The NBA has seen 17 draft classes debut since the start of the 21st century, and there are some (2003 immediately comes to mind) that stand out from the pack, as well as others (2000, of course) that rank near the bottom due to all the busts that signed big contracts thanks to their high draft selections. But even the worst draft classes have their honor rolls, with the top three players often looking like sure shots for the Hall of Fame due to name and reputation alone.
Instead of looking at entire draft classes, like many have done several times in the past, we will be looking at the top three players of each NBA draft class of the 2000s. Some of these "honor rolls" may already be decided, particularly those from the early 2000s draft classes, but in the case of the more recent drafts, we'll be looking at how things presently stand, while also keeping in mind that injuries and other factors can easily change the order in the years to come.
17 2000: MICHAEL REDD (#43), JAMAL CRAWFORD (#8), AND KENYON MARTIN (#1)
The first draft class of the 21st century has also been its worst so far. Even in the weeks leading to the draft, pundits were concerned at the lack of potential star talent available, so with that in mind, teams had mainly drafted based on length, athleticism, and upside. Unfortunately, that didn't lead to much success, as the likes of Stromile Swift, DerMarr Johnson, Darius Miles, and Jerome Moiso suggest. But that wasn't to say the 2000 draft featured a class full of duds.
Michael Redd was the prize pick in this class, and was picked all the way down at 43rd overall. Despite being an elite scorer and shooter for a top-flight school, it seemed as if his scouting report wasn't too sexy to stand out in a draft where upside was king. Jamal Crawford remains in the NBA to this day as a three-time Sixth Man of the Year, while Kenyon Martin, despite not living up to his billing as first-overall pick, had a solid 15-year career nonetheless.
16 2001: PAU GASOL (#3), TONY PARKER (#28), AND ZACH RANDOLPH (#19)
2001 was still a year of upside dictating a lot of teams’ picks, and once again, upside didn’t lead to NBA stardom for lottery picks Kwame Brown, Kedrick (no relation) Brown, and the late Eddie Griffin. But at least it wasn’t as bad as 2000 turned out to be, with several lottery picks enjoying successful pro careers; Tyson Chandler, Jason Richardson, Joe Johnson, and even Shane Battier come to mind.
None of those 2001 lottery picks turned out as well as Pau Gasol, who may be slowing down now, but still enjoyed unbelievable consistency as one of the NBA’s premier big men from 2001 to 2016. His Spurs teammate Tony Parker is also slowing down, but he’s enjoyed great success quarterbacking those championship Spurs teams. Likewise, Zach Randolph is also in his 16th NBA season, and while he’s now playing a sixth man role for the Grizzlies, his per-minute points and rebounds are way off the charts as of this writing.
15 2002: YAO MING (#1), AMAR’E STOUDEMIRE (#9), AND CARON BUTLER (#10)
Unlike the top three rookies of the class of 2001, none of the class of 2002's top three stars are playing in the NBA. Amar'e Stoudemire retired from the NBA in 2016 after a brilliant, yet injury-riddled career, yet he's still playing pro ball in Israel as we speak. And while Caron Butler isn't officially retired, he has yet to be signed by a team for the 2016-17 season; from 2004 to 2010, he was a capable two-way player who probably deserved more than just two All-Star Game appearances.
Neither of those two were as good as Yao Ming was, and it’s still a pity that the first international star without any U.S. NCAA experience to get picked first overall had his career cut short so early. From 2002 to 2009, he proved that players of his tremendous (7’6”-310) size aren’t exclusively destined to be “projects,” and he did so by making five All-NBA teams and being named to the All-Star Game eight times, including his final season in 2010-11 where he wasn’t able to play due to injury.
14 2003: LEBRON JAMES (#1), DWYANE WADE (#5), AND CARMELO ANTHONY (#3)
It’s not as deep or as talent-rich as 1984 was, at least for this writer, but the class of 2003 is still the yardstick by which all draft classes are measured in the 21st century. And who else should we start with but with Darko Milicic? Kidding, kidding! Of course, we meant LeBron James, who’s lived up to every bit of the advance billing he had years before the 2003 draft. Love him or hate him, there isn’t anything he can’t do on the court, and he’s still chugging along as one of the NBA’s finest in what is now his 14th season.
