Drafting is a fickle business. There are so many swings and misses, and looking back over the years, there are a lot of names that go unnoticed. But with NBA careers averaging just 4.8 years, it's no surprise that GMs whiff on picks all the time. But as we noticed in the article, not even sure thing number one picks end up being the best player. It may be pick 15, or pick 60.
Notice the trends early on in this article. The Celtics and Lakers both nail many of the best players without getting the number one pick. Through masterful trades, or risky picks--or, in the case of Magic Johnson, having the number one pick--Boston and LA built their dynasties through shrewd drafting and trading decisions. Very little Free Agent moves built those franchises.
Unfortunately, the Golden State Warriors in the late 80s and 90s got the best player numerous times. But for whatever reason traded away, or couldn't hold onto these players, creating years of losing. That only changed when they drafted players like Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Steph Curry, and kept them.
Nearly every NBA Draft class will have some great talents, or even Hall of Famers. But there are exceptions such as the 2000 draft class with no particular standout. Today, we look at the best player from every NBA draft since the ABA merger in 1976.
Buyer beware when drafting.
41 1976: Robert Parish
The 1976 draft saw the first entry of, what would be, the Boston Celtics Big Three. But Robert Parish wasn’t drafted number one. That was John Lucas, who the Houston Rockets picked up with the first pick that year. Lucas lasted fourteen years in the league, but never averaged more than 17.5 ppg, and only averaged (as a point guard) more than eight assists four times in his career.
Honorary mentions go to both Denver Nugget’s great Alex English, and Jazz scoring legend Adrian Dantley. With English lead the league in points per game on year, and averaged 25.9 ppg with the Nuggets; while Dantley won the scoring title twice with the Jazz (30.7 ppg in 80-81, and 30.6 in 83-84); neither player won as much as Parish, who has gone down as one of the 10 best centers of all time.
Picked Number Eight overall, Parish came from Centenary College of Louisiana and was drafted by the Golden State Warriors, just two seasons after the Warriors won a championship. By his third season, Parish started the trend of scoring in the high teens, and rebounding around 10 per game. Before the 1980 draft, Celtics Legend Red Auerbach orchestrated a trade: the trade included Boston’s pick (number one overall, Joe Barry Carroll) and the 13th pick (Rickey Brown) for the 3rd pick (Kevin McHale) and Robert Parish. That year the Celtics won the championship, starting a decade of dominance, along with the Los Angeles Lakers, that brought basketball back into the height of popularity.
40 1977: Walter Davis
The 1977 draft is two-horse race, so-to-speak, and not that exciting of one. While dynasties were in the midst of being created, or about to be created, the 1977 draft offered only two names that ever qualified as: Household.
Walter Davis, and Bernard King—picked five and seven respectively—are the only two in the whole draft to crack into 19000 career points. While an honorable mention goes to Cedric Maxwell, who was a key role player with the Celtics, winning two championships with them in the 80s, both Davis and King had much better career numbers.
Bernard King had the best single regular season in 84-85 with the New York Knicks, winning the scoring title with 32.9 ppg. King also has a higher ppg average over his career with 22.5. However, Davis stayed with Phoenix over 11 seasons, and had more playoff success—10 seasons in the playoffs vs. King’s 5. Davis also played a couple seasons more than King, giving Davis the best player of the draft for his longevity and playoff success.
39 1978: Larry Bird
From today’s perspective, drafting Bird is a no-brainer. A three time champion and MVP of the league, 2 time NBA Finals MVP, Rookie of the Year, All Rookie, three time All-Defensive, All Star MVP, 12-time All Star, 10-time All-NBA player. That’s a Hall-of-Fame player, top five all time in the NBA, and arguably the best Small Forward ever (though Lebron is right there, if not already bested him).
However, Bird was drafted sixth in the 78 draft. The reason? Teams knew he’d defer to the next season so he could finish college. GMs didn’t want to “waste” their pick on a player who wouldn’t join them for a whole year. You know who didn’t care? Red Auerbach. Auerbach selected Bird, and Bird didn’t play until the 79-80 season. What did Larry Bird do upon joining the Celtics? Average 21.3 ppg, 10.4 TRB, and 4.5 AST. He won Rookie of the Year, though that was a well contested race (more on that later).
Bird had a great career, but it was sadly hindered by a back injury in the late 80s. The injury was so painful on Bird that he admitted that if Len Bias had lived, he would have retired then and there.
38 1979: Magic Johnson
1979, one of the rare occasions when the number one pick was the best pick in the draft. While Larry Bird should’ve been a no brainer, Magic Johnson was a no-brainer. Having beat Larry Bird’s Indiana State in the original March Madness, Johnson strolled into the NBA draft knowing he was going number one. Revolutionizing the point guard position, and challenging perception that point guards were short (Magic was somewhere between 6’7” and 6’9”), Johnson was the catalyst for the Los Angeles Lakers 80s dynasty.
Johnson’s rookie season he scored 18.0/7.7/7.3). He lost to Bird for rookie of the year. Johnson found out about Bird winning just before playing game 6 of the NBA Finals. NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had dominated the series, was injured and the Lakers were expected to lose before heading home to LA for game 7. Instead, Magic played all by one minute with these stats: 42 points, 15 rebounds, and seven assists, going perfect from the free throw line. He played all five positions in one of the greatest finals performances ever.
That was just his first season. Magic went on to win five NBA Championships, was a 12-time All Star, and a three time MVP. Pretty good player from the ’79 draft.
