The draft can be the trickiest thing for any team to handle. A guy on paper can look absolutely fantastic but can’t handle the big leagues. That’s especially true for the period when the NBA was drafting guys straight out of high school, too many of whom cracked under the pressure. But even before then, there was the chance of a guy who seemed to be a great choice never living up to that potential. Meanwhile, a team could catch a lucky break by getting a guy overlooked and pushing him well. It can be a crapshoot at times and every team has felt the good and bad effects of a draft choice.
Some stand taller than others, of course. Some draft choices are notable as either complete disasters or hitting a fantastic new height for the team. So many choices are available but here are the ten biggest draft busts balanced by the ten times a team stole a fantastic pick away and showed how the future of a franchise can change so much with one pick. One bad decision can ruin a franchise for a decade while a great one can set up a dynasty.
20 Dud: Michael Olowokandi
If you’re going to make a mistake, it might as well be a big one. Such was the case in 1998 when the Los Angeles Clippers grabbed seven-foot, 270-pound London-born Olowokandi who had showcased his skills at the University of the Pacific. In five seasons, Olowokandi averaged 8 points and rough play although he showed improvement in his final year with the Clippers that made him a big free agent signing.
However, a hernia injury would hamper his output majorly and followed it up with a knee injury as well. Traveling to Minnesota, Olowokandi would suffer inconsistent play and more injuries to harm his career and yet another bout of agony in Clippers history. Picks like him are what kept the Clippers dwelling in the basement of the league for years and years. The Clippers wouldn't turn things around until drafting Blake Griffin over a decade later.
19 Steal: Dirk Nowitski
After some good work in Germany, Dirk Nowitski came into the 1998 draft with some expectation but still ranked low as Milwaukee took him ninth overall, but then immediately traded him to Dallas, a lowly team. Needless to say, the Bucks are kicking themselves over that as Nowitski has become the most popular Maverick in history. A 13-time All-Star, he’s the Mavericks’ all-time leading scorer and turned the team around into a perennial playoff contender. The high point was 2011 as Dallas finally grabbed the NBA Championship with Nowitski named Finals MVP.
More popular in Dallas than his home nation, Nowitski proves that draft choices can be a truly mixed bag but when they pay off, they pay off big.
Names that went before Nowitski in the 1998 draft include Olowokandi, Mike Bibby, Raef LaFrentz and Larry Hughes. When so many duds go before such a legend like Nowitski, that qualifies him as an incredible draft steal.
18 Dud: Stromile Swift
Leading Louisiana State to the Sweet 16 was impressive and more so as this was the time when LSU was under probation. So attention was on Swift as he was chosen second in the 2000 draft by the Grizzlies. He only averaged about ten points a game so Vancouver released him. Swift headed to the Houston Rockets, only lasting a year before being traded right back to the Grizzlies, who had moved to Memphis.
His numbers continued to decline as he ended up with the Nets, then the Suns and finally the 76ers. While okay, Swift never lived up to his name in the pros and is only notable for being the last major member of the Vancouver franchise.
Swift surprisingly lasted nine seasons in the NBA, as he was good enough to hang around the league, but it's safe to say, he never lived up to expectations as a second overall pick.
17 Steal: Nate Archibald
A standout in high school and then in El Paso, Nate Archibald had a good build for basketball but seemed a tad raw for many teams in the 1970 draft. He was nabbed in the 2nd round by the Cincinnati Royals (the precursor to the Sacramento Kings who would move to Kansas City a few years later). Being that the league was smaller in those days, Archibald was the 19th overall pick.
He soon broke out as in 1972-73 he became the only player to win titles of most assists and scoring in the same season. Traded to the Nets and then the Buffalo Braves, Archibald found his biggest success with the Celtics, leading the team to three straight seasons with the best record in the league and winning the NBA Championship in 1981.
The 1970 draft was a stacked class, featuring Pete Maravich, Bob Lanier, Dave Cowens and Calvin Murphy, but it's clear Archibald should have been a top-five pick.
