The ‘80s are rightfully remembered as a kind of golden era for the NBA. Players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan were ushering in a new style of dominant play that helped forever shape the image of the NBA superstar. Every team in the league was looking for the next great player. Team chemistry was still important, but it became very clear that the new world order of draft picks was to pick the biggest piece of talent on the board and just hope that they became the next big thing.
It was a strategy that either succeeded spectacularly or failed miserably. Many people were aware that talent at the college level didn’t exactly equal pro success, but the ‘80s, more than any other decade, was a time when the big draft risk was seen as a worthy gamble. This mentality gave us a lot of tremendous players, but it also led to an unusual amount of first round picks that never panned out. It was a decade of brilliance and busts. Today, we look at the top 15 worst NBA draft picks of the ‘80s and where they are now.
15 Chris Washburn
Chris Washburn joined North Carolina State University as a member of a super squad the school was assembling. Despite some trouble he got into while in college (he was arrested for stealing a stereo) and a supposedly awful attitude, he played well enough to go number three overall in the 1986 NBA Draft. Maybe the Golden State Warriors should have paid attention to the warning signs. Washburn never even resembled the college star he was once upon a time. Washburn became a magnet for controversy who always seemed to say or do the wrong thing.
He was banned from the NBA for life in 1989 and spent several years in extreme poverty due, in part, to his drug habits. He ran a fried chicken restaurant in North Carolina for a year and occasionally ran into minor legal trouble. Both of his sons went on to play college basketball.
14 Russell Cross
Russell Cross was a big deal once upon a time. He was built up to be the next Bill Russel or, at the very least, a dominant big man presence for years to come. He was a 6-foot-10 center who was seemingly unstoppable in the post. There were few flaws to the game he exhibited at Purdue. What the Golden State Warriors got when they picked him with the fourth overall selection in the 1983 draft was something else entirely. Cross played just one season for the Warriors before he was waived. The Nuggets gave him another shot, but it didn’t amount to much.
Cross spent most of the next few years in Europe, but never found his form. He lives a very private life these days but has granted several interviews that reveal he’s a deeply religious man who has no regrets about his career.
13 Danny Vranes
There’s a strong case to be made for Danny Vranes as the best college basketball player Utah has ever seen. Coming off of a high school state championship, the 6-foot-7 Vranes transferred his dominant play style to college with ease and spent four years helping establish Utah as a force to be reckoned with. The SuperSonics snatched him up with the 5th overall pick in the 1981 draft and received nothing greater than an 8.5 PPG season in 1984 for their efforts.
Vranes left the NBA in 1988 and began to play in Europe. While there, he faced numerous instances of not being paid on time (or at all) but felt trapped where he was as the mafia ran teams he played for and threatened to harm his family if he were to protest. After escaping that nightmare situation, Vranes has managed to stay out of the public spotlight.
12 Thurl Bailey
In all fairness, Thurl Bailey’s career only starts looking like a bust when you look at the expectations he entered the league with. After leading North Carolina State to a shocking 1983 NCAA Championship run, Bailey drew the attention of NBA scouts everywhere. The Utah Jazz ended up acquiring his services by drafting him 7th overall in 1983. Even though he never really made much of an impact, he remained a member of the Jazz for eight years. He was traded to Minnesota in 1991 and only spent three seasons there before moving on to the Greek League. He’s been very active since retiring in 1999. Bailey is involved in several community service organizations and often serves as a public speaker. He even gave the opening prayer at the 2008 Republican National Convention. Currently, he serves as the chairman of Big T Productions, Fertile Earth, and FourLeaf Films.
11 Mike Gminski
Michael Thomas Gminski dominated as a member of the Duke Blue Devils basketball team. He led Duke in scoring his junior and senior years and made the ACC first team squad three years of his four-year career. Further accolades followed, but it all led to Gminski being picked 7th overall during the 1980 draft. Gminski left behind several Duke school records and entered a world he wasn’t quite ready for.
He wasn’t an awful NBA player, but he just never did enough. Gminski called it quits for in 1994 and immediately worked to fall off the radar. His number was eventually retired by Duke. In recent years Gminski’s fiancée has passed away and his son Noah is being scouted as an exciting young athletic prospect.
10 Dennis Hopson
It’s easy to see what the New Jersey Nets saw when they drafted Dennis Hopson 3rd overall during the 1987 draft. As a shooting guard and small forward, Hopson became the standout star on a capable Ohio State team. He only got better as he progressed through his college career and appeared to be a player that could do it all. His NBA career started off promising enough as he led the Nets in points during the 1989-90 season, but things fell apart shortly thereafter. Unable to live up to expectations, Hopson eventually went to play overseas in 1992. He became a European journeyman and eventually retired in 2000. He tried running a trucking company in Ohio, but eventually returned to basketball when he became head coach of the Toledo Royal Knights. He bounced around a few coaching jobs until signing on as the head coach of Bedford High School in Michigan.
9 Leo Rautins
Nobody in the NBA was excited enough to take Leo Rautins before the 17th overall pick in the 1983 draft. He split time in college between Minnesota and Syracuse where he put up some pretty respectable numbers as a small forward. He even recorded the first Big East triple-double. As the first Canadian player drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft, Rautins did not set a great standard for his fellow countrymen. His career was plagued with injuries and some of the worst career numbers you can imagine. It got to the point where no NBA team would have him on the roster.
