Ranking the Best NBA Draft Steals of Past 25 Years

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJune 21, 2013

Ranking the Best NBA Draft Steals of Past 25 Years

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    The NBA draft is often such a crapshoot that teams can feel lucky when they manage to select a player who sticks in the rotation. When they find a player who exceeds the expectations in rather dramatic fashion, that's when draft steals are created and general managers pop the champagne. 

    The traditional definition of a draft steal is a player who was selected late in the draft when a team managed to unearth a diamond in the rough. We think about players like Monta Ellis, who was picked at No. 40 and went on to become one of the better shooting guards in the NBA. 

    It's tough for top picks to be steals because everyone expected them to be great. 

    Not in my mind. 

    To determine these draft steals, the 50 best picks of the last 25 years, I'm turning to a completely objective formula. It's one rooted in historical comparisons, as each draft pick has consistent expectations associated with it over the years. 

    For those of you wondering, Monta is still a steal, but he's not one of the top 50 steals in the past 25 years. In fact, he'd fall in as the 107th-best pick since the start of the 1988 NBA draft. He's still a steal, but not one of the best picks we've ever seen.

    Note: All statistics, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com/cbb/. 

How Are Draft Steals Determined?

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    What exactly can teams count on when they make a draft pick? Well, unless a team releases or trades a player, they are under the organization's control after the draft for up to four years, the maximum length of a rookie contract. So really, when looking at draft steals, we should focus almost exclusively on the first four years of a player's career. 

    "Almost" is used because sometimes a player's first four seasons in the NBA aren't necessarily the four years that came directly after he was drafted.

    As a result, I looked at the first four years of win-shares data for a player, as provided by Basketball-Reference.com. Win shares are an advanced basketball metric calculated so that one win share is exactly equal to one win provided by that player to his team's cause. It's the combination of offensive win shares and defensive win shares, a full breakdown of which can be found on this page, called "Calculating Win Shares."

    Win shares are inherently flawed because they can't completely sum up a player's value, but it's the best number we have for turning overall value into a single metric that goes up based on both volume and quality.

    Starting with the year 1982, I've looked at each and every single player drafted into the Association, tracking their draft position and the amount of win shares they produced in their first four seasons in the league. It is important to note that I only evaluated data through the 2009 draft because the players taken from 2010-2013 have not yet played out their first four seasons in the league.

    After I had data for all 2,437 players drafted from 1982-2009, I took the average number of four-year win shares for each draft position and plotted them on a scatterplot (which you can see in the embedded picture, with draft position along the x-axis and four-year win shares along the y-axis).

    Using a best-fit logistical regression, I found the following formula: Four-year win shares = -6.031* ln (draft position) + 25.388.

    For the statistically inclined out there, that equation has a coefficient of determination (r^2) of 0.92083. For the non-statistically inclined, the equation fits ridiculously well. 

    Using this formula, we can plug in a number for draft position and have the formula show how many four-year win shares a player drafted there should be expected to produce. For example, the first overall pick of a draft should produce 25.388 Win Shares, while the 30th overall pick should produce 4.875. 

    With that data firmly established, we can tell exactly how much players have exceeded or failed to live up to the expectations associated with the slot in which they were drafted. That can be done by subtracting the expected win shares based on the draft position from the actual number of four-year win shares that players produced.

    If the difference is positive, the player exceeded expectations by that much and was a bit of a steal. If the difference is negative, the player failed to live up to the expectations and was a bit of a bust. 

    Let's use Michael Jordan as an example, even though he didn't get drafted in the past 25 years.

    Jordan was drafted third overall, so he should have been expected to produce 18.76 four-year win shares. The shooting guard actually produced 53.6 over the first four years of his career, meaning that the Chicago Bulls "stole" 34.84 four-year win shares when they drafted him. This was still a great pick, obviously. 

    In fact, it was the second-best since 1982.

    It's important to realize exactly what we're looking at. As some of you may have realized, even No. 1 picks may be considered steals. Likewise, even non-lottery picks can be major busts if they perform poorly enough.

    Because this article reveals the 50 biggest steals of the past 25 years, but players drafted from 2010-12 are not yet eligible, here you can find a list of recently drafted players who look like they could "earn" a spot on this list in the future. 

    • From 2010: Paul George
    • From 2011: Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Kenneth Faried, Jimmy Butler, Chandler Parsons, Isaiah Thomas
    • From 2012: Damian Lillard, Jared Sullinger

    Going forward, you'll find a few pieces of information on each slide. There's the typical description of where each player was drafted and by what team. Additionally, you'll find how many four-year win shares each player earned, as well as a brief player description. 

    Now, read on to find out the 50 biggest draft steals since the 1988 NBA draft. You will be surprised, especially if you don't remember that objectivity eliminates injuries and such from the list of excuses for a lack of performance.  

    Note: The above explanation is a modified version of what I wrote here.

50. Kyle Korver: 15.12

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    Year Drafted: 2003

    Team Drafted By: Philadelphia 76ers

    Draft Position: No. 51

    Four-Year Win Shares: 16.8

    Not that any No. 51 pick would expect otherwise, but Ashton Kutcher...err...Kyle Korver didn't get much playing time during his rookie season out of Creighton. But once the Philadelphia 76ers realized just how potent a shooter he could be, that quickly changed. 

