Yes, LeBron James was appropriately selected #1 overall to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2003 draft. Next question.
But the very next year’s process featured a record, unlikely to be broken, of eight first rounders who skipped college… and none of them were “The King.” Though one of them was “Superman.” Dwight Howard may go down as the final Hall-of-Famer of the controversial decade from 1995-2005 when 29 high school seniors were selected in the first round of the NBA Draft and some of them became Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett and some of them, despite high expectations and high lottery selections… didn’t. Indeed, between the highly publicized failures of Kwame Brown, the #1 overall pick in 2001, and the overwhelming numbers of 2004, Commissioner David Stern finally won his cause to end the high school straight to pros option when the collective bargaining agreement was re-negotiated in 2005.
With a look at a bygone era (or is it… check the end of this article for a perhaps surprise addition), join us in re-imagining what could-have-been and just maybe should-have-been as we Re-Draft The 31 First Round NBA Picks Out Of High School
31 Philadelphia 76ers (1975): Darryl Dawkins
Original Team: Philadelphia 76ers
Darryl Dawkins went into the Philadelphia 76ers’ locker room once to meet a particularly famous fan, one who admired his reputation for leaping with his 6’ 11”, 250 pound frame and dunking with immense glass-shattering force. “A guy who never saw me,” Dawkins later said of Grammy Award winner Stevie Wonder, “gave me the name Chocolate Thunder.”
Pat Williams took over as general manager for a horrible Philadelphia 76ers team in 1974, and watched as an ABA (American Basketball Association) team, the Utah Stars, drafted future Hall-of-Famer Moses Malone out of high school. His copycat decision would be the first time an NBA team had ever taken an amateur player pre-college in the first round. It would also be the last time for another twenty years, as the #5 selection Dawkins battled a reputation for being immature throughout his career. Williams, looking back on his decision, would say “Darryl has always thought life was a big lark. He never realized how serious this business is.” Still, with the perspective of 20/20 vision that only the future can provide, Dawkins was indeed just about the fifth best player in his class, finishing sixth in win share behind notable names like David Thompson and World B. Free.
Indeed, “Chocolate Thunder” never lived up to his potential in his career, failing to make an all-star team despite ten quality seasons before fading quickly at age 30 and retiring at 32. To add insult to injury, the year after they traded him, 1980-81, the Sixers finally won an NBA Championship after replacing him with… Moses Malone.
30 Golden State Warriors (1995): Kevin Garnett
Original Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
Kevin Garnett was almost not a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Indeed, the Washington Bullets almost took Illinois’ “Mr. Basketball,” the first high schooler to enter a draft in twenty years, right before the team was on the board with the #5 pick. Then Bullets GM John Nash recalled “I explained to [Bullets owner Abe Pollin] that we liked a lot of players at the top of that draft — Joe Smith and [Antonio] McDyess, and [Jerry] Stackhouse and Rasheed [Wallace]. I said, ‘You know, Mr. Pollin, there’s this high school kid. I want to tell you, he might be special.’” The owner declined however, so they took the North Carolina University star Wallace at #4, and the rest, well that’s T-Wolves history.
Of course, if we were to do it all over again, its no question Garnett should have gone #1 to the Golden State Warriors, who instead chose yet another big man, the aforementioned power forward Joe Smith out of the University of Maryland. Despite being four years behind in his training, by his second season, young Garnett and his Timberwolves were already better than Smith and the Warriors and both team and player only trended in opposite directions from there. By 1999-2000 the T-Wolves were 50-32 and the 6th Seed in the loaded Western Conference and the Warriors were 19-63 and practically the worst team in the NBA. Sorry Dubs fans… bur at least you get to have Steph Curry and Kevin Durant now.
29 Philadelphia 76ers (1996): Kobe Bryant
Original Team: Charlotte Hornets, Traded to Los Angeles Lakers
History shows that the Black Mamba was perhaps as the biggest steal in NBA history. With so many what-ifs about Michael Jordan being selected third in the draft, there is surprisingly little conversation about Bryant going ten slots later at #13. Perhaps that's in part due to the top of the 1996 draft leading to so many satisfied customers. Between them, the first six picks, Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen, and Antoine Walker had 27 All-Star appearances (although, to be fair, a majority of those were Iverson and Allen). They all had long valuable careers, but... none of them are Kobe Bryant, not even AI, himself one of the greatest of all time.
