When Yao Ming was drafted as the number one overall pick in 2002, the Houston Rockets looked forward to a future filled with championships. Yao, the biggest import ever seen in the NBA, figuratively and literally, brought the expectations of an entire nation with him.
Eight years later, the Houston Rockets have no championship to show for Yao.
Yao, on the other hand, has a laundry list of injuries that have caused him to miss 175 games, including the entire 2009-10 season. If you call that a bust, I suppose some people would agree. I am not one of them.
There is no doubt that the first pick of any draft is the player teams feel will benefit them the most. Being selected as the number one pick means you’re the man, you’ve got expectations to be met, and you’ll be praised if you do, damned if you don’t.
With names like Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the list of past number ones, sometimes teams do succeed when they roll the dice on promising rookies.
Then, there are these guys, the fifteen biggest number one pick busts of the past fifty years. As you will see, Yao's clearly not a bust.
15. Art Heyman – No. 1 selection of the New York Knicks (1963)
14. Cazzie Russell – No. 1 selection of the New York Knicks (1966)
13. Austin Carr – No. 1 selection of the Cleveland Cavaliers (1971)
12. Greg Oden – No. 1 selection of the Portland Trail Blazers (2007)
Though it’s a little unfair to Oden to place him on this list after he’s only played for two seasons and a combined 82 games (22 of which he didn’t start) he’s on this list because of his production on the floor as compared to the other 50 picks.
It doesn’t help that 2007’s second pick, Kevin Durant, has led an Oklahoma City franchise to the Playoffs while grabbing the scoring title and being an excellent player.
Between the injuries, the lack of production, and who he was chosen over, Oden may fit in on this list when it’s all said and done. With any luck, though, Oden will be able to turn it around and use his youth to his advantage. Only time will tell.
11. Danny Manning – No. 1 selection of the Los Angeles Clippers (1988)
10. Fred Hetzel – No. 1 selection of the San Francisco Warriors (1965)
9. John Lucas – No. 1 selection of the Houston Rockets (1976)
8. Bill McGill – No. 1 selection of the Chicago Zephyrs (1962)
7. Pervis Ellison – No. 1 selection of the Sacramento Kings (1989)
Ellison ended up playing 474 games with four teams during his time in the NBA. He was never voted an All-Star and left the league in obscurity after starting only 52 percent of his games.
He was drafted ahead of Tim Hardaway, Shawn Kemp, and Vlade Divac, but his place here isn't about who he was drafted above, it was his play.
Despite three decent years between 1990 and 1993, when the '94 season concluded, it was all downhill from there, with Ellison never averaging double-digits in scoring again and playing less than forty games per season in four consecutive years.
When he left the game after his final season in 2000-01, he had career averages of 9.5 PPG, 6.7 RPG, and 1.5 APG.
6. Michael Olowokandi – No. 1 selection of the Los Angeles Clippers (1998)
5. Kent Benson – No. 1 selection of the Milwaukee Bucks (1977)
4. Jim Barnes – No. 1 selection of the New York Knicks (1964)
3. LaRue Martin – No. 1 selection of the Portland Trail Blazers (1972)
Martin played in 271 games during his short NBA career, all with Portland. He never averaged more than 17 minutes per game, and his career averages were 5.3 PPG, 4.6 RPG, and 0.7 APG when he called it quits after the 1975-76 season.
The center, who was picked up by Portland because of his performance against Bill Walton, lost his position to Walton when Portland chose him as the number one pick of the 1974 NBA Draft.
Had Martin played for another team or given himself more time to adjust to the NBA, perhaps he could have kept himself off of this list, but Martin clearly lacked the bang for the buck.
2. Kwame Brown – No. 1 selection of the Washington Wizards (2001)
Two words: ‘Nuff Said
Though many people would place Kwame at the top of this list, he is only the second-worst first pick of the past fifty years.
In a way, that’s a success for him.
Playing on four teams since he was drafted, Kwame’s been quite the under-achiever. How’s this for career averages of someone who’s not even in his thirties: 6.7 PPG, 5.4 RPG, and 1.0 APG? His best year, if you can even call it that, was the 2003-04 season when he averaged 10.9, 7.4, and 1.5 per game.
Oh, and just to piss you off a little bit, his estimated career earnings are just over $50 million.
And, the biggest number one bust of the past fifty years is... Joe Smith.
1. Joe Smith – No. 1 selection of the Golden State Warriors (1995)
Considering that the 1995 class had Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett, and Damon Stoudamire, it’s easy to see why Smith’s time in the league would seem like a bust.
Add to that the following year’s class, which featured Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Steve Nash, and Marcus Camby, and it becomes even clearer why the hype around Joe Smith’s number one pick would be forgotten.
Though his per-game production is better than Kwame’s, Smith’s travels around the NBA (ten teams so far), earned him the top spot.
Starting in only 61 percent of the games he’s played, Smith’s 11 PPG, 6.5 RPG, and 1.0 APG averages seem almost respectable.
Well, compared to Kwame, they are.
You know what, on second thought, Kwame Brown was the biggest No. 1 pick bust in the past fifty years.
“With the number one selection of the 2001 NBA Draft,” David Stern should have said, “Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards select Kwame Brown, the biggest bust the league will ever see.”
Note: Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and rankings based on season statistics in points, rebounds, and assists, along with team loyalty, All-Star selections, individual awards (Rookie of the Year, MVP, and Finals MVP), championships, and the Hall of Fame.