The line that separates recently drafted NBA players who are seen as stars from those viewed as flops is often fine. Perhaps the best example of this is Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins was sent to Minnesota as part of a deal that saw Kevin Love join LeBron James and Kyrie Irving with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer of 2014, and the 23-year-old has produced some impressive offensive statistics during his career. Despite the Timberwolves giving him a pricey extension, some have claimed that he largely scores “empty points” and will be worth more to the franchise as part of a future trade than someone who can help the team win a title before his deal expires.
The unpredictable nature of the NBA makes forecasting who, among young NBA players, might develop into stars and who will be remembered as flops. After all, nobody would have guessed in July 2016 that Irving would force a trade to the Boston Celtics and that James would take his talents to the Los Angeles Lakers roughly two years after he was the star of a championship parade in downtown Cleveland. With that said, the NBA is full of young talent and future stars who all may be cornerstones for the Association for at least the next decade. However, the last man spotlighted in this piece could be out of the league a year from now.
20 Star: Lonzo Ball
You may not have always loved the antics of Lonzo Ball’s outspoken father LaVar, the hype that hovers over the Los Angeles Lakers guard, or his odd shooting mechanics. That’s all well and good, but don’t discount his incredible vision and ability to create plays for those around him. As Josh Martin of Lonzo Wire/USA Today explained, Gary Payton said that the 20-year-old possesses “a court vision that I have never seen since Magic Johnson” this past June. Ball playing alongside LeBron James should only help him mature on and off the court and improve weaknesses attached to his game. We’ll see if he can work on his scoring during his second year in the pros.
19 Flop: Georgios Papagiannis
Casual basketball fans reading this piece may be asking “who?” upon seeing the name Georgios Papagiannis. Taken 13th overall by the Phoenix Suns before his rights were traded to the Sacramento Kings, Papagiannis was a project who never developed into even a suitable bench player. The seven-footer serves as a reminder that size is only worth so much in the modern NBA, and it’s worth essentially nothing if the individual is too slow to keep up with others on the court. This past July, Papagiannis signed with Panathinaikos Athens of Greece. He is just 21-years-old, so it is possible he could return from overseas at some point.
18 Star: Malcolm Brogdon
Players drafted with top-three picks are supposed to be stars right out of the gates. The Milwaukee Bucks found a gem in the 2016 NBA Draft when the franchise landed guard Malcolm Brogdon with the 36th pick. Brogdon won Rookie of the Year honors for the 2016-17 campaign, and he improved his scoring from 10.2 points per game that year to 13.0 last season. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the first name that comes to mind when one mentions the Bucks, and understandably so since the Greek Freak is probably a future NBA MVP. Don’t discount what Brogdon could mean to Milwaukee during the 2019 NBA Playoffs, especially if he improves as a defender.
17 Flop: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
“I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” could be the best way to describe the NBA career of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist since he entered the league via the second pick of the 2012 draft. The 25-year-old forward is a fine player, but the terms of his contract, one that includes a player option for the 2019-20 season, could make him a trade piece for a Charlotte Hornets side that is staring at an inevitable rebuild regardless of what anybody working for the team wants to say about the situation in October. Damian Lillard, Andre Drummond and, yes, Draymond Green were all on the board when Charlotte took Kidd-Gilchrist.
16 Star: Jaylen Brown
What should be remembered about guard Jaylen Brown, taken third overall by the Boston Celtics in the 2016 NBA Draft, is that he wasn’t supposed to be a superstar in a lineup scheduled to feature both Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving at the start of the 2017-18 season. We all know what happened five minutes into that campaign. Brown, who notched 70 starts his second year in the NBA, averaged 14.5 points per game, and he drained nearly 40 percent of his three-pointers. In June, Joshua Bateman of Hardwood Houdini wrote why he believes Brown could become Boston’s more important defender for the current campaign.