Iverson, the #1 overall selection that year, may have nearly single-handedly carried the Philadelphia 76ers to the 2001 NBA Finals, but after winning the first game, the team succumbed to four straight losses to Kobe and the LA Lakers. Sure, Bryant had Shaquille O'Neal on his side, but Dikembe Mutumbo was a Hall-of-Fame big man in his own right playing for Philadelphia. And even if you don't buy into the 2001 argument that Kobe could have brought home a championship when Iverson didn't, look no further to the rest of their careers to see the difference in sustained success in leading a team to post-season glory. Bryant: five championships. Iverson: zero.
28 Dallas Maverick (1996): Jermaine O’Neal
Original Team: Portland Trailblazers
While Kobe was the headliner high school straight to pros pick of 1996, history shows Jermaine O'Neal also deserved to be a lottery pick, perhaps as high as #9 to the Dallas Mavericks. The team wasted their pick on fellow big man Samaki Walker, who never even averaged 10 points per game over the course of a season. O’Neal would have a 12 season stretch of just that over an 18 year career, including six straight all-star appearances as a member of the Indiana Pacers, from 2001-02 through 2006-07.
While O'Neal was busy averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game during that stretch and finishing three of the six seasons in the top ten in the NBA in defensive rating, the Mavericks were regularly finishing towards the top of the Western Conference, but only once made it to the NBA Finals during that stretch. They were particularly weak on defense throughout and struggled to find a consistent big man to start opposite Dirk Nowitzki.
27 Philadelphia 76ers (1997): Tracy McGrady
Original Team: Toronto Raptors
T-Mac and Kobe. That’s the pair of stars the Philadelphia 76ers could have had in consecutive years after picking second behind the San Antonio Spurs in 1997, who rightly took Tim Duncan at #1 to launch a near-20 year dynasty. Instead, the Sixers took Keith Van Horn out of the University of Utah, a very good but never great power forward. They dealt him two days later to the New Jersey Nets in exchange for four players, none of whom were even still with the club by the 00-01 season, the same year Tracy McGrady became a bona fide star, averaging 26.8 per game after a trade from the Toronto Raptors to the Orlando Magic, and the same year, of course, the 76ers were in the NBA Finals, lifted by a super human performance by Allen Iverson. Would have been nice to have had McGrady along for the ride.
And if they had taken Kobe Bryant the year prior instead of AI? Would we be talking Sixers dynasty?
26 Orlando Magic (1998): Al Harrington
Original Team: Indiana Pacers
Add Al Harrington as yet another name on the list of late '90s draftees who performed well above their slot. As raw a prospect as you could find, Harrington had only begun playing organized basketball as a high school freshman for St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, NJ. He would go on to play sixteen seasons in the NBA, and earn status as one of the best sixth men in the league particularly during his time with the Indiana Pacers, who selected him 25th in 1998.
A lottery team that missed out on Harrington were the Orlando Magic, who would have been wise to select him with the 12th pick. Instead, they were once again burned by choosing to go with size out of the University of Utah (see Van Horn, Keith, above) taking center Michael Doleac, who would top out at 7 points per game in his three seasons in Orlando, and only go down from there through his 10 year career. Harrington, who would have eleven straight seasons in double digits scoring, would have been the perfect remedy to the two years lost to injury for Grant Hill once Tracy McGrady came to town in the early 2000s, perhaps helping renew title hopes of the Magic, post-Shaq.