37 1980: Kevin McHale
As discussed, the Celtics traded their rights to the number one pick in a draft that got them the number three pick. Even while trading down the Celtics got the better player. Though Joe Barry Carroll, from Purdue University, didn’t have a bad career. He was the Rookie of the Year, beating out Kevin McHale. He scored 18.9 ppg along with 9.3 rebounds his rookie season. By his third season he was averaging above 20 ppg, but he left to play in Italy during the 84-85 season, and then his stats plummeted after being traded from Golden State to Houston.
McHale, instead, was the definition of success and dependability. Averaging 17.9 ppg and 7.3 rebounds at the Power Forward position over his career (all seasons with Boston), McHale was slotted between starting forward and sixth man. He was a seven-time All Star, three-time champion, and a two-time sixth man of the year award.
36 1981: Isiah Thomas
With honorable mentions to four-time All Star—including an All Star MVP—Tom Chambers, and one-time All Star and two-time NBA Champion (and incredible GM) Danny Ainge, the ’81 draft came down to the top two picks.
Drafted with the first pick in the draft, Mark Aguirre was selected by the Dallas Mavericks. He was a three-time All Star (scoring above 25 points those three seasons). He averaged 24.6 ppg with Dallas before being traded to Detroit, where he won two championships and was second fiddle to our top player.
Isiah Thomas was the second pick in the draft. From Indiana University, Thomas probably should have gone first. As a twelve-time All Star, a five-time All-NBA, Finals MVP in 89-90, and a two-time champion, Thomas had a decorated NBA career. Never able to conquer Magic or Bird at their peak, Thomas’s two NBA Championships came at the perfect time. Bird and Magic were in decline, and Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin hadn’t reached full potential yet.
Don’t be deceived, Thomas was still a legend without those two titles. A scoring and assist machine, Thomas led the league in assists in 84-85 with 13.9, and scored in the high teens often. Thomas was the catalyst for Detroit’s two titles, which is why we (as in the committee of one) put him a peg higher than Aguirre.
35 1982: Dominique Wilkins
Another two-horse race, the ’82 draft proved to be much more exciting than the ’77 draft. The number one pick that year was none other than James Worthy, three-time champion and seven-time All Star with the Los Angeles Lakers.
See the trend? Celtics and Lakers getting a lot of best players since ’76. No wonder they had dynasties.
But while James Worthy had a great career, he was Robin to Magic’s Batman, and couldn’t supply the scoring demand the Lakers needed when Magic left the team in the early ‘90s. Instead, the best player is Dominique Wilkins, one of the all-time best scorers in NBA history. While Worthy contributed in an irreplaceable way to the Lakers, the Atlanta Hawks were relevant because of Wilkins.
Wilkins averaged 26.4 ppg with Atlanta, and 24.8 for his career. He won the scoring title in 85-86 with 30.3 ppg, and scored over 25 ppg 10 times in his illustrious playing days. He’s 15th currently on the all-time scoring list with 26668 points.
34 1983: Clyde Drexler
The 1983 draft was mainly a dud. Ralph Sampson, who was drafted by Houston with the number one overall pick, looked promising at the beginning. Sampson won Rookie of the Year, averaging 21.0 ppg, and 11.1 rebounds. But after a surge in his second season, his stats dipped and he was traded to Golden State, where he averaged 9.3 ppg.
Player turned coach and three-time champ Byron Scott was drafted at number four. Long term vet and one time 27.5 ppg player, Dale Ellis was picked at number nine by the Mavericks. But then there was Hall of Fame player Clyde Drexler at number 14. Coming from the University of Houston (where Drexler also went to high school), Drexler was picked by the Portland Trailblazers.
With Portland, Drexler averaged 20.8 ppg. He eventually left Portland to join the reigning champions, the Houston Rockets. They repeated and Drexler won his one and only NBA Championship with his hometown team. Drexler was a 10-time All Star and five-time All-NBA player.
33 1984: Michael Jordan
The 1984 draft, one of the more stacked drafts in NBA history. John Stockton was picked by Utah at 16. Charles Barkley was picked by the 76ers at number five. Hakeem Olajuwon was the first name announced for the number one pick.
But along with the all-time greats in Stockton, Barkley and Olajuwon, there were bad picks two. In one of the biggest head scratches of drafting history, the Portland Trailblazers chose Sam Bowie from the University of Kentucky, ahead of University of North Carolina standout, Michael Jordan.
Jordon, the Charlotte Hornets owner, and first NBA player to NBA owner ever, is widely regarded as the Greatest of All Time, in basketball. Jordan had an eclectic career, playing 13 seasons with the Bulls—missing one and a half to go and play baseball—and two with the Washington Wizards, where he was also the GM.
Jordan’s rookie season he averaged 28.5 ppg, 6.5 trb, and 5.9 assists. He won the scoring title 10 times, averaged 30.1 ppg for his career—an all-time record, and was a five-time MVP. Jordan threepeated twice for a total of six NBA titles. He was a six-time finals MVP, along with Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the year, 14 All Star appearances, nine-time All-Defense, and a three-time All Star MVP. The Goat.
32 1985: Karl Malone
1985 was a year where picking Patrick Ewing number one was not contentious. Every GM would have taken Ewing. Ewing was a college star at Georgetown, and his career backed up this choice. Ewing played 15 years with the New York Knicks. He averaged 22.8 over his career in New York. He made the finals with New York, losing to Olajuwon’s Rockets. Ewing was an 11-time All Star, Rookie of the Year, and 7-time All NBA. However, there is a choice above Ewing.