16 Dud: Joe Smith
Coming in right out of high school, Smith was the number one pick in 1995 and Golden State grabbed him before Kevin Garnett. He was named to the All-Rookie Team but soon was less notable for his play than for being pushed from team to team. After just two years, he was traded to Philadelphia with his numbers taking a downfall immediately. He then became embroiled in the controversy of the Timberwolves trying to “scam” the salary cap and Smith was released as part of the massive NBA punishment on the team.
After good numbers for the Pistons, Smith was soon bouncing around to the Bucks, Nuggets, Thunder, back to Philadelphia, the Bulls, Cavs, the Thunder, the Hawks, Nets and finally the Lakers. His entire NBA career averaged about ten points a game but at least Smith can say he got to call more cities home than any other player in NBA history.
15 Steal: John Stockton
Gonzaga wasn’t a huge school so not surprising Stockton’s good work there could get ignored by most of the pro teams in the legendary 1984 draft. Indeed, many fans in Utah were stunned silent that out of all the guys available, the Jazz picked Stockton at number 16. But that silence turned to cheers once Stockton began his career, one of the few to spend his entire playing days with one team. Over the next decade, Stockton would be a 10-time All-Star, leading the league in steals and assists and aiding Utah in becoming a serious playoff contender. He formed one of the strongest duos in NBA history alongside another draft steal that will appear on this list.
His retirement was huge news with the street outside the Delta Center named in his honor and most Jazz fans still consider him one of the best faces of the franchise and are more than happy about Utah nabbing him.
14 Dud: Kent Benson
A star at Indiana, Benson racked up a 50 percent shooting average while leading the school to the Big Ten title and the 1976 National Championship. This made him the number one draft pick in 1977 and the Bucks snatched him up fast, assuming Benson would make them champions again. But just two minutes into his very first game, Benson was punched in the jaw by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, his jaw separated while Kareem had to sit out two months breaking his hand.
Benson was clearly never the same afterward, his game suffering and soon letting his temper get out of hand for ejections. His play never reached the heights of his college career and he would be traded to the Pistons and then the Jazz for little impact. Few times can you see a guy’s career collapse so quickly.
Picks like these are what has kept the Milwaukee Bucks out of NBA Championship contention for so long.
13 Steal: Dennis Rodman
While a three-time All-American, Rodman’s attitude and reports of his ego made many teams consider him too much of a risk to grab. Thus, it took until the 2nd round of the 1986 draft for Rodman to be taken by the Detroit Pistons where his attitude fit in perfectly with the “Bad Boys” of the era. Rodman still could get in guys’ faces and slam opponents but backed it up by becoming a seven-time rebounding champion, proving himself a great player under the ego and tattoos. Perhaps it was a case of Rodman just finding the perfect fit for the kind of player he was.
He won two NBA titles with the Pistons before moving on to become part of the latter half of the Bulls dynasty for another three. He’s known today for his truly insane behavior and antics but still a great player overall and proves how the 2nd round can offer some true stardom.
12 Dud: Jonny Flynn
A standout at Syracuse, Flynn was named Big East Player of the Year and helping the school to the Sweet Sixteen. Going for the 2009 draft, Flynn had great hopes and the Timberwolves figured they’d lucked out getting him sixth overall in the first round. At first, it looked great, Flynn racking up good numbers in his debut and helping Minnesota to a great comeback victory. However, hip surgery in 2010 would hamper Flynn majorly, never the same player afterward as his numbers dropped to about 5 points a game.
Traded to the Rockets, Flynn’s play sunk further and was then traded to the Trail Blazers before signing with the Pistons, who waived him after just a few weeks. Now playing in Europe, Flynn continues to struggle with injuries and has become just another great college guy who faltered in the pros.
The Timberwolves passed on the likes of Steph Curry and DeMar DeRozan by taking Flynn.
11 Steal: Tony Parker
The rare case of a guy not grabbed from U.S. colleges, Tony Parker had played in France before enrolling in the 2001 draft. That may account for how he went to number 28 before the Spurs snatched him up. The 2001 draft proved to be an extremely weak class, as many names drafted in the top 10 never amounted to much in the NBA. Because of this, a budding star like Tony Parker fell all the way to the late 20s of the draft.