25 San Antonio Spurs (1999): Jonathan Bender
Original Team: Toronto Raptors
The first high school lottery bust but certainly not the last, Jonathan Bender was a quiet teenager with a skinny seven-foot-frame and guard-like ball handling that drew him comparisons to Kevin Garnett. In his first NBA season with the Indiana Pacers, after the Toronto Raptors had traded them the #5 overall pick in the 1999 draft, Bender was challenged by coach Larry Bird to dunk from the foul line. “He took off, jumped with the ball in his right hand, in midair switched to his left hand and did a windmill dunk”, he recalled, laughing. “I couldn’t believe it.” Bender struggled early in his career and unfortunately a torn calf muscle and knee problems constantly plagued him beginning in 2002-03 before retiring in 2006, cutting off any opportunity for gradual improvement.
Perhaps, instead of the pressures of being a lottery pick, Bender would have been a better fit towards the end of the first round to a team like the San Antonio Spurs, providing athleticism off the bench behind David Robinson and Tim Duncan as he developed, and maybe even avoiding injury by learning to play the game right, under their example and Gregg Popovich’s watchful eye.
24 Minnesota Timberwolves (1999): Leon Smith
Original Team: San Antonio Spurs
In fact, the San Antonio Spurs did choose a high school big man as the 29th selection, Leon Smith, before trading his rights to the Dallas Mavericks. Smith barely played a game in the pros, and sadly paid a deep personal cost for the pressures of the transition of the NBA, trying to commit suicide just months into his first season. It is hard to pinpoint what situation would have kept Smith from downing a half a bottle of aspirin only months after being taken in the first round in 1999, as he had an extremely hard childhood, moving from group home to shelter as a ward of the State of Illinois. He even stormed out of the gym in his very first practice with Dallas before two arrests and a contract suspension led to his darkest of days.
That said, we can only guess that perhaps playing behind a success story of a fellow Chicagoan big man who had made the direct to NBA leap, Kevin Garnett, a notoriously fiery leader, might have steered him straight. He certainly stands as perhaps the biggest tragedy of the High School to Pros era, and it is only natural to hope that it could have all been avoided.
23 Milwaukee Buck (2000): Darius Miles
Original Team: Los Angeles Clippers
In a weak draft whose best players would go on to be journeymen like Jamal Crawford, Kenyon Martin, Mike Miller, Michael Redd, and Hedo Turkoglu, the #3 overall selection of high schooler Darius Miles by the Los Angeles Clippers was still a huge over-reach. He started off strong as a First Team All-Rookie, averaging 9.4 points per game, and peaked when he scored a career high 14 points per game in his sixth season, then with the Portland Trailblazers. However, he also shouted racial slurs at his coach Maurice Cheeks that year, was suspended for substance abuse, and promptly barely played for two seasons due to needing micro-fracture surgery on his knee. Perhaps Miles would have benefitted from a smaller market and a less pressure-full draft position (not to mention a less notoriously dysfunctional franchise), for instance joining the Milwaukee Bucks at the 15th pick to play behind and be mentored by star veteran small forward Glenn Robinson for a few years (who instead took and then traded little used center Jason Collier).
22 Utah Jazz (2000): DeShawn Stevenson
Original Team: Utah Jazz
DeShawn Stevenson went on to be a valued contributor, mostly as a reserve, for 13 NBA seasons with six different teams, about as good as you can expect for #23 overall pick. Unfortunately, he did most of his good work not with the Jazz, who finally saw good results in his fourth year with the club before trading him away mid-season. ""I think the maturation process was a little bit longer than we would have liked," said Kevin O'Conner, Jazz vice president of basketball operations at the time of the trade. "This year I think he improved a great deal and I think he's proven that he can play in the NBA."
The trade also led indirectly to the 2005 drafting of Deron Williams as a result of trading draft picks that had been included in the deal, arguably the best player on the Jazz for a five and a half season stretch. So, all-in-all a strong choice that season for Utah.
21 Orlando Magic (2001 ): Kwame Brown
Original Pick: Washington Wizards
The 2001 draft featured four out of the first eight picks coming from kids barely old enough to drive. Of course, when those kids were all between 6’ 11” and 7’ 1”, you might see why the size obsessed NBA was licking its lips. In fact, the Washington Bullets, who owned the 1st pick, were keen on selecting the tallest of them all, Tyson Chandler, until new team president Michael Jordan saw another high schooler, Kwame Brown, dismantle him one on one. Afterwards, Brown came right up to him and said “if you draft me first, I’ll never disappoint you.”
