The NBA is arguably at the peak of its popularity, and no small portion of this return to prominence is due to the depth of talent the league currently boasts.
Following the departure Michael Jordan fans and media alike desperately searched for the next superstar. While the next Jordan has not yet been discovered and rightfully may never be, the league is as competitive and entertaining as ever thanks to a number of bright young stars.
Here’s a closer look at the 15 best lottery draft picks of the past decade and how they are contributing to the NBA’s rise.
Pau Gasol came into the league after taking home hardware as the MVP of the Spanish National Cup. His unique skill set and size made him attractive to talent scouts, but there were still many unknowns with regards to how his game would translate in the NBA.
Needless to say, the gamble has paid off.
Gasol was an intricate piece of the Memphis Grizzlies first three playoff runs, took home Rookie of the Year honors and helped the Los Angeles Lakers to two NBA Championships while making four NBA All-Star appearances.
Gasol was one lottery pick investment that has really paid dividends.
Notable Players Drafted Before Gasol: Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler
Johnson entered the NBA Draft as an underclassman out of Arkansas where he starred but did not necessarily stand out.
Many wondered if Johnson had the mental toughness to improve and whether or not his skill set had the growth potential indicative of a top pick. As a result, he slipped to No. 10 in the 2001 draft.
Johnson has developed into a superstar and one of the most explosive perimeter scoring threats in the league. At No. 10, he was a draft lottery steal.
Notable Players Drafted Before Johnson: Kwame Brown, Eddie Curry, Eddie Griffin, DeSagana Diop, Rodney White
Stoudemire entered the 2002 NBA Draft as a raw high school talent. His size and athleticism landed him as a lottery pick, but most critics viewed him as a long-term project.
Most critics were wrong.
Stoudemire took home Rookie of the Year awards and has been one of the most explosive big men in the league since he showed up.
His ability to score has improved as has his tenacity on the boards. Amar'e was the best rookie in the league and undoubtedly the best player of the 2002 draft class. There are nine teams that passed on him wishing they’d taken a risk on developing this high school phenom.
Notable Players Drafted Before Stoudemire: Yao Ming, Jay Williams, Mike Dubleavy, Drew Gooden, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Dajuan Wagner, Nene Hilario, Chris Wilcox
King James was drafted by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003 following one of the most successful (and public) high school careers of all time.
LeBron wasted no time and immediately made an impact as the Cavs won 18 more games during his rookie season than they had in 2002-2003.
James has met every expectation that comes with being the first overall pick and then some. It is very rare that a player drafted No. 1 proves to be a “value” pick, but James is a very rare exception.
Carmelo Anthony entered the NBA draft fresh off of a NCAA Championship in his lone season with Syracuse. Drafted third in a very talented draft class, Anthony’s impact was noticeable from the starting gate as he led the Nuggets in scoring with 21 points per game as a rookie.
Anthony has continued to pile up points and he is considered to be one of the purest scorers in the game today. His 24.8 point per game scoring average has played a large role in getting him to four NBA All-Star games.
He was traded to the Knicks in February of 2011 where he joined fellow lottery-stud Amar'eStoudemire.
Getting Carmelo Anthony at No. 3 was not only an easy decision for the Nuggets, but also a great value pick.
Notable Player Drafted Before Anthony: Darko Milicic
Coming out of Marquette, many considered Wade to be a bit small as a pure scorer. Others felt he didn’t possess the playing style of a true point guard. It didn’t matter.
Wade stepped up immediately for the Miami Heat and has developed into one of the best players in the NBA.
Wade led the Heat to an NBA Championship in 2006 while taking home the trophy as Finals MVP. He has averaged over 25 points to go with five rebounds, six assists, nearly two steals and one block per outing. Wade is a seven-time NBA All-Star and NBA Scoring Champion.
Snatching Wade with the fifth overall pick was genius, and the Heat have enjoyed the benefits of such a move.
Notable Player Drafted Before Wade: Darko Milicic
The Orlando Magic desperately needed help in the form of a big man and intended to use their first overall pick to fill that void.
They had two options: Emeka Okafor—a proven college center with a consistent game—and Dwight Howard—a baby-faced prep out of Atlanta.
