The NBA Draft has been a monumental tradition in the history of the league. The event has given franchises the ability to change their culture with a single pick. Year after year, the bottom teams fight for one goal and one goal only, to get the chance to pick first overall. In short, the draft is one of the more crucial nights in a team’s season.
Picking first overall has always been considered the second best thing to happen to a franchise next to winning the championship. When you have the first choice to pick someone out of thousands of talented basketball player, you control not only your destiny as a team but also the potential outcome of the draft. The first player taken in the draft faces a tough task of trying to veer away a city from mediocrity and instead turn them in relevancy.
For countless years, we have seen numerous players taken first overall. We have seen the Goliaths of the game like Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson, to the quick and exciting small guys that leave their heart on the court like Allen Iverson and Derrick Rose. Each player has left their marks on the game of basketball, whether good or bad. And while the first overall pick has not always turned out to be the best player in the class, he has always contributed to a team’s success.
This article will look at the last 31 players taken first overall (from 1988 to 2018) and how they fare against one another.
31 Anthony Bennett - Cleveland Cavaliers (2013)
Regarded as the worst first overall pick in NBA history, Anthony Bennett was awful for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Lasting only a single year before being traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love, Bennett was already seen as a bust even only after his first year.
The Canadian power forward had a tough act to follow as Kyrie Irving and LeBron James were the last two first overall picks by Cleveland prior to 2013. Fortunately for the Cavs, Bennett was part of a deal that sent Love to "The Land" and eventually the city’s first championship in decades.
30 Pervis Ellison - Sacramento Kings (1989)
Pervis Ellison is a name not often heard around NBA circles these days. Ellison was the first overall pick by the Sacramento Kings back in 1989. A center out of Louisville, Ellison averaged a measly 8.0 points per game, 5.8 rebounds per game, and 1.9 assists per game in his first year in the league. He had a few good years for the Washington Bullets in the early '90s, but injuries reduced his effectiveness soon after.
Ellison only lasted 12 years in the NBA and in the final years of his career, he was barely playing for his team. For his entire career, Ellison averaged 9.5 PPG, 6.7 RPG, and 1.5 APG in 474 games.
29 Markelle Fultz - Philadelphia 76ers (2017)
Seen as the final piece of “the process,” Markelle Fultz’s arrival with the Philadelphia 76ers brought new life to the organization and the city altogether. After several years of disappointing picks, the Sixers finally had a young core they can confidently put their fate in.
So far, Fultz has not looked like a number one overall pick. After a weird rookie year wherein the guard seemingly forgot how to properly shoot a ball, Fultz is so far following it with another disappointing year.
It is still too early to call Fultz a bust, but if this continues, he will be seen as a waste of a first overall pick since the team moved up for him prior to draft night.
28 Kwame Brown – Washington Wizards (2001)
Coming straight out of high school, Kwame Brown was never supposed to be the first overall pick of the draft. It was clear as day that Brown was not ready for the NBA, but that did not stop the Washington Wizards from taking him back in 2001. Brown has had his horrors playing for the Wizards and playing with Michael Jordan, as there were multiple reports that MJ was constantly pushing the young big man too hard for his own good.
In fairness to Kwame, he has made a living playing in the NBA. He spent 13 years in the NBA, including multiple playoff appearances.
For a guy widely considered the biggest bust in NBA history, Brown has had a good career, if not for the position he was taken in.
27 Deandre Ayton – Phoenix Suns (2018)
The latest player taken first overall, Deandre Ayton so far has impressed league personnel and fans alike. With his nimble footwork, strong frame, and the skills to go along with it, Ayton has shown promise while being a good contributor to the Phoenix Suns.
Pre-draft, Ayton was somewhat overshadowed by Luka Doncic, the European wonder, but as of the moment, it looks like Ayton has proven his doubters wrong as statistically, he has been the best rookie of his class.
If Ayton keeps this up he will move up the board sooner than later but for now, he sits below the proven players.
26 Greg Oden – Portland Trail Blazers (2007)
Greg Oden was seen as a franchise-changing big man that can dominate on both ends of the court especially on the defensive end. To paint a picture of how good Oden was, Kevin Durant averaged 25 and 11 in college, was considered one of the best college players at the time, and was even heralded the greatest one-and-done player of all time, but in the end, it was the consensus that the Ohio State big man was still better.
Oden suffered from multiple nagging injuries, but in the times he played, he looked great. If he had stayed healthy maybe Oden could have cracked the top-five.