Karl Malone was picked 13th overall. He was a 2-time MVP during the Jordan era, a 14-time All Star, two-time All Star MVP, 14-time All-NBA, and a rock offensively. Playing along with all-time assist leader, John Stockton, Malone averaged 25.4 ppg with Utah for 18 seasons. 18 seasons!!! He spent one year, losing in the finals with the imploding Shaq and Kobe Lakers to round out 19 season. Oh, and Malone is second all-time in scoring with 36928 points.
31 1986: Dennis Rodman
The 1986 draft is famous for probably all the wrong reasons. There was a big debate on who to take first, Brad Daugherty or Len Bias. The Cleveland Cavalieres went with Daugherty, which meant the Boston Celtics, through another miraculous draft by Auerbach, selected Len Bias. Bias died of a drug overdose shortly after the draft.
Fun fact, Steph Curry’s dad, Dell Curry was selected 15th overall by Utah.
The best player though, as noted earlier, came in the second round. A man by the name of Dennis Rodman, of Southeastern Oklahoma State University, was selected by the Detroit Pistons. Rodman was never a scorer, but he became one of the best, if not the best rebounder of all-time. Rodman won the rebounding “title” seven years in a row—18.7, 18.3, 17.3, 16.8, 14.9, 16.1, 15.0 rebounds per game, respectively. He won five championships, two with Detroit and the second threepeat with Jordan’s Bulls.
30 1987: David Robinson
The 1987 draft was loaded, both with NBA talent, and sportscaster talent. Mark Jackson, Kenny the Jet Smith, and Reggie Miller were taken in this draft (18, 6, and 11 respectively). The fact that Reggie Miller, Finals contender, who retired as the all-time leading three point maker, was not the pick, speaks to the depth of this draft.
In fact, not even Scottie Pippin, the sidekick of Jordan (originally picked by Seattle, but traded to the Bulls), who is a six-time champion, seven-time All Star, and 10-time All-Defensive player, was picked to be the number one.
No, David Robinson was picked as the number one player from the 1987 draft. Two-time champion, and big man brother to a young Tim Duncan, Robinson was one of the premier and elite big men. Playing his entire career with San Antonio, Robinson lead the league in blocks in 91-92, in rebounds in 90-91, and in points per game in 93-94. Over his career he averaged 21.1 ppg and 10.6 rebounds along with 3.0 blocks per game.
Robinson, though picked in 87, didn’t play until 89-90 because of his military duties. He won Rookie of the Year that season. He was Defensive Player of the Year in 91-92, along with being an 8-time All-Defensive Player, a 10-time All Star, and a 10-time All-NBA player. He won the MVP in 94-95.
29 1988: Mitch Richmond
The Steve Kerr draft. Just kidding, though Kerr was drafted by Phoenix, out of the University of Arizona with the last pick of the second round (50th overall). The future coach of the Warriors went on to win five championships, with both Jordan’s Bulls and the Popovich/Duncan Spurs.
The real gem of the 88 draft was member of Golden State’s Run TMC teams. Standing for the “M” in TMC (Tim Hardaway for the T, and Chris Mullin for the C), Mitch Richmond was selected fifth by the Warriors. He won Rookie of the Year as a shooting guard for the Warriors, averaging 22 points. But it didn’t last long in Golden State. Deciding to move on from Run TMC, the Warriors traded Richmond to Sacramento for the rights to Billy Owens, which has to be one of the all-time worse trades in Warriors history.
Richmond went on to be a six-time All Star, a five-time All-NBA, ana the All Star Game MVP, the only King to ever accomplish that. Richmond averaged 23.3 ppg with the Kings, and won a ring with Shaq and Kobe Lakers in 2002.
28 1989: Shawn Kemp
The 1989 draft never produced the mega superstar, but it wasn’t a dud of a draft either. A number of good-not-great players came from this draft. Valde Divac, Tim Hardaway, Glen Rice—exceptional basketball players, but never the Lebron, Jordan, or Kobe—maybe not even a Jason Kidd type player.
Tim Hardaway could have been that star, but he never stayed offensively consistent over his career. Glen Rice was the only one to win a championship out of the previously mentioned. No Shawn Kemp is our winner here.
Kemp was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics 17th overall. Coming from Trinity Valley Community College, Kemp proved to be a mainstay offensive presence in Seattle before moving onto Cleveland, and then to Portland and Orlando as a washed up star. A six-time All Star, Kemp made the playoffs 10 times in his career, seven with Seattle.
27 1990: Gary Payton
There isn’t any competition when it comes to Gary Payton and the 1990 draft. Derrick Coleman, out the Orange from Syracuse University, was the number one pick. He was Rookie of the Year over Payton, averaging 18.4 ppg, and 10.3 rebounds. While his first five seasons were good, scoring near or above 20 ppg, he fizzled out in his sixth season and turned into a seasoned veteran.
Payton on the other hand made the Hall of Fame when it was said a done. Playing 18 years in the NBA—13 with Seattle, 2 with Miami, 1 with the Lakers, Celtics and Bucks—Payton was a nine-time All Star, nine-time All-NBA, and 95-96 Defensive Player of the Year—a tall feat for a little guy (by NBA standards).
He lead the SuperSonics to ten playoff seasons. They reached the Finals in 95-96, losing to Jordan’s Bulls. But Payton eventually won his ring in 2006 with the Miami Heat.
26 1991: Dikembe Mutombo
Dikembe Mutombo and the 1991 draft was another one-horse race. While longtime servicemen Larry Johnson, Steve Smith and Rick Fox came out of this draft, Mutombo is the only Hall of Fame player. All-Rookie in his first season, Mutombo averaged 16.6 ppg, 12.3 rebounds, and 3 blocks. He lead the league three times in a row for blocks, spanning from 1993-96. He also won two rebounding titles in 99-00 and 00-01.
