The wonderful, media-driven, ridiculously hyped, and ever so coveted first overall pick. The first selection has been granted precisely 250 times across all North American sports, fuelling debate, speculation, and woulda-coulda-shouldas for the better part of a half century. In some sports, such as hockey and basketball, the first overall selection means more, offering a higher chance of acquiring that key building block that will propel your franchise among the legendary. In baseball and football, there is less of a guarantee, and more projection is required as to predict how well a young man can cope with the pressures of America's favorite past times.
But what about picking first overall twice in a row? In theory, that should be a sure bet to push your franchise to the next level. The best prospect in your sport, two years in a row, easy, right? Across all sports, teams have selected back-to-back first overall 24 times. In some cases, one of the two became who they were supposed to. In others, injuries or pressure caused them to crack. In other instances, players were traded before they even suited up for their teams.
Here we will rank all 24 back to back first overall picks in sports history, using impact for their franchise, career success, and in some cases, the assets they generated via trade as criteria.
24 Philadelphia Eagles: Jay Berwanger (1936) and Sam Francis (1937)
Jay Berwanger (halfback) and Sam Francis (halfback/fullback) were not only the first consecutive first overall choices in sports history, but the first two choices ever in drafting history, with the NFL pioneering the idea in 1936. As such, draft day was a completely different universe compared to the media frenzy it is now, and the idea of nation-wide scouting was just taking hold in the professional sports world.
Berwanger would never play a game in the NFL, failing to agree to terms with Philadelphia and pursuing a career in the rubber industry while coaching University football. He later said he regrets not signing a contract. Francis never played for Philadelphia either, being traded prior to the start of the upcoming season. He would play four years in the NFL, before pursuing a masters degree and then serving his country during World War II.
Their impact for Philadelphia was obviously minimal, and if anything, is a lens into how different the professional sporting world was just 80 years ago.
23 Providence Steam Rollers: Andy Tonkovich (1948) and Howie Shannon (1949)
With the inaugural NBA Draft happening in 1947, Andy Tonkovich (point guard) and Shannon (small forward) were some of the first selections in a new era of professional basketball.
Tonkovich's career lasted all of 17 games, averaging a remarkable 2.6 points per game. Shannon was the league's Rookie of the Year in the 1949 season, but only played one more year after that. He did, however, manage 10.8 points per game over his two year career.
With Providence folding after just three seasons of existence, we are offered yet another taste of professional sports during the mid 20th century. Two first overall picks combining for 139 games, and a team failing to last even half a decade.
These draft were contested under the Basketball Association of America banner prior to the league becoming known as the National Basketball Association.
22 Chicago Cardinals: Ki Aldrich (1939) and George Cafego (1940)
Ki Aldrich (center/lineback) and George Cafego (quarterback) were drafted in a time where players still played both offensive and defensive sides of the football. Aldrich was a two time All-Star and won a championship later in his career, but ultimately had his career interrupted by army service during World War II. Cafego played parts of five seasons, but just wasn't very good.
If not for Aldrich's All-Star seasons, these two would probably (somehow) be lower on the list. The Cardinals failed to make any ground after selecting these two, never winning more than 3 games (albeit in a 10 game season) until 1946.
The Chicago Cardinals would eventually move away from the city and on to St. Louis before becoming the team we know today as the Arizona Cardinals.
21 New York Knicks: Jim Barnes (1964) and Art Heyman (1965)
Jim Barnes (center) andArt Heyman (small forward) were both selected to the NBA's All-Rookie team in their rookie seasons (coming strong out the gate is always a good sign). In a decade that was dominated by the Boston Celtics, none of these players had a hope of bringing championship glory to New York. They would combine to play four seasons in the Big Apple, only increasing their win total from 22 when they were selected, to 30 once they played together. Both would go on to win championships later on in their careers, but not with the Knicks. Today, the New York Knicks continue to struggle with their roster spots as they chase that NBA Championship that has been missing from their beloved city for some time now.
