Though still anything but an exact science, the NBA Draft seems to have grown into more of a sure thing over the years thanks to the vast array of information at the disposal of the league’s general managers. If we remove 2016 from the equation, since we have no idea what the NBA might hold for Ben Simmons, there is a strong argument to be made that three of the past four drafts produced the best player at No. 1 (sorry, Anthony Bennett). We still have a schadenfreude-driven fascination with memorably glaring busts like Bennett, Darko Milicic and Hasheem Thabeet, but those type of players seem to quietly be coming along less and less frequently.
But hey, mistakes happen, particularly when it comes to high-pressured evaluations of young basketball talent still in the process of growing both mentally and physically. The pressure of holding a lofty, coveted draft choice is compounded by the superstar-driven nature of the NBA, where conventional wisdom holds that you need to boast one of only a handful of elite players to truly have a shot at contending for a title. It’s what prompts some decision-makers to shoot for the high-risk, high-ceiling option over the steadier sure thing and still be entranced by the mysterious and rarely seen overseas prospect. In 2014 alone, the draft saw Philadelphia select Cameroon’s Joel Embiid with the third pick despite lingering foot issues that have left him without a minute played in the NBA two years later and Utah used its fifth pick on Dante Exum, an Australian point guard who had faced a questionable level of competition and then refused to be scouted in any competitive pre-draft situations.
And just as unworthy players turn to flops after being taken too early, some hidden gems can overcome a lengthy waiting game on draft night and eventually become the types of stars that rival GM’s regret not selecting sooner. In fact, NBA Draft history is littered with ‘what if?’ stories of teams burned by players who went onto stardom after they had passed on them. Here are 20 of the biggest stars that should have heard their name called far sooner.
20 Richard Jefferson - 6th overall, 2001 - Vancouver Grizzlies
There is only one player left from the strange 2001 NBA Draft that could be found getting involved in the Finals this past June. No, it wasn't the Draft's best player, long-time Spurs point guard Tony Parker, and it certainly wasn't infamous bust Kwame Brown, the first player taken that year. But even without an All-Star appearance to his name, Richard Jefferson has managed to successfully chug along through a solid 15-year career that has now included over 1,000 games played and nearly 15,000 points scored. A major highlight from Jefferson's lengthy career came in the Finals, when he contributed to the Cleveland Cavaliers' remarkable title victory to earn his first championship ring.
Taken 13th, Jefferson is one of just six players from his draft class who remain active as NBA players, along with Parker (taken 27th), Tyson Chandler and Pau Gasol (2nd and 3rd, respectively), Joe Johnson (10th) and Zach Randolph (19th). He would probably still be taken after those five given career achievements, but his steady career places him ahead of the likes of flashes in the pan Gilbert Arenas and Gerald Wallace.
19 Marc Gasol - 4th overall, 2007 - Memphis Grizzlies
Depending on whether you feel that Marc Gasol or Mike Conley is the bigger key to the Memphis Grizzlies' fortunes, the younger brother of Pau could ironically wind up right back in Bluff City upon redrafting the 2007 selection process. With a lucrative new contract in tow, it appears that Conley will be the face of the franchise moving forward, so we'll give the edge to the point guard. In a draft that also seemed to produce the best of the 2016 free agent class, Gasol is slotted in for the Grizzlies' fourth overall pick, just behind the newly signed trio of Kevin Durant, Al Horford and Conley.
Whether third or fourth, its still a fairly remarkable climb for the big Spaniard who, despite his fraternal connection to NBA stardom, was not snapped up until the Lakers took him with the 48th overall pick. Gasol was soon traded to Memphis in exchange for his older brother and began leaving his own mark in the league. Now a two-time NBA All-Star and 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, Gasol was taken after five players to never reach the NBA and a slew of other underwhelming, forgotten names.
18 Andre Iguodala - 2nd overall, 2004 - Charlotte Bobcats
Ask any true Toronto Raptors fan about the beleaguered tenure of former GM Rob Babcock and they will probably agonizingly recall the terrible Vince Carter trade and the foolhardy decision to draft BYU center Rafael Araujo one spot ahead of future All-Star Andre Iguodala. In fact, in the fairly weak 2004 Draft, the 2015 Finals MVP would probably have gone quite a bit higher than his No. 9 selection had other NBA brass known what he would become.
Though Araujo was the most blatantly erroneous pick taken before Philadelphia's second AI fell into their laps, there were certainly other teams that would love a do-over. After the Orlando Magic took high schooler Dwight Howard, the Charlotte Bobcats whiffed on a supposed sure thing in Emeka Okafor, the Chicago Bulls got underwhelming production from Ben Gordon and the Los Angeles Clippers never got the chance to find out what they had in Shaun Livingston thanks to his horrific knee injury. You could easily argue that Iguodala stands as the second-best player taken in 2004.