That turned out to be far from true, as Brown was pretty good on the defensive end but never gained confidence with his offensive game. The first high schooler granted the honor of the #1 overall pick, he had enough talent to have seven teams take a chance on him in a twelve year career, but never played better than his third season with the Wizards in which he averaged 10.9 points and 7.4 rebounds a game. Forever to be viewed as a bust because of an unfortunate misread by the club that chose him, if Brown had been more of a mid-1st round selection, for instance by the Orlando Magic, who could have benefitted from a reserve to sub for offensive minded big man Pat Garrity up front (a role, their actual selection Steven Hunter, did to a lesser effect), he would have actually been a perfectly adequate pick.
20 Los Angeles Clippers (2001): Tyson Chandler
Original Team: Los Angeles Clippers
Since Kwame Brown ended up going #1 to the Washington Wizards after impressing Team President Michael Jordan in a one-on-one match with the more highly regarded high school big man Tyson Chandler, the latter fell to #2 to the Clippers before being shipped off to the Bulls the next day for Elton Brand. Spoiler alert - the Clippers and Bulls both got it right, with the former getting a star for years to come and the latter getting one of the best defensive centers of his era. Chicago even got the two most dominant defensive seasons of Chandler's career in 2004-05 and 2005-06, where advanced statistics put him in the top ten in defensive rating. He also was named the 2011-12 Defensive Player of the Year in his first season with the Knicks, and even he greatly improved his efficiency on the offensive end over time, leading the league in field goal percentage that year, a stat which he is currently second all time in.
Chandler remains a strong contributor, now on his 6th team in his 16th season, the Phoenix Suns, in the top ten in rebounds per game in the NBA as of this writing with 12.2.
19 Toronto Raptors (2001): Eddy Curry
Original Team: Chicago Bulls
"It would be super dope to have a college diploma," the fourth pick of the 2001 draft Eddy Curry said last summer in regretting the life choices made by one of the biggest high school straight to pros busts in NBA history. Don't blame the Chicago Bulls for Curry's failures though. "I was a kid coming out of high school, literally," he said."When I was in Chicago, they babied me in Chicago. They really kind of sheltered and kept us kind of concealed and didn't let us get into a lot of stuff. Then I went to New York and it was total opposite. It was like boom."
In his first four seasons with the Bulls, Curry continued to improve his game and found himself as the team’s starting center by his third season and averaged 14.7 and then 16.1 points per game in the role in 2003-04 and 2004-05. He peaked after a sign-and-trade brought him to the Knicks scoring 19.5 per game in Mike D'Antoni's system in 2007-08, but his defensive effort went south and his weight quickly went north, and he fell out of favor before bottoming out of the league at just 30 in 2012-13.
Its hard to see any place where Curry would have succeeded more since Chicago was actually a good fit but the Toronto Raptors, selecting at 17, could have used his offensive punch for their undersized front line (their actual pick to that point, Michael Bradley, was offensively inept) and in terms of overall career value, it would have been just about an appropriate slot.
18 Utah Jazz (2001): DeSagana Diop
Original Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
DeSagana Diop lasted 12 seasons thanks to his massive 300 LB frame, averaging 2.0 points and 3.7 rebounds over 14 minutes per game for four teams. He would have been an adequate end-of-first-round pick but nothing more, perhaps to the Utah Jazz at #24 whose actual pick, Raul Lopez, flamed out after just two NBA seasons. The Senegalese native did actually just join the team as a coaching associate during the current season, a position created "to provide prospective coaches an opportunity to gain further experience in an apprenticeship role in order to better prepare them for a future career in coaching," according to the official press release.
At the very least, it would have been fun to watch the shot blocking Diop running the floor with John Stockton and Karl "Mailman" Malone in their final two seasons together of their storied partnership.