Mutombo never stayed in one town too long. Only ever staying with one franchise for five years, Mutombo played in Denver, Atlanta and Houston—where he finished his career—for that mark. He played a season and a half with the 76ers and one a piece for New Jersey and New York. He never won a title but did win Defensive POY four times, tying Ben Wallace for the most all-time. v
25 1992: Shaquille O’Neal
There is absolutely no competition here. It’s obviously NBA Champion PJ Brown, right?
The 1992 draft was headlined by one player, Shaquille O’Neal, who had scouts drooling over him at LSU. The number two pick in the draft wasn’t bad either. Alonzo Mourning—the two-time NBA Def POY, seven-time All Star, and two-time All-NBA player was drafted out of Georgetown University by the Charlotte Hornets. While Mourning’s numbers with the Hornets were good, he made most of his career in Miami, where he won a title with Shaq in 2006.
Shaq’s career is right up there with the best of them. Ranked as one of the three best centers of all-time—next to Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain—Shaq’s career was well decorated. A recent Hall of Fame entry, Shaq was a 15-time All Star, 14-time All-NBA, four-time champion, three-time All-Defense, three time All Star MVP, Rookie of the Year, along with a lone MVP trophy. The fact that Shaq, the most dominant big man of his era, didn’t earn multiple MVPs is an indication that Bill Simmons’ theory about Shaq is right (paraphrasing), “He’s the kid who could have gotten a 4.0 [GPA] but decided to have fun and get a 3.5.
Shaq was so good, even in his waning days with the Celtics, their ability to get to the Finals hinged on his rebounding and defensive presence.
24 1993: Chris Webber
Fab Five member Chris Webber left Michigan before any of the other members. Truly the best NBA prospect for the NBA at that time in the 90s, Webber highlighted the 93 draft. A two-time NCAA finalist—without the championship—there were a lot who wished Webber ill in his career. While Webber neve made the NBA Finals, he does have his number retired, and you have to be pretty good for that.
Webber was drafted number one overall by the Golden State Warriors, who traded with Orlando for the draft rights. But Management and Webber disagreed on what position Webber should play. The Warriors played Webber at the 5, and he argued he was best at the 4. Too soon the number one pick was shipped to DC to play alongside Fab Five teammate Juwan Howard. While Webber averaged 20.9 ppg with Washington, his career didn’t take off until his next trade.
In 1998, the Wizards traded Webber to Sacramento for Sacramento fan favorite (and 1988 Draft Best Player) Mitch Richmond. The trade did wonders for Sacramento. The Kings became relevant with Webber as their marquee player. The Kings went to the Conference Finals, and Webber averaged 23.5 points, and 10.6 boards over his seven-year career. His number four hangs in the rafters.
Honorable mention to three-time NBA Champ, Sam Cassell.
23 1994: Jason Kidd
The 1994 draft produced, for the second time in league history, a Co-Rookie of the Year. Last time it had happened, Dave Cowens of the Boston Celtics, and Geoff Petrie of the Portland Trail Blazers took home the joint award. The two rookies in 94-95? Jason Kidd and Grant Hill.
But the 94 draft was loaded with talent. Including Hill and Kidd, longtime NBA vets like Donyell Marshall and Fab Five members Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose were selected in the first round. Howard won a championship in 2012 with the Heat. Rose made the Finals with Indiana, losing to Kobe and Shaq. Glenn Robinson, the number one pick of the draft, was a two-time All Star, and NBA Champion with the Spurs in 2005.
While Hill was a seven-time All Star, Kidd outshined him and the rest of the draft class. Kidd ranks second all-time in career assists with 12,091. Drafted by Dallas, Kidd played for the Suns and Nets before returning to Dallas and winning a Championship alongside Dirk in 2011.
Leading the league in assists five times in his career, Kidd has been mentioned as one of the all-time greatest point guards. Though never a scoring juggernaut, Kidd made his team better. He was a 10-time All Star, nine-time All-Defense, six-time All-NBA, and as mentioned a onetime ROY and Champion.
22 1995: Kevin Garnett
Kevin Garnett is the best player in Minnesota’s history. It should be no surprise he ranked top of the 95 draft. Yet he wasn’t taken until fifth overall. A tall and skinny player, originally Garnett was thought to be a Small Forward who couldn’t shoot. He grew more when he got in the league and became the first stretch four—revitalizing the position by being a low-post player who could shoot 18 feet outside the hoop (Dirk improved upon the model years later).
Joe Smith was taken first by the Warriors. (See this other trend by the Warriors? Lots of high picks, but either unable to hold onto the talent, trading the talent for worse talent, or picking bad players. No wonder they were never really contenders until this current Warriors age). Then good players were taken: Antionio McDyess (pick 2), Jerry Stackhouse (pick 3) and Rasheed Wallace (not just a good, but a great player at pick 4). The knock on Garnett was that he was coming straight out of high school, and he should go to college.
That proved to be a moot point. While Garnett didn’t with ROY (that was Damion Stoudamire at pick seven) he went on to be a 15-time All Star, 12-time All Defense, nine-time All-NBA, the 07-08 Defensive Player of the Year, the 03-04 MVP, and the 2008 Finals Champion.
21 1996: Kobe Bryant
This has to be one of the most loaded drafts in history. In another draft names like Zydrunas Ilguaskas, Stephon Marbury and Peja Stojakovic would have been honorable mentions. Marcus Camby, 06-07 Def. POY, could have been top player in the 77 draft, along with Jermaine O’Neal or Antoine Walker. Number one pick and 96-97 ROY, Allen Iverson, is not the top player. Steve Nash, two-time MVP, is not the top player. No, our number one player was picked 13th by the Charlotte Hornets and traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Kobe Bean Bryant is our number one player. 20 years with the same team and a two time scoring champ, Bryant was the face of the Lakers franchise after Shaq was traded. Bryant averaged 25 ppg with Lakers over his career, putting him third on the all-time scoring leaders with 33,643 points.
