Having the first overall pick in any sports draft puts pressure on a franchise to select a surefire star player, but this is especially true in the NBA, where one player makes more difference than in any other team sport. Selecting the right prospect in the NBA Draft can shift a team’s future for the next 10-15 years. Additionally, because the NBA Draft order is determined by a lottery (rather than having the teams pick in reverse order of W-L record), a team that whiffs on the first overall pick isn’t guaranteed to get another top pick if they stink again the next year.
Since 1990, there have been 27 players taken with the no. 1 overall pick, and their careers have varied wildly, from all-time greats to out-and-out busts (poor Greg Oden, we hardly knew ye). Let’s see how they stack up against each other.
An important note before we get to the countdown: these rankings are judging a player’s entire career, not just his career with the team that drafted him. Of course, since 12 of these 27 players are still playing in the NBA, “entire career” is a loose term, and especially in the case of the young players, we’re basing their rankings more on potential than what they’ve actually accomplished in the NBA. Let’s get to it:
27. Greg Oden – Portland Trail Blazers, 2007
As Kevin Durant accurately stated a few weeks ago, it’s unfair to call Greg Oden a bust, because injuries robbed him of the chance to prove himself. He only played in 105 NBA games, and at 28 years old, is retired. During his year of collegiate basketball at Ohio State and during his brief tenure with the Blazers, Oden showed flashes of what could’ve been; a dominant NBA center on both ends who could protect the rim and score in the low post at will. It’s a shame his body betrayed him.
Oden has a very grim outlook on his NBA career, saying: “I’ll be remembered as the biggest bust in NBA history,” he told ESPN’s Outside The Lines. “But I can’t do nothing about that… I don’t think I was that bad when I was on the court,” Oden said. “I felt like it could have just got better if I had more time on there.”
26. Anthony Bennett – Cleveland Cavaliers, 2013
Now HERE is where it’s apt to use the term “bust”. In Bennett’s defense, he was part of an abysmal 2013 Draft class, and wasn’t projected to be chosen first overall. However, no amount of sugar-coating can cover up Bennett’s putrid career. Now on his fourth team in four seasons, Bennett has career averages of 4 points and 3 rebounds. He may very well be out of the league after this season.
It was a big shock when the Cleveland Cavaliers took Bennett first overall and they quickly realized their mistake, sending Bennett to the Timberwolves. The T-Wolves gave up on him after one season and bought out his contract. Not even a stint with his hometown Toronto Raptors could salvage Bennet and he’s now with the Brooklyn Nets. If the Nets weren’t so deprived of talent, there’s no way Bennett would even be in the league for the 2016-17 season.
25. Michael Olowokandi – Los Angeles Clippers, 1998
The Kandi Man was supposed to be the savior for Los Angeles’ second best basketball team, but as it turned out, Olowokandi peaked in 2002, when he averaged 11 points and 9 rebounds. His career highlight came when Amar’e Stoudemire dunked on him so hard that when you search YouTube for the dunk, the first video that comes up is titled “Amar’e Stoudemire baptizes Michael Olowakandi”.
The Clippers were the running joke of the NBA for much of the late 90s and 2000s. Had they gotten this pick right by say, drafting Dirk Nowitzki instead, they could have built themselves up as a new NBA powerhouse. Any way you slice it, Olowokandi was a big bust in L.A. and one of the many reasons the Clippers lived in the shadow of the Lakers, who by this point were led by Kobe Bryant and Shaq.
24. Kwame Brown – Washington Wizards, 2001
Legend has it that Brown and Tyson Chandler, the top two prospects of the ’01 NBA Draft, played 1-on-1 during the combine, and Kwame absolutely crushed Chandler. Unfortunately for the Wizards, the scrimmage was not a reflection on the two players as prospects, and Chandler ended up having a much more productive career. Kwame played for 12 seasons, but never averaged a double-double or more than 11 points per game.
Kwame Brown made history by being the first high schooler to be drafted first overall. Michael Jordan was running the Wizards at the time and made the bold choice to go with Brown. Ultimately, it will go down as perhaps MJ’s worst move as an executive. Even when Jordan returned to the court, it still wasn’t enough to spark his no.1 pick.