17 Bill Laimbeer - 2nd overall, 1979 - Chicago Bulls
Although over 900 of Bill Laimbeer's 1,068 career NBA games came as a member of the Detroit Pistons, it was actually the Cleveland Cavaliers who drafted the rugged big man. The 1979 NBA Draft is best remembered for launching the career of first overall pick Earvin "Magic" Johnson, but the Cavs snapped up a future two-time NBA champion and four-time All-Star two rounds and 64 picks later. Of course, because it's Cleveland we're talking about, almost all of that success came after Laimbeer was traded to Detroit in 1982.
Indeed, Laimbeer was integral in putting the "bad" in the Bad Boy Pistons of the 1980s, starting on the 1989 and 1990 championship teams alongside stars Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. Though he didn't boast much natural athleticism or scoring skill, which partly explains how he didn't get chosen until the third round, he offered an unrelenting physical edge in a bid for rebounds that has helped him remain the club's all-time leader on the boards. If he had wound up being taken by the Chicago Bulls with the No. 2 pick, where he should have gone in hindsight, the Bulls would have had another Dennis Rodman 16 years before getting the real thing.
16 Michael Redd - 1st overall, 2000 - New Jersey Nets
The 2000 NBA Draft was bad - like, really bad. Of the top 15 players selected, a group that included such immortal names as Jerome Moiso, Marcus Fizer and mega-bust Darius Miles, only four went on to manage a career average of 10 points per game or more. Kenyon Martin would probably have seemed to be a disappointing choice as No. 1 pick in any other year, but simply enjoying a respectable - if underwhelming - 15-year career was enough to help him stake his claim as one of the top talents of the entire class.
But some good must have come out of those 60 picks, right? Although it produced a shockingly low three All-Star selections, it did usher in the careers of Mike Miller, Hedo Turkoglu and Jamal Crawford, not to mention the dance moves of Mark Madsen. The best player in the class, however, didn't come along until the 43rd pick, when the Milwaukee Bucks selected sharpshooter Michael Redd. Though Redd's career was shortened by injuries, he hung around long enough to reach an All-Star game and average 19 points over 629 career games. Had he been drafted first by the New Jersey Nets, he could have been a major asset during their back-to-back NBA Finals runs over the following two seasons.
15 DeAndre Jordan - 4th overall, 2008 - Seattle SuperSonics
Donte Greene, D.J. White and JR Giddens are just some of the immortal names to be selected before the Los Angeles Clippers took Texas A&M product DeAndre Jordan with the 35th pick in the 2008 Draft. It's difficult to understand how a 6'11" athletic center who can rebound and finish around the rim would have been so lowly regarded, but the Clippers are certainly glad to be on the right side of a draft retrospective for once. While his 8.7 career points per game average fails to wow, it serves as more of a reminder of how lightly regarded he was entering the league and how little he played at first. Since his rookie campaign, in fact, Jordan's scoring average has increased every season.
Looking back to 2008, Jordan reigns as probably the best among what is a decent crop of centers. You could make an argument for Brook Lopez being close, with better numbers on worse teams, but the 2016 US Olympian has largely been a healthy mainstay, unlike Lopez. Beyond the Brooklyn center, Jordan clearly ranks ahead of Nikolai Pekovic, Brook's brother Robin, Roy Hibbert, Omer Asik, Kosta Koufos and the legendary Javal McGee. In fact, the only players he doesn't rank ahead of from his draft class are former MVP Derrick Rose, reigning NBA champ Kevin Love and UCLA running mate Russell Westbrook.
14 Steve Nash - 3rd overall, 1996 - Vancouver Grizzlies
From one of the worst drafts of all-time, we move to one of the best. The loaded 1996 Draft was headlined by No. 1 pick Allen Iverson and, as the No. 13 pick, a skinny high schooler named Kobe Bryant. Remarkably, though, neither superstar can stake their claim as the only player in the draft to boast multiple regular seasons MVP awards. That distinction belongs to Steve Nash, who was drafted 15th overall by the Phoenix Suns, the team he would enjoy both MVP trophies with, albeit not until his second tour of duty.