Bryant was an 18-time All Star, 15 time All-NBA, 12-time All-Defense, five-time Champion, 2-time Finals MVP, with a lone MVP award.
20 1997: Tim Duncan
With one of the worst records in the league, NBA fans were hoping the Celtics wouldn’t land the number on pick. Tim Duncan was the overall favorite, seen as a new franchise player, and fans hated the idea of a new Celtics dynasty. The Celtics landed with the number three pick, and honorable mention, 2004 Champion Chauncey Billups.
The San Antonio Spurs, with young head coach Gregg Popovich at the helm, selected Tim Duncan. Partnering Duncan with David Robinson proved to be a match made in heaven. In Duncan’s second season the Spurs won the NBA Championship—the first of Duncan’s five titles.
Duncan was the 97-98 Rookie of the Year, averaging 21.1 ppg and 11.9 TRB. Duncan was a 15-time All Star, 15-time All-NBA, 15-time All-Defense, five-time Champ, and two-time MVP.
Another honorable mention to Tracy McGrady.
19 1998: Dirk Nowitzki
Our first contemporary player! (Just barely)
The 1998 draft also proved to be a deep draft. It also was another disappointment for the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers selected Michael Olowokandi first overall. He never averaged more than 12.3 ppg in a single season.
While Honorable Mentions to Vince Carter and Paul Pierce are a must, it’s Dirk Nowitzki who gets the best player nod. Nowitzki proved to be the exact player the Mavericks were looking for. Having played 19 seasons with Dallas, Nowitzki has kept the Mavericks in title contention for his entire prime. He made the Finals twice, losing to Dwyane Wade and Shaq in 2006, and, surprising all but the Dallas Mavericks most die-hard fans, beat LeBron James and the Heat in 2011.
In addition to his Championship in 11, Nowitzki has been a 13-time All Star, a 12-time All-NBA selection, and a league MVP in 06-07.
18 1999: Manu Ginobili
The first round of 1999 NBA draft proved to supply many good, long term, NBA players. Elton Brand was picked first, and though he was a star for the 76ers and a two-time All Star, he isn’t HOF material. Lakers star Lamar Odom was taken fourth overall. Recently retired point guard backup man, Andre Miller was taken eighth. 2011 league champ Shawn Marion was taken ninth. Little guy and sharp shooter and 2011 league champ, Jason Terry was taken 10th. Metta World Peace, formerly known as Ron Artest, was picked 16th. And high energy, great defense, and two-time champ James Posey was selected 18th.
Our pick for best player comes from the second round. In fact it comes from second to last pick. The San Antonio Spurs selected Manu Ginobili the year they won Duncan’s first championship. Ginobili has become the consummate sixth man. Providing key and clutch baskets for San Antonio, helping them to four league championships. A two-time all star, Ginobili won the 07-08 Sixth Man award.
17 2000: Jamal Crawford
In the new millennia the NBA had its worst draft since 1977. While the first pick in the draft, Kenyon Martin played 15 seasons, he only managed 9325 career points and over 5000 career rebounds. The player with the most Win Shares is Hedo Turkoglu, who won 07-08 Most Improved player. Though Turkolgu was certainly important to the Orlando Magic playoff and Championship runs in the late 2000s, he’s not exactly Shaquille O’Neal.
Our best player is a three-time Sixth Man winner. Jamal Crawford was picked eighth overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers, who traded him to Chicago before the start of the season. Averaging points in the high teens since his fourth season, Crawford has been irreplaceable wherever he’s been. High Free Throw percentage and the most four point plays, Crawford has carved a niche in the NBA. There is nobody like him.
16 2001: Pau Gasol
Another draft known more for its number one draft bust, rather than it’s best player. This is probably due to the fact that Michael Jordan hand picked him. Kwame Brown was picked by the Washington Wizards, whose GM was Jordan. Brown never averaged 10.9 ppg, and, as a center, never averaged more than 7.4 rebounds for a single season. Not exactly number one pick material.
There are plenty of honorable mentions to go around. Tyson Chandler, picked third; Jason Richardson, fifth; Shane Battier, sixth; Joe Johnson, 10th; Richard Jefferson, 13th; Gerald Wallace, 25th; and second round pick Gilbert Arenas, 30th overall. But the biggest honorable mention goes to four-time champ, Tony Parker. A six-time All Star, and 2007 Finals MVP, Parker has been a cornerstone of the Spurs Championships.
With 136.6 Win Shares, our number one player is Pau Gasol. Rookie of the Year in 01-02, averaging 17.6 ppg and 8.9 boards. After being traded to the Lakers in the 07-08 season, Gasol made LakerLand relevant again, helping to bring them to three straight finals, along with two championships.
15 2002: Yao Ming
2002 marks a draft that starts off a string of three in a row where the number one pick is the best player. But the 2002 draft held other players than Yao. Tough guy Matt Barnes and Utah stud Carlos Boozer were both drafted in the second round. Detroit legend and 2004 Champion Tayshaun Prince was drafted late in the first. Nene Hilario was drafted number seven overall, a power forward who still is efficient today.
It was a hard decision to pick Yao over Amar’e Stoudemire. Stoudemire’s career was almost as decorated as Yao’s. A six-time All Star, Stoudemire thrived under Mike D’Antoni’s system with two-time Steve Nash at his side. He won ROY over Yao, averaging 13.5 ppg, and 8.8 rebounds. He was a better offensive player than Yao, but like Yao, he succumbed to injuries late in his career.