    Korver started 57 games as a second-year player, and he averaged 11.5 points per game while getting the green light to take 6.8 threes per contest. That's a remarkable level of confidence to show in a player who very nearly went undrafted just one year earlier. 

    To put this in perspective, 51st picks are expected to earn 1.68 win shares over the first four years of their career. Korver earned 6.6 in his second season alone. 

49. Kirk Hinrich: 15.35

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    Year Drafted: 2003

    Team Drafted By: Chicago Bulls

    Draft Position: No. 7

    Four-Year Win Shares: 29

    Fresh out of Kansas, Kirk Hinrich entered the league and immediately played a prominent role for the Chicago Bulls. He started 66 of his 76 games during his rookie season, finishing the year averaging 12.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. 

    The sharpshooting point guard improved his field-goal percentage during each of his first four years as a pro, topping out in 2006-07 at 44.8 percent. That still remains the best percentage of his career. 

    Hinrich lived up to his reputation as a sniper from Day 1 of his NBA career, but he was so much more than that. 

48. Andre Miller: 15.35

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    Year Drafted: 1999

    Team Drafted By: Cleveland Cavaliers

    Draft Position: No. 8

    Four-Year Win Shares: 28.2

    Rumor has it that Andre Miller couldn't jump even when he was a 23-year-old rookie during the 1999-00 season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

    Despite his lack of athleticism, the point guard still made an impact because he was far more aware of his surrounding than most first-year players. He averaged 11.1 points and 5.8 assists per game that season, starting 36 contests in the process. 

    It didn't take long for Miller to develop into one of the league's best distributors. He led the Association in his third season, racking up 10.9 dimes per game during his final run-through before being traded to the Los Angeles Clippers. 

47. Chris Bosh: 15.37

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    Year Drafted: 2003

    Team Drafted By: Toronto Raptors

    Draft Position: No. 4

    Four-Year Win Shares: 32.4

    It took Chris Bosh only three years to start playing at an All-Star level. During the 2005-06 season, the No. 4 pick in the star-studded 2003 NBA draft earned 9.8 win shares by averaging 16.8 points, 8.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. 

    A year later, he was even better. 

    He expanded the range on his jumper and ended up averaging 22.6 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. It's one of three 20/10 seasons he's posted during his impressive career, although it appears unlikely he'll ever have a fourth. 

46. Shawn Kemp: 15.70

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    Year Drafted: 1989

    Team Drafted By: Seattle SuperSonics

    Draft Position: No. 17

    Four-Year Win Shares: 24

    Shawn Kemp wasn't much of a factor during his first season with the Seattle SuperSonics, but that quickly changed as his career progressed. 

    The dunking machine averaged only 13.8 minutes per game as a rookie, averaging just 6.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per contest. He wasn't even as efficient as normal, either. 

    But that didn't matter as he gained a larger spot in the rotation and played with an increasing amount of confidence. He flat-out dominated as a fourth-year player, averaging 17.8 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game while asserting himself as a defensive presence. 

    In fact, it was his defense that improved most early on in his career. 

45. Antonio Davis: 15.77

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    Year Drafted: 1990

    Team Drafted By: Indiana Pacers

    Draft Position: No. 45

    Four-Year Win Shares: 18.2

    You may not be able to tell it from his block and steal totals, but Antonio Davis entered the NBA ready to play defense at a high level. In fact, he was far better defensively than offensively over the first four years of his career. 

    11.2 of his four-year win shares came on the defensive end of the court. 

    Davis wasn't supposed to be much of a contributor coming out of UTEP—he averaged only 10.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game as a senior—but he quickly proved that he wasn't done developing. He never became a consistent starter for the Indiana Pacers, but he was a valuable part of the rotation, nonetheless. 

44. Rashard Lewis: 15.81

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    Year Drafted: 1998

    Team Drafted By: Seattle SuperSonics

    Draft Position: No. 32

    Four-Year Win Shares: 20.3

    It's hard to remember this after watching him flounder away on the Miami Heat bench, but Rashard Lewis was once one of the more potent offensive players in the NBA. His jumper was remarkably accurate, to the point that he once led the league in three-pointers made. 

    Lewis didn't earn a starting role until his third professional season, but even that's ahead of the typical pace for a No. 32 pick. 

    Perhaps even more remarkable is that Lewis earned the No. 44 spot in these rankings despite a rookie season in which he racked up minus-0.4 win shares. He was just absolutely incompetent in limited action, shooting only 36.5 percent from the field and recording a ridiculous 5.0 turnovers per 36 minutes. 

43. Kevin Love: 15.92

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    Year Drafted: 2008

    Team Drafted By: Memphis Grizzlies (traded to Minnesota Timberwolves)

    Draft Position: No. 5

    Four-Year Win Shares: 31.6

    Kevin Love entered the NBA as a dominant rebounder. So dominant in fact that he managed to lead the league in offensive rebounding percentage during each of his first two seasons. 

    It took him three seasons to develop into a truly potent scorer, but Love was always capable of using his remarkable frame and lower-body strength to shield his man from the ball. 

    The power forward posted one of the more impressive seasons we've seen in a while during 2010-11 when he averaged 20.2 points and 15.2 rebounds per game for the Minnesota Timberwolves. He then followed it up during the lockout-shortened campaign by putting up 26.0 points and 13.3 rebounds per contest. 

    Those are sensational numbers, and we can only hope a healthy Love gets to put them up again going forward. 

