With the NBA draft coming up, it’s important to focus on previous drafts to see their missteps and their biggest steals. In the coming weeks, I’ll be focusing on the last 10 NBA drafts to provide a historical context for all the current projections that are being made.
We’re all geniuses in retrospect, so I won’t be harping on the general managers who made bad decisions on players early in the draft. Instead, I’ll try to explain what kinds of players fail and which ones succeed—and for what reasons.
Instead of taking all 60 selections into consideration, I’m going to stick to lottery picks for a few reasons:
1. Using a sample size of 14 picks instead of 60 selections narrows down the group of players and allows for more use of specifics.
2. The teams that are picking in the lottery are scouting the top picks differently than the teams with picks in the late 20s.
4. The stakes are higher in the lottery. The difference in talent and pressure to pick right at picks No. 1 and No. 2 are amplified, while late-teen picks and early-20s picks are hit or miss without as much downside.
Let’s use the 1997 San Antonio Spurs as an example. After having top-flight Western Conference teams for a number of years, the 1996-97 Spurs, which lost David Robinson to injury for most of the season, went 20-62. In the 1997 NBA Draft, the Spurs took Tim Duncan first overall and became championship contenders immediately. If they would have taken the second pick of the draft, Keith Van Horn, first overall, I don’t think we’d be seeing the Spurs going for their fifth ring in 15 seasons this June.
In this particular piece, the focus is on the draft busts of the first half of the last 10 years: 2003-2007. Just to jog your memories, here is a list of the best players taken in the lottery of the aforementioned years. Next to the year of each draft, I will comment on the talent level of each particular pool of players:
2003: Strong, Top Heavy
1. LeBron James
3. Carmelo Anthony
4. Chris Bosh
5. Dwyane Wade
7. Luol Deng
9. Andre Iguodala
(Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, J.R Smith, Jameer Nelson and Kevin Martin were all taken in first round, outside of the lottery.)
2005: Decent Depth, Lack of Size
1. Andrew Bogut
3. Deron Williams
4. Chris Paul
10. Andrew Bynum
2. LaMarcus Aldridge
6. Brandon Roy
8. Rudy Gay
2007: Decent to Weak
2. Kevin Durant
3. Al Horford
4. Mike Conley Jr.
9. Joakim Noah
In those five drafts, I’ve tallied a total of 18 pure busts. A bust in everyone else’s eyes may not be the same as a bust to me, so first I’ll define what a bust is.
In this context, a bust is a guy who is unable to carve his niche out in the league, and fails to become a rotational player for a significant amount of time. Some guys are in rotations when they are younger in their careers, but once the team that drafted them gives up on them, they fail to find another team that will pay for their services.
Also, where (inside of the lottery) a player is taken in a draft, along with the talent pool of that particular draft, can help determine whether he is a bust or not. For example, Milicic was taken second overall in 2003. He stuck around for a few years and had found a spot in a rotation in Minnesota as a backup center. If he were the 14th overall pick in a weak draft, then he wouldn’t have been a bust. However, he was taken between LBJ, Melo, Wade and Bosh, so he certainly does qualify as a bust.
Finally, guys like Greg Oden, Luke Jackson and Rashad McCants are not classified as busts because injuries derailed their careers. There are a few others on the list who had their share of injuries, but I made a judgement call on whether they are busts or not.
With those guidelines in place, here are the pure draft busts of the NBA’s lottery from 2003-2007:
2. Darko Milicic, Serbia and Montenegro, 7'0" PF/C
9. Michael Sweetney, Georgetown, 6'8" PF
13. Marcus Banks, UNLV, 6'2" PG
6. Josh Childress, Stanford, 6'8" SG/SF
8. Rafael Araujo, BYU, 6'11" C
12. Robert Swift, Bakersfield (HS), 7'0" C
2. Marvin Williams, North Carolina, 6'9" SF/PF
9. Ike Diogu, Arizona State, 6'8" PF
13. Sean May, North Carolina, 6'9" PF/C
3. Adam Morrison, Gonzaga, 6'8" SF
4. Tyrus Thomas, LSU, 6'9" PF
5. Sheldon Williams, Duke, 6'9" PF/C
9. Patrick O’Bryant, Bradley, 7'0" C
10. Mohamed Sene, Senegal, 6'11" PF/C
12. Hilton Armstrong, Connecticut, 6'11" PF/C
6. Yi Jianlian, China, 7'0" SF/PF
11. Acie Law IV, Texas A&M, 6'3" PG/SG
13. Julian Wright, Kansas, 6'8" SF
Now, let’s group these guys together and explain their reasons for failure.
Overpaying For Centers
The first and most obvious trend is that NBA teams overpay for height. Guys like Araujo, Swift, O’Bryant, Sene and Armstrong all had the height and either the girth or length to be plugged into the 5-spot, but their obvious deficiencies were overlooked.