LeBron’s former Miami Heat teammate Dwyane Wade also made quite a splash as a one-time NBA scoring champion and the owner of three championship rings. He’s still going strong, and so is his fellow ex-scoring champ Carmelo Anthony, who may never win a title as long as he’s with the Knicks, but has made All-NBA six times and remains as one of the NBA's top scoring threats at forward.
13 2004: DWIGHT HOWARD (#1), ANDRE IGUODALA (#9), AND AL JEFFERSON (#15)
This could have been a trio of preps-to-pros standouts, but with Shaun Livingston’s career-threatening injury turning him into a role player (it’s remarkable enough that he was able to come back, though), Andre Iguodala joins Dwight Howard and Al Jefferson as one-third of the class of 2004’s top three. Nowadays, Iguodala is strictly in role player territory as a Warriors reserve, but he was, for several years in the late-2000s, a great two-way wingman who was oftentimes a threat to turn in a triple-double, while also being one of the NBA’s top ball-hawks.
Despite his recent misadventures with the Lakers and the Rockets, Howard is still a top-caliber NBA big man, and the best of this class, even if he isn’t exactly worthy of the “Superman” moniker as he was as part of the Orlando Magic. And Jefferson did emerge as a regular 20-10 threat for several teams, though injuries and the rapid improvement of Myles Turner have relegated him to a reserve role (with the Indiana Pacers) for the first time since his second pro season.
12 2005: CHRIS PAUL (#4), DERON WILLIAMS (#3), AND ANDREW BOGUT (#1)
The 2005 draft promised the arrival of the NBA's new crop of perennial All-Star point guards, and while Raymond Felton (#5) was only solid at best, Deron Williams and Chris Paul were picked immediately before him, and didn't disappoint one bit. Williams has lost a bit of a step and his shooting is spottier than ever, but prior to 2013, he was one of the NBA's finest at the one. Fortunately, though, CP3 is still playing at a very high level, as he and Blake Griffin helped fuel the L.A. Clippers' long-overdue rise to respectability in the 2010s.
If not for injuries, we'd probably be seeing Danny Granger (#17) or Andrew Bynum (#10) in this list as one of the top three products of the 2005 draft. Instead, we're going with another injury-prone center named Andrew — Bogut, that is. While no longer a contributor on both ends like he used to be, he's still one of the NBA's top defensive centers and best-passing big men, even if scoring is now close to the bottom of his priorities.
11 2006: LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE (#2), BRANDON ROY (#6), AND RAJON RONDO (#21)
He may have gotten so little respect that he only played in an All-Star game in 2012, but LaMarcus Aldridge has been a fixture of the Western Conference All-Stars lineup since then, and he did step things up from 2013 to 2015, averaging at least 23 points and 10 rebounds twice for the Blazers. Aldridge is now firmly established as the Spurs’ closest replacement to the recently-retired Tim Duncan; while not the defensive force Timmy was back in the day, he’s still San Antonio’s biggest inside threat of the present.
Three busts (Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas, Shelden Williams) followed Aldridge’s selection at second overall, and sixth-overall pick Brandon Roy could have become the class of 2006’s finest, had his knees not have been such a wreck so early in his career. Rajon Rondo, on the other hand, became an elite point guard despite his shooting always being suspect, and was a definite steal at 21st overall.
10 2007: KEVIN DURANT (#2), MIKE CONLEY (#4), AND MARC GASOL (#48)
Is there any question about who’s the best tenth-year man in the NBA this season? Who else could it be but Kevin Durant, who wasted little time after a tremendous freshman season for Texas, and became an instant star in the NBA for the soon-to-move Seattle SuperSonics. KD won one MVP award and four scoring titles when the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City, and he’s made the Golden State Warriors an even bigger threat since joining the team via free agency earlier this year.
Although first-overall pick Greg Oden was a colossal bust due to a series of injuries, his college teammate Mike Conley was a far greater success at fourth overall. If all goes well, the Grizzlies’ starting point guard since 2007 may finally play in his first All-Star Game this season. His Memphis teammate, Marc Gasol, is right behind in terms of success, and while he didn’t play in the NBA right away, he’s right up there as a great passer and defender at center who can also put points on the board, and finally better than big brother Pau, who, as we mentioned earlier, is now winding down his career.