Yao just had a bigger impact on the game than Stoudemire, in both a literal and figurative sense. Stoudemire was listed at 6’10”. Yao was listed at 7’6”. Yao forced awkward shots just because of his length. He tired defenses and other big men, and was an eight-time All Star. He’s been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
14 2003: LeBron James
Like 1996, the 2003 draft was full of stars. But unlike the ’96 draft, everyone seemed to know just how deep it was. Of course, James went number one. He arguable would have gone number one in any draft. He’s a top five player ever (in no order: Jordan, Russell, LeBron, Magic, Bird).
Before we get to Lebron, here were the other stars in the 2003 draft. Carmelo Anthony, picked 3rd, a ten-time All Star and six-time All-NBA player who made the conference finals with Denver. Chris Bosh, picked fourth, an 11-time All Star and two-time Champ with the Heat. Dwyane Wade, picked fifth, a 12-time All Star, 05-06 Finals MVP, eight-time All-NBA, three-time All Defense, and three-time Champ with the Heat. Other All Stars from this draft include, Josh Howard, Chris Kaman, Kyle Korver, David West, and Mo Williams.
Lebron has been to the Finals six straight times, and could make it a seventh this June. He just passed Shaq for points in a career. He’s never averaged below 20.9 points per game, which he did his ROY season. He’s a three-time Champ, a three-time Finals MVP, a four-time MVP, a 13-time All Star, a 12-time All-NBA, and a six-time All-Defense, and probably should have gotten the Def POY award at least once.
13 2004: Dwight Howard
2004 is the first draft where fans will recognize A LOT of names. Seven out of the top ten should be household names for die hard NBA fans. Dwight Howard was taken number one, followed by Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Shaun Livingston and Devin Harris. Luol Deng was taken at seven and Andre Iguodala at nine. Big man Al Jefferson was picked at 15, J.R. Smith at 18 and Tony Allen at 25. Even the second round has some recognizable names with Anderson Varejao, 30th, and Trevor Ariza at 43.
Howard though, he’s the only player of the group that could make the Hall of Fame. Though Iguodala was the 2015 Finals MVP, he was only ever an All Star once. While Dwight’s reputation and numbers have taken a big hit since his back injury, his number still scream HOF. Having lead the league in Total Rebounds five times, blocks twice, and efficient field goal percentage once, Dwight was the most dominant Big Man after Shaq left Miami.
Surrounded by three point shooting, and good scheme by Stan Van Gundy, Howard led the Magic to the Finals where they loss to Kobe and Pau in 2009. Howard is an eight-time All Star, an eight-time All-NBA, five-time All-Defense, and three-time winner of the Def. POY.
12 2005: Chris Paul
One of the huge debates of the 2005 draft was whether Deron Williams or Chris Paul was the better point guard. Early in Deron Williams’ career it seemed they might be evenly matched. Williams and Carlos Boozer proved to create the best Utah Jazz team since Malone and Stockton. A three-time All Star and 2-time All-NBA player, Williams career derailed after seeming to his coach fired in Utah, and then being traded to the then New Jersey Nets.
Chris Paul on the other hand was drafted by the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets. After Katrina the Hornets temporarily played basketball in OKC (the stadium built for them leading to the eventual relocation of the SuperSonics). Paul immediately established himself as a leader and extremely talented baller. He won ROY averaging 16.1 ppg, 7.8 assists and 2.2 steals.
Through his time with both the Hornets and then the Clippers, Paul led the league in both assists four times, and steals six times. He’s a nine-time All Star, an eight-time All-Defense and All-NBA player. He’s still never managed to get out of the second round of the playoffs. But he may end his career as the best point guard ever.
Honorable Mention to Andrew Bogut and early career Andrew Bynum.
11 2006: LaMarcus Aldridge
The 2006 draft is full of players that were full of great role players. Andrea Bargnani (unfortunately, taken first) Brandon Roy, Rudy Gay, J.J. Redick, Thabo Sefolosha, Ronnie Brewer, Jordan Farmar, and PJ Tucker, all good role players at one point. There are also two players who have opposite careers, one was Hall of Fame material early on, and one has only been elite for the last two seasons.
Kyle Lowry has just recently become a top-tier point guard. Averaging 21.2 points per game last year, and 22.8 this year has given Toronto a realistic shot at winning the East—though his current injury isn’t helping. On the other hand, Rajon Rondo—who has fallen off talent-wise since his ACL tear—had the credentials early in the first seven years of this career, to wonder if he’d be a HOF point guard. Rondo won a championship with the Celtics in his second season, and went on to be their most important player during at 2010 matchup against the Cavaliers that was Lebron’s last game with the Cavs until 2015. A four-time All Star, Rondo has lead the league in assists three times, and steals once. His reputation of being a Nationally Televised player—meaning he only plays well during those nation wide broadcasts—has not helped his reputation this year.
But there is one member of the 2006 draft class that has been consistent, LaMarcus Aldridge. Averaging 19.1 ppg and 8.3 boards over his 11-year career, Aldridge brought the Portland Trailblazers into playoff contention, with the help of Dame Lillard. Averaging in the low twenties his last five seasons with Portland, Aldridge became a sought-after prize of Popovich and the Spurs, a big complement for the player. Aldridge is a five-time All Star and four-time All-NBA player.
Another honorable mention to Paul Millsap.