Araujo and O’Bryant lacked NBA athleticism and offensive polish. As 7-footers, both of them were big enough to play in the NBA, but defensively they couldn’t hang, and offensively they possessed no real advantage. Both players were given up on pretty quickly and both fell out of the league within five years.
The pick of Araujo was a shock to everyone, but O’Bryant’s selection wasn’t as shocking, so he also fits in with Sene and Swift as centers who were taken with upside in mind (note: it’s amazing that Seattle took both Sene and Swift, but that’s another discussion all together). All three players had the size, the length and the ability to add mass to their bodies, but none of the three could hang around.
Sene was an absolute disaster, playing in a total of 47 games for three teams in four seasons. Swift made headlines recently for being thrown out of his house, which was filled with empty beer cans and gunshot holes—I think that’s enough analysis for him. O’Bryant, similarly to Sene, had a lot of length and was tall— that’s where the positives for those two end.
The Plight of the NBA Power Forward
When it comes to the NBA’s power forward position, a history lesson is needed.
It wasn’t until the '80s when the power forward became a big-time position (respect to Elvin Hayes who rocked the 4-spot in the '60s), and it wasn’t until the '90s when the position hit its stride.
With the success of guys like Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Duncan, Randolph and others, we've also witnessed the demise of the dominant NBA center. The increase in the speed of the game forced fee-fi-fo-fum centers, who couldn’t guard the high pick-and-roll, out of the spotlight (i.e. no more Jim Mcllvaines).
Meanwhile, low-post play morphed into something new. With quicker, bigger, stronger players, the NBA saw fewer Olajuwons and Robinsons, and more Garnetts, Duncans and Dirks.
When it comes to drafting power forwards, it’s an absolute crap-shoot. There are three main reasons why aspiring NBA power forwards fail.
The first reason is the hardest to deal with as an athlete. Guys like Sweetney, Diogu, May, and Sheldon Williams all knew that they were NBA power forwards due to their size, but they all couldn’t compete athletically. All four were quality rebounders in the college level, and all four saw serious offensive success playing in power conferences.
All four players were right around that 6'8" or 6'9" level, which is fine if you have plus athleticism, but none of them did. These guys didn’t fail because they didn’t love the game or because they didn’t work at getting better or because they didn’t have the right attitude; they failed because they didn’t have enough height, foot-speed or athleticism to hang with the NBA’s hyper-athletic and/or giant, bullish power forwards.
The second reason power forwards fail is that they never develop their crazy athleticism and never carve out their niche. Marvin Williams could easily fit into the last category due to his size, but he does have the athleticism to hang with NBA 4s— instead of focusing on harnessing his inside game, he developed into a three-point shooter. Both Williams and Tyrus Thomas were drafted on potential, but their potential was misperceived in my opinion.
Williams didn’t start in college, playing only one year behind May in North Carolina, when the Heels won a national title.
Thomas also played one year in college, but played second fiddle to “Big Baby” Glen Davis in the LSU frontcourt.
Both guys played behind big forwards, and both were drafted higher than the guys who outplayed them in college. Everyone was blown away with Thomas’ jumping ability, but lost sight of the fact that he was just a leaper and had zero offensive polish (note: he’s probably worse now than he was then).
Williams played 22 minutes per game and averaged 11.3 points to go with 6.6 boards in his lone season at UNC. The numbers were all right and the potential was there, but Atlanta overlooked that Williams was the beneficiary of high school hype. In fact, his North Carolina teammates May, McCants, Raymond Felton and Jawad Williams all were better than Williams.
Again, NBA teams lost sight of the facts and were wowed by potential. They can’t be faulted for being blown away by Williams’ high school highlights and Thomas’ shot-blocking ability and Garnett-like athleticism.
The final two power forwards who qualify as busts were foreign players: Yi and Darko (I like to refer to foreign players by their first names— it’s for fun). Darko was taken second overall in 2003, while Yi was taken sixth overall in 2007.
Both guys showed similar perimeter skills in their respective countries, and both were listed at 7'0", which seems to be a lot taller and a lot more common than 6'11" (what a conundrum). Both guys could stretch the floor out to three-point line, and both guys showed athletic promise in their pre-NBA lives that they could keep NBA bigs from abusing them—that happened to be untrue.
Darko was given a shot (and another shot and another shot) but never could cut it as anything more than a backup center. Yi had a decent season for the Nets in 2009-2010, where he averaged 12 points and 7.2 boards, but the Nets were 12-70 that year, so don’t put much stock in it.
Neither Darko nor Yi athletically has what it takes to perform at a high level, and they are helping prove the theory that Nowitzki has no counterparts and is a freak of nature.