25 Michael Olowokandi – Los Angeles Clippers (1998)
Michael Olowakandi, aka the "Kandi Man," had a short nine-year career in the NBA. Drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers, Olowokandi was a promising center but unfortunately, he was nothing more than an okay rebounder at best.
Probably best known for the Amar'e Stoudemire poster dunk, Olowokandi was constantly on the wrong end of a highlight reel.
Olowokandi averaged 8.3 points and 6.8 rebounds for his entire career.
24 Joe Smith – Golden State Warriors (1995)
Back in 1995, the Golden State Warriors took Joe Smith, a promising young center out of Maryland. Smith was supposedly one of the more mobile big men in the NBA and even though his rookie year looked promising, he was nothing more than an average center in the NBA. Still, he was named to the 1995-96 All-Rookie team.
Smith was as average as a player can be. Not only does his name sound like that of a normal working American, but he also only averaged 10.9 points per game and 6.4 rebounds per game for his 16-year career in the league.
23 Andrea Bargnani – Toronto Raptors (2006)
Andrea Bargnani is a center that can stretch out to the three-point area and knock down jump shots with ease. Seen as a more athletic version of Dirk Nowitzki, the Toronto Raptors confidently took Bargnani first overall back in 2006.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, Bargnani never panned out for multiple reasons. The Italian big man lived up to the hype of being a good shooter but he took way too many outside shots. Furthermore, he was never a good rebounder or defender and there were moments where it felt like he was too afraid to get hit.
Bargnani was a disappointment but he still had a couple of seasons where he averaged at least 20 PPG.
22 Andrew Wiggins – Cleveland Cavaliers (2014)
The hype surrounding Andrew Wiggins was insane. Labeled “Maple Jordan” because of his roots and athletic abilities, Wiggins never stood a chance when it comes to the media. When the young wing played a somewhat disappointing freshman year, the media quickly pounced on the Canadian. Fortunately for Wiggins, the hype was enough to warrant him a first overall selection.
So far Wiggins is seen as nothing but a one-dimensional scorer who plays awful defense. If this keeps up, he will be one of the “meh” first overall picks, a player who is good but not first-overall-quality good.
Wiggins was also part of the Kevin Love deal.
21 Danny Manning – Los Angeles Clippers (1988)
If you are not familiar with Danny Manning, he was a scoring power forward out of Kansas. He was taken first by the Los Angeles Clippers back in 1988 and was seen as a potential franchise player. Despite dealing with injuries, Manning had a good and long career; he made the All-Star team twice and even won a Sixth Man of the Year award back in 1998.
He's probably not worthy of a first overall selection, but Danny made the most of his opportunities; he even had a couple of seasons averaging 20 PPG.
20 Kenyon Martin – New Jersey Nets (2000)
The very first player taken in the new millennium, Kenyon Martin was an exciting high-flying center out of Cincinnati. Pairing with Jason Kidd, Martin has had his best years playing for the New Jersey Nets, a team that even made it out of the East and into the Finals.
Martin was a multiple time All-Star and the best player taken in the 2000 draft, the consensus worst draft in the recent history of the NBA.
Had it not been for off-court issues, Martin could have potentially been a better player, which is crazy to think about because of how good he already was.
19 Andrew Bogut – Milwaukee Bucks (2005)
Andrew Bogut has quietly put together an underrated career. Bogut was never an All-Star, but the Aussie has won championships with the Golden State Warriors and was quite a defensive force in his time with the Milwaukee Bucks. One of the more versatile centers, Bogut was a decent scorer when healthy and a reliable passer down in the post.
One of the main reasons why Bogut has been underrated is because of the fact that Chris Paul was taken shortly after him. If not for Paul, Bogut could have been seen as a better player overall.
18 Ben Simmons – Philadelphia 76ers (2016)
A 6-foot-10 forward from LSU with brilliant all-around skills, Ben Simmons was picked first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2016 but missed the entire 2016-17 season due to injuries. However, he proved worth the wait when he finally debuted for the Sixers in 2017-18. He went on to win Rookie of the Year honors as a Magic Johnson-style point guard, in terms of his height, playing style, and his near-triple-double averages.
If he stays healthy, develops an outside shot, and maintains his momentum from his sensational rookie year, Simmons could easily be in the top-10 of this list in a couple years from now. But like Deandre Ayton, his lack of experience puts him relatively low in this list.
17 Karl-Anthony Towns – Minnesota Timberwolves (2015)
Speaking in terms of talent alone, Karl-Anthony Towns has already surpassed some of the names listed here. The center has a complete offensive package that a team can build their offensive scheme around, a feat the players listed prior to Towns cannot say about their game.