20 Cleveland Browns: Tim Couch (1999) and Courtney Brown (2000)
We all knew the Browns were going to make the bottom end of this list somehow. Tim Couch (quarterback) and Courtney Brown (defensive end) were teammates for three years, and while they managed to propel the expansion Browns from a three win team to an eight win team, that success was short lived and the team fell back down to earth shortly after. Couch played four seasons for the Browns, and was ousted from the league after just six years. Brown showed plenty of promise, garnering 69 tackles and 4.5 sacks in his rookie season, but failed to stay healthy and his career was finished by 2005.
Being the first picks to an expansion franchise is rarely easy, but these two failed to become anything more than decent players fore a team that was starved for star power.
19 Cincinnati Bengals: Dan Wilkinson (1994) and Ki-Jana Carter (1995)
Dan Wilkinson (defensive tackle) and Jana Carter (running back) were the result of two straight three-win seasons, granting the Bengals a chance to take the best player two years in a row.
Billy Devaney, the San Diego Chargers' Director of Player Personnel considered Wilkinson to be a "once every ten years player," garnering much interest at the draft, and ultimately the Bengals decided to make him their man. Carter, on the other hand, was less hyped but still projected the best running back in the draft, with the next running back being selected 16 spots later at 17th overall. Unfortunately, Carter would start more than five games just once in his career, and retired with a grand total of 1144 yards.
The Bengals did make it up to mediocrity following their consecutive selections, with seven, eight, and seven wins from 1996-1998, but failed to make the playoffs - thus making it easy to keep them low on the list.
18 Montreal Canadiens: Michel Plasse (1968) and Rejean Houle (1969)
Alas, hockey makes its mark. The first ever NHL Draft was in 1963 when the North American professional sports scene was much more mature and developed. With the World Wars in the past and sport being a reasonable way to make a living, the NHL Draft hasn't had the unpredictability that early NFL and NBA drafts did.
Michel Plasse (goaltender) enjoyed a nine year career serving primarily as a backup, and claimed Stanley Cup glory watching Ken Dryden stand on his head over the course of the 1973 playoffs. Houle (right winger) however, enjoyed a 635 game career with which he won five Stanley Cups as a depth winger on the 70s-loaded Canadiens dynasty. Because of the era, this duo actually won the most championships out of any, but with Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Larry Robinson, Jacques Lemaire, Yvan Cournoyer, Serge Savard, and Bob Gainey on the team, I don't exactly give credit to the back-to-back first overall selections for their success.
17 Houston Astros: Mark Appel (2013) and Brady Aiken (2014)
With the continental scouting networks, the vast importance of the modern day draft, and the intense scrutiny on prospects, in any recent draft you should at least be able to pull out every day roster players, never mind super stars.
Mark Appel (right handed pitcher) has struggled to crack the big leagues in the three years since being drafted, and since has been scrapped by the Astros, shipping him to the Phillies prior to the 2016 season. At 25 years old, the clock is ticking on him proving to become a valuable MLB asset. Brady Aiken (left handed pitcher) never signed with Houston, and was redrafted 17th overall by the Cleveland Indians. The tools are still there from when he was a first overall pick, but after undergoing tommy john surgery, there is still a long path to recovery before he can being climbing the minor league ranks. Still only 20 years old, it's too early to call this high ceiling pitcher a bust.
With both players out of Houston's system, it's fair to say they did not capitalize on the rare opportunity of back-to-back first overall selections.
16 Edmonton Oilers: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Nail Yakupov (2012)
The second half of back-t0-back first overall selections for the Oilers was significantly worse than the first (who you'll see later in this article).
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (center) had a fantastic rookie year, amassing 52 points in his first 62 games. Unfortunately, that would be the best scoring pace of his career as he has settled into a second line center role with phenom Connor McDavid joining the league. Nail Yakupov (right wing) is for all intents and purposes, a bust. "Yak" was drafted as a goal scoring winger, yet has failed to reach the 20 goal mark once in his career. After being acquired by the St. Louis Blues, he has found himself a healthy scratch in roughly 1/3 of his team's games.