23. Andrea Bargnani – Toronto Raptors, 2006
Even though Bargnani had several fairly productive years as a Raptor, he’s ranked low on this list because he was, by a wide margin, the worst rebounder of any NBA player listed as being at least 7 feet tall. He never averaged more than 6 rebounds for an entire season. That’s almost unfathomable. Being that tall and that bad at rebounding relegates Bargnani to the “just above the busts” category of this countdown.
The Raptors did not turn their franchise around by drafting Bargnani which is what teams expect to do when they have the first overall pick. Just think of where the Raptors could have been as a franchise had they drafted say, LaMarcus Aldridge or Brandon Roy in that spot. Bargnani now plays in Spain with Baskonia.
22. Joe Smith – Golden State Warriors, 1995
Smith’s greatest skill as a player was his longevity; he played for 16 seasons. He also showed promise in his second season, averaging 18 points and 8 rebounds at age 21. But he never reached those numbers again, never made an All-Star team, and ended up playing for twelve different teams in his career.
While moving companies probably loved Smith, it looks like his teams didn’t. Obviously there was something useful about his game that kept making teams want to acquire him, but how on earth do you play with 12 different teams? Talk about the ultimate journeyman.
The Warriors must have been kicking themselves for years over missing out on a legend like Kevin Garnett, who went fifth overall that same year.
Today, Smith now goes by Joe Beast, as he’s released a solo rap album.
21. Kenyon Martin – New Jersey Nets, 2000
K-Mart was put in an excellent situation to start his career, playing with Jason Kidd and helping make the Nets a title contender in the early 2000s. The Nets made back-to-back Finals appearances in ’02 and ’03, and Martin made the All-Star team in ’04. But it was his only All-Star season, and he spent the next seven years on the Nuggets as a role player (including the ’09 Nuggets, who made the Western Conference Finals) before bouncing around in the twilight of his career.
While some would hope to get a little more from a first overall pick, he sure wasn’t a bust. By all means, Martin had a pretty decent career, but just couldn’t achieve longevity with the team that drafted him. Martin retired from the game in the summer of 2015, having last played on a pair of 10-day contracts with the Milwaukee Bucks.
20. Andrew Bogut – Milwaukee Bucks, 2005
Unfortunately for Bogut, the most famous play he was involved in was a gruesome elbow injury in 2010 that took away what little shooting ability he had. Bogut has always been an excellent passer, a good rim protector (he led the league in blocks in 2011), and a very dirty overall player. His biggest individual accolade was making 3rd team All-NBA in 2010. He was a solid contributor for the Warriors’ title team in 2015 and their 73-9 team in 2016. Now with the Mavericks, Bogut is still valuable, albeit on the worst team in the NBA.
While Bogut has ultimately fallen short of the expectations that were set for him, it’d be a little harsh to call him a total bust. The fact that he’s still playing in the NBA 11 years after being drafted is enough to keep him out of bust territory.
19. Derrick Coleman – New Jersey Nets, 1990
Coleman’s numbers are better at first glance than when you delve a little deeper. He scored plenty, averaging at least 18 points in six different seasons, making an All-Star game and two All-NBA teams. But he was an inefficient scorer for a big man, shooting above 50% from the field only once in his 14-year career. Coleman finished his career chasing a ring with the Detroit Pistons in 2005, who came up just short against the Spurs in the Finals.
Once again, we’re judging the first overall picks based on the entirety of their careers, but you have to think the Nets would have liked this pick back. While Coleman proved to be a good player, hall of famer Gary Payton was selected second overall by the Seattle SuperSonics.
18. Glenn Robinson – Milwaukee Bucks, 1994
Glenn Robinson doesn’t get talked about much (likely because he played the bulk of his career in Milwaukee), which makes his stats that much more surprising. He averaged at least 20 points a game eight times, made two All-Star Games, and won a title with the Spurs as a role player in 2005. It’s equally surprising that Robinson only played 11 seasons; anyone with that much scoring ability surely could’ve gotten an NBA contract for a few more years.
Robinson’s draft year of 1994 wasn’t the deepest of classes. Some notable players who went after him include Jason Kidd, Grant Hill, Juwan Howard and Eddie Jones. Still, when you look at the big picture, you can’t really say the Bucks made a bad choice with this pick.