Even with the two MVP awards, however, Nash was simply never the prolific scorer and franchise anchor that both Bryant and Iverson were, nor did he lead the Suns to multiple titles a la Bryant and the Lakers or even a Finals appearance, as did Iverson with the Philadelphia 76ers. Therefore, a re-draft would still see the dynamic point guard go no higher than number three, behind Bryant and Iverson but ahead of the likes of Ray Allen, Stephon Marbury and Antoine Walker. Plus, it would also be retroactively fun to see the British Columbia-born Nash suit up for the Vancouver Grizzlies.
13 Chris Paul - 1st overall, 2005 - Milwaukee Bucks
Remember when the Chris Paul / Deron Williams debate was a thing? Indeed, starting with their respective third and fourth draft selections in the 2005 NBA Draft and a pair of tremendous early career gains, Williams and Paul became a popular point of comparison among NBA fans for which young point guard was set to enjoy greater future success. We now know that CP3 was clearly the right choice among the two, and it wasn't even close. In fact, the Wake Forest product probably merited the No. 1 overall pick.
That pick was used by the Milwaukee Bucks to select Australian big man Andrew Bogut, a decorated NBA veteran who has now collected a title ring and an All-NBA Third Team selection. It's an impressive resume, but hardly one that's becoming of a first overall pick, particularly without an All-Star appearance to his name. As a point of comparison, Paul may not have a title yet but he has appeared in nine All-Star games and has been named to four All-NBA First Teams and three NBA Second Teams. Paul also reigned atop his class as Rookie of the Year in that first season.
12 Draymond Green - 3rd overall, 2012 - Washington Wizards
The still-evolving 2012 Draft class serves to highlight just how long it really takes before you can offer a fair, accurate evaluation of NBA prospects once they make it to the show. We know for sure that Draymond Green, the heart and soul of the record-setting Golden State Warriors, should have gone way higher than No. 35, not that the Warriors mind. But the question that remains is just how high the Michigan State product really should have climbed.
You simply can't overstate what Green has contributed to the dynastic Warriors team as a defensive lynchpin, small ball facilitator and overall driving force. But even with an All-Star nod, Second Team All-NBA selection and two NBA All-Defensive First Team honors to his name, he still hasn't had to be the club's best or even second-best player. We know he isn't a franchise star like Anthony Davis, but has he been more valuable to Golden State than Damian Lillard has been to Portland? How about where he ranks as a center compared to Detroit's Andre Drummond? I have him behind Lillard but ahead of Drummond at No. 3, where Washington would surely have been happy to have him as a running mate for John Wall.
11 Karl Malone - 1st overall, 1985 - New York Knicks
With most of his prime happening to coincide with that of Michael Jordan, "The Mailman" Karl Malone is used to being overlooked. In fact, it all started on his draft night in 1985, when the Louisiana Tech standout heard 12 other names chosen before his. Malone proved, arguably, to be the best of all of them, which is high praise in a class that included Chris Mullin, Joe Dumars, Charles Oakley, A.C. Green and Detlef Schrempf.
Now, under no circumstances was anyone other than Georgetown star Patrick Ewing going to be the No. 1 pick that year - and rightfully so. The New York Knicks certainly can't regret nabbing the player who would be their franchise center through the next 15 years. But a comparison of the two men clearly favors Malone, with the Utah Jazz great playing 300 more games while averaging four more points per game and even holding a slight edge in rebounds. Malone was the second star to fall into the waiting arms of the Jazz in as many years, with John Stockton going to Utah with the 16th pick in the 1984 Draft aka the Jordan Draft.
10 Rajon Rondo - 2nd overall, 2006 - Portland Trail Blazers
Andrea Bargnani offers an easy target as the token No. 1 pick-turned-bust after failing to deliver on the promise of a sweet-shooting seven footer in the mold of Dirk Nowitzki. However, focusing on the first overall pick of the 2006 Draft fails to tell the whole story of a bizarre top five. Consider for a moment that Bargnani, who recently signed with a Spanish club to all but end his NBA career, still managed more career points than the number three, four and five picks combined. That group, comprised of Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas and Shelden Williams all flopped out of the league early, leaving plenty of room for others to move up alongside No. 2 pick LaMarcus Aldridge in a re-draft.
One such player was Kentucky sophomore Rajon Rondo, who was selected by Phoenix with the 21st pick before being shipped off to Boston in a draft night trade. Sure, Rondo has fallen off in recent years to the point that his last two teams swiftly cut ties with him after one season (your move, Chicago). But in a weak draft year, four All-Star appearances and serving as floor general for an NBA championship team is enough to move up to No. 2. Other players who would likely find themselves in the lottery during a retro-draft include Rudy Gay (originally No. 8), J.J. Redick (No. 11), Kyle Lowry (No. 24) and Paul Millsap (No. 47).