Following his retirement from the NBA, Rautins did some broadcasting work before playing in Europe. He still hopes to launch a new Canadian Basketball League and has served as the coach of the Canadian Men’s National team.
8 Danny Ferry
With the second pick in the 1989 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Clippers selected Duke’s Danny Ferry. Few were surprised. After all, if you played like one of the biggest stars a school known for big stars had ever seen, people would probably expect you to go high in the draft too. To this day, he remains one of the greatest players in Duke history. His NBA career got off to a rocky start when he refused to play for the Clippers and went to Italy instead.
He eventually signed with the Cavaliers but didn’t do much over the course of his 10-year career there. He transitioned to an executive career in the NBA following his retirement. In 2014, Ferry came under fire for reading a racist scouting report. He was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, but let the Hawks buy out his contract in 2015.
7 Jon Koncak
In another life, Jon Koncak might be known for his play at SMU where the seven-foot center served as the heart of an impressive squad. He might also have been known for going 5th overall in 1984 draft. Instead, Koncak is known simply as “Jon Contract” after receiving one of the most ludicrous contracts ever given to a professional athlete. Despite the fact that he was mostly a reserve player for the Hawks, Koncak was given a six-year, $13 million deal that nobody could quite believe. He didn’t earn many of those dollars over an uninspiring career. Currently, he spends time between different cities in order to see both of his kids. He keeps up with basketball but makes his living as a board member for two small tech companies.
6 Olden Polynice
Reading this list, you might get the impression that ‘80s NBA teams didn’t know how to draft centers. Olden Polynice was a big man star at Virginia where he led his team to a Final Four appearance. Despite narrowly losing their Final Four game in overtime, Polynice’s play was notable enough to convince the Chicago Bulls to take him with the 8th pick in 1987. They traded him to SuperSonics for Scottie Pippen immediately. The deal didn’t work out well for Seattle as Polynice quickly showed he wasn’t good for much more than offensive rebounds.
He did a lot of moving around before finally retiring in 2006 as a member of the ABA’s Los Angeles Aftershock. Polynice runs a training camp and is a well-known advocate for disabled basketball players.
5 Clark Kellogg
Clark Kellogg turned heads across the basketball world when he scored 51 points in a high school state championship game. Ohio State was quick to recruit him as their star small forward where he also excelled as an individual performer and team leader. The Pacers chose him 8th overall during the 1982 draft and…well, that’s where things start to go downhill just a bit. Kellogg’s rookie season was so impressive that he was even in line to receive his own sneakers. Before long, however, Kellogg’s knee problems forced him to retire after only three seasons of NBA play. After that, Kellogg found his true calling as a commentator and analyst. He’s one of the best-known analysts in NBA broadcasting and even played basketball against President Obama in 2010.
4 Joe Barry Carroll
If you look at Joe Barry Carroll’s career stats, you might not initially think of him as a bust. At least not until you realize that Carroll was once upon a time the number one overall pick in the 1980 NBA Draft. That’s after he set some records at Purdue and helped lead the team to a final four, mind you. Carroll’s NBA career started off equally strong as he put up some jaw-dropping numbers for the Warriors. Out of the blue, however, he decided to leave Golden State and lay for Italy. He eventually returned to the NBA, but his career was never quite the same. Following his retirement, Carroll displayed a previously unseen array of talents. He’s written books, painted pictures, and expanded his philanthropy efforts. He still serves as the founder of a wealth advisory board that helps athletes manage their fortunes.
3 William Bedford
William Bedford was one of those physical presences that was too tempting for NBA teams to overlook. The Phoenix Suns snatched him with the 6th pick in the 1986 NBA Draft despite the fact that his career numbers at Memphis were closer to good than great. Maybe it had something to do with the fact he was seven feet tall in an era when such a thing was still a novelty. Bedford’s painfully low averages were largely due to his infamous problems with drug abuse. That problem only grew worse when Bedford left the NBA. He was arrested twice for possession in the late ‘90s.
In 2001, Bedford was caught trafficking 25 pounds of marijuana. He was arrested two more times for marijuana charges before he was finally sentenced to prison in 2003. Shortly after his release in 2011, Bedford began coaching in his home state of Memphis.
2 Pervis Ellison
Blessed with the clever nickname of "Never Nervous Pervis," Pervis Ellison caught most people’s attention as a superstar center at Louisville. He helped the school win a national championship when he was only a freshman and was eventually taken first overall by the Kings in 1989. There, he earned the less flattering nickname of "Out of Service Pervis "thanks to the numerous games he missed due to injury. He was traded to Washington and eventually experienced a brief career resurgence there. Still, injuries prevented him from being able to reach his full potential.
He retired in 2000 after playing only nine games in Seattle. He’s a well-known donator to several charities and a high school basketball coach in New Jersey. His son and daughter are both highly-touted basketball players.
1 Sam Bowie
Finally, we come to poor Sam Bowie. Sam will forever be known as the man who was taken ahead of Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft. As such, his legacy will always be compared to that of the great one. Does Bowie deserve the flack he catches over that? So far as stats go, yes he does. Bowie was the second best center in the draft that year, but you wouldn’t know it from watching him play in the NBA. Even without his many injuries, Bowie failed to impose himself in any meaningful way. His career ended with the Lakers in 1995.
Besides becoming a draft warning lesson, Bowie also got into the sport of harness racing and owns several horses. He later admitted to hiding pain throughout his career in order to not hurt his draft stock.