17. Larry Johnson – Charlotte Hornets, 1991
Johnson first came into the national spotlight when he led the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels to a national title in 1990. He made the All-Star game twice as a member of the Hornets, and later became a contributor on the last great Knicks team of the 90s, the ’99 team that lost to the Spurs in the Finals. Johnson’s stats aren’t as impressive as Robinson’s, but he gets the nod for one reason and one reason only; for the rest of his life, Larry Johnson gets to tell people that he was in the greatest cinematic achievement of the 20th Century: Space Jam.
The Hornets could have done better with their pick, as Dikembe Mutombo was selected three picks later by the Denver Nuggets. Still though, 1991 wasn’t the deepest draft class and overall, the Hornets did pretty well in selecting Johnson.
16. Elton Brand – Chicago Bulls, 1999
Brand didn’t play for the Bulls for long; he became a member of the Clippers in 2001 and gave the franchise it’s first period of relevance in the NBA. In 2006, Brand made 2nd team All-NBA and led the Clippers to the Western Conference Semifinals, where they lost to Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns. Brand was remarkably durable, and finished his career with over 1,000 games played in 17 seasons. Brand might not have been quite as effective in today’s 3-point-heavy NBA (he only attempted 21 3-pointers in his career), but his basketball IQ was such that he would still make his presence felt.
While Brand didn’t quite make Bulls fans forget about Michael Jordan, he played his role well in Chicago and was a solid pick.
15. Andrew Wiggins – Cleveland Cavaliers, 2014
Wiggins is just starting to tap into his considerable potential. He’s averaging just under 23 points a game this season for the Timberwolves, and his 3-point percentage has skyrocketed, from 30% last year to 39%. Wiggins also has the good fortune to be playing alongside another rising young star (we’ll get to him later on this list), which allows him more open shots and driving lanes. Still, Wiggins’ potential as both a defender and a scorer puts him in the “multi-time All-Star” tier of this list.
Unlike many on this list, Wiggins never got a chance to contribute to the team that drafted him. His arrival in Cleveland coincided with LeBron’s return and in order to make the Cavs an immediate contender, he was traded to Minnesota in a deal that brought Kevin Love to Cleveland.
14. John Wall – Washington Wizards, 2010
If only John Wall could shoot. At 26, Wall has already made three All-Star games, and has averaged 9 assists a game for his career, but can’t even shoot league-average percentages from mid-range or from 3-point range. Despite these faults, Wall is a treat to watch. He’s the fastest player in the league with the ball in his hands, is a top-tier creator, and is fearless in any situation (sometimes to a fault). Unfortunately for Wall, his running mate Bradley Beal can’t stay healthy, and the Wizards are mired in mediocrity.
Looking back at the 2010 draft, it’s hard to make a case for anybody but Wall to be the first pick. If only the Wizards could give him a good supporting cast.
13. Ben Simmons – Philadelphia 76ers, 2016
Ben Simmons has yet to play a game in the NBA, and yet his potential is so astronomical that he’s in the top half of this list. Like Wall, there are serious doubts about Simmons’ jump shot, but Simmons is a 6’10 point-forward with ridiculous passing ability and handle, and he’s only 20 years old. Simmons will have to prove that he can hit an open 15-foot jumper, but the prospect of him and Joel “The Process” Embiid running a pick-and-roll is so tantalizing Sixers fans are drooling on their laptops just reading this.
As a fan of basketball, you have to be excited for the night that Simmons finally makes his NBA debut. He’s expected to return to the Sixers sometime in January. When that day comes, he’ll begin justifying the Sixers’ decision to draft him first overall.
12. Kyrie Irving – Cleveland Cavaliers, 2011
The modern day Allen Iverson (sorry Isaiah Thomas), Kyrie cemented his legacy in Cleveland (weird to talk about a guy’s legacy when he’s 24, but it’s true) by outplaying Steph Curry in the 2016 Finals and hitting “The Bucket” right in Curry’s face in Game 7. Kyrie has made three All-Star games and an All-NBA team, and is one of the best scorers of his era. His finishing and shooting ability is so spectacular that it’s overshadowed his injury history and his below-average defending, faults for which Kyrie himself isn’t really to blame.