17 Chicago Bulls (2002): Amar’e Stoudemire
Original Team: Phoenix Suns
Yao Ming may have had a better peak, earning All-Star selections in all eight seasons of his short NBA career and Nene may be having the longest, most consistent career, but for overall value, its hard to look past Amar’e Stoudemire as the best player to come out of the 2002 draft. A six-time All-Star, including five selections while running with the high-octane offense of the Mike D’Antoni coached Phoenix Suns (who drafted him ninth) in the mid-late 2000s, Stoudemire managed to provide decent contributions on the back-end of his career, following his coach to the New York Knicks, and then short stints with the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat before retiring after fourteen seasons.
We’ll grant the Rockets the correct #1 choice with Yao but the Chicago Bull’s selection of Jay Williams as #2 that season was as disastrous as it was tragic, when the emerging star wrecked his leg and his career with an off-season motorcycle accident. Thankfully Williams is alive and well today and even recently released his autobiography titled “Life is Not an Accident.” Still, imagine a young Stoudemire’s high-octane offensive prowess complimenting the young back-court of Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, and Luol Deng, and its easy to imagine those Bulls teams of the mid-2000s at least making a Conference Finals.
16 Cleveland Cavaliers (2003): LeBron James
Original Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
We all know James was appropriate at #1. So. Moving on.
What would be more fun to imagine was a what-if scenario where the Detroit Pistons won the #1 pick instead of settling for #2 and choosing Darko Milicic over future-stars Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh (respectively chosen three, four, and five to follow in the 2003 NBA Draft). What a starting line-up the Detroit Pistons would have sported on their way to the 2003-04 NBA title (a pretty easy assumption since they won it all without LeBron that season anyway). Chauncey Billups at the point, Richard Hamilton at the two, Tayshaun Prince at the three, LeBron James at the four, and Ben Wallace at center. Hard to imagine them trading for Rasheed Wallace mid-season, and equally hard to imagine them failing to repeat the next season when they fell to the San Antonio Spurs in seven in the Finals. Would LeBron ever have returned home to Cleveland if he had started his career with two titles for an in-division rival?
OK, stop shuddering Cavs fans, let's move on.
15 Portland Trail Blazers (2003): Travis Outlaw
Original Team: Portland Trail Blazers
Travis Outlaw was a rare spot-on selection as a late first-rounder, playing his best years with the team that selected him as the 23rd pick, the Portland Trail Blazers. He improved annually through the 2008-09 season, in which he was considered a favorite for the Sixth Man of the Year Award (it eventually went to the Dallas Mavericks’ Jason Terry) on a team that finished 54-28. He would play five more years for three more clubs, for a total of eleven overall.
Of course, he is also memorable in New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets fans' minds for a much less savory reason. On July 8, 2010, he signed a five year, $35 million contract with the team and played all of one season before they used the amnesty clause to release him and reduce what they owed him to $23 million, which they finally finished paying off at the end of the 2014-15 season, a year after Outlaw was out of the NBA entirely.
14 Houston Rockets (2003): Ndudi Ebi
Original Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
Ndudi Ebi, a slim and lanky 6’ 9” small forward out of Westbury Christian in Houston was projected by many to be the next Kevin Garnett, prompting none other than the Minnesota Timberwolves to select him at #26 with what would be their only first round pick in a three year span. Despite having had every collegiate top program from Duke to Texas recruit him, Ebi was quickly playing overseas after barely being able to get on the court in two seasons.
Perhaps staying close to the London-born Ebi's adopted home and his high school coach that made him a can't miss prospect in the first place could have been useful to his development. The Houston Rockets also wasted their #44 overall pick on Malick Badiane, who never appeared in the NBA, and boasted a coach, Jeff Van Gundy, renowned for his teaching skills.
13 Boston Celtics (2003): Kendrick Perkins
Original Team: Memphis Grizzlies
After being selected #27 by the Memphis Grizzlies, Kendrick Perkins was traded on draft night to the Boston Celtics, with whom he would be the starting center for the 2007-08 NBA Champions. In retrospect, he would actually have been a nice pick by the Celtics at #16 instead, based on his overall career value in relation to the rest of the 2003 class. As a bonus, Boston could have been able to keep fellow first rounder Dahntay Jones, who they packaged to get Perkins. Jones would go on to a decent twelve-year playing career himself coming off the bench.
