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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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