Each draft year produces an unexpected player who proves to the teams that passed on him that they made a mistake: a draft steal. While some top-ten picks wash out, a few lucky teams happen upon a second-rounder that carves out a successful 10 year career. Each of the draft steals below fit this description, someone who has outperformed the majority of those taken ahead of him.
For the purposes of this list, I included no player taken in the lottery. Though one could argue that a generational talent like LeBron James is still a draft steal at #1 overall, no one taken in the first 14 picks can make this list. Also, while the NBA has seen some great draft steals in its history, the players included must be playing in the league today. Beyond that, the rankings are a balance between draft position and career success. Read on to see the young ones who are making a name for themselves and the veterans that have already defined great careers despite no one else believing in them.
As always, if you feel like I got these picks wrong you can tell me what an idiot I am in the comments.
15 Giannis Antetokounmpo, 15th Overall
The youngest player on this list, Giannis Antetokounmpo was taken in the 2013 draft. The then 19 year old from Greece was considered a reach at number 15 overall who was unknown and unheralded at the time. In his last season in the Greek League Giannis failed to be named an All-Star, which does not bode well for someone trying to break into the toughest competition in the world. Just three years later however the now 21 year old Antetokounmpo posted season averages of 17 points, 4 assists, and 8 rebounds a game; all while running the floor with an athleticism rare for a 6’11’’ small forward. Although 15th overall is a relatively high draft pick, so far he is head and shoulders above anyone else from his draft class. That said, Antetokounmpo’s career has yet to be defined; he could end up higher on this list or off of it all together.
14 Hassan Whiteside, 33rd Overall
Hassan Whiteside still has a lot to prove as well. After being taken early in the second round of the 2010 draft by the Sacramento Kings Whiteside only played 19 games for them over two seasons, averaging 6 minutes and less than two points per game. The kings eventually waived Whiteside, who would go on to bounce around in the D-League and China for the next two years. After being waived yet again, this time by the Memphis Grizzlies, Whiteside’s career looked like it would never take off-commensurate with his draft status. He signed with the Miami Heat in 2014 and due to injuries found himself with regular playing time and made the most of the opportunity, eventually becoming a regular fixture in the rotation. Whiteside has averaged a double-double in each of his seasons with Miami, last year posting 14 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 blocks a game. At 27 years of age Whiteside is just now entering his prime, and could make teams regret giving up on him so quickly.
13 Kyle Korver, 51st Overall
Originally drafted by New Jersey, Korver was traded on draft night to the Philadelphia 76ers. Though his rookie campaign was largely unimpressive, Korver went on to lead the league in 3-pointers his sophomore season with 226- a franchise record. He has since made a name for himself as a top 3-point shooter in the league. His accolades include leading the league in free-throw percentage (2007), 3-point percentage (2010, 2014, 2015) and setting a NBA single-season record for 3-point percentage (53.6%). Though Kyle Korver has spent his career as a journeyman off the bench, it has been a 13 year career as a successful role-player and sixth-man, eventually being named an All-Star in 2015. He has outperformed many 1st-round picks, let alone fellow late 2nd-rounders.
12 Goran Dragić, 45th Overall
Dragić was a late-bloomer for the Phoenix Suns who traded him away, as he didn’t average double digits in scoring until his 5th year in the league. After that season however Dragić was an unrestricted free agent, and rejoined the Phoenix Suns for the most successful stretch of his career. He won Most Improved Player and was named to the All-NBA Third Team in 2014 after averaging 20 points and 6 assists a game. Now with the Miami Heat, Dragić looks to increase his steady numbers as the team’s new number one. He is only 30 years old and still in his prime, so he has plenty of time to keep piling his career stats. Though we’ve likely seen most of what he’ll become in the league, Dragić is still a formidable guard who gets the job done day in and day out, which is more than a lot of other players taken in the middle of the second round can say.
