Coming up with a list of 20 recent first round draft choices that already seem like lost causes in the NBA might seem like a straight-forward exercise, but it presents its own challenges. For one thing, there are just too many examples to name. Though the past two draft classes have remained largely in tact, a whopping 18 lottery picks from the 2014 to 2016 drafts no longer play for the same team they debuted on. You could, theoretically, make the argument that all of those draft choices were regrettable, given how quickly their drafted team moved on.
There's also the matter of quality of pick. All first-rounders are not created equal, and the 30th selection of a draft should not carry the same expectations as the top pick. Therefore, we can't evaluate a wasted pick in the latter stages of the first round in the same way as we measure the success of a player taken with a high selection. Beyond that, there remains the question of what can truly be considered a 'recent' draft pick.
All that to say, we need some ground rules in place to best highlight 20 worthy candidates here. Most significantly, rule number one: the player must still be with the team that drafted them or acquired them on draft night. That way, we can operate purely on on-court value and not need to take trade value into account. Secondly, we tried to favor higher-slotted first rounders wherever possible, ensuring that these players were taken with coveted picks that could reasonably expect to, at least, produce a solid starter. Finally, we settled on 2012 as a limit on recency.
Without further ado, here are 20 first rounder that teams have already given up on:
20 Kevon Looney - Golden State Warriors (30th Overall, 2015)
Depending on your perspective, Kevon Looney is either one of the luckiest or unluckiest guys in the NBA. The final first round pick of the 2015 NBA Draft (I know I said I'd try to focus on higher picks - oops!), Looney was scooped up by the dynastic Golden State Warriors, where he has been largely relegated to bench duty on an insanely deep team. In essence, he had a front row seat to witness one of the great teams of all-time and got a championship ring out of it, too.
This season, the former UCLA big man had hoped to take on more of a role with the departure of Zaza Pachulia, but the Dubs' surprise signing of the injured DeMarcus Cousins has left Looney no closer to regular duty.
19 Juan Hernangomez - Denver Nuggets (15th Overall, 2014)
Denver went all-in on big men over the 2014 and 2016 drafts, adding Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic and Juan Hernangomez. One has moved on, one is a bona fide franchise star and one is just there. Hernangomez hasn't forced himself into the long term plans of the Nuggets like the 2014 second rounder Jokic has.
The 15th pick of the 2016 draft has even been bumped down the pecking order by Paul Millsap and Trey Lyles, two veterans acquired since Hernangomez was drafted. The 23-year-old's production tends to easily get lost in the shuffle on the deep Nuggets. Most Improved Player candidate Pascal Siakam, taken 12 picks after Hernangomez, might have been the better power forward option.
18 T.J. Leaf - Indiana Pacers (18th Overall, 2017)
No, former UCLA star T.J. Leaf is not believed to share any relation with one-time top quarterback prospect Ryan Leaf, apart from their common status as draft busts. Now, it goes without saying that drafting Ryan was far more damaging to the San Diego Chargers than the selection of T.J. was for the Indiana Pacers. But Indy surely still wanted more bang for their 18th overall draft choice than they have gotten out of the 21-year-old power forward, especially given the Pacers' status as a rising Eastern Conference contender. Unfortunately, Leaf hasn't been able to keep up with his over-achieving teammates and now finds himself a distant third on the power forward depth chart behind Thaddeus Young and Domantas Sabonis.
17 Henry Ellenson - Detroit Pistons (18th Overall, 2016)
While we're on the subject of power forwards, we might as well shift things over to the 18th selection from one year prior, Marquette's Henry Ellenson. Ellenson remains in the Detroit Pistons' organization, but the 6'11 big man probably isn't long for Motown. The Pistons have already declined his 2019-20 contract option as he toils in the G-League.
Thirty players from Ellenson's draft class have already spent more time with their NBA team than his 58 games with the Pistons, where he's managed just 3.8 points and 2.2 rebounds in 8.3 minutes. It would be tough to see a future in Detroit for Ellenson, even if Blake Griffin didn't have the position on lock.