42. Michael Finley: 16.07

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    Year Drafted: 1995

    Team Drafted By: Phoenix Suns

    Draft Position: No. 21

    Four-Year Win Shares: 23.1

    It only took two seasons for Michael Finley to gain enough value that he was a key part in the Phoenix Suns' trade for Jason Kidd. As a rookie, the swingman averaged 15.0 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, then he was en route to posting similar numbers as a sophomore when he and Sam Cassel were shipped off to the Dallas Mavericks. 

    It was with the Mavs that Finley truly broke out, making All-Star teams in both 2000 and 2001. That latter campaign is out of the eligible scope here, but the 2000 season most certainly isn't. 

    That's a positive for Finley, as he put up 8.3 win shares in that year alone. Seeing as No. 21 picks are expected to earn 7.03 win shares over the first four years of their careers, that's not too shabby.

41. P.J. Brown: 16.52

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    Year Drafted: 1992

    Team Drafted By: New Jersey Nets

    Draft Position: No. 29

    Four-Year Win Shares: 21.6

    You did not want to mess with P.J. Brown when he was in lock-down defensive mode. 

    Even as a rookie, the center out of Louisiana Tech was a force to be reckoned with when he bodied up against other big men. Plus, "Big Cat" always possessed active hands and got his hands on a lot of passes. 

    As he continued to improve and carve out playing time, Brown ended up earning 5.4 defensive win shares during his fourth season in the league, also his first with the Miami Heat. Those aren't total win shares, but only the ones he racked up on the less glamorous end of the court. 

    In fact, had he played only defense, he still would have earned enough to come out as a draft steal.

40. Carl Landry: 16.72

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    Year Drafted: 2007

    Team Drafted By: Houston Rockets

    Draft Position: No. 31

    Four-Year Win Shares: 21.4

    Even though he managed to play for three teams in his first four seasons, Carl Landry still managed to prove that he was worth being drafted in the first round. 

    Albeit undersized, the Purdue product proved that he believed in the hard-nosed Boilermaker mentality. He wasn't afraid to bang around in the post, and his finishes were pretty creative. 

    His best season came in 2009-10 when he split time between the Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings, averaging 16.8 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. More impressively, he did so on 53.6 percent shooting from the field and 80.6 percent shooting at the charity stripe. 

    Landry is nothing if not efficient and aware of his role.

39. Ty Lawson: 16.74

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    Year Drafted: 2009

    Team Drafted By: Minnesota Timberwolves

    Draft Position: No. 18

    Four-Year Win Shares: 24.7

    The speedy point guard out of North Carolina has just continued to get better and better. 

    During his final eligible season, Ty Lawson took a while to get going, but finished the 2012-13 campaign in style with averages of 16.7 points and 6.9 assists per game.

    Lawson has always made his mark by picking and choosing his shots wisely, and he currently boasts a career field-goal percentage of 48.6. That's a number normally posted by a small forward or power forward, not a floor general who plays a key role in the offense.

    The diminutive floor general should continue to improve, but he's done building up his draft-steal resume.  

38. Wesley Person: 16.82

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    Year Drafted: 1994

    Team Drafted By: Phoenix Suns

    Draft Position: No. 23

    Four-Year Win Shares: 23.3

    Wesley Person was one of those guys who came out of college and just seemed to start doing everything well. 

    He didn't stand out in many areas, but that applies to the negatives as well as the positives. His across-the-board contributions were quite valuable to the Phoenix Suns, although they traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers before his fourth season as part of the Antonio McDyess deal. 

    With the Cavs, Person broke out completely. He racked up 10.3 win shares during the 1997-98 season and deserved some serious All-Star consideration. That season was admittedly a bit of a fluke, but it was still quite impressive.

37. Kevin Durant: 16.99

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    Year Drafted: 2007

    Team Drafted By: Seattle SuperSonics

    Draft Position: No. 2

    Four-Year Win Shares: 38.2

    Kevin Durant's placement in this list has absolutely nothing to do with Greg Oden. In fact, if he'd gone No. 1 instead of the Ohio State center, he would only fall just shy of these rankings. 

    Let's give credit where credit is due. 

    Fresh out of Texas, the Durantula averaged 20.3 points per game. He was inefficient, but he still managed to score in remarkably high volume for a rookie. Then, just two years later, he took it to another level. 

    In the four eligible years, Durant won two scoring titles, topping out at 30.1 points per game during the 2009-10 season. He earned 16.1 win shares during that season, which is only 5.11 shy of the four-year total he was expected to accumulate.

36. Peja Stojakovic: 17.02

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    Year Drafted: 1996

    Team Drafted By: Sacramento Kings

    Draft Position: No. 14

    Four-Year Win Shares: 26.5

    During his first season with the Sacramento Kings, nearly half of Peja Stojakovic's makes came from behind the three-point arc. As he developed a more well-rounded game, that started to change, and he found significantly more success. 

    In fact, he averaged 20.4 and 21.2 points per game during the third and fourth go-arounds in Sac-Town, shooting a combined 47.7 percent from the field over those two seasons. Stojakovic wasn't just a volume scorer; he was a scorer who took all the right looks. 

    Even though his defense improved, the man who just barely earned the "lottery pick" designation never developed into much more than just a scorer during the first four years of his career. Or later, for that matter. 