11 David Lee, 30th Overall
A four year player at University of Florida and 2005 NCAA Collegiate Championship winner, David Lee was taken 30th overall in the 2005 draft by the New York Knicks. Lee steadily improved during his first three years in the league playing solid minutes off the bench. In his fourth year Lee earned the starting position and did not disappoint, delivering 16 points and 12 rebounds a game. The next year in 2010 he increased his scoring by 4 points a game, and that was good enough to be the first Knick named to an All-Star team since 2001. Lee did a sign-and-trade to the Golden State Warriors the following season and went on to continue posting nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds over the next four seasons, garnering another All-Star selection and named to the All-NBA Third Team in 2013. In 2014 Lee was supplanted on the Warriors by Draymond Green, and saw his minutes drastically reduced. He is still coming off the bench, now for the San Antonio Spurs, but the 33 year old is producing in his limited playing time.
10 DeAndre Jordan, 35th Overall
DeAndre Jordan was a late-bloomer who, after being taken in the second round of the 2008 draft, struggled to find his shooting and hence a starting spot. His defense, rebounding, and hustle is unquestioned however, and so good that the Los Angeles Clippers had to give him more and more minutes. Jordan led the league in rebounding for both the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Now that Jordan is seeing 30+ minutes a game, he has been named to two consecutive All-Defensive First teams, and improving a 2015 selection to the All-NBA Third Team to an All-NBA First Team in 2016. Indeed the past two seasons have brought DeAndre into the limelight as a top-tier defender who’s post-presence is feared. This helped his cause in joining Team USA in the 2016 Summer Olympics where they won the gold medal. At 28 years of age DeAndre Jordan is just now fully realizing his potential and more accolades are surely headed his way, along with possibly a higher spot on this list.
9 Zach Randolph, 19th Overall
Randolph does not have more individual awards or championship rings than the previous two big men on this list, nor was he picked later in the draft than them. He edges them out however by being the first person on this list with Hall of Fame credentials. After two years in the league with the Portland Trailblazers, Randolph’s stats jumped up by a margin of 12ppg and 6rpg, earning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award in 2004. From there he never looked back. Over his 15 year career Randolph has performed consistently, averaging 17 points and 9.4 rebounds during that span. He’s also garnered two All-Star selections (2010, 2013) as well as named to the All-NBA Third Team in 2011. That kind of consistency has allowed Randolph to break into the top 100 scorers in NBA history, and though his career is winding down he still has plenty of time to climb past a dozen or so players.
8 Paul Millsap, 47th Overall
After being taken in the middle of the second round by the Utah Jazz, Millsap managed to play well enough off the bench his rookie year to make the NBA All-Rookie Second Team. Undersized for his position with a very raw skillset, Millsap has steadily improved year over year and is considered a “made player”, one who isn’t naturally gifted but put in the work to become great. His first eight years in the league were solid and he made a name for himself down low in the paint, but they were nothing notable. His chance to shine came in 2013 when Paul Millsap signed as a free agent to the Atlanta Hawks. In his three seasons with the Hawks Millsap has been named to three consecutive All-Star teams. Just this past season he posted 17 points, 9 rebounds and almost 2 blocks a game; making the NBA All-Defensive Second Team. The 31 year old is coming off his best season yet and is still in his prime. He has a good handful of quality years left, and Millsap will undoubtedly use them to prove that he’s better than 47th overall.
7 Marc Gasol, 48th Overall
Marc Gasol was drafted in 2008 from Spain by the Los Angeles Lakers, who promptly traded him to Memphis in exchange for Gasol’s brother Pau. It’s a trade that has seemed to work out for both parties. In Marc’s rookie year he played 30 minutes a game, posting 12ppg and 7rpg and earning a spot on the NBA All-Rookie Second Team. He also broke the franchise record for FG% with .530, and would break it yet again his sophomore year with .581. Though none of Gasol’s seasons include eye-popping stats, his floor-presence and defense have earned him numerous awards. His most impressive accolades are being a two-time All-Star, named to the NBA All-First Team, and winning Defensive Player of the Year. Marc has also had a good international career, winning silver medals in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics for Spain. Look for Gasol to continue dominating the post this upcoming season as the transitioning Memphis Grizzlies lean on him more than ever.