9 2008: RUSSELL WESTBROOK (#4), DERRICK ROSE (#1), AND KEVIN LOVE (#5)
The aforementioned Kevin Durant is just one-half of the main reasons why the Oklahoma City Thunder did so well after relocating from Seattle. The other half, of course, is Russell Westbrook, the fourth pick in the 2008 draft. Initially expected to be a strong defensive point guard, Westbrook has become much more than that, and has even won a scoring title of his own. At this point in 2016-17, there’s a good chance he may win a second scoring title now that Durant is a Warrior, and he’s also averaging a triple-double over 20 games. Suddenly, Oscar Robertson’s 30-10-10 season doesn’t look that impossible anymore.
At one point, it looked like Derrick Rose was on track to becoming the best product of the 2008 draft class, especially after winning MVP honors in 2011. Second-best isn’t all that bad, though, and we’re not sure if he would have still been number one had he not had all those injuries. Westbrook’s UCLA teammate Kevin Love takes third honors, and once again that’s nothing to be ashamed of, even if he was much more productive in Minnesota than he is in Cleveland.
8 2009: STEPHEN CURRY (#7), JAMES HARDEN (#4), AND BLAKE GRIFFIN (#1)
How did Stephen Curry, who won MVP honors in 2015 and 2016 and won last season’s scoring title, fall as far as seventh overall in the 2009 NBA draft? It’s simple – he wasn’t from a traditional NCAA powerhouse. But the Davidson product and second-generation NBA star has delivered the eye-popping numbers and the leadership, helping turn the Golden State Warriors from perennial whipping boys to championship contenders. And since he’s only 28 years old and at the prime of his career, we don’t expect him to slow down anytime soon.
Ordinarily, James Harden would have been good enough to top any draft class, but as far as this one goes, he's playing a close second fiddle to Steph. (Those phenomenal 2016-17 numbers, though!) And the Los Angeles Clippers’ one-year wait for Blake Griffin proved to be worth it, as he became an elite power forward immediately despite missing what would have been his rookie year due to injury. He’s still one of the best at the four spot, with his much-improved free throw shooting making up for his reduced rebounding numbers.
7 2010: PAUL GEORGE (#10), JOHN WALL (#1), AND DEMARCUS COUSINS (#5)
Despite flying under the radar for most of his two-year college career, Paul George made it to the lottery in the 2010 draft as a high-flying, versatile wing prospect. But few casual fans expected that PG13 would be the best player of the draft class, an honor he arguably achieved with his sensational 2013-14 breakout season. And just when many had feared his serious injury ahead of the 2014-15 season would compromise his game, he proved ‘em all wrong in 2015-16 by putting up even better numbers.
That’s not to say John Wall, the first pick in the 2010 draft and one of the first big stars from John Calipari’s one-and-done factory in Kentucky, is far behind. He’s a regular 20-10 points-assists threat for the Washington Wizards, and a three-time All-Star at point guard. And if DeMarcus Cousins could finally get his head on straight and get along with coaches for a change, he could put up even more beastly numbers for Sacramento, and maybe even overtake George as this class’ top player five years down the line.
6 2011: KYRIE IRVING (#1), KAWHI LEONARD (#15), AND JIMMY BUTLER (#30)
In terms of how the top three rank in the actual draft, this is probably the most interesting: you've got the top player as the first-overall pick, the second-best player selected right in the middle, and the third-best player chosen as the last pick in the first round. It's an amazing coincidence, but Klay Thompson (#11) did make it a close fight for third-best player, only losing out to Jimmy Butler because that Jimmy provides far more than just buckets for the Bulls. Not bad for someone whose best career projection was initially that of a defensive specialist.
Kyrie Irving, despite his injury history, was an instant standout for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and those aches and pains don't take away much from his status as an elite NBA point guard. And with Tim Duncan retired, Kawhi Leonard is now "the man" in San Antonio, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year who can also put up 20 points per game easy. He keeps on improving, and might just overtake Irving at some point in the near future.
5 2012: ANTHONY DAVIS (#1), DAMIAN LILLARD (#6), AND ANDRE DRUMMOND (#9)
50 points, 16 rebounds, 5 assists, 7 steals, and 4 blocks. That’s what Anthony Davis put up in the very first game of the 2016-17 season, and as we’ve been seeing, the Unibrow just keeps getting better. Although the season has just started, he’s averaging a phenomenal 32-plus points per game, and is establishing himself as the best big man in the NBA, bar none. Now if only the New Orleans Pelicans can make the NBA playoffs consistently…
This current season does indeed augur well toward a lot of top players putting up career seasons, and Damian Lillard is also on track to post one. Despite not putting up elite assists numbers, he’s a deadly shooter and scorer at point guard, and followed a similar career track as Stephen Curry – mid-major standout-turned superstar point guard in the pros. And while he’s a prime target for “Hack-a-Shaq” tactics due to his awful free throw shooting, Andre Drummond is, for what it's worth, looking like another great Pistons center in the tradition of Bill Laimbeer and Ben Wallace.