35. Richard Jefferson: 18.08

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    Year Drafted: 2001

    Team Drafted By: Houston Rockets (traded to the New Jersey Nets)

    Draft Position: No. 13

    Four-Year Win Shares: 28

    Richard Jefferson was a defensive specialist when he entered the NBA out of Arizona. He carved out a large spot in the New Jersey Nets' rotation because of his ability to prevent points and finished his rookie season with 4.7 win shares, 2.9 of which came on the defensive end. 

    The small forward's prowess on the less glamorous end of the court stuck with him during his athletic prime, but he also developed one of the most glamorous shots in all of basketball: the three-pointer. 

    After making just 19 triples combined during his first two seasons, Jefferson exploded from downtown, dramatically upping his three-point percentage to 36.4 while hitting 48 downtown bombs throughout the 2003-04 campaign. This long-range proficiency opened up the offensive floodgates for him and helped truly justify him as a draft steal. 

34. Tayshaun Prince: 18.22

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    Year Drafted: 2002

    Team Drafted By: Detroit Pistons

    Draft Position: No. 23

    Four-Year Win Shares: 24.7

    The lanky-armed forward actually had his ability to play small forward at the professional level questioned when he was coming out of Kentucky. 

    Welp. So much for that. 

    Tayshaun Prince spent most of his rookie season picking splinters out of his shorts, but he thrived as soon as he was given the opportunity to get on the court for the Detroit Pistons. Once he was handed the starting job during the 2003-04 season, he never relinquished it and quickly proved that he was a defensive monster. 

    He single-seasonedly justified his draft position during his first season as a starter, earning 7.5 win shares.

33. Gilbert Arenas: 18.22

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    Year Drafted: 2001

    Team Drafted By: Golden State Warriors

    Draft Position: No. 30

    Four-Year Win Shares: 23.1

    Gilbert Arenas actually fell out of the first round—remember, there were only 28 first-round picks back in 2001—but he would use that as a chip on his shoulder for the rest of his career. 

    Even coming right out of Arizona, a school that seems awfully good at producing draft steals right about now, Arenas could shoot. He had the most efficient season of his career from the field as a rookie, averaging 10.9 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting. 

    As the beginning of his professional life progressed, Arenas gradually increased his scoring output by knocking down more and more shots from behind the three-point arc. In his fourth season, now with the Washington Wizards, he averaged 25.5 points per game while taking 7.0 three-pointers per game.

32. Cuttino Mobley: 18.41

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    Year Drafted: 1998

    Team Drafted By: Houston Rockets

    Draft Position: No. 41

    Four-Year Win Shares: 21.4

    The southpaw out of Rhode Island is another second-round draft pick who quickly proved that his scoring touch could translate to the professional level. 

    After starting as a rookie and coming off the bench during his second season, Cuttino Mobley used his third go-around with the Houston Rockets to prove that he should be a consistent starter. Prove it he did, and he never relinquished his grasp on that role again, regardless of what team he played for. 

    During that 2000-01 season, Mobley averaged 19.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game, earning a career-high 8.2 win shares. That's nearly triple what No. 41 picks are projected to earn over the first four years of their careers. 

31. Kevin Martin: 18.56

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    Year Drafted: 2004

    Team Drafted By: Sacramento Kings

    Draft Position: No. 26

    Four-Year Win Shares: 24.2

    Kevin Martin's ascent from bench warmer to leading scorer was meteoric. And a lot of the credit can be given to the shooting guard's understanding of the most efficient shots in basketball. 

    The Western Carolina product thrived behind the three-point arc, at the rim and from the charity stripe, often showing an impressive level of disdain for those inefficient mid-range looks. It allowed him to go from averaging 2.9 points per game as a rookie to 10.8 per game during the 2005-06 season. One year later, he made another jump, this time to 20.2 points per game. 

    It would be the first of five consecutive seasons in which he broke past the 20-point barrier, but his legendary efficiency that third season made it the high-point of his career. It also made stat guys fall in love with his game. 

30. Danny Granger: 18.60

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    Year Drafted: 2005

    Team Drafted By: Indiana Pacers

    Draft Position: No. 17

    Four-Year Win Shares: 26.9

    It didn't take long for Danny Granger to prove that drafting him at No. 17 was a mistake. 

    Well, not for the Indiana Pacers. For the 16 teams that picked in front of the Pacers. 

    Thanks to his defensive contributions on the perimeter, Granger was able to hold down a spot in the Indiana rotation from Day 1. He wasn't given the green light—err, yellow light if it's in Indiana?—until later on in his career, but he was already a point-stopper, and it helped him earn 5.1 win shares as a rookie. 

    Just as a reference point, a No. 17 pick is projected to earn 8.3 win shares over the first four years of their career. 

    His level of defensive excellence declined over the next three years as he became more and more of a featured part in the Indiana offense, but that worked out nicely for both him and the Pacers. 

29. Carlos Boozer: 18.78

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    Year Drafted: 2002

    Team Drafted By: Cleveland Cavaliers

    Draft Position: No. 34

    Four-Year Win Shares: 22.9

    Even as a rookie, Carlos Boozer was an efficient scorer and a solid rebounder. He understood positioning thanks to that Mike Krzyzewski education, and his high-arcing jumper was already working. 

    During his first year in the NBA, the Duke product averaged only 10.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, but he did that while spending only 25.3 minutes per contest out on the court. Those are great per-minute numbers for most NBA players, much less a rookie picked in the second round. 