15 Flop: Thon Maker
The two positive things one could write about seven-footer Thon Maker, drafted tenth overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2016, is he is only 21-years-old (though some say otherwise) and the Bucks can move on from him following the 2018-19 season. In short, Maker does not do anything all that well, and he may have actually gotten worse on the defensive end of the court than he was during his first year. His three-point shooting also dipped from 37.8 percent to 29.8 percent. He averages fewer than three rebounds per game. There comes a point where a team just has to admit that a project isn’t developing as planned and that it is time to go in a different direction.
14 Star: Aaron Gordon
There was a time when forward Aaron Gordon, drafted fourth by the Orlando Magic in 2014, was largely known only for highlight reel dunks and for playing for an unstable and losing franchise. The 23-year-old is now the face of the organization after improving his scoring in each of the past three seasons leading up to the 2018-19 campaign. Perhaps the most promising sign about his immediate future is that it appears he has worked to better his three-point shooting. It’s just too bad many won’t notice Gordon, outside of a handful of plays, because he’ll once again feature for a lousy team.
13 Flop: Mario Hezonja
Oh, if only the next person on the list would have fallen to the Orlando Magic and the fifth spot of the 2015 NBA Draft. Instead, the Magic selected Mario Hezonja, a forward who averaged under seven points per game during his tenure with the organization and a project the team gave up on after it did not pick up his fourth-year option. Optimistic fans of the New York Knicks hoping that Hezonja can find new life for his career playing home games at Madison Square Garden may point to the fact that he turns only 24-years-old next February. Age is probably the best thing he has going for him as it pertains to shaking the “flop” label from his resume.
12 Star: Kristaps Porzingis
Remember when fans of the New York Knicks dared to boo the team drafting Kristaps Porzingis in 2015? Needless to say, those individuals probably feel silly about their actions on that night. Porzingis became an instant sensation and presence at both ends of the court, a seven-footer who could score from the perimeter with the same ease he produces buckets down low, while at the same time averaging a pair of rejections per contest. The biggest worry about the 23-year-old is how he’ll recover from the torn ACL he suffered last February. If the Knicks are smart, we won’t see Porzingis play a second of meaningful basketball until October 2019.
11 Flop: Doug McDermott
Whatever happens in the future of the career of guard Doug McDermott, we’ll always have those memories of when he taught us how to Dougie. When he entered the NBA via the 11th pick of the 2014 draft before his rights were traded to the Chicago Bulls, the hope was that he would, at worst, develop into a type of three-point shooter similar to Kyle Korver. Theoretically, that still could happen. After all, the 26-year-old drained 39 of 79 shots from beyond the arc in 26 games with the Dallas Mavericks last season. Remember, though, that Gary Harris and Zach LaVine, among others, were on the board when McDermott was drafted.
10 Star: Devin Booker
Devin Booker may not want you to believe that the Phoenix Suns are trying to tank and play for the future, but even the 21-year-old can only do so much to drag this bad team through yet another losing season. The Suns are meaningless in the grand scheme of things this fall, but Booker, alone, is worth the price of admission. Drafted 13th overall in 2015, Booker nearly averaged 25 points per game last season, and he has improved his three-point shooting each year of his brief career. He deserves to be an All-Star even if the Suns are doomed to finish near, or at, the bottom the conference standings.
9 Flop: Stanley Johnson
The perception exists that a promising defender who excelled in college but who struggled offensively can eventually learn how to shoot the ball. As a counterargument to that point, we present Stanley Johnson, the eighth pick of the 2015 NBA Draft who was taken ahead of individuals such as Myles Turner and Devin Booker. It was hardly a surprise when it was learned that the Detroit Pistons were reportedly shopping Johnson ahead of last year’s trade deadline. The 22-year-old is a liability on offense, and there is no sign that’s going to change at any point in the foreseeable future. He could be part of a trade package later this season.
8 Star: Karl-Anthony Towns
Not every first overall pick of every draft in each sport goes on to become a superstar. Fortunately, the Minnesota Timberwolves seemingly have nothing to worry about regarding Karl-Anthony Towns, the first selection from the 2015 NBA Draft. In September, the Timberwolves awarded Towns with a deserved super-maximum extension that should keep him the face of the franchise up through the first half of next decade. It’s what the 22-year-old deserved after showing he can be a walking double-double and easily average over 20 points per contest. Imagine what could be for Minnesota if Towns and Jimmy Butler can find a way to work together for longer than a few months.