There are plenty of reasons to suggest Yakupov had a tough time off the ice in Edmonton as well. "It's really good here [in St. Louis], but as soon as you go outside after practice, you're just alone." He said after his first game as a Blue. "You're lonely and those kind of things get into your brain and in your mind and you have to fight that. I'm fighting, and now it's going to be much easier."
With back-to-back first overall picks resulting in a second line center and a player who was trade for a third round pick, it's safe to say Edmonton was hoping to do better.
15 Ottawa Senators: Bryan Berard (1995) and Chris Phillips (1996)
Drafting two defensemen with back-to-back first overall picks in the NHL is supposed set you on the back end for at least a decade. Particularly in a league where "building from the back out" has seen plenty of success.
Well, when the first of your selections declares that he simply won't play for you, you're not exactly off to a great start. Bryan Berard would never play a game for the Senators, but luckily was traded for Wade Redden, who would play 13 seasons in the Canadian capital. Chris Phillips would never quite live up to being a first overall selection, but would play his whole career for the Sens, suiting up for almost 1200 games in the process. He was a solid stay-at-home defenseman for over a decade.
The Sens would make it to the Stanley Cup final in 2007 with Phillips on the roster, but ultimately fell short to the Anaheim Ducks.
14 Edmonton Oilers: Taylor Hall (2010) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011)
The first of three consecutive first overall selections began with much promise. Taylor Hall (left wing) was considered a wonderful candidate for the struggling Oilers to rebuild around. A hard nosed, goal scoring winger seemed a nice piece to add to the puzzle.
Unfortunately for the Oilers, since adding Hall to the mix, they have failed to register more than 74 points in any season, missing the playoffs by at least 20 points in every year except for 2013, which was shortened by the lockout. Hall would later be deemed expendable, and was shipped to the New Jersey Devils this past summer for defenseman Adam Larsson.
Ultimately, two first overall selections turned into a top four defenseman in Larsson and a second line center in Nugent-Hopkins, meaning that if the Oilers ever do turn it around, most of the credit should go to phenom Connor McDavid.
13 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Bo Jackson (1986) and Vinny Testaverde (1987)
What could have been.
Vinny Testaverde (quarterback) and Bo Jackson (running back) could have began an offensive strike force that would have set the Bucs up for years. Testaverde was never a star quarterback, but he started 214 of the 233 games in his career, so he was at least an NFL quarterback - the type that is easily complemented by a star running back.
Unfortunately, the Bucs muddled things up completely. Coming off a Heisman Trophy season, Bo Jackson was also being heavily scouted for baseball. The Buccaneers were put off by this, and they told him it was within the rules to come visit team facilities, but it was not, which resulted in him being suspended from his final season of college baseball. This foolish piece of trickery resulted in Jackson declaring he would never play a game for the Bucs, but that they could still draft him. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Kansas City Royals, and went about pursuing his baseball career with them.
A few years later, however, the Los Angeles Raiders were keen in signing Jackson and would allow him to join the team after the MLB season. The Alabama product would play parts of 4 seasons, averaging 5.4 yards per carry before a hip injury ended his football career in 1990.
If the Bucs wouldn't have been so near-sighted, they may well have had one of the best athletes to ever put on a football jersey carrying the pigskin for them.
12 Baltimore Bullets: Ray Felix (1953) and Frank Selvy (1954)
Ray Felix (center) and Frank Selvy (shooting guard) were selected first overall in the final two seasons of the Baltimore Bullets' existence before relocating to Los Angeles and becoming the Lakers. Felix would win rookie of the year honors and go on to play nine seasons in the NBA, although only one was with the Bullets. Selvy, however, was a bigger success.