    Boozer averaged a double-double during his second season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and by then he'd already nearly quadrupled the expected output of a No. 34 pick. 

28. Nick Van Exel: 19.09

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    Year Drafted: 1993

    Team Drafted By: Los Angeles Lakers

    Draft Position: No. 37

    Four-Year Win Shares: 22.7

    How often do second-round draft picks get to start 313 games during the first four seasons of their NBA careers? 

    Nick Van Exel was the man at point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers from Day 1. And that should be completely shocking to anyone who remembers his career at Cincinnati. 

    The point guard was a good player, but he wasn't even that much of a standout. He shot only 38.6 percent from the field during his senior season, averaging 18.3 points and 4.5 assists per game. There weren't many indications that he would be anything more than a backup point guard at the next level. 

    Some players defy the odds, and Van Exel is one of those lucky few. 

27. Andre Iguodala: 19.26

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    Year Drafted: 2004

    Team Drafted By: Philadelphia 76ers

    Draft Position: No. 9

    Four-Year Win Shares: 31.4

    Andre Iguodala was a stat-stuffing machine during his first four years with the Philadelphia 76ers. 

    From 2005-08, Iggy averaged 14.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.5 blocks per game while averaging 46.8 percent from the field, 33.1 percent from behind the three-point arc and 76.5 percent from the charity stripe. Talk about some gaudy numbers for the young swingman out of Arizona. 

    Another interesting stat: Even as a rookie, Iggy never started a game on the bench. 

26. Chris Mills: 19.35

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    Year Drafted: 1993

    Team Drafted By: Cleveland Cavaliers

    Draft Position: No. 22

    Four-Year Win Shares: 26.1

    One of the more anonymous players left in these rankings, it only took Chris MIlls a little over a full season to earn the 6.75 win shares necessary to justify his status as a No. 22 pick. 

    The 6'6" small forward was coming off a fantastic scoring season for the Arizona Wildcats, and while that points-per-game prowess didn't translate with him, he accepted his role and worked on the rest of his game. Mills gradually became more and more of a well-rounded player, and it was enough for him to earn a consistent starting spot in Cleveland. 

    His efficiency picked up in the third year of his career after he lessened his reliance on the three-point shot, and the rest was history for Mills. 

25. Michael Redd: 19.50

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    Year Drafted: 2000

    Team Drafted By: Milwaukee Bucks

    Draft Position: No. 43

    Four-Year Win Shares: 22.2

    Michael Redd started living up to the expectations associated with a No. 43 pick when he averaged only 2.2 points per game as a rookie. Then he got an opportunity. 

    The shooting guard expanded his scoring output for three seasons in a row, topping out at 21.7 during this four-year period. He also continued to become more and more adept at getting to the charity stripe and finishing plays with some freebies. During that 2003-04 season, the last that counts for these purposes, Redd averaged 5.4 attempts per game from the free-throw line and made 86.8 percent of the attempts. 

    Not bad for a player who earned negative win shares as a rookie. 

24. Eddie Jones: 20.00

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    Year Drafted: 1994

    Team Drafted By: Los Angeles Lakers

    Draft Position: No. 10

    Four-Year Win Shares: 31.5

    The Los Angeles Lakers knew that they were getting a good player when they drafted Eddie Jones at No. 10 in the 1994 NBA draft, but they had no idea that the Temple product would go on to become a three-time All-Star. 

    Two of those selections came in the first four years of his career as well, so they count for these purposes. It didn't take long for Jones to become a perimeter sniper and solid defender. Just three years, in fact. 

    His fourth season was particularly impressive, as he earned double-digit win shares while averaging 16.9 points per game on 48.4 percent shooting from the field. That's even better when you realize that 4.6 of his attempts per game came from downtown. 

23. Josh Howard: 20.32

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    Year Drafted: 2003

    Team Drafted By: Dallas Mavericks

    Draft Position: No. 29

    Four-Year Win Shares: 25.4

    Even in the star-studded 2003 draft class, it's tough to believe that there were 28 players drafted in front of Josh Howard. 

    The Wake Forest standout broke out during his second season once he received a consistent starting role, averaging 12.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.6 blocks per game on 47.5 percent shooting from the field. That season alone he earned 6.4 win shares and single-seasonedly justified his draft status. 

    According to Howard's four-year win shares, the regression dictates that he should have been a No. 1 pick. With LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony also in the equation, that obviously wasn't going to happen in 2003, even retroactively, but the point still stands. 

    Amazingly enough, six of the 50 players featured here were drafted in 2003. 

22. Tim Hardaway: 20.43

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    Year Drafted: 1989

    Team Drafted By: Golden State Warriors

    Draft Position: No. 14

    Four-Year Win Shares: 29.9

    The UTEP two-step didn't stop working in the NBA. If anything, that knee-buckling, ankle-breaking, layup-creating crossover just got even better once Tim Hardaway joined the Golden State Warriors and ran things TMC-style. 

    Hardaway made the All-Star squad three times in his first four seasons, averaging 22.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 10.0 assists and 2.2 steals per game over that time frame. Those are insane offensive numbers, and the Golden State Warriors were surely glad that the guard fell to them. 

    Not glad enough to avoid trading him to the Miami Heat, but still glad. 

21. Brandon Roy: 20.82

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    Year Drafted: 2006

    Team Drafted By: Portland Trail Blazers

    Draft Position: No. 6

    Four-Year Win Shares: 35.4

    I cry a little bit on the inside anytime I have to write about Brandon Roy. 