As of the moment, Towns is in his fourth year in the league yet he has already made the All-Star game and won a Rookie of the Year award, accolades most NBA players would dream of.
With an eye towards the future, Towns will surely move upwards.
16 Elton Brand – Chicago Bulls (1999)
Speaking of underrated players, Elton Brand was a quiet assassin back in his days. The former Duke Blue Devil was taken first overall by the Chicago Bulls back in 1999. Right off the bat, Brand showcased his potential and skill as he averaged 20.1 PPG and 10.0 RPG, winning co-Rookie of the Year alongside Steve Francis.
In his time with the Los Angeles Clippers, Brand was the major reason for the Clippers’ return to the playoffs. At one point in time, Brand was seen as the greatest player to dawn the Clippers’ blue and red and rightfully so.
15 John Wall – Washington Wizards (2010)
Love him or hate him, you cannot argue that John Wall has lived up to the first overall pick hype. Leading the Washington Wizards back to relevancy, Wall has shown both offensive and defensive prowess as the lead guard.
Even to this day, John Wall is still going strong for the Wizards. And while the partnership between the two parties seems to be at its breaking point, you cannot argue the fact that Wall has been one of the better first overall picks in the last 30 years.
14 Yao Ming – Houston Rockets (2002)
Yao Ming is another case of a talented player falling to nagging injuries. Yao was a big mobile center at 7'5", but he still showed skill to go along with his God-given physical tools; Yao had a fantastic back to the basket game where he towered over defenders and finished softly with left and right hooks, and also had a nice jump shot from the midrange where he excelled.
Although his career was cut short, Yao was dominant in the years he played. And if you add the fact that he started a basketball revolution in China and all of Asia, the Houston Rockets got their money’s worth with the Chinese legend.
13 Derrick Rose – Chicago Bulls (2008)
Another player struck with the unfortunate injury bug, Derrick Rose might be the worst case. Playing at an MVP level in his third and fourth year, everything was looking up for the young Rose as he was named to All-Star and All-NBA teams and he even made history by being the youngest player to be named MVP.
Up to this day, Rose is still playing in the NBA. He even put up one of the most emotional 50 points the game has ever seen, but sadly, Rose will most likely fall from this list once the younger players’ careers pan out.
12 Glenn Robinson – Milwaukee Bucks (1994)
Being a first overall pick, it is hard to be classified as underrated but lo and behold, Glenn Robinson might be the most underrated one yet. The sweet scoring combo forward was overshadowed by the fact that Jason Kidd and Grant Hill were taken second and third back in 1994, but that did not stop Robinson to show he was worthy of being first in line.
Robinson had a long, solid career in the NBA and although he was never seen as a future superstar, he still had a respectable career wherein he was a contributor year after year.
11 Derrick Coleman – New Jersey Nets (1990)
Derrick Coleman could have been a bigger deal if it wasn’t for the fact that he was seen as lazy. The lefty power forward had all the physical tools and all the talent in the world and to be honest, he managed to put both together to become a solid player.
Coleman spent a good 14-year run in the NBA and although much like Robinson, he was never seen as a franchise player, the big man still has All-Star like numbers in most of the seasons he played in the NBA, a feat worthy of notice and praise.
10 Larry Johnson – Charlotte Hornets (1991)
A modern-day player that played in the past, if you are not familiar with him, Larry Johnson was a power forward that loved to hover around the mid-range for easy jump shots. Nicknamed “Grandmama,” Johnson was as the face of the Charlotte Hornets for years as he led them to success in the early to mid-'90s.
Johnson only played nine years in the NBA but did he make it count. In those nine years, Johnson was the face of a franchise and a multiple time All-Star as an offensive menace. He would have ranked higher had injuries not slowed him down with the New York Knicks.
9 Blake Griffin – Los Angeles Clippers (2009)
If you have been keeping count, this is the third player taken by the Los Angeles Clippers and definitely the best out of the three. Blake Griffin brought new life in the Clippers organization as he ushered in a new era of winning and tradition; as part of the Lob City era, the athletic power forward was one of the most electrifying players in his prime.
Blake is a multiple time All-Star, All-NBA player, and at one point considered a top-three player in the 2014 playoffs.
Griffin is definitely a possible benchmark for future first overall picks.