4 2013: GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO (#15), VICTOR OLADIPO (#2), AND CJ MCCOLLUM (#10)
Thirteen years after the class of 2000, we got the class of 2013, and a new list of potential mega-busts in the making, not the least of these being the first-overall pick, Anthony Bennett. But 2013 also saw the debut of the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose amazing athleticism and versatility shows in his off-the-charts numbers. He’s currently enjoying a career season with averages of 22.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 2.1 steals, and 2.1 blocks. Barring injury, he should play in his first All-Star Game and make his first All-NBA team this season.
Partly due to Russell Westbrook’s huge, huge numbers in 2016-17, Victor Oladipo hasn’t been enjoying a breakout season for Oklahoma City, but he’s still very solid on both ends as their starting two-guard. And in another case of mid-major superstar making good in the pros, 2015-16 Most Improved Player CJ McCollum is currently teaming with Damian Lillard to form a potent backcourt duo over at Portland.
3 2014: ANDREW WIGGINS (#1), JULIUS RANDLE (#7), AND JABARI PARKER (#2)
We know what you may be thinking: Joel Embiid isn’t in this list, even if you waited two long years for the Process to debut. But he’s pretty close to making the top three, and may one day make it there. That’s not if Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, and Jabari Parker can’t help it, as all three are also enjoying potential career seasons in 2016-17.
Wiggins, contrary to what many had thought, is not better than LeBron James. He probably will never be better than LeBron, ever. But despite not contributing much apart from scoring, he’s emerging as a potential 25-ppg threat for the Timberwolves. As for Randle, he contributes far more than just scoring, and is looking very much like a poor man’s Draymond Green for the Lakers. Then you’ve got Parker, who may finally be on the verge of putting it together as part of a young, exciting Milwaukee Bucks nucleus.
2 2015: KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS (#1), KRISTAPS PORZINGIS (#4), AND D’ANGELO RUSSELL (#2)
At this very recent point, we must strongly emphasize again the importance of our “moving target” reference from above. These players are only in their second year, which means so much can happen in the next five, or even ten years. But with that said, Karl-Anthony Towns rightfully won Rookie of the Year honors in 2016, and is making Timberwolves fans happy with his well-rounded game at center. (Those treys are an especially nice surprise for KAT in his second season.)
For second- and third-best, we will have to go with Kristaps Porzingis and D’Angelo Russell respectively, and not because they get a ton of ink for their accomplishments (and, in Russell’s case, controversies). Porzingis is that rare Euro big man with size, outside shooting, and the ability to rebound and block shots. And Russell, while still trapped in a shoot-first mentality at times, hasn’t let too many people down as someone who could be the next great Lakers point guard.
1 2016: JAMAL MURRAY (#7), BRANDON INGRAM (#2), AND MARQUESSE CHRISS (#8)
This top three listing arguably serves as the answer to the question “Who will place second behind Joel Embiid in 2016-17 Rookie of the Year voting?” Yes, that’s all contingent on Embiid staying healthy and actually winning the award, but he is the favorite at the moment, and we shall go by that. And as it stands, Jamal Murray seems like the 2016-17 rookie headed for the biggest things. He’s made the most out of his opportunities in a weak Denver backcourt, and may be stringing together 20-25-point games by the second half of the season.
Brandon Ingram hasn’t progressed as quickly as some had hoped, but his recent spike in minutes, not to mention the faith Lakers coach Luke Walton has in him, could translate to better play and bigger numbers in due time. And we're probably going with Marquesse Chriss as our third-best for the current rookie class. He's listed as Phoenix's starting power forward, and if he gets the minutes for the rebuilding Suns, he'll likely make good use of his hops, while improving his shooting as an up-and-coming stretch four/combo forward.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, we’re not listing Ben Simmons in here due to the fact that the 2016 first-overall pick has yet to play an NBA game.