This proved the key to the Spurs becoming one of the best teams of the century. Four NBA titles, a six time All-Star and Finals MVP all the way down at 28th overall indeed makes you a draft steal. It's a good thing the Spurs weren't too concerned over where Parker had developed himself as a basketball player and that philosophy paid off.
10 Dud: Greg Oden
Greg Oden had one season at Ohio State that led the team to the Big Ten Championship and the finals of the NCAA tournament. Leaping to the NBA, he was the first pick in the 2007 draft with the Portland Trail Blazers thinking they finally had another Jordan on their hands. However, he ended up missing that entire first season due to surgery on his knee. When he made his debut in 2008, he had to leave after three minutes due to an ailing foot.
It was a sign of what was to come as injuries would hit Oden constantly, his numbers and play would disappoint and Portland finally washed their hands of him. Signing with Miami, Oden once more missed months of games due to injuries and was unable to offer anything major on the court. Yet another bad move by Portland as Oden never lived up to his potential in the NBA.
9 Steal: Karl Malone
After a good college career, Karl Malone was convinced he’d be going high in the NBA draft, even buying an apartment in Dallas as he figured the Mavericks would take him at number eight. Instead, it was number 13 Utah who nabbed him. Adjusting, Malone soon became known for both great play and some nasty hits as it was hard to find a player at the time who didn’t know what “The Mailman’s” elbow felt like.
That led to some backlash but Malone was still a fantastic player, a two-time MVP and 14-time All-Star who led the Jazz to some great playoff runs, including the Finals. While he never closed it out with a title, Malone still had an impressive career that probably makes the Mavericks wish they’d gone with him after all.
It wasn't only the Mavericks who made the mistake of passing on him though, as Wayman Tisdale and Ed Pinckney are two power forwards that were selected before Malone, going second and 10th overall respectively.
8 Dud: Darko Milicic
It’s rare you can call a guy with a championship ring a “bust” but Darko qualifies. After time in Serbia, Milicic entered the 2003 draft right behind LeBron James and before Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. The Pistons (who benefited from a trade deal) were a good team hoping to get better by nabbing this foreign standout and promised him big minutes. Instead, Milicic was basically on the bench and while he was part of the Pistons team that won the 2004 NBA Championship, his contributions on the court were practically zero. He averaged about five minutes a game, only used in blowouts and many fans and reporters were baffled as to why Detroit would bother to grab a guy and not use him.
Traded to the Magic, Milicic had a good season before signing with the Grizzlies. However, various injuries would hamper his playing abilities as he would wrap it up with the Celtics, posting disappointing numbers. Many believe that had Milicic gone to a team that utilized him better in his prime, his NBA career would be far more impressive, making this a bizarre bust his own team created.
7 Steal: Kobe Bryant
Probably the best case ever of a high school star jumping right into the pros, Bryant was drafted 13th by the Charlotte Hornets although Kobe wasn’t a fan. As it happened, the Hornets had already agreed to a deal to trade the pick to the Lakers and thus Bryant headed to L.A. It didn’t take long for his talent to explode on the court, the backbone of a new Lakers dynasty that won five championships in a decade. It's crazy to think that even in a draft class as legendary as the 1996 edition that Kobe slipped all the way down to 13th overall.
While his personal life has been infamous, Bryant has backed it up with great play and went out on top, scoring 60 points in his final game. There were several misses of the high schoolers heading to the NBA but Bryant remains the biggest hit of the bunch.
6 Dud: Shawn Bradley
“The Storming Mormon” got his start at the University of Utah, leading the nation in blocks and named All-American, his towering height and tough play making him a notable athlete. With his size, he was expected to go high and the 76ers grabbed him second (between Chris Webber and Penny Hardaway) and even gave him the number 76. Taught by Moses Malone and undergoing conditioning, Bradley was expected to be a fantastic power player. While he excelled blocking shots, Bradley’s numbers were horrible, 40 percent from the floor and he got worse in his second year.