Selvy is renowned for the first and only 100 point college basketball game - a remarkable feat given he did it before the three point line was invented. In his professional career, however, he is remembered for something much, much worse. Against the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the 1962 NBA finals, Selvy scored four crucial points to tie the game at 100 points apiece. The basketball would end up in his hands for the final shot of the game - a 12 foot jumper - that he famously missed. Boston would go on to win in overtime, starting a Lakers streak of six NBA finals losses to the Celtics over the next eight years. Ouch.
Selvy did manage to bring his Lakers to the finals two times in his 10 year career, so he must be considered a success.
11 Cleveland Cavaliers: Anthony Bennett (2013) and Andrew Wiggins (2014)
These two are an interesting case. First off, Anthony Bennett (power forward) became the first ever Canadian to be drafted first overall in the NBA. Second, Wiggins (small forward) became the second ever Canadian to be drafted first overall. Odd that they both happened back to back.
They were both traded together (before Wiggins ever played a game for the Cavs) in order to net power forward Kevin Love, with the Cavs preferring experience to complement LeBron James' return. After he was a controversial pick at number one overall, Bennett has not panned out at all, playing more of his career in the developmental league than in the NBA. Wiggins is just 21 years old and looks like a star.
This one is tough to evaluate because shortly after these two were traded, the Cavs made back-to-back NBA Finals appearances, winning a Championship in the process. Of course, more of that is correlated with the return of Lebron James and less so about the acquisition of Kevin Love. If the Cavs would have kept Wiggins while still adding Lebron, would they have still reached the NBA finals? Probably.
10 Houston Astros: Carlos Correa (2012) and Mark Appel (2013)
Much like Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Carlos Correia (shortstop) and Mark Appel (right handed pitcher) were the first of three consecutive first overall picks for the Houston Astros.
Appel, as noted above, is 25 years old and still struggling to find his way to the Majors, suggesting it's too little to late. He was traded for Ken Giles (relief pitcher) to shore up the bullpen for the remainder of the 2015 season.
Correa, however, is a star. He became the first player since 1914 to record five games with a minimum of three hits and a home run in his first 25 plate appearances. He set the bar high, and he's continued to leap for it. In 2015 Correa helped the Astros make their first playoff appearance in 10 years, earning the AL Rookie of the Year in the process.
Still just 22 years old, the young Puerto Rican has plenty of time to improve, and is already a top 3 shortstop in the league. His sky-high trajectory lessens the blow for the failure of Mark Appel, and will positively impact the Astros for years to come.
9 Tampa Bay Rays: David Price (2007) and Tim Beckham (2008)
David Price (left handed pitcher) and Tim Beckham (second baseman) were the result of 10 years of finishing 5th place in the AL's toughest division, the east. Price spent six years with the Rays, winning a Cy Young as the league's best pitcher in 2012. During his six seasons, Price was the ace for a team that made the playoffs four of six years, surely a testament to his impact in the baseball diamond.
Beckham, unfortunately, has failed to truly pan out. It was believed he would be dismissed following the 2016 season, but it looks as his ability on the defensive side of the ball has kept him in the mix for the 2017 ball season.
Price has since moved on, making stops in Detroit and Toronto before signing a mammoth contract with the Red Sox. However, with the Rays finding a Cy Young winner with the 2007 first overall pick they have accomplished what everyone sets out to do when they select first: find an elite player.
8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Lee Roy Selmon (1976) and Ricky Bell (1977)
Lee Roy Selmon (defensive end) and Ricky Bell (running back) were first round picks in the Buccaneers first ever drafts. Things started slowly for the Bucs, posting zero, two, and five win seasons before making the playoffs three times in four years, with Selmon earning defensive player of the year honors.
For Bell, his selection as a first overall pick had some controversy as it was general consensus that second overall pick Tony Dorsett projected higher, but his old College coach John McKay was running the Bucs, and some bias may have been in the picture. Compare Dorsett's 92 career rushing TDs to Bell's 16, and it's hard to argue that.