9 George Gervin - 2nd overall, 1974 - Philadelphia 76ers
It was in 1976, two years after taking Marvin Barnes with the second overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft, that the Philadelphia 76ers returned to prominence thanks to Julius "Dr. J" Erving. Imagine, then how much better the Sixers, who won just one title during that period despite 15 series wins over seven years, could have been if they had anything to show for that No. 2 pick. Barnes elected to ply his trade in the ABA and never played for Philly.
Perhaps George "The Iceman" Gervin might have helped. A member of the NBA's 50th anniversary top 50 greatest players, Gervin was taken in the second round (40th overall) by the Phoenix Suns, not that it worked out so well for the Suns. They lost their rights to Gervin when he opted to join the ABA's Virginia Squires. He would, however, make his way back to the NBA when his rights were sold by the cash-strapped Squires to the San Antonio Spurs, where he would forge his Hall of Fame career. Well before the days of Gregg Popovich, things were still working out quite nicely for the Spurs.
8 Amar'e Stoudemire - 1st overall, 2002 - Chicago Bulls
Depending on the success of current free agents Caron Butler and Tayshaun Prince in finding gainful NBA employment, the 2002 draft class could be down to two active players: Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Nene. Both men have been steady and reliable over their long-standing careers, but neither has ever stood out as much of a star, pointing to the cursed nature of that year's draft.
The top pick in 2002, Yao Ming, enjoyed a celebrated career with the Houston Rockets that would then be cut short due to injuries. Ditto for No. 2 pick Jay Williams, the victim of a career-ending motorcycle crash. No. 5 pick Nikoloz Tskitishvili wound up being what Bill Simmons described as "the worst case scenario for a European prospect" and No. 6 pick Dajuan Wagner saw his career come to an end thanks to a case of 'ulcerative colitis', which required a surgical procedure in which his entire colon was removed. It's pretty well by default, then, that high school draftee Amare Stoudemire, who recently announced his retirement, would become the draft's best player after a career spent as a dynamic force on the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks, most notably.
7 Isaiah Thomas - 6th overall, 2011 - Washington Wizards
What do Dwayne Collins, Janis Timma and Luka Mitrovic all have in common? They were all chosen with the 60th and final pick in the NBA Draft in recent years, and none have played one lick in the NBA. The Mr. Irrelevant pick proved considerably more fruitful for the Sacramento Kings in 2011, when they snapped up Isaiah Thomas, who has been passed on with each of the previous 59 selections. Here we are five years later, and the career numbers of 17.1 points per game and 5.0 rebounds per game from the diminutive Thomas don't look all that different from the draft's top pick, Kyrie Irving (20.8 points, 5.5 rebounds).
Unlike Irving, Thomas hasn't stayed in one place thus far, moving from the Kings to the Suns and then to the Celtics, where he could well go head-to-head with Irving's Cavs for Eastern Conference supremacy. His draft stock was clearly damaged by his 5'8" height, but he has since overcome much of that perceived disadvantage through a dynamic speed, game-breaking ability and fiery, competitive nature. Although Thomas hasn't done enough to vault ahead of Irving and some of his other fellow 2011 draftees, getting the draft's sixth-best player with the No. 60 pick is unimaginably good value.
6 Dennis Rodman - 1st overall, 1986 - Cleveland Cavaliers
Dennis Rodman projected as anything but a prototypical NBA prospect upon being selected by the Detroit Pistons with the 27th overall pick in the 1986 Draft. Not only was he undersized for a power forward at just 6'7", but his college career had come against questionable competition owing to playing for NAIA school Southeastern Oklahoma State. Of course, as with many things when it comes to the player that NBA fans would come to know as "The Worm." appearances could be rather deceiving.
The eccentric rebounding whiz didn't play much immediately on Chuck Daly's already established "Bad Boy" Pistons, but he did make waves in the playoffs by feuding with Dennis Johnson of the Boston Celtics and later proclaiming that Larry Bird only gained the recognition he did because he was white. While Rodman's mouth had emerged right away, his rebound-heavy game gradually developed over time, as his rebounding average improved in six straight seasons. In a draft best remembered for the tragic passing of No. 2 pick Len Bias within days of the selection, Rodman narrowly edges Arvydas Sabonis and Jeff Hornacek as the best player to emerge.
5 Alex English - 1st overall, 1976 - Houston Rockets
Quick, name the highest scoring NBA player of the 1980s. That would be Denver Nuggets offensive superstar Alex English, a Hall of Fame inductee who was named to eight All-Star teams over 16 career seasons. Perhaps owing to a career spent largely in small market Denver and modest playoff success, English has never fully gotten the recognition that he deserves for a career in which he scored 25,613 points, good enough for 18th place in NBA history.
