelphia 76ers: Maurice Cheeks (No. 36, 1978)
Prior to Sam Hinkie and “The Process,” the Philadelphia 76ers had a draft stretch wherein they built up a pretty good track record of finding value with late picks. In the 10 years between 2001 and 2011, the Sixers drafted Sam Dalembert, Lou Williams, Jrue Holliday and Nikolai Vucevic, all with picks 16th and lower. But as with any team boasting the rich history and tradition of the 76ers franchise, more is revealed when you dig a little deeper.
Nowadays, Maurice Cheeks is most remembered as a middling head coach and the guy that helped some young girl through the “Star Spangled Banner.” But long before that, he was a defensive menace and dynamic point guard who was named to four All-Star Games and four All-Defensive first teams. He also played an integral role alongside Julius Erving and Moses Malone in the team’s 1983 NBA title. In 1995, the Sixers retired the No. 10 as a tribute to their future head coach.
7 Phoenix Suns: Steve Nash (No. 15, 1996)
As far as draft classes go, the 1996 group is right up there among the most talented of all-time. Five of the top six picks developed into All-Star caliber talent and generational superstars Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant both ushered in their NBA careers. But even amongst the basketball royalty that entered the league in 1996, there was only one multi-time regular season MVP in the class: Santa Clara grad Steve Nash, who was taken with the 15th pick by the Phoenix Suns.
In fact, Nash holds the distinction of being the latest draftee among any player to have ever won multiple MVP awards, which he earned in 2005 and 2006 while serving as the floor general for the explosive Suns. Though he never won a ring, Nash established an incredible legacy built on eight All-Star appearances, seven All-NBA selections and an impressive 120 playoff games, all enabled by his court vision, creativity and unselfishness as a pass-first point guard.
6 Portland Trail Blazers: Arvydas Sabonis (No. 24, 1986)
When you consider the Portland Trail Blazers’ draft history, you can’t help but zero in on the glaring misses. LaRue Martin over Bob McAdoo and Julius Erving, Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan and Greg Oden over Kevin Durant. As costly as those mistakes were, however, the Blazers have benefited by finding late gems like Anthony Mason (No. 53 in 1988), Cliff Robinson (No. 36 in 1989), Jermaine O’Neal (No. 17 in 1996) and Zach Randolph (No. 19 in 2001).
It was in 1986 that the Blazers achieved their biggest draft feat by selecting two future Hall of Famers with the 24th and 60th picks. Drazen Petrovic, the Croatian star that was drafted with the 60th pick, never got enough of an opportunity in Portland to really shine and, as a result, forced a trade to New Jersey. However, smooth-passing Lithuanian big man Arvydas Sabonis made his mark right away in Portland despite arriving already past his 30th birthday. Though on the down side of his prime, Sabonis quickly grew into a fan favorite in Portland and reached the postseason in all seven of his NBA seasons.
5 Sacramento Kings: Isaiah Thomas (No. 60, 2011)
The rather unappealing moniker often bestowed upon the last pick in a given draft is ‘Mr. Irrelevant’, a cheeky nod to how the player hardly projects as a superstar talent given that they were taken last. No one is calling Isaiah Thomas Mr. Irrelevant now. A standout with the Washington Huskies, Thomas was overlooked in his draft year on account of his diminutive 5’9” stature. However, once Sacramento snapped him up with the 60th and final pick of the 2011 Draft, he started paying immediate dividends and earned a place on a NBA All-Rookie Second Team.
Since then, Thomas has only continued to prove his doubters wrong. He isn’t in Sacramento anymore, but he does earn credit as their biggest draft steal on account of some consistently impressive offensive numbers and an unyielding competitive streak. He was even named to the All-Star Game last season, becoming just the fifth player from his draft class to be invited to the league’s annual exhibition. Given that six of the seven players selected immediately before him have yet to reach the NBA, it’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment.
4 San Antonio Spurs: Manu Ginobili (No. 57, 1999)
The selection of a late draft steal is something of a stroke of dumb luck. While a general manager may have done their homework on scouting the prospect they’ve decided they want, there are smart, savvy executives on the other 29 teams who are doing the exact same thing. For a great player to fall into your lap requires plenty of keen basketball knowledge, but also some good fortune to boot. Then you have RC Buford, Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs, who have made that type of pick into an art form.
Since 1999, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Luis Scola, Leandro Barbosa, Beno Udrih, Ian Mahinmi, Goran Dragic, George Hill and Cory Joseph have all joined the fold at pick 26 or lower. Fittingly, only franchise cornerstones Ginobili and Parker remain, also serving as the best talents of the bunch. In Parker, the Spurs unearthed their championship point guard for the next decade with the 28th pick. Ginobili, however, was an even greater masterstroke, as San Antonio turned the 57th pick of the 1999 Draft into a two-time All-Star, four-time champion, 2008 Sixth Man of the Year and possible future Hall of Famer.
3 Toronto Raptors: Morris Peterson (No. 21, 2000)
On the surface, it isn’t particularly impressive that the Toronto Raptors were able to snag Morris Peterson with the 21st pick of the 2000 NBA Draft. Peterson is a perfectly nice player, but never made an All-Star team, often played second fiddle to bigger name talent such as Vince Carter and was probably the type of solid three-and-D talent that you could reasonably expect to find in the bottom third of the first round.
But to get a player like Peterson with the 21st pick of a draft as bad as the 2000 version is worth celebrating. In a draft class that collected a total of just three All-Star appearances, you could argue that Peterson should have gone in the top six in hindsight. Even now, the former national champion at Michigan State ranks atop the Raptors’ franchise leaderboard in games played and in the top five of points, field goals and steals.
2 Utah Jazz: John Stockton (No. 16, 1984)
Ask any NBA fan about the Utah Jazz of the 1990s and you will likely receive a two-name response: Stockton and Malone. Indeed, with back-to-back first round draft picks in 1984 and 1985, the Jazz managed to establish a two-headed foundation for years to come in the form of Gonzaga point guard John Stockton and Louisiana Tech power forward Karl Malone. While both men were equally critical to the future success of the Jazz and both offered incredible value for their mid-round draft slot, Stockton brings slightly greater value as the 16th pick in 1984 as opposed to Malone’s 13th spot in 1985.
Both Stockton and Malone occupy the top spot in most statistical franchise records for Utah, with Stockton serving as the franchise leader in games (1504), steals (3265) and assists (15806), where no other Jazz player has come within even 10,000 of his record. While Malone would spend the last year of his career chasing a ring with the Lakers (he wouldn’t get it), his former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer would remain with the Jazz for the entirety of his 19-year NBA career.
1 Washington Wizards: Truck Robinson (No. 22, 1974)
The man widely known as Truck Robinson was only revving up his engine when he kicked off his NBA career in Washington after being taken with the 22nd pick of the 1974 Draft by what was then the Bullets. Robinson found himself stuck behind established veterans Elvin Hayes and Mike Riordan on the depth chart, struggling for minutes on a club which would reach the NBA Finals in three of the first five years after he entered the league.
Robinson still caught the eye of talent evaluators from other teams, however, particularly after seeing his offensive numbers spike thanks to a minutes increase in his second season in Washington. Still, greater opportunity would await elsewhere and Robinson would thrive upon being traded to the Atlanta Hawks, where he averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds per game. He would go onto make two All-Star teams, be named to an All-NBA First Team and become one of the first non-centers to lead the league in rebounding after pulling down 15.7 per game with the New Orleans Jazz.