10 2007: Kevin Durant
This was the big argument, right? Kevin Durant or Greg Oden? Unfortunately for number one pick holder, the Portland Trailblazers, they selected Oden. Oden looked like a beast. Averaging 15.7 ppg and 9.6 rebounds with Ohio State, people wondered if he’d be the next Shaq. He certainly had the physique, unfortunately he didn’t have genes. Odon only managed to play two seasons with Portland before succumbing to injury. He averaged 9.5 ppg and 7.3 rebounds with Portland. He returned four seasons later to play on Miami, but he never managed to be much.
Meanwhile Durant has become one of the twenty best players in league history. Since 2007 he’s won Rookie of the Year, an MVP award in 13-14, has been a six-time All-NBA player, and an eight-time All Star in his ten-year career. He’s won four scoring titles, and joined the 50-40-90 club in 12-13. He’s been to the Finals once, and lost to Miami, and been to numerous Conference Finals. He’s addition to the Warriors has made them a once-in-a-lifetime team.
Honorable mentions to perennial All Star Al Horford and runner-up MVP Joakim Noah.
9 2008: Russell Westbrook
Six years ago, everyone would have said Derrick Rose. Three years ago, it would have been a tie between Westbrook and Love. Maybe around the nine-year mark is when a draft can really be judged.
The Chicago Bulls picked local kid Derrick Rose as the number one selection. He took the league by storm, winning Rookie of the Year that season. Two seasons later and Rose had claimed an MVP out from Lebron’s grasp. Chicago looked like one of the elite teams in the NBA. But knee injuries have derailed Rose’s career, and he’s never been the same.
Pick number two and three—Michael Beasley and OJ Mayo—didn’t turn out to be stars, but number four and five certainly did. Kevin Love, picked at five by Memphis, then shipped to Minnesota, has been a double-double machine since just his second season. He lead the league in rebounds his third season with 15.2, but was criticized for stat chasing and a lack of leadership. A four-time All Star, Love stats decline—as expected—when he joined the Cleveland Cavaliers’ super team. But he got to win a championship.
But it’s Russell Westbrook, picked by OKC at number four, that gets the best player. A teammate of Love’s at UCLA, Westbrook was criticized for being a tweener, not a point guard, and not a shooting guard. He’s played his entire career while still being a ball dominate tweener, and it’s worked out just fine. Making the finals with Kevin Durant in 2012, Westbrook has gone onto win one scoring title, and could win this seasons. He’s a six-time All Star, a five-time All-NBA, and could win the MVP this season, averaging a triple double after KD left for the Bay Area.
Honorable mention to DeAndre Jordan.
8 2009: Stephen Curry
A lot of great players came out of this draft.
Blake Griffin was taken number one overall by the Los Angeles Clippers. But Clipper Nation swore loudly when it seemed their number one draft pick curse got to Griffin. Blake missed his first season due to injury—though he went on to win Rookie of the Year in the 10-11 season. While Griffin is a five-time All Star and four-time All-NBA player, he’s still no match for the 2009 king.
But before Steph Curry was taken, current MVP co-favorite James Harden was selected at number three. Harden was part of OKC’s big three, and a huge reason why the Thunder made it to the Finals in 2012. But, due to fear of cap space and luxury tax money, OKC and Harden couldn’t come to an agreement on an extension and they shipped Harden to Houston for what panned out to be nothing. One of the worst trades in league history. Harden currently leads a 50+ win team, and the league in assists with 11.2 per game.
Come pick number five and Minnesota desperately needed a point guard. They owned pick five and six, and selected two point guards, Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn. That left Steph Curry sitting at number seven. And final for the Warriors, a high draft pick panned out and stuck with them. Curry is a four-time All Star, current holder of most 3 point shots made in a season, with over 400. He is the reigning two-time MVP and won a championship with the Warriors in 2015. Curry briefly overtook Lebron for best player in the league in discussions last season, and is still having a terrific season, even though his points per game are down.
7 2010: Paul George
It’s close, especially between number one pick John Wall, and Paul George—picked 10th. Though honorable mentions to both DeMarcus Cousins (picked 5th) and Gordon Hayward (picked 9th) are both deserved.
This could be the year John Wall flips the script though. He’s leading a very talented Wizards team to the Playoffs under new coach Scott Brooks. Wall has had limited post season success, largely in help to a waning Paul Pierce—though he’s been dealt some rally bad teams early in his career. Meanwhile Paul George is on a Pacers team that could get swept in the first round, if they make it at all.
But so far Paul George has been more successful. He’s been to two Conference Finals under Larry Bird’s keen eye, and has more accolades than Wall. George is a four-time All Star, like Wall; has three All-Defense awards, Wall has one; and was 12-13’s Most improved player. Not even a broken leg could keep George out of the NBA for very long.
6 2011: Kawhi Leonard
The only draft where true stars have come from every level of the two-round selection process.
Kyrie Irving, NBA Champ, stud of the Cavalieres, and the current Robin to Lebron’s Batman, was taken first by Cleveland. He collected the ROY trophy that season, and is a four-time All Star.
Kemba Walker, Michael Jordan’s star player, and one-time All Star, leads a Hornets team that needs to bolster its roster to help Walker get to the playoffs. He was selected ninth by Charlotte.
Klay Thompson, 2015 Champ, a member of the Splash Brothers, and perhaps the second greatest three point shooter ever, was selected 11th by the Warriors.
Chicago Bulls leading scorer, and any hope for an immediate winning future, Jimmy Butler was taken 30th—dead last in the first round—by the Bulls.
And current reigning “Little Guy” Isaiah Thomas, of the Boston Celtics, was drafted by Sacramento 60th—the last player of the draft.