6 Jimmy Butler, 30th Overall
Butler is another “made player” whose renowned work ethic and hustle has propelled him into the limelight. After a couple of seasons of playing solid defense, the shooting Butler worked so tirelessly on in his offseason retreats kicked in and he earned the NBA Most Improved Player Award in 2015. In his brief five years in the league, Butler has been named to three consecutive All-Defense Second Teams and two consecutive All-Star appearances. Last season was his best one yet posting 20ppg, 5apg and 5rpg. Now the face of a franchise, the 27 year old is just getting started as one of the league’s best two-way players and will continue improving. Expect Butler to be a fixture at the All-Star games and playoffs for the next 5 years- at least.
5 Rajon Rondo, 21st Overall
Only a handful of point guards in the league today are more accomplished than Rajon Rondo, and most of them were taken inside the lottery. In just his second year Rondo helped the Celtics win the 2008 NBA Championship by contributing 10 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds and nearly 2 steals a game in the playoffs while shooting .492 from the floor. Rondo continued his old-school style of play throughout his career, preferring to set up his teammates and play gritty defense. While this might not lead big numbers, it did lead to four consecutive All-Star appearances and numerous mentions to both All-Defense First and Second teams. Though Rondo’s fall from grace has removed him even further from the forefront of today’s elite point guards, he has still lead the league three teams in assists- including just last season. He is only 30 years old, and thanks to his style of play, he has at least another 4 or 5 quality years left to regain his reputation.
4 Draymond Green, 35th Overall
When the Golden State Warriors drafted Green in 2012 there were a lot of questions about his work ethic, discipline, and weight surrounding him. Green was determined to prove the naysayers wrong however. He dropped 20 pounds after his rookie year and spent the offseason improving his shooting. In his third year, Green assumed a starting spot after injuries put his play kept him there and he progressed as the season wore on. He eventually finished runner-up in both Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player. Come playoff time, Green was in great form and lifted the Warriors past the Cavaliers with a triple-double to win the 2015 NBA Championship. Green continues to improve and just had his best season yet, averaging 14 points 9 rebounds and 7 assists a game and earning his first mention as an All-Star.
3 Kawhi Leonard, 15th Overall
Leonard was originally draft by Indiana in 2012, but the San Antonio Spurs saw something they liked and traded point guard George Hill on draft night to get him. The Spurs gave up an established and solid player, but in return they got a superstar. His coming out party was avenging his team in the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James led Miami Heat to win the championship and be named Finals MVP. Since then Leonard has won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award for the past two seasons, all the while improving his shooting enough to earn his first All-Star appearance in 2016. This past season Leonard averaged 21 points, 7 rebounds, 1 block, and 2 steals a game while shooting over 50% from the field. The 25 year old is already the league’s premier two-way player and just beginning his reign as the new face of the franchise.
2 Manu Ginóbili, 57th Overall
Ginóbili does not have the stats nor the awards that other players on this list do, but he does have 4 championships as a core member of the Spurs’ Big 3 throughout the 2000’s. Amazingly, this future Hall-of-Famer was drafted 57th overall, second to last, in the 1999 NBA Draft. Ginóbili elected to play in Europe until he finally joined the team in 2002. Though he struggled early on to adjust to the level of competition, Ginóbili eventually became one of the most dependable and smart players in the league. He has been named an All-Star twice, selected to the All-NBA Third Team twice, and won the Sixth Man of the Year in 2008. The 39 year old’s career is coming to an end, and he’ll gladly let his four rings decide his legacy.
1 Tony Parker, 28th Overall
Yes, yet another San Antonio draft pick; now you know the secret behind the Spur’s 4 championships spanning the last 13 years. Tony Parker was drafted in 2001, and in his 15 years since then he has averaged 16 points and 6 rebounds a game while running one of the most disciplined teams in the league. In addition to his four rings, Parker has been a six time All-Star, named to the All-NBA Second Team three times, and was the 2007 Finals MVP. Though he is now 34 years old, Parker is still playing at a high level and a couple more modest seasons would propel him into the top 50 scorers in NBA History. There are other future Hall of Famers on this list, but Parker is the only one assured to get in on the first ballot.