    He was one of the most entertaining players to watch before his knees abandoned him, and he seemed poised to take up the mantle as the next great shooting guard. Then his career halted far too early, and the return to the NBA didn't go as planned. 

    The Portland Trail Blazers still got an incredible amount of value out of Roy, especially during the relevant four-year portion of his career. It takes a special player to be drafted at No. 6 and still emerge as a steal, yet that's exactly what Roy did. 

20. Vince Carter: 21.02

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    Year Drafted: 1998

    Team Drafted By: Toronto Raptors

    Draft Position: No. 5

    Four-Year Win Shares: 36.7

    It didn't take long for Vince Carter to make the NBA his personal playground. 

    As soon as he left Chapel Hill for the Toronto Raptors, this small forward started dunking on everyone, showing off his insane hops and making the Canadian franchise a League Pass favorite long before League Pass even existed. 

    Carter averaged 18.3 points per game as a rookie and still managed to up his scoring output during each of the next two seasons. His career got off to a remarkably promising start, but attitude problems kept him from ever living up to what he could have been. 

    "Half Man, Half Amazing" was a highlight reel and a great player, but I have to wonder how great he would have been if he viewed the NBA as more than that personal playground. 

19. David Lee: 21.12

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    Year Drafted: 2005

    Team Drafted By: New York Knicks

    Draft Position: No. 30

    Four-Year Win Shares: 26

    When you watch him play now, it's tough to believe that David Lee was once able to drop all the way to No. 30 in the 2005 NBA draft. For all his athletic and defensive limitations, the dude can score the basketball. 

    Perhaps it was because Lee never really showed off that scoring touch at Florida. As a senior, he averaged only 13.6 points and 9.0 rebounds per game, and he was already 21 years old, so there didn't seem to be too much room for growth. 

    Well, that was wrong. 

    During his second season in the NBA, albeit with a limited role in the New York Knicks offense, Lee actually led the league in offensive rating thank to his 60 percent shooting from the field. 

18. Tim Duncan: 21.31

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    Year Drafted: 1997

    Team Drafted By: San Antonio Spurs

    Draft Position: No. 1

    Four-Year Win Shares: 46.7

    Tim Duncan is the first No. 1 pick to appear in these rankings, and he's one of three that made it into the top 20. 

    This is where I feel compelled to remind you that these players' status as draft steals is not based on the players selected around them, but rather the historical expectations associated with where they were picked. On average, No. 1 picks can be expected to earn 25.39 win shares during the first four years of their careers. 

    Duncan did that in just over two seasons, finishing the first four years of his illustrious career with 46.7 win shares. 

    To earn your way onto this list after being the top selection, you have to be great from Day 1, and such was the case for "The Big Fundamental."

17. Anfernee Hardaway: 21.54

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    Year Drafted: 1993

    Team Drafted By: Orlando Magic

    Draft Position: No. 3

    Four-Year Win Shares: 40.3

    Penny Hardaway's third season in the NBA was one of the all-time greats. 

    During that 1995-96 season, the No. 3 pick in the 1993 NBA draft averaged 21.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game on 51.3 percent shooting. He simply could not be stopped when he had the ball in his hands, and he ended up earning 14.4 win shares in that season alone. 

    Since No. 3 picks are supposed to earn 18.8 win shares during the first four seasons of their careers, that's not too shabby. 

    Penny proved he was a major draft steal during the early portion of his career, but the problem was the latter half. After his fourth season, he'd accumulated 40.3 win shares. When he retired, that total had only risen to 61.9. 

16. Rajon Rondo: 22.17

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    Year Drafted: 2006

    Team Drafted By: Phoenix Suns (traded to Boston Celtics)

    Draft Position: No. 21

    Four-Year Win Shares: 29.2

    During his career in Lexington, Rajon Rondo gave no indication that he was going to become this good in the NBA. As a sophomore for the Kentucky Wildcats, the point guard averaged 11.2 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game. 

    He was a great rebounding guard, a solid passer and a top-notch defender, but he couldn't score in bulk to save his life. 

    Rondo slipped to No. 21 in the 2006 NBA draft, and then he quickly became one of the best point guards in the NBA. Now he's a triple-double machine who can score when he needs to, even if his outside shot is still developing. 

    The floor general didn't make too much noise as a rookie, but it was quite clear he was something special during his second season with the Boston Celtics. 

15. Mehmet Okur: 22.39

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    Year Drafted: 2001

    Team Drafted By: Detroit Pistons

    Draft Position: No. 37

    Four-Year Win Shares: 26

    Mehmet Okur declined precipitously at the end of his career, but he was once an All-Star. That happened in 2007, which technically falls outside the scope of interest here, though. 

    The sweet-shooting big man justified the use of a draft pick on him with one season alone: the 2005-06 campaign. That year he averaged 18.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, both career-highs, en route to earning 9.3 win shares. 

    No. 37 picks are expected to earn 3.6 win shares over a four-year period, not 9.3 in one. 

14. Paul Millsap: 22.73

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    Year Drafted: 2006

    Team Drafted By: Utah Jazz

    Draft Position: No. 47

    Four-Year Win Shares: 24.9

    Paul Millsap fits in with both my definition of a draft steal and the more traditional one. That's because he fell all the way to No. 47 in the 2006 NBA draft, as teams were scared off by the small school associated with his name. 