The Combo Guard
This past season, we saw guys like Jerryd Bayless, Jarrett Jack and Jamaal Crawford succeed as backup combo guards. In the future, I think we’ll see more guys drafted to fill that role for a team. Guys like them have some scoring ability, some handling skills and some leadership prowess, but they lack the ability to create shots for others and run an offense successfully.
The following two busts were taken at the end of the lottery, and suffered from circumstance as much as lack of skill. Both Marcus Banks and Acie Law IV were very good scorers in college, and both failed for similar reasons.
Banks couldn’t run a team successfully and was never able to find a backup gig that suited him. He was a smaller point guard with great ability, but things just never clicked for him in the league.
Law was more of a shooter than a slasher, but just like Banks, couldn’t find the right team at the right time.
Both guys were very talented, and if they had been put into the right situation, with the right coach and the right roster, they could have found success. Instead, they fell out of rotations and were forced to go between Europe and the NBA to etch out nice livings.
Small Forward, Small Output
The remaining three players all failed to translate their skill sets from the college game to the NBA game, and all of them failed for different reasons.
The one who sticks out most is Adam Morrison, former third overall pick by the Charlotte Bobcats in 2006 out of Gonzaga. Morrison and J.J. Redick dominated college basketball headlines in the 2005-2006 season, with Morrison edging Redick by one point to win the scoring title with 28.4 points per game.
In Morrison’s first season in Charlotte, he averaged 11.8 points per game in almost 30 minutes a game, but all numbers aside from the 11.8 were beyond putrid. Morrison shot less than 38 percent from the floor and 34 percent from distance, while averaging just 1.5 made free throws per game.
After his first season, Morrison never really got another shot, playing just 83 games combined the next two years for the Bobcats and Lakers. While his college career was as decorated as anyone's in recent history, Morrison’s lack of anything but ball-dominating offensive ability should have been a sign of things to come.
He couldn’t stay in front of anyone defensively, he wasn’t a lethal catch-and-shoot guy and he didn’t possess big-time athleticism.
Morrison was helped considerably by playing in a weak conference (WCC) in college. But on the pro level, he was never really given the chance to be an offensive-minded second-stringer because of how high he was drafted.
Instead, Morrison joins the likes of Dan Dickau and Austin Daye as former Zags who benefited from playing out in John Stockton-country for a few years and who couldn’t cut it in the NBA (Daye is still trying to cut it and is failing miserably—if you can’t crack the rotation in Detroit, you’re really failing).
Julian Wright was taken out of Kansas in 2007 on upside. Wright showed nothing that resembled polish in his college career and is a perfect example of why the NBA combine is as useless as a poopy-flavored lollipop (Dodgeball reference, shout out to Patches O’Houlihan).
Wright played a total of 231 games in the league and scored 907 points. In college, he was a jack-of-all-trades, but in the NBA, he was just another great athlete whose seemingly natural defensive ability couldn’t help him forge a career in the NBA.
Finally, there’s Josh Childress. You might remember Childress from his career in Stanford, where he almost led his team to a perfect season as Jameer Nelson and Delonte West simultaneously did the same thing for St. Joseph’s (both teams failed to accomplish the feat, and Stanford bowed out early in the NCAA Tournament).
Much like Wright, Childress did it all in college but wasn’t equipped offensively to successfully play on the wing. Childress’ best asset was his rebounding, but unlike Kawhi Leonard, he wasn’t drafted onto the Spurs.
Instead, Childress was drafted by the mismanaged Atlanta Hawks, where he saw some decent offensive numbers his first few seasons but never evolved as a shooter. Childress signed a giant deal to play in Greece after the 2007-2008 season and returned to the NBA in 2010-2011, but has actually come back as a worse player.
While Childress is probably one of the least busty (or bustalicious) players on this list, his lack of upside and his skill set are a great example for future NBA GMs out there. Guys like Childress and the aforementioned Leonard need to be given specific roles and need to serve specific functions if they want to succeed.
Also, they need to acclimate themselves into a position and work on their deficiencies. Childress never learned how to shoot the ball from range and never learned how to cut with precision. Therefore, he failed in the NBA.
It’s easy to look back and say this guy was a bad pick and why, but it’s much more difficult to figure out exactly why people fail.
Araujo and Morrison seemed doomed from the start, but they were given up on very quickly. Sene and Darko never bloomed, but they didn’t go to Hakeem’s summer camp either. Some players get better and some don’t—plain and simple.
Sometimes GMs get to say "I told you so," and sometimes little nerds typing on their computers do. Sometimes everyone’s dead wrong and you end up with success stories like Mario Elie.
No matter which way you spin it, the NBA draft holds intrigue each and every year for one reason or another. Some guys fail, and no one figures out why: Those are the pitfalls of projection.