Of course, then Perkins wouldn't have been considered a steal, a favorable light that may have propelled him to a long career playing alongside all-time greats such as Kevin Garnett, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and, most recently, Anthony Davis. We will never know.
12 Orlando Magic (2004): Dwight Howard
Original Team: Orlando Magic
There are three tiers to the glut of eight, count 'em, eight first round picks in the 2004 NBA Draft.
Dwight Howard, while certainly much maligned at multiple stops in his career, is unquestionably a Hall-of-Fame center deserving of his #1 selection to the Orlando Magic, particularly in a year where journeymen names like Andre Iguodala and Luol Deng would end up the most accomplished of his peers.
Just how good has Howard been? Its been quickly forgotten he has led the league in rebounds per game five times, a record eclipsed only by Wilt Chamberlain, Moses Malone, and Dennis Rodman. At just 31 years of age he is already the active leader in career rebounds and blocks, and, as of this writing, 25th and 24th all time respectively. And, assuming three or four more seasons of a relatively modest 900 points per year, Howard may just slide into a top-60 scorer of all time, alongside names like Scottie Pippin, Bob McAdoo, and Tracy McGrady. Not bad at all.
11 Los Angeles Clippers (2004): Shaun Livingston
Original Team: Los Angeles Clippers
Hard to believe Shaun Livingston was once the bust of the 2004 NBA Draft given his well regarded recent role as "the man otherwise known as Steph Curry's back-up" for the high flying Golden State Warriors. He turned down a scholarship offer from none other than Duke University to enter the NBA Draft. But then, mid-way through his third season with the Los Angeles Clippers, who selected him with the fourth overall pick, he had a devastating knee injury and would not return for a year and a half. He returned and bounced from team to team. He played in the D-League. He kept earning roster spots and by his tenth season, Golden State signed him as his ninth team.
He was on his way to deserving his high selection, improving each season with the Clippers, and fought harder than most would to come back and contribute. It must have been incredible to hold that championship trophy he earned with the Warriors in his first year with the team, 2014-15.
10 Chicago Bulls (2004): Robert Swift
Original Team: Seattle Supersonics
Call it superstition, but high school straight to pro picks seem to be a fraternity with each other, and its worth perhaps assuming the busts might have not been so with the guidance of those that came before. Robert Swift averaged 18.8 points, 15.9 rebounds and 6.2 blocks as a senior at Bakersfield High despite facing triple teams. He committed to USC, but despite his high school coach telling him he wasn't ready, he reneged and went into the 2004 NBA Draft.
He was taken #12 by the Seattle Supersonics, a surprise lottery pick, and immediately was known for not talking in practices or meetings. His youngest teammate, point guard Luke Ridnour was four years his senior. Then, in the 2006-07 pre-season, after earning 20 starts the year prior, he suffered a knee injury and was out for the year, and then tore his meniscus in the same knee after just 11 games played in 2007-08. Perhaps Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry could have mentored Swift effectively enough in his rookie season as a third-string center that he would have been worth a flier at #31 for the Chicago Bulls and learned the personal skills to survive such career devastation. Or perhaps not. Perhaps Swift was destined to sadly be another talent destroyed by going to the NBA too early.
9 Portland Trail Blazers (2004): Sebastian Telfair
Original Team: Portland Trailblazers
Sebastian Telfair probably deserved Portland’s second first round pick at #23 freeing up their lottery selection at #13 for a solid role player like Anderson Varejao (who instead went 30th to the Orlando Magic). The smallest high schooler to ever make the leap and get selected in round one, Telfair stood at 6' 0" on a good day, but was a big enough AAU sensation to garner a Sports Illustrated cover article before he even graduated and to sign a sneaker contract with Adidas before he was selected. He started off strong and seemed on his way to stardom, but then he had back to back incidents with guns, first with Portland in 2006 and then, now with the Boston Celtics after a trade, he was arrested for possession in 2007 and soon again traded, this time to Minnesota.