    Even though the undersized power forward averaged 19.6 points and 13.3 rebounds per game during his final season at Louisiana Tech, questions about the name of his school prevailed when the draft rolled around. 

    Millsap quickly put those questions to bed, though. Using his boundless reserves of energy and his long arms, he overcame his lack of height and worked his way into the rotation right away. By the 2008-09 season, he was already a major contributor. 

13. Shaquille O'Neal: 22.81

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    Year Drafted: 1992

    Team Drafted By: Orlando Magic

    Draft Position: No. 1

    Four-Year Win Shares: 48.2

    Shaquille O'Neal was too much to handle when he was at LSU, and that didn't change when he was selected by the Orlando Magic as the top pick of the 1992 NBA draft. 

    Although he did lead the Association in turnovers as a rookie, Shaq laughed at the idea of a learning curve. He averaged 23.4 points and 13.9 rebounds per game during his first season while shooting 56.2 percent from the field. 

    It only took him three years to earn a scoring crown, and he emerged from the first four years of his career with four All-Star berths and 48.2 win shares to show for his efforts. 

    Shaq was synonymous with dominance, and that began as soon as he entered the league. 

12. Dwyane Wade: 23.12

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    Year Drafted: 2003

    Team Drafted By: Miami Heat

    Draft Position: No. 5

    Four-Year Win Shares: 38.8

    Man, was the top of the 2003 NBA draft class loaded! 

    We had Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. And Darko Milicic. We can't forget about Darko. 

    Fresh off leading Marquette to the Final Four, Wade took his talents to South Beach years before LeBron considered it. There were a lot of talents to take, so he may have had to check a few bags on the way south. 

    Wade was great as a rookie, but he took the next step during his second professional season, averaging 24.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game on 47.8 percent shooting. Immediately, all the questions about whether he could succeed as an undersized shooting guard were thrown by the wayside. 

11. Grant Hill: 23.14

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    Year Drafted: 1994

    Team Drafted By: Detroit Pistons

    Draft Position: No. 3

    Four-Year Win Shares: 41.9

    Grant Hill was 0.1 points per game from becoming the third player in NBA history to average 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game as a rookie. LeBron James and Tyreke Evans would later join Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan in the exclusive club, but Hill ultimately fell just short. 

    In a lot of ways, it became a metaphor for his entire career. 

    Hill continued to improve, becoming one of the most feared superstars in the Association thanks to his versatile contributions. He was a regular triple-double threat until injuries took their toll. 

    Throughout the future Hall of Famer's career, he earned 99.9 win shares, 60 of which came during the first six seasons he spent in the NBA. It's amazing to think what could have been. 

10. LeBron James: 24.01

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    Year Drafted: 2003

    Team Drafted By: Cleveland Cavaliers

    Draft Position: No. 1

    Four-Year Win Shares: 49.4

    In the last 25 years, only one player has earned more four-year win shares than LeBron James. I'd tell you who it is, but that would reveal one of the names that's waiting for you up ahead. 

    Just stop and think about how impressive it is that LeBron is one of the 10 biggest draft steals in the last 25 years despite the fact that he was picked at No. 1 by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan, both first-ballot Hall of Famers in the future, fell shy of the second distinction, although they both made the top 20. 

    Even more amazing is the fact that James earned this spot even with a lackluster rookie season on his resume (lackluster by his standards). During his first year out of high school, LeBron averaged 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game, but he had turnover problems throughout the season and shot only 41.7 percent from the field. 

    He finished that 2003-04 campaign with only 5.1 win shares. Then he exploded. 

    Over the next three seasons, he picked up 14.3, 16.3 and 13.7, cementing his spot in NBA history. 

9. Dirk Nowitzki: 24.76

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    Year Drafted: 1998

    Team Drafted By: Milwaukee Bucks (traded to the Dallas Mavericks)

    Draft Position: No. 9

    Four-Year Win Shares: 36.9

    The 7-footer from Germany didn't waste any time in proving that the Dallas Mavericks made the right decision by trading Robert "Tractor" Traylor for him. 

    Dirk Nowitzki looked a lot different back then, but his shot was just as pure. He didn't get much playing time as a rookie, but the Mavs gave him a spot in the starting lineup during the 1999-00 season, and he never looked back. 

    During his first season as a full-time starter, Dirk averaged 17.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists, thereby proving that Dallas was making the right decision. Germany and Texas both rejoiced simultaneously.

    That may be the only time in the history of the world that's happened. 

8. Paul Pierce: 24.90

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    Year Drafted: 1998

    Team Drafted By: Boston Celtics

    Draft Position: No. 10

    Four-Year Win Shares: 36.4

    The career trajectories of Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki were very similar in the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

    The Kansas Jayhawk was selected one pick after the German big man, and he would go on to earn 0.5 win shares fewer over the first four years of their respective careers. Fortunately for Pierce, No. 10 picks are expected to earn 0.64 fewer win shares than No. 9 picks, so he gets to rank higher in this article. 

    Showing off his surprising athleticism, Pierce was a starter from the get-go, and he improved his efficiency little by little as he developed. 

    It wasn't until the fourth season of his career that "The Truth" made an All-Star team, but he should have been selected during his third. 