16 Tyus Jones - Minnesota Timberwolves (24th Overall, 2015)
Well, at least Tyus Jones' Minnesota teammates seem to like him. None other than recently-departed star Jimmy Butler apparently chartered a private jet to Indianapolis so that Jones could see his brother Tre's collegiate debut with his Duke alma mater. The 'Wolves' front office and coaching staff, led by Tom Thibodeau, doesn't seem to value the 22-year-old point guard quite so highly, adding Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose and elevating their roles about Jones.
Not that the 2015 national champion's career production has really opened eyes and forced anyone to view him as anything more than a third-stringer. The 24th pick of the 2015 draft, Jones was acquired in a draft day trade with Cleveland for two second rounders, and while Rakeem Christmas doesn't look poised to be an NBA regular, Cedi Osman looks like a breakout candidate on the Cavs.
15 Denzel Valentine - Chicago Bulls (14th Overall, 2016)
The 2017-18 season may have been one to forget in Chicago, but it certainly lined up as a potential coming out party for Denzel Valentine. The second-year small forward had little in-house competition at the position and was buoyed by coach Fred Hoiberg's emphasis on shooting, which happens to be right up his alley. But even with a considerable minutes increase, there were no starting guarantees and Valentine ultimately assumed bench duty behind the unheralded David Nwaba.
Now, Nwaba is gone but the club upgraded at the position in the offseason by adding hometown star Jabari Parker. A lingering ankle injury put an end to Valentine's 2018-19 season, and it's unclear what role he will have to play even when he does get healthy.
14 John Henson - Milwaukee Bucks (14th Overall, 2014)
Despite being drafted in 2012, John Henson already reigns as the longest-tenured member of the Milwaukee Bucks. One might think that would mean something, and yet the 26-year-old has seen his minutes cut sharply in head coach Mike Budenholzer's rotation, dropping approximately 10 minutes per night from the 26 minutes he was getting last season.
While 'new coach mistreats long-standing veteran' sounds like an easy narrative for Bucks fans to rally behind, the team's too good and Henson really doesn't move the needle, as suggested by his modest career averages. The 2012 14th overall pick was selected one year before Giannis Antetokounmpo, but already has fewer than half the career points of the Greek Freak.
13 Delon Wright - Toronto Raptors (20th Overall, 2015)
You will see Delon Wright listed as the primary backup to Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry on most team depth charts, but that seems to somewhat overstate his importance to the team. In reality, Wright is an often overlooked component to Toronto's blazing start, overshadowed even by supposed third-stringer Fred VanVleet. And it isn't just optics either, as the undrafted VanVleet is currently averaging 10 more minutes per game for the Raps. Even when you measure importance by salary, you get Wright making $6 million less this year than VanVleet, although neither are anywhere close to Lowry's $30 million.
12 Frank Ntilikina - New York Knicks (8th Overall, 2017)
If you ask the Knicks, they will surely say that Frank Ntilikina remains an integral, core piece of the franchise moving forward. Whether they are to be believed, well, that's another matter. Even as he's started every game this year and seen a minutes increase, the second-year point guard still faces in-house competition from Trey Burke and Emanuel Mudiay, two fallen former lottery picks with something to prove.
Ntilikina would be in better standing if not for the 20-year-old's alarmingly low shooting rate. The eighth pick of the 2017 draft shot 36.4% in his rookie campaign and is below 35% so far this year. Perhaps we're just leery of the Knicks' draft history here, but that doesn't change the fact that Ntilikina's numbers don't exactly scream "future franchise point guard" just yet.
11 Thon Maker - Milwaukee Bucks (10th Overall, 2016)
Thon Maker was considered something of a reach when the Milwaukee Bucks tabbed him with their 10th overall selection of the 2016 draft. And Maker hasn't exactly been proving his critics wrong since then. The big man has simply never shown much promise of being anything more than an energetic role player off the bench. The Bucks have already exercised their team option on Maker for the 2019-20 season, largely because he represents an inexpensive gamble at $3.5 million.