One way or another he never managed to stay in one place long, playing for eight teams over ten seasons, never amounting to more than a bench contributor. Varejao instead was a model of consistency, starting his career for 11.5 seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, before being traded to the Golden State Warriors in 2015-16, with who, he is playing today in limited minutes.c
8 Washington Wizards (2004): Al Jefferson
Original Team: Boston Celtics
While the actual high school lottery picks outside of Dwight Howard failed to live up to expectations, the mid-round selections all managed to have productive NBA careers, none more so than Al Jefferson, taken 15th overall but the Boston Celtics. A starting center most of his career for five different franchises, Jefferson stands at 22nd amongst active players in points scored and eigth in rebounds, and while he has been reduced recently to coming off the bench for the Indiana Pacers, he is only in the first year of a three year contract so figures to only rise in those figures.
A starter by 2006-07, his third year in the league, he would have made a great inside presence as the #5 overall pick elevating solid Washington Wizard teams (which they used instead on the solid but never tremendous guard Devin Harris). Those squads, which featured Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, were good enough to make the playoffs that year and the next but couldn't get out of the first round.
And the Toronto Raptors, who had the most disappointing pick of that year with Rafael Araújo at #8, who was out of the NBA after three seasons, should have gone with J.R. Smith instead, a scorer who could have slid in perfectly at shooting guard following the mid-season trade of a fading Vince Carter.
7 Atlanta Hawks (2004): Josh Smith
Original Team: Atlanta Hawks
Josh Smith was the right call for the Atlanta Hawks at #17, where he was a strong player for most of his career, but he was honestly good enough in a shallow draft class to have been an earlier first rounder for the team, who also selected at the sixth slot. Meanwhile Josh Childress, who was taken with their first selection, performed just well enough in retrospect to have been a good choice at 17.
In other words, they got it about right, but in reverse. Either way, as both players developed, Atlanta just got better and better, improving from their 13-69 finish in 2004-05 to 37-45. Then Childress made the controversial decision to abandon the NBA and leap to Greece in free agency, despite attempts from the team to re-sign both him and Smith that off-season. Smith stayed and the Hawks got better for two more years, finishing 53-29 in 2009-10. Unfortunately, the team stopped trending from there, and Smith has earned a reputation in recent years that belies the truth. He was an impressive player with an immense amount of hustle, and a consistent performer who never missed significant time for injury and averaged between 15.6 and 18.8 points per game in an eight year stretch in the prime of his career. Look for someone to take a chance on him before the year is out to return for his thirteenth season.
6 Toronto Raptors (2004): J.R. Smith
Original Team: New Orleans Hornets
Long before he revived his reputation by becoming a favorite-of-LeBron for the 2015-16 championship Cleveland Cavaliers, J.R. Smith was the co-MVP of the 2004 McDonald's All-American Game, and recent "one and done" college to pros NBA lottery pick Carmelo Anthony came up to him and told him to just skip it all and declare himself eligible for the draft. Chosen #18 overall by the New Orleans Hornets, he became a strong offensive force starting in his third season after joining Anthony to play for the Denver Nuggets, but soon coach George Karl was commenting about his questionable shot selection and poor decision making that “I just love the dignity of the game being insulted right in front of me."
Still, he played the role of one of the best bench spark plug types for nearly a decade in the prime of his career including winning the Sixth Man of the Year in 2012-13 for the New York Knicks. The Raptors had the biggest bust of the draft that season with the 8th overall pick, Rafael Araujo, which would have been just about the right slot for Smith's career value and they were struggling to find scorers to pair with Chris Bosh in his prime. It might just have been the perfect fit.
5 Miami Heat (2004): Dorell Wright
Original Team: Miami Heat
Dorell Wright was just about, well, right as the nineteenth overall selection of the 2004 NBA Draft for the Miami Heat both in terms of his eventual overall value and pairing well with the franchise that selected him, as proven by the fact that he stayed for six seasons and helped bring them the franchise's second championship. Wright peaked however in his seventh and eighth season, starting regularly for the first time for the Golden State Warriors, and averaging double digits in scoring for the only time in his career.