However, our winner is the NBA’s tied for—if not the—best two-way player (tied with LeBron), Kawhi Leonard. Bill Simmons noted that Kawhi was the only star in the NBA that he’d believe could rip the ball from LeBron, then score on LeBron in the last seconds of Game Seven of the NBA Finals. A two-time All Star, Leonard is a two-time Def. POY, the 2014 Finals MVP, and a one-time All-NBA player. How do the Spurs keep getting guys like this?
5 2012: Anthony Davis
This is a no-brainer, with all due respect to Damian Lillard and Draymond Green.
Lillard, taken sixth by Portland, surprised the league by averaging 19 ppg in his rookie season and taking home the ROY trophy. He shocked Houston several playoffs ago by shooting them straight home on a relatively open three point buzzer beater.
Green is the only Champion out of the group, and he is invaluable to the Warriors. I’m not even sure switching Green for Davis on the Warriors would make them better. Green does all the little things, the in-the-trenches moves and punches and pinches that help wear the other team down. He’s a superb defender and passer, and should always get consideration for Def. POY as he can guard all five positions (though so can Kawhi).
Anthony Davis, taken first overall by New Orleans, is a once-in-a-lifetime NBA Unicorn. In his five seasons, he’s already led the league in blocks twice. He’s posted the 12th highest Player Efficiency Rating in NBA history, and is averaging a whopping 28 ppg and 11.9 rebounds. If the Pelicans can build around him and Cousins, that will be a very difficult team indeed.
4 2013: Giannis Antetokounmpo
If not for Antetokounmpo this would have been possibly the worst draft in NBA history. The next best player would be Rudy Gobert, a serviceable center who can help a Championship team win someday. After that? Steven Adams followed by a tossup between Kelly Olynyk and Nerlens Noel.
The only All-Star out of the group, Antetokounmpo this season has started to look like a mixture between Westbrook and LeBron. Selected 15th by the Milwaukee Bucks, Antetokounmpo is the future of that franchise. It looks like they’ll eek into the playoffs this year, which will hopefully be a trend for Antetokounmpo as he starts to take over best Small Forward in the East from LeBron.
In Antetokounmpo fourth season, he’s averaging 23.1 ppg, up from 16.9 last year. Yeah, this guy is getting good. Not to mention he’s becoming a better rebounder and passer, though it doesn’t seem he’ll ever be as good a passer as LeBron.
3 2014: Nikola Jokic
We’re now in the territory where it’s time to guess who will be the best player, while also taking into account what has been done thus far statistic wise. None of the best players in this draft have much playoff success. And by the end of each draft member’s career is done, this might be a different story.
Andrew Wiggins was taken number one overall by Cleveland who promptly traded him for Kevin Love. He won Rookie of the Year with Minnesota and became a 20 point scorer in his second season. Though he’s already the second best player on his team—more on that later—and it remains to be seen if he’ll ever be more than a scorer. He certainly appears to be headed into “elite” scorer territory, but so far he’s a subpar three-point shooter at .363% this season, a career best.
While Jabari Parker may return from his second knee injury and roast the league, or Joel Embiid may overcome foot injuries in order to be the type of perennial All-Star he showed he was capable of, we haven’t seen enough make an educated guess on that. Who know Marcus Smart may suddenly improve his offensive game like Kawhi did and become the league’s best two-way player.
For now, we’re picking second round pick Nikola Jokic, who has been setting the league on fire recently. He’s a skilled big man who can knock down an open three, and is a good free throw shooter (.817% in his two-season career). He’s shown he’s a capable passer and a good scorer. Big men like this should thrive in a league that is shrinking in size and opening up lanes that big men can take advantage of in the low post, mid-range, or at the three point line.
2 2015: Karl-Anthony Towns
Right now, the number one pick of the 2015 draft, selected by Minnesota, is our number one player. Towns won Rookie of the Year last year with 18.3 ppg, and 10.5 boards. He proved what many scouts were saying, that he’s going to be a dominant and elite big man in this league for a long time. Many even said that he reminded them a bit of Tim Duncan—high praise for 21-year-old. This season he’s not disappointed. With 24.8 ppg and 12 rebounds, including shooting .357% from three, Towns has shone you can be classic big man while also being a modern NBA center. It’s scary to think what his career could be if Minnesota continue to improve.
The threat to Town being the best player of his draft is not D’Angelo Russell, picked directly after him by the Lakers, nor is it number three pick, Jahlil Okafor. It’s the fourth pick from 2015, Kristaps Porzingis, who seems to have the total package like Towns. The frustrating part is that New York can’t seem to figure out that they need to make Porzingis the number one option on that team, especially in the fourth, when people don’t seem to be able to guard him. He’ll learn better. Jury’s still out on this one.
1 2016: Jaylen Brown
This is purely a guess as to who is going to be the best out of this class. It’s too early to tell. Media and Execs alike went into this draft knowing that Ben Simmons was going first and Brandon Ingram was going second. No one guessed Jaylen Brown was going third, well except the Celtics, but it’s not really a guess when you’re making the decisions.
Since Ben Simmons has missed his entire rookie season with a foot injury—never a good sign for the start of a career, it’s hard to say he’ll be the best in 10-years. But Ingram hasn’t been good yet either. And he’s getting lots of minutes on a bad team. He should be bolstering his stats, but he’s averaging 9.2 ppg over 29.1 minutes. Not good.
Jaylen Brown on the other hand, he’s playing on a team that may beat out Cleveland for the number one seed in the East. Over 17.1 minutes per game, he’s averaging 6.6 ppg, but Brad Stevens has been using him more and more lately, and he’s been mentioned late in the season as a possible ROY.