8 Kyrie Irving – Cleveland Cavaliers (2011)
Much like the Los Angeles Clippers, the Cleveland Cavaliers have had multiple first overall picks in their franchise. In 2011 the Cavaliers took Kyrie Irving, a flashy scoring point guard out of Duke.
Irving was hot right off the gates, winning Rookie of the Year and averaging 18 PPG. The exciting young point guard was the beacon of hope for the Cavs after the departure of LeBron James.
The best moment in Kyrie’s career so far has got to be the 2016 NBA Finals where he averaged 30 points per game and hit the biggest shot in his career in Game 7. Irving helped bring a title to Cleveland and that alone is enough to be taken first overall.
7 Anthony Davis – New Orleans Hornets (2012)
Taken a year after Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis was a defensive prospect who had an inhuman wingspan. At Kentucky, Davis was already seen as a bona fide defensive superstar in the making and Davis did not disappoint in the pros as he is considered one of the best defensive players today.
Lack of team accolades hurts Davis’ case but individually, he is one of the most talented players on this list. A savage on defense and a mismatch on offense, Davis is one of the most unique players we have today and quite frankly, he is dominating this guard-heavy league.
6 Chris Webber – Orlando Magic (1993)
Most people might find it surprising that Chris Webber is this high up on the list but honestly, he deserves it. A multiple-time All-Star, a mainstay in All-NBA teams, a Rookie of the Year winner, and a future Hall of Famer, Webber has done almost everything imaginable as an individual in the NBA.
The power forward was seen as the best passing big in his time, especially with the Sacramento Kings. Although those Kings team never made it to the Finals, they are still talked about to this day because of how good they were with Webber leading the charge.
5 Dwight Howard – Orlando Magic (2005)
Dwight Howard as a player is a very polarizing debate. One camp hails him as a future Hall of Famer and the other thinks he was quite overrated. As for us, we look at the accolades; a multiple-time All-Star, All-NBA team, All-Defensive team, and Defensive Player of the Year. With the Magic, Dwight was clearly one of the most dominant players in his prime.
Howard was a defensive menace for the Orlando Magic and he even led them to the Finals back in 2009.
Even to this day, Howard is still a serviceable rebounder and defender but his recent performance has blinded the eyes of many, as they believe Howard was nothing more than a good defender.
4 Allen Iverson – Philadelphia 76ers (1996)
It is only fitting that Allen Iverson is the number one pick of one of the greatest drafts in NBA history. Spearheading the 1996 draft was Iverson, the little man who was about to enter the big man’s league.
Iverson quickly captured the hearts of adoring fans around the globe with his killer crossover and his never-say-die attitude. One of the best scorers of his generation, Iverson inspired small guys around the world with his play.
The Answer is a former MVP and a multiple-time All-Star and all-NBA player.
3 Shaquille O’Neal – Orlando Magic (1992)
Before we start, I want to give props to the Orlando Magic as they have drafted three future Hall of Famers with their first overall picks.
Shaquille O’Neal is the most physically dominant player we have ever seen. The 7’1", 300-lb O’Neal was a behemoth down low and a problem for most teams.
Not only was Shaq a dominant player; he was also quite the character as the giant had a fun, childlike personality in front of the cameras. But don’t let the smile fool you, O’Neal was a multiple-time champion, Finals MVP, All-Star, All-NBA, and a one-time league MVP.
2 Tim Duncan – San Antonio Spurs (1997)
For the longest time, the San Antonio Spurs has been a mainstay in the playoffs. Seen as a dominant franchise, the Spurs relied on Tim Duncan to help elevate the proud franchise to where it is today.
Duncan was the prize everyone wanted back in 1997 and did he deliver. A five-time champion, two-time MVP, multiple-time All-NBA and All-Star, Duncan has done everything to do in the NBA. The Big Fundamental was instrumental to each and every one of the Spurs championship and, in fact, he was instrumental in the development of how the power forward spot should be played today.
Duncan is the greatest power forward of all time. Not too bad for a first overall pick.
1 LeBron James – Cleveland Cavaliers (2003)
Appreciate him while you can. Chances are, we will never see another player like LeBron James. The combination of freak athleticism, elite skill, and unrivaled basketball IQ, LeBron James was on another level in terms of greatness. With Michael Jordan being his only competition, LeBron has an argument for being the greatest player to ever play the game of basketball.
What makes James even more impressive is the fact that he delivered on the expectations. Coming out of high school, people were calling him the chosen one and the heir to Michael Jordan, and 16 years later he somehow managed to exceed those expectations.
LeBron is without a doubt the greatest first overall pick, not only in the last 30 years, but in NBA history.