While Irving now finds himself playing second fiddle in Cleveland due to the enormous shadow LeBron casts, he’s a superstar in his own right and the Cavs made the right call in 2011.
11. Yao Ming – Houston Rockets, 2002
Yao only played in the NBA for eight years, but was highly effective before foot injuries ended his career. Yao made 8 All-Star games, five All-NBA teams, and finished his career with averages of 19 points and 9 rebounds. He also shot 83% from the free throw line for his career, a higher percentage than any other big man on this list. Sadly, Yao and his Houston teammate Tracy McGrady could never get healthy at the same time, and the late 2000s Rockets never had a chance to make a title run.
Still though, you can’t fault the Rockets for taking Yao Ming. Not only did Ming become a star in the NBA, but he helped grow the game of basketball in China. He continues to be a great ambassador for the game.
10. Derrick Rose – Chicago Bulls, 2008
Rose was the hardest player on this entire list to place, because he was so good in 2011 (when he became the youngest MVP in NBA history), and has been utterly average since coming back from a string of horrific, season ending injuries. He’ll never be the same guy, but for a season and a half, he was the best point guard in the league, and was Russell Westbrook-level athletic. He’s made three All-Star games and an All-NBA team, but he’ll likely never achieve accolades like that again.
The Bulls sent him to the New York Knicks this past summer and Rose is trying to get back to his MVP like level. However his body has suffered so many injuries that it’s hard to see him doing so.
9. Blake Griffin – Los Angeles Clippers, 2009
Blake’s game is most similar to the player directly above him on this list, in that they’re both versatile, uber-athletic power forwards who can handle and pass the ball in addition to being great scorers. Griffin has made five All-Star games, four All-NBA teams, and was 3rd in MVP voting in 2014 behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James. His career averages are 21 points and 9 rebounds, and when he’s healthy he’s the best power forward in the NBA not named Anthony Davis.
Griffin’s asinine incident with a Clippers equipment manager (allegedly a good friend of his) set him back, but now he’s back to being himself, and he has a chance to climb higher on this list if he produces at his career rates for another three or four years.
8. Chris Webber – Golden State Warriors via Orlando Magic, 1993
In terms of pure talent, Chris Webber is right up there with any of the players on this list. He was actually ahead of his time, and athletic power forward who could grab a defensive rebound and lead the fast break. He was also one of the best passing big men of his time (he averaged 5 assists in three different seasons, and 4.2 for his career). But Webber’s career never truly got going because of his frequent clashes with coaches and front offices, and he only played on one great team; the 2002 Kings (who lost to the Lakers in memorable, controversial fashion). Then Webber tore his ACL during the 2003 playoffs and was never the same. Still, Webber’s resume of five All-Star games and five All-NBA teams is good enough to be a borderline Hall-of-Famer and No.8 on this list.
7. Dwight Howard – Orlando Magic, 2004
Dwight is perhaps the least-liked superstar of his generation, and it makes sense. Howard’s reputation as a whiner, a quitter, and a one-dimensional player is justified; he’s left three different teams (the Magic, Lakers, and Rockets) on bad terms, and he clearly sulks when he feels he isn’t involved enough on offense. However, at the peak of his powers with the Magic, he was transcendent. He’s made eight All-Star games, eight All-NBA teams, won three (straight) Defensive Player of the Year awards, led the Magic to the 2009 Finals, and finished second in MVP voting in 2011 t0 Derrick Rose, an award many people believe Howard should’ve won.
Whatever you think of Howard, there’s no arguing his spot on the list. He’s more than lived up to the hype.
6. Karl-Anthony Towns – Minnesota Timberwolves, 2015
The hype is real. KAT has been so good in his first season and a quarter for the T-Wolves that most experts and fans agree that he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame one day, so much so that he gets the nod on this list over Howard and Webber. Towns is currently averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds, and he just turned 21 last month. He’s shooting an absurd 38% from 3-point range, and is the prototypical NBA center of the future, a do-it-all cyborg that can switch on to a guard and hold his own, while simultaneously stifling low-post scorers. He’s already good, but he is destined for greatness.