Interestingly, his younger brother, Delon Wright, was selected just one slot lower, at 20th overall, by the Toronto Raptors eleven years later in 2015. However, there is only a seven year age difference between them, as the younger perhaps learned the lessons of the elder, and played four years at the University of Utah before declaring.
4 Boston Celtics (2005): Martell Webster
Original Team: Portland Trailblazers
A 6’ 7” small forward, Martell Webster never played like a lottery pick after being selected 6th overall by the Portland Trailblazers in the 2005 NBA Draft. The best we can say is that he was still a more consistent performer than his 6’ 7” small forward counterpart Green, who was selected 18th by the Boston Celtics, straight from high school as well. He retired after ten seasons with a reputation as a consummate role player, a "3&D" guy even in the early years with Portland before that was in vogue.
He had one incredible quarter in his third season where he scored 24 in the period for the Blazers, something he had only done over the course of a whole game once performer. It was a small glimpse of the unrealized talent that allowed him to be taken much earlier than he probably should have in 2005.
3 Los Angeles Lakers (2005): Andrew Bynum
Original Team: Los Angeles Lakers
Andrew Bynum (Pictured Left) was just about right at #10 for the LA Lakers, with whom he would play the best years of his short but productive eight-year career including one All-Star appearance and two NBA Championships as their starting center. His overall career value pales in comparison to the 2005 draft's gold standard Chris Paul, and even can't compete with the next tier of Deron Williams and David Lee, but he served as the perfect compliment to Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, willing to play off the ball so they could make plays.
His career year was 2011-12, reaching highs of 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds but after being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in the off-season, his knees feel apart, and he never even got on the court for them. He was out of basketball one year later.
2 Miami Heat (2005): Gerald Green
Original Team: Boston Celtics
By the time Gerald Green walked the stage in June of 2005 as a first round selection straight out of high school, he knew he might be the last to do so. “It makes history," Green said of the impending collective bargaining agreement that a player must be 19 and a year away from high school to be drafted. "Even if we turn out to be the sorriest basketball players ever, we make history.”
As the only one of the "we" still playing today, Green may end up with a better overall career than Martell Webster, but as detailed above, his short term impact was relatively "sorry." He drifted to four teams in four seasons before playing overseas in Russia for two years. He could perhaps have been at least some use to the Miami Heat at #29 in place of their pick, Wayne Simien, was out of the league after just two seasons and never returned. After all, his best early career year, 2006-07, came in an off year for Shaquille O'Neal and Dwayne Wade, and the team was swept out of the playoffs in the first round.
1 Milwaukee Bucks: (2016): Thon Maker
Original Team: Milwaukee Bucks
Thon Maker is 19 years old and one year removed from high school. But, after Maker graduated from high school in June of 2015, he then stayed at Athlete Institute in Ontario, Canada for a fifth year. Confused yet? Indeed, there was disagreement as to whether or not he was eligible and even more confusion about where he deserved to get drafted. The seven-footer from Sudan ranked #17 overall in the high school class of 2016 by 24/7 Sports, but competed in the 2015 Nike Hoops Summit and only scored two points. DraftExpress ranked him just the 44th best player available to be selected by NBA franchises.
Its obviously too early to tell if the Milwaukee Bucks were wrong to go against that assessment by taking Maker with the 10th pick of the draft, but they did finally just give the 7’ 1” Maker his first start as of this writing. Additionally, none other than legendary high school to NBA success story Kevin Garnett, whom Maker has been compared to, walked away impressed after a recent work-out. “Thon Maker’s focus and appetite… was greater then great,” Garnett raved.
High upside and major growth potential mixed with slow development and limited usage early in his career? Sounds like a recipe for a teenager to make the leap into a man’s game… and maybe become Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant… or maybe become Jonathan Bender or Kwame Brown.
Only time will tell.