7 Flop: Jakob Poeltl
To date, the biggest headline made by 7-footer Jakob Poeltl occurred when he was part of the deal that saw the Toronto Raptors acquire Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs for DeMar DeRozan. The ninth pick of the 2016 NBA Draft was quickly labeled a bust by Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders in May 2017, and Poeltl has done little to eliminate that stigma, minus a handful of outings. The 2016 NBA Draft was awful, no question about it, but that doesn’t make this particular pick any less of a flop. While only 23-years-old, Poeltl isn’t generating much buzz in his early days with San Antonio.
6 Star: Brandon Ingram
Brandon Ingram may never be for the Los Angeles Lakers what Ben Simmons likely will become for the Philadelphia 76ers, but the second pick of the 2016 NBA Draft showed last season that he is capable of improving to the point of serving as a second scoring option for a playoff team. The six-foot-nine 21-year-old with a 7-foot-3 wingspan averaged 16.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists across 59 contests in 2017-18, and that was before LeBron James came to town. As long as he can remain healthy and avoid earning four-game suspensions on a monthly basis, he could be in for his best season.
5 Flop: Marquese Chriss
Perhaps the hottest take one will see about Marquese Chriss was that the eighth overall pick of the 2016 NBA Draft was a “cancer” to the fanbase of the Phoenix Suns, per Adam Maynes of Valley of the Suns. As Maynes wrote, Chriss’ numbers dipped during his second year in the Association, and the Suns traded the 21-year-old to the Houston Rockets in August. An ankle problem has prevented him from contributing for his new club during the start of the current campaign. He’ll attempt to be an impact reserve for a team looking to win a championship when he is healthy and able to take the court against real competition.
4 Star: Donovan Mitchell
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell absolutely would have won Rookie of the Year for the 2017-18 season if he wouldn’t have been up against somebody who produced literally one of the greatest debut seasons in the history of the sport. The 22-year-old averaged 20.5 points per game and shot 34 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie, and he set a record once held by Michael Jordan for most playoff points scored by a guard in his first two postseason games. He is a major reason D.J. Foster of The Ringer suggested in August 2018 that the Jazz may actually be the best team in the Western Conference for the 2018-19 campaign.
3 Flop: Anthony Bennett
The term “recent” is in the eye of the beholder. As long as NBA draft drops and busts are listed by fans and observers, the name of Anthony Bennett will be mentioned. Selected first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2013, Bennett was a complete waste of a draft pick and a forward who didn’t have the talent or hunger to make it in the Association, or even in the G League. In October 2018, the Agua Caliente Clippers decided to take a flier on him to see if he still has any upside. Don’t hold your breaths waiting to see the 25-year-old meet any of the expectations had for him when he first joined the NBA.
2 Star: Ben Simmons
As Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia explained last April, the rookie season produced by Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons may have been the best we’ve seen since the days of Magic Johnson. The 22-year-old who ran away with the Rookie of the Year award, and deservedly so, is a vital part of The Process that has helped the Sixers rise up the standings and could make Philadelphia a legitimate contender even before the end of the current decade. In time, he could average a triple-double, if such offensive stats are important to him, and he could also become a Defensive Player of the Year candidate before he turns 25.
1 Flop: Jahlil Okafor
In February 2018, Harshil Desai of The Daily Californian wrote about “how the NBA evolved past Jahlil Okafor.” Okafor, the third overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft, earned NBA All-Rookie First Team honors, but that single season would be the highlight of a career that has fallen to the point that he is lucky to have a job with the New Orleans Pelicans as of the posting of this piece. Those who compare Okafor to Enes Kanter are being generous as of the fall of 2018. The 22-year-old could still have a bright future playing professionally, but it won’t be in the NBA. The league has passed him by.