The Magic chose the young gun and the most dominant player of the 2004 draft class, Dwight.
Howard has been a force since entering the league and as his body has matured so has his game. Howard has won three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards while appearing in five NBA All-Star games.
Okafor has not enjoyed the same success.
The Magic Also Considered: Okafor, Ben Gordon, Shaun Livingston
You can’t say enough about a quality point guard, and Deron Williams has proven to be that and more.
Since entering the league Williams has developed into one of the game’s elite floor managers and could find himself ranked among the best of all time. Not too shabby for a guy who many viewed would top out as a role-player in the NBA.
Williams has averaged over 17 points per game and been among the league’s leaders in assists year in and year out.
Notable Players Drafted Before Williams: Andrew Bogut, Marvin Williams
Many felt Paul was the best player in the 2005 draft, but after slipping a few picks CP3 came out with a vengeance.
In his first year, Paul led all rookies in scoring, assists and steals while running away with the 2006 Rookie of the Year award.
Paul’s statistics rank among the best as he has career averages of 18.7 points, 9.9 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game. Chris Paul was the best player available in the 2005 Draft and the Hornets got a bargain when he slipped to No. 4.
Notable Players Drafted Before Paul: Andrew Bogut, Marvin Williams, Deron Williams
Roy’s career has been plagued with injuries, but when healthy Brandon is one of the best scorers in the game.
After being drafted by his hometown team the Portland Trailblazers, Roy hit the ground running earning Rookie of the Year honors for his injury-shortened season.
Roy saw his best season in 2008-2009 as he averaged nearly 23 points per game and shot 48 percent from the field. Even with his injuries, Brandon Roy has been the best player of the 2006 NBA draft and five lottery drafters missed out on his talent.
Notable Players Drafted Before Roy: Andrea Bargnani, LeMarcus Aldridge, Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas, Shelden Willams
What more can be said about Kevin Durant? In his four seasons in the league, he has started in two All-Star Games, earned two First Team All-NBA considerations, led the league in scoring twice and been Rookie of the Year.
The Seattle SuperSonics were lucky that he slipped to No. 2, and the Thunder are glad to have him for the foreseeable future.
Notable Players Drafted Before Durant: Greg Oden
Derrick Rose, much like LeBron, is a rare talent that not only meets the aspirations of every No. 1 pick but also somehow exceeds them.
In just three short years in the league, Rose has risen to the top winning an MVP in 2011. It’s hard to imagine a more accelerated rise to the top, but I’d count on Derrick to continue his upward trend.
In his first three NBA seasons, he progressed annually in points, assists, rebounds, steals and blocks per game.
The Bulls Also Considered: O.J. Mayo, Danilo Gallinari
While recognized as skilled, many draft experts expected Russell Westbrook to take honorable mention to fellow 2008 draft class guards Rose and O.J. Mayo.
Westbrook has not gone quietly. The Sonics/Thunder snatched him up with the fourth overall pick and many skeptics doubted their judgment.
2011 saw Westbrook start 82 games for the second consecutive season and average 22 points, eight assists two steals per game.
Notable Players Drafted Before Westbrook: Michael Beasley, Mayo
Sometimes, good things are worth the wait.
This was the case with Blake as he 2009 missed all of his initial season with a knee injury before making his NBA debut in November of 2010. What a debut it was. Griffin scored 20 points and grabbed 14 rebounds.
Griffin didn’t let up. He averaged 22.5 points and 12.1 rebounds per game as a rookie while shooting over 50 percent from the field and becoming one of the NBA’s most exciting players.
Griffin was an All-Star and won the Slam Dunk Contest en route to grabbing Rookie of the Year honors in 2011.
The Clippers Also Considered: Hasheem Thabeet, Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio
If Griffin’s rookie season had not been delayed, John Wall would have been Rookie of the Year in 2011. However, Wall had to play second fiddle to the Clippers’ stud.
Wall did a pretty darn good job of it.
As a rookie, Wall averaged over 16 points and eight assists per game while quickly becoming the leader of the Washington Wizards franchise. The sky’s the limit for this young gun.
The Wizards Also Considered: Evan Turner, Derrick Favors, DeMarcus Cousins