He was traded to the Nets for better numbers but still nothing really notable as his blocking abilities were overwhelmed by terribly inconsistent play that led him to be traded to Dallas where his blocking helped the rise of great teammates to boost the Mavericks up. Bradley never turned into the supposed sure-fire big-man most thought he would and it shows how some guys aren't good players just because they're big.
5 Steal: Steve Nash
You can see how Steve Nash wasn’t exactly a must-get as his college numbers were good but hardly reflecting of a superstar in any way. He was only the 15th pick when the Phoenix Suns got him and soon felt he made little real impact so traded him to Dallas. As a Maverick, Nash erupted with fantastic numbers, an eight-time All-Star and leading them to serious playoff runs.
Eventually Nash became a free agent and the team that drafted him offered him a six-year, $63 million contract. Nash gave Mark Cuban and the Mavs a chance to match the deal, but Dallas declined. Going back to a now-eager Suns team, Nash won back-to-back MVP honors, leading the league in assists and three-pointers and while he didn’t have any championships, he's still regarded as one of the best guys on the court in his time. So there's one case where a so-so college guy turned out more than ready for the pros after all.
4 Dud: Pervis Ellison
In only his first year at Louisville, Pervis Ellison led the Cardinals to the NCAA Championship and named outstanding player. Naturally, this made him a must-get in the 1989 draft, the number one pick by the Sacramento Kings who assumed they’d hit the lottery. However, injuries kept Ellison out for almost half the season, leading to his nickname “Out of Service Pervis.” Tired of this, the Kings traded him to Washington where he won Most Improved Player honors.
However, his injuries kept coming at him as he played only 69 games in three seasons with the Celtics, finally finishing up in Seattle, retiring after nine games. Now working as a teacher, Ellison has to handle the reputation being one of the most notable college stars to blow it big in the NBA.
It's always unfortunate when a guy's promising career becomes so derailed due to injury troubles.
3 Steal: Magic Johnson
While Johnson was a first overall pick, the circumstances in which the Lakers ended up with him is what makes him a steal.
It’s rare that pure, blind luck plays into a major draft moment like this. Due to a rather complicated trade situation, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls both had claim to the top spot in the 1979 NBA draft and both wanted their hands on Johnson, a stellar college star who was coming off one of the greatest NCAA Finals games of all time. They eventually decided to literally flip a coin for it and Los Angeles won.
Thus, the Lakers got Johnson who quickly transformed them into “Showtime,” the dynasty that would go to nine NBA finals winning five of them. While he had to hang it up early due to his HIV virus, Johnson was a fantastic pick and thus the Lakers truly hit magic to get their hands on him.
2 Dud: Sam Bowie
It’s not that Sam Bowie was such a terrible player. It’s that he represents what has to rank as the biggest “what if” in NBA history. With the prime position of number two in the fantastic 1984 draft, the Portland Trail Blazers had a great selection of guys to go after. For reasons that continue to baffle today, they selected Bowie, a good but not fantastic player who was prone to injury. That allowed the Chicago Bulls to swoop in and grab Michael Jordan at no.3 and the rest is history. Averaging about ten points a game, Bowie would bounce between Portland, the Nets and the Lakers and be plagued by constant knee injuries that slowed his output and eventually forced him to retire after a rough career.
To this day, Portland fans grouse over how they could have had the greatest player of all time on their team rather than a so-so guy, ranking this as the biggest mistake in draft history.
1 Steal: Michael Jordan
It's not often you'd consider a third overall pick a steal, but when the greatest of all time goes third overall, it's an exception to the rule.
Few moments in NBA history cause as much “what if” questioning than this. Jordan was a terrific star for North Carolina and was expected to go high in the draft. It was totally logical the Trail Blazers would nab him but, for some baffling reason, they went for Sam Bowie. Houston had already locked onto Hakeem Olajuwon and thus the Chicago Bulls were able to snatch up Jordan. From there, Chicago could boast having arguably the greatest NBA star of all time on their team, leading to years of sell-outs and the creation of one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history, six titles in eight years.
Jordan would solidify his Hall of Fame career and Chicago fans who enter the United Center (The House Jordan Built) give regular thanks to Portland for their mistake that led the Bulls to epic greatness.