In June of 1984, the Houston Rockets selected Hakeem Olajuwon, a towering center from the University of Houston, as the number one overall pick in the N.B.A. draft. Nicknamed “Hakeem the Dream,” Olajuwon played eighteen seasons in the league, averaging twenty-two points, eleven rebounds, and three shot blocks per game. In 1994, Olajuwon became the league’s Most Valuable Player and led the Rockets to the first of two consecutive championships. But despite his remarkable career, Olajuwon was not the best player in the draft. The best player was selected third. His name was Michael Jordan.
The Rockets weren’t wrong to draft Olajuwon. No one, after all, could predict that Jordan, a 6-6 guard from the University of North Carolina, would go on to win six NBA championships, five MVP awards, and, by all accounts, become the greatest player in history. Therefore, the Rockets were fortunate, because the player with the most ability isn’t always the best.
Take a look at the following list, which shows the first overall pick in the N.B.A. draft, starting with 1985 and ending, most recently, in 2008.
Diehard basketball fans will recognize most, if not all, of the names on the list. Occasional fans, however, may recognize only some. How is that possible? Aren’t number one picks supposed to have illustrious careers? Unfortunately, if we study the history of the N.B.A. draft, many number one picks, to use a colloquial sports term, “bust.”
Now take a look at the same list. This time, however, I replaced certain players with those who arguably emerged as the best in their draft. In parentheses, beside their name, I have placed their corresponding overall draft number.
Karl Malone (13th)
Gary Payton (2nd)
Kevin Garnett (5th)
Kobe Bryant (13th)
Dirk Nowitzki (9th)
Michael Redd (43rd)
Tony Parker (28th)
Carlos Boozer (34th)
Chris Paul (4th)
Brandon Roy (6th)
Kevin Durant (2nd)
Only thirteen out of twenty-four, or fifty-four per cent, of first overall picks became the best player in the draft. Statistically, this means that teams with the first overall pick have merely a one-in-two chance at selecting the correct player. They might as well flip a coin.
Basketball is more a game of intelligence than ability. The smarter player, in other words, will outplay his superior athletic adversary. In a superb essay, “The Physical Genius,” Malcolm Gladwell discusses this point.
What sets physical geniuses apart from other people … is not merely being able to do something but knowing what to do. … This is what we mean when we say that great athletes have a “feel” for the game, or that they “see” the court or the field or the ice in a special way.
First overall draft picks don’t bust because they fail to develop athletically. Rather, they bust because they fail to develop mentally. To play the game of basketball at a high level, players must first learn to think at a high level.
Unfortunately, physical genius can neither be taught nor coached. N.B.A. scouts and coaches, then, are forced to evaluate and rate players in the draft based largely on tangible attributes, such as height, strength, shooting accuracy, dribbling, and defense. Certain first overall picks, like Lebron James, display a physical genius as early as high school. Barring some horrendous injury, we knew they would succeed. Others, like Michael Olowokandi, are dominant athletes, but not physical geniuses. As a result, their careers have floundered.
Can N.B.A. teams accurately predict which players to draft and which, despite their tempting athletic prowess, to avoid? Admittedly, it’s difficult to say. Not every first overall pick not the best in his draft was a bust. Different players develop in different ways. Perhaps, however, N.B.A. teams should reprioritize their values. Instead of ranking the athlete, they should begin by ranking the intelligence. After all, a hobbled Kobe Bryant is better than a healthy Allen Iverson.
On June 25, at Madison Square Garden, the forty-fourth N.B.A. draft will occur. The prospects are talented and promising, but one player, Blake Griffin, is the unanimous standout. Griffin, a 6-10 power forward, is a combination of athleticism, strength, and finesse. Last year, at Oklahoma University, he averaged twenty-three points, fourteen rebounds, two assists, and one shot block per game. Analysts are calling him “the total package.”
The Los Angeles Clippers, who finished last season with a record of 19-63, have the first overall pick. “I know nothing is set in stone, but L.A. is a great opportunity,” Griffin, in a recent interview, said. Members of the Clippers organization, including Neil Olshey, the assistant general manager, have openly stated their excitement. Griffin clearly has the ability. But is he the best in his class? Only time will tell.