English's career certainly merited a higher selection than his 23rd pick in the 1976 Draft. In a year that also featured three other Hall of Fame draftees, including Adrian Dantley and Boston Celtics legends Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson, the South Carolina product stands out above the rest for a remarkable eight seasons of 25 points per game or better. Unfortunately for the Milwaukee Bucks, the club that drafted him, all those high-scoring seasons came with the Denver Nuggets after having signed with Indiana as a free agent and then being traded to the Nuggets.
4 Larry Bird - 1st overall, 1978 - Portland Trail Blazers
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of the top five picks from the 1978 NBA Draft. Mychal Thompson won two NBA titles, although he might be best known nowadays for being Klay Thompson's dad. Phil Ford was named Rookie of the Year, Rick Robey won a title as a member of the 1981 Celtics, Michael Ray Richardson was named to four All-Star teams and Purvis Short scored over 14,000 career points. But to be sure, none of them were Larry Bird.
Larry Legend hardly fell far in the 1978 Draft, going to the Boston Celtics as the franchise-changing No. 6 pick. However, it seems bewildering in hindsight that the three-time NBA champion and MVP would even fall that far. Among the five teams to pass on Bird, none are more eyebrow-raising than the Indiana Pacers, who opted for Robey over the local star from French Lick who had played for Indiana State. Regardless, there's simply no argument that Bird remains anything but the best player in the class.
3 Kawhi Leonard - 2nd overall, 2011 - Minnesota Timberwolves
In this era of tireless scouting and unprecedented access to both information and video, it is a rare occurrence to see any diamond in the rough fall very far. It was quite a surprise, then, to see just how quickly clubs began to rue their decision to pass on Kawhi Leonard, even in a stacked 2011 Draft. Despite a vast wingspan and elite athleticism, the San Diego State product faced questions during the pre-draft process about his shooting and overall offensive games, questions that seem inane now as Leonard has become the new face of the franchise in San Antonio.
To date, the first 10 picks of the 2011 Draft have produced just one All-Star in Kyrie Irving. After that, however, star-caliber talents have emerged throughout the 60 picks, from No. 11 (Klay Thompson) through to No. 60 (Isaiah Thomas), with the likes of Jimmy Butler, Nikola Vucevic, Reggie Jackson, Kenneth Faried and Tobias Harris inbetween. Leonard, however, has set himself apart by becoming an integral piece of a perennial title contender and an NBA Finals MVP at just 23 years of age. Credit Spurs GM R.C. Buford with a highway robbery of a trade that saw San Antonio send George Hill to Indiana in exchange for Leonard on draft day.
2 Ben Wallace - 5th overall, 1996 - Minnesota Timberwolves
It's a fun and oft-repeated exercise to re-draft the historically stacked 1996 Draft, which we have already acknowledged would likely feature a top three of Kobe Bryant (No. 13), Allen Iverson (No. 1) and Steve Nash (No. 15). But even as most retrospective prognosticators banter over where the likes of Ray Allen, Antoine Walker and Peja Stojakovic should have been taken, there remains one name that is constantly left out of the conversation.
Few ever include Ben Wallace in the 1996 conversation, largely due to the fact that he wasn't taken at all in his draft year. The four-time NBA All-Star and four-time Defensive Player of the Year award winner saw 60 players come and go without hearing his name called, not terribly surprising considering he had been lightly recruited coming out of Division II school Virginia Union. With apologies to other notable undrafted talents like Bruce Bowen, Udonis Haslem and Avery Johnson, no other undrafted player has ever had as significant an impact on a championship team as Wallace did on the 2004 Pistons.
1 Manu Ginobili - 1st overall, 1999 - Chicago Bulls
The San Antonio Spurs strike once again. Preceding the thefts of Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker and one year after lucking into the right to select Tim Duncan, the Spurs nabbed the best player in the 1999 draft class with the 57th and second-to-last selection. Even after six of the top 10 picks went onto All-Star careers, Manu Ginobili has managed to outshine the rest of his cohorts while mostly coming off of the bench.
The unconventional Argentine guard has never been the face of his team as other 1999 draftees like Elton Brand, Baron Davis, Richard Hamilton and Steve Francis have. But no other member of the draft class managed to be a core member of a club with the dynastic legacy of the Spurs, with whom Ginobili has won four championship rings. Although questions surround the Hall of Fame credentials of the likes of Brand and Davis, no such questions are likely to linger around Ginobili once he follows Duncan off into the sunset.
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