Still, it's hard to ignore the fact that, as Milwaukee's 2016 second rounder became Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, they've gotten precious little out of their first rounder from that same year.
10 Stanley Johnson - Detroit Pistons (8th Overall, 2015)
Many an NBA executive and talent evaluator has found themselves, at one time or another, enamoured with the sheer athleticism of Stanley Johnson. The Pistons certainly fell hard for the Arizona Wildcats alum, taking him with the eighth pick of the 2015 draft. More than three years later, Johnson remains in Motown, but much of the shine of his pogo-stick athletic abilities has come off. For all of his springiness, Johnson still has never averaged so many as nine points a game or 40% shooting from the floor. There was some hope that Johnson could get a fresh start under new Pistons head coach Dwane Casey, but his minutes have actually decreased slightly in Casey's rotation.
9 Justise Winslow - Miami Heat (10th Overall, 2015)
Perhaps it was his potential as a hard-nosed defensive force or maybe it was Pat Riley's well-honed reputation as a draft guru, but many NBA observers felt the Heat had a steal on their hands when they took Justise Winslow out of Duke with the 10th pick in 2015. A sixth-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting and a spot on the All-Rookie team coming out of Winslow's first year certainly didn't dampen the rosy long-term outlook for the young small forward.
But the following season saw injuries limit Winslow to just 18 games and he's been playing catch up ever since. It doesn't help that his offensive game has lagged well behind his defense. He's still probably been better than half of a disappointing top 10 from 2015, but Winslow's supposed draft steal identity was clearly taken by Devin Booker (No. 13) and Nikola Jokic (No. 41).
8 Gorgui Dieng - Minnesota Timberwolves (21st Overall, 2013)
Every team needs a Gorgui Dieng - you know, the type of high-motor, all-energy grinder that sparks your team through their hustle. This kind of player often serves as the heartbeat of the club and one of its most popular players, just maybe not when they're getting paid more than $15 million. It's not fair to evaluate a player in relation to their contract, but it's an inevitable part of the business side of sports and Dieng is inextricably linked to the massive four-year, $64 million extension he signed in late 2016.
Prior to sending Jimmy Butler to the Philadelphia 76ers, it was reported that Minnesota was "hell-bent" on shipping Dieng's contract off alongside the star shooting guard. Butler is now gone, but the power forward remains, averaging 13 minutes a night while still with over $40 million left on his deal.
7 Josh Jackson - Phoenix Suns (4th Overall, 2017)
The focus may sit squarely on the tandem of Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker in Phoenix right now, but they are far from the only lottery picks in the desert. It's a bad sign for the Suns that they are represented by two entries on this list (more later), with the first being a guy taken fourth overall a mere 18 months ago. Josh Jackson is still only 21, but he has clearly come up on the wrong end of a minutes battle with TJ Warren. Jackson has yet to make an impression on new head coach Igor Koskokov.
While the Suns will certainly say all the right things about the former Kansas Jayhawks star, it has to be disconcerting to see him lose out so drastically on a starting job in a sophomore season where so many young stars make major strides.
6 Michael Kidd-Gilchrist - Charlotte Hornets (2nd Overall, 2012)
It was surely a proud moment for coach John Calipari on draft night in 2012 when Kentucky Wildcats products Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went one-two to New Orleans and Charlotte, respectively. As we now know, the now-Pelicans landed a franchise superstar and one of the league's best players in Davis, while the current Hornets haven't made off quite so well with MKG.
To be fair, Kidd-Gilchrist has put forth a perfectly solid seven-year career to date, with the only real setbacks coming in the form of injuries that cost him nearly 50 games between 2013 and 2015 and then 75 games during the 2015-16 season. Injuries aside, "perfectly solid" isn't what you are striving for out of a No. 2 overall pick, particularly one taken ahead of the likes of Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard and Andre Drummond.