With KAT at the helm, it’s likely the T-Wolves will eventually find a way to be a winning team in the NBA.
5. Anthony Davis – New Orleans Pelicans, 2012
Just like Towns, Anthony Davis is an athletic swiss army knife, only he has an even higher ceiling (and, admittedly, has dealt with a laundry list of injuries). Davis’ arms are so long that it almost seems like his team has an extra defender on the court. He’s already made three All-Star games, 1st team All-NBA in 2015, and is still only 23 years old. The reason he’s ranked above Towns is because of his two-way potential; he’s just as versatile a defender as Towns, only with Ruby Gobert’s rim protection. It’s telling that the only four players above Davis and Towns on this list are Hall-of-Famers or soon to be HOFers.
Hopefully we get to see Davis in the NBA playoffs, as it’d be a real treat to see him on a big stage.
4. Allen Iverson – Philadelphia 76ers, 1996
If you ask basketball fans of a certain age whose game they’d most want to have for a day, Allen Iverson would be…….The Answer (I’m sorry, too easy, I’ll see myself out). AI’s faults have become more apparent in the stat-driven modern NBA, but the 76ers team which he led to the playoff several times (and to the Finals in his 2001 MVP season) needed Iverson to take lots of shots, and he happily obliged. He might not have been the most efficient scorer ever, but Iverson led the league in scoring four times, made 11 All-Star games, seven All-NBA teams, and was one of the most memorable players of his generation.
While many feel Kobe would have been a better pick, it’s hard to say Iverson was a bad choice.
3. Shaquille O’Neal – Orlando Magic, 1992
Very few athletes in any sport have fit the description of “being a beast” more perfectly than Shaq. Over 19 seasons for the Magic, Lakers, Heat, Suns, Cavs, and Celtics, O’Neal became one of the greatest centers ever, winning four titles, three Finals MVPs, and the 2000 MVP. Shaq made 15 All-Star games, 14 All-NBA teams, and averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds thirteen times. His dominance has never been questioned, but Shaq did have some deficiencies as a player; he never led the league in rebounding (an astonishing stat), and for much of the later part of his career, opposing teams attacked his lack of mobility by putting him in a pick-and-roll. Shaq is an all-time great, but even he can’t quite stack up to these next two guys.
2. Tim Duncan – San Antonio Spurs, 1997
Tim Duncan may be the best No. 1 draft pick in NBA history in terms of success with the team that drafted him. For 19 years, he made the Spurs title contenders, winning 5 championships, two MVPs, and three Finals MVPs. Duncan is the greatest power forward in NBA history, and ranks sixth all-time in playoff points, second in playoff rebounds, and first in playoff double-doubles. Duncan averaged 20 and 10 nine times, made 15 All-Star games, 15 All-Defensive teams, and 15 All-NBA teams. Yet the numbers fail to capture what might’ve been Duncan’s greatest skill; leadership. He, along with Gregg Popovich, created a culture in San Antonio that served as the foundation for 17 straight winning seasons (and counting).
1. LeBron James – Cleveland Cavaliers, 2003
There has never been a more talented basketball player than LeBron James. His combination of durability, versatility, and playoff performances are unassailable. The big numbers speak for themselves; three titles, four MVPs, and three Finals MVPs, personally led the only comeback from a 3-1 deficit in an NBA Finals, and ended a 52-year title drought for the city of Cleveland. LeBron will always have his haters, mainly because of his decision in 2010 to leave the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, and his subsequent subpar performance against the Mavericks in the 2011 Finals. But in the years since, LeBron has shed his role as a villain and proven beyond doubt that the 2011 Finals were the exception, not the rule.
It should also be noted that LeBron became a sensation while still in high school, and has had to come of age in the public eye as the social media era blossomed. Considering the kind of microscope he’s been under for 15 years, his maturity both as a player and a man have been a marvel to watch.
For his career, LeBron has averaged 27 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists. He will go down in history as no worse than the third or fourth best player to ever pick up a basketball, and he has a chance to upend Michael Jordan as the G.O.A.T. And he’s the best No. 1 draft pick since 1990.
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