Selmon, however, is why this duo ranks so high. He was a beast for 12 years in the league, and also cracked the top 100 greatest players of all time as surveyed by the NFL network, placing 98th. Together Selmon and Bell brought an expansion franchise to the playoffs in just three seasons, which is a feat rarely accomplished in professional sports.
7 Quebec Nordiques: Mats Sundin (1989) and Owen Nolan (1990)
Mats Sundin (center) and Owen Nolan (right wing) were the first of three consecutive selections for the Quebec Nordiques, who would later become the Colorado Avalanche and win the Stanley Cup in 1996.
Based purely on name and career, these two are among the best of this entire list. The Nordiques, however, failed to garner equal value for the two when they were involved in separate trades in '94 and '95. In Sundin's four seasons with the Nordiques, he recorded 334 points, including a 114 point performance, in just 324 games. He was traded for Wendel Clark, who ultimately only stayed just one season with the Nordiques. Ouch.
Nolan had three straight 30+ goal seasons for the Nordiques, but was traded for defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh in the 1995 season when they relocated to Colorado. The Avalanche would go onto win the Cup that year, with Ozolinsh throwing down 19 points in 22 games from the back end, so it seemed to be worth it.
Long term, the Nordiques/Avalanche should have gotten more for Sundin, but with a Stanley Cup victory just six years after back-to-back first overall selections, you can't say they did a ton of things wrong.
6 Cincinnati Royals: Bob Boozer (1959) and Oscar Robertson (1960)
Bob Boozer (power forward) and Oscar Robinson (point guard) were the result of a team that won just 25% of its games in the two seasons that "earned" them their first overall selections. Robinson was a local product out of the University of Cincinnati, and was a star for over a decade, leading the league in assists 6 times during the '60s. Even more remarkable, his first six seasons he averaged over a triple double per game, with 30.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 10.6 assists per game.
In an interesting turn of events, things became a little dramatic for the Royals. Head coach Bob Cousy controversially traded the star after a decade with the team, with little to no explanation. Many pundits suspect Cousy was jealous of the attention Robertson was getting which is obviously a putrid reason to trade a 12 time NBA all-star and former league MVP.
Bob Boozer wasn't a bad player, but played only three years with the Royals before local product Jerry Lucas emerged, thus making him expendable.
With one of the best players of the decade, Robertson's sheer domination for such an extended period propels this duo to the top third of this list.
5 Orlando Magic: Shaquille O'Neal (1992) and Chris Webber (1993)
What could have been? The Orlando Magic were an expansion franchise in 1989, and shortly thereafter had back to back first overall picks with Shaquille O'Neal (center) and Chris Webber (power forward).
Webber would never play a game for the Magic, as he was famously traded for Penny Hardaway and three future first round picks. He would establish himself as a premier power forward in the league, and it's not hard to imagine how difficult the Magic would have been to contain if they had Shaq at center, and Webber at power forward.
Shaq, of course, is a Hall of Famer, 15-time NBA all-star, former league MVP, and four-time NBA champion. He played just four seasons with the Magic, but catapulted them to 57 and 60 win seasons and an appearance in the NBA finals.
There was a reported power struggle between Shaq and head coach Brian Hill that led to his departure in 1996 as a free agent. Shaq was also upset that the Orlando media implied him to be a negative role model given the fact he had a child with his long term girlfriend with no intention to marry.
With the long-term benefit of the draft picks for Webber and Shaq's propulsion of the Magic to an elite team, this duo ranks high on this list, but realistically could have topped it should they have spent more time with the Magic.
4 New York Islanders: Billy Harris (1972) and Denis Potvin (1973)
Billy Harris (right wing) and Denis Potvin (defenseman) were the Islanders' first building blocks after being granted an expansion franchise in 1972. Harris began his career with six straight 20 goal seasons, but was ultimately traded for Butch Goring the same season the Islanders began their Stanley Cup dynasty, winning four straight Cups from 1980-1983.