5 Dragan Bender - Phoenix Suns (4th Overall, 2016)
For all the research and analytics that go into scouting for the draft each year, apparently some international intrigue, good size and a cool name can still go a long way for a prospect. That was the case for Dragan Bender, a 7'1" forward out of Croatia with a name that sounds like it was pulled from Game of Thrones. There was enough intrigue surrounding the supposed sharp-shooting big man in 2016 that the Suns were lured into taking him fourth overall.
Two years and change later, that draft decision looks bad. It's believed that Bender narrowly avoided the cutting block in preseason and has been glued to the bench early in the year. With the likes of Deandre Ayton, Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza now in tow, those opportunities won't be so plentiful and the writing already seems to be on the wall.
4 Frank Kaminsky - Charlotte Hornets (9th Overall, 2015)
Short of a trade, waiving or renouncing free agent rights, there's really no better way of saying "we have no faith in you" than docking playing time. And so it's pretty easy to surmise that new Charlotte Hornets head coach James Borrego may not be the biggest fan of Frank Kaminsky. Coming off two straight seasons of averaging 11 points while earning about 25 minutes, 'Frank the Tank' has gotten into limited action this season. Kaminsky simply isn't a fit for Borrego's small ball lineups, which have seen Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Nicolas Batum both see time at the power forward spot.
If we're being honest here, though, it's not like the former Wisconsin Badgers star has really establish himself enough since being taken ninth overall in 2015 for his coach's treatment to be considered unfair.
3 Brandon Ingram - L.A. Lakers (2nd Overall, 2016)
Remember back when LeBron "came home" to Cleveland and penned a letter then conspicuously omitted Cavs youngsters Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, only to see the two later shipped to Minnesota in the Kevin Love deal? If James was to write a letter offering hope and optimism to a Lakers fan base watching the team struggle, one has to wonder if it would include Brandon Ingram.
Indeed, the focus in LA seems to be not so much on developing talents like Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma as it does on the cap space that awaits to bring James some running buddies next summer. If LeBron can convince any to join him with the Lake Show, what will become of the Duke alum and 2016 second overall pick? So far, he's producing at a slightly lesser clip this season than he did in last year's pre-James campaign.
2 Markelle Fultz - Philadelphia 76ers (1st Overall, 2017)
An interesting debate taking shape in Philadelphia right now is what the acquisition of Jimmy Butler says about the 76ers' trust in Markelle Fultz. On one hand, GM Elton Brand did not include Fultz in the trade, suggesting that the Sixers remain committed to the 2017 first overall pick. That still, however, leaves the question of where Fultz fits in on a contender that now boasts a Butler / Ben Simmons / J.J. Redick guard rotation.
Philly had appeared committed to treating this as the former Huskies star's rookie campaign after he missed all but 14 games last season, starting him at the two-guard in each of the team's first 15 games despite some major shooting issues. It remains to be seen how Fultz can recover from those shooting woes while coming off the bench, not to mention how much more patience the organization will have with him as they try to win.
1 Dante Exum - Utah Jazz (5th Overall, 2014)
The rise of rookie Donovan Mitchell last season invigorated the Utah Jazz organization, but it's reasonable to think that there was at least one teammate of Mitchell's whose feelings were a little more mixed. And no, it wasn't just fellow two-guards Alec Burks and Jae Crowder, who saw their minutes cut. It's hard to believe that Dante Exum could watch Mitchell without thinking what could have been had his own young career gotten off to a similarly hot start. But after a predictably uneven first year from the 19-year-old point guard, the injury-prone Exum saw action in just 80 games over three seasons between 2015 and last year.
When the 2014 fifth overall pick has seen the floor, he's mostly been limited to running a low-maintenance offense in a reserve role. Utah would probably love to trust him to play ahead of Ricky Rubio, but he simply hasn't shown that he's ready to handle the speed and physicality of basketball at the NBA level, especially not over 82 games.