Denis Potvin was one of the best defensemen in the game for over a decade. Potvin scored over 70 points from the blueline for 7 straight seasons in the late '70s, won four Stanley Cups, was selected as the league's best defenseman 3 times, and retired as the all time leader in points by a defender (1052 points in 1060 games). Early in his career he was perceived as arrogant by his teammates, but as he matured into the team's Captain for eight years, it was clear he was the best blueliner in the game.
The combination of games played for the Isles, Stanley Cups, and the fact Potvin is a Hall of Fame defender who spent his whole career on Long Island makes this duo among the best back to back selections in sports history.
3 3. Quebec Nordiques: Owen Nolan (1990) and Eric Lindros (1991)
Another huge what if? The Nordiques selected three straight first overall picks (Sundin in '89 then these two), and if they had been able to keep them, this team would have been incredibly tough to play against.
Nonetheless, as mentioned above, Nolan was traded the season the Avs won their first Stanley Cup, and Eric Lindros (center) was a massive, massive reason for that.
Lindros' draft year was loaded controversy, stating that he would never play for the Nordiques given the small market and lack of marketing potential. The Nordiques selected him anyways, and after a full year hold out, was eventually traded at the 1992 draft table. More controversy followed however, as both the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers submitted "accepted" trade offers for the phenom. An arbitrator ruled in favor of the Flyers and the Nordiques received Chris Simon, Mike Ricci, Ron Hextall, Peter Forsberg, Steve Duchesne, two first round draft picks ('93 and '94), and $15-million cash.
Both of these players were traded for players that impacted the franchise for years to come. The Avalanche made the Western Conference Finals six of seven years from 1996-2002, winning two Stanley Cups in the process. Without Lindros falling into their lap and his trade request, the Avs might never have won Stanley Cup glory.
2 Washington Nationals: Stephen Strasburg (2009) and Bryce Harper (2010)
Before acquiring Steven Strasburg (right handed pitcher) and Harper (right fielder), the Nationals had placed fourth or fifth in their division 14 times in the prior 16 years, dating back to 1995.
Strasburg's debut was called "the most hyped pitching debut the game has ever seen" by one columnist. ESPN called it "Strasmas." He didn't disappoint, going seven innings and setting a new team strikeout record in the process. Harper started slowly in the minors, but after a visit to an optometrist, he told Harper "I don't know how you ever hit the ball before. You have some of the worst eyes I've ever seen." After receiving contact lenses, he hit for nearly .500 over his next 20 games.
Harper has already won an MVP in his 23-year old season, and with a star slugger and an ace pitcher as back to back draftees, you can't do much better with consecutive number 1 picks. There is plenty of projection with these two as they still have plenty of career left, but as long as the Nationals can keep them they will possess the two key ingredients of every World Series winning ball club: ace and slugger.
1 Houston Rockets: Ralph Sampson (1983) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1984)
Let's start with two what-ifs:
1) The Rockets could have selected Michael Jordan (who went third overall to the Bulls) instead of Olajuwon
2) If these picks were one year later, the Rockets would have had Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing (firsy in 1985), which would have been nearly unstoppable.
But none of that happened. Ralph Sampson (power forward/center) and Hakeem Olajuwon (center) started a streak of 15 years where the Rockets made the playoffs 14 times. Even without any championships, that's already a nice start given they were in the basement for most the early '80s.
Known as "The Twin Towers," the Rockets enjoyed immediate success with their inclusion, going from last place in 1984, to an NBA Finals appearance just two years later in 1986, which they lost to the Celtics. Sampson would later be traded, and the Rockets would enjoy more success in the mid-90s, winning back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995 - cementing Olajuwon's legacy as one of the league's greats.
With these two catapulting the Rockets to a decade-and-a-half of success and Olajuwon being considered a top five center in NBA history by many pundits, the "Twin Towers" began an era of Rockets basketball that will stand the test of time.