7. Toni Kukoc: 25.12

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    Year Drafted: 1990

    Team Drafted By: Chicago Bulls

    Draft Position: No. 29

    Four-Year Win Shares: 30.2

    Given the excitement that surrounded Toni Kukoc, one would have thought that he was a lottery pick, not a foreign prospect selected at No. 29 in the 1990 NBA draft. 

    The Croatian forward took his time making it to the NBA, but he made the waiting process worthwhile for the Chicago Bulls. Kukoc was ready to contribute when he came across the pond for the start of the 1993-94 season, and that didn't change for a long time. 

    His diverse skill-set and ball-handling ability made him invaluable in the Triangle Offense, as well. 

    Kukoc earned double-digit win shares during the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons, and each campaign by itself would have more than doubled the expectations based on his draft position. 

6. Luis Scola: 25.68

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    Year Drafted: 2002

    Team Drafted By: San Antonio Spurs

    Draft Position: No. 55

    Four-Year Win Shares: 26.9

    The San Antonio Spurs don't often make personnel mistakes, but trading Luis Scola to the Houston Rockets was one erroneous decision. Of course, it was fairly excusable since the trade occurred five years after spending the No. 55 pick in the 2002 NBA draft. 

    Scola hadn't played a single game in the States yet, but that changed once the Rockets got their hands on him. 

    The long-haired Argentine immediately showed off his savvy moves around the basket, averaging 10.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. He ascended into the starting lineup midway through the year, and he didn't come off the bench again until joining the Phoenix Suns for the 2012-13 campaign. 

    It's a bonus if a No. 55 pick starts even a single game, much less 277 during the first four years of his career. 

5. Shawn Marion: 26.46

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    Year Drafted: 1999

    Team Drafted By: Phoenix Suns

    Draft Position: No. 9

    Four-Year Win Shares: 38.6

    Few players in NBA history have been able to stuff a shat-sheet as thoroughly as Shawn Marion did during his prime in the Phoenix Suns' seven-seconds-or-less offense. 

    Take his sophomore season in the desert, for example. 

    During that 2000-01 campaign, "The Matrix" was able to average 17.3 points, 10.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. He also turned the ball over only 1.6 times per contest and shot 48 percent from the field. His game had few, if any, weaknesses other than the visual appeal of his unorthodox jumper. 

    Marion was even better two years later when he added a long-range portion to his game, but he'd already proven himself. Although he was a top-10 pick in 1999, Marion still emerged as a massive draft steal thanks to his varied contributions to the Suns. 

4. Andrei Kirilenko: 27.38

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    Year Drafted: 1999

    Team Drafted By: Utah Jazz

    Draft Position: No. 24

    Four-Year Win Shares: 33.6

    Speaking of stat-stuffers, how can we possibly leave out Andrei Kirilenko? 

    The Russian forward quickly proved that it was a mistake to let him fall all the way to the Utah Jazz at No. 24. Maybe everyone was just partying like it was 1999 (because it was) and stopped paying attention, because they let both AK47 and "The Matrix" fall too far. 

    If there's something that Kirilenko can't do on the basketball court, it has yet to be found.

    He managed to lead the league in blocks per game during his fourth season, and he also established himself as a great offensive player due to his unique ability to rack up both points and assists from either small forward or power forward. 

    Kirilenko needed to earn 6.2 win shares to justify his draft position. He did that and more as a rookie. 

3. Marc Gasol: 28.86

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    Year Drafted: 2007

    Team Drafted By: Los Angeles Lakers

    Draft Position: No. 48

    Four-Year Win Shares: 30.6

    When Marc Gasol was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2007, it was primarily because of his last name. His brother, Pau Gasol, was tearing it up for the Memphis Grizzlies at the time. 

    Marc wasn't viewed too highly, and was still rather pudgy at the time. 

    Before playing a single game, he was traded to the Grizz for his brother, and the swap was viewed as one of the most lopsided in the history of the NBA. It helped the Lakers win two titles, but this 7-footer has now helped convince us that Memphis may actually have gotten the better end of the deal. 

    While it doesn't matter for the purposes of this analysis, Marc used the 2012-13 season to assert himself as arguably the best center in basketball, winning Defensive Player of the Year and giving Memphis a wide range of valuable offensive contributions. 

    In the four years before that, he was constantly improving and dramatically outperforming the expectations. Marc managed to exceed the projections by more than 28 win shares, and a No. 1 pick is only supposed to earn 25.39. 

    Stop and think about that for a second. 

2. Manu Ginobili: 33.10

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    Year Drafted: 1999

    Team Drafted By: San Antonio Spurs

    Draft Position: No. 57

    Four-Year Win Shares: 34.1

    Manu Ginobili's face (and hair-covered head!) say it all here. Looking back, we're just as surprised that he fell all the way to No. 57, but we aren't too shocked it was the San Antonio Spurs who picked him up. 

    The 57th pick in the NBA draft, based on the regression, is expected to earn exactly one win share over the first four years of his career. Just one. 

    Manu is easily the most successful player from this spot. In fact, in the past 25 years, Marcin Gortat is the second-most successful, and he earned only 13.3 win shares over the first four years of his career. It took Ginobili two years to beat that total. 

    The Argentine 2-guard was more athletic then than he is now, and he was still just as crafty with the ball in his hands. 

    He will forever be one of the most successful late draft picks. 

1. Chris Paul: 38.27

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    Year Drafted: 2005

    Team Drafted By: New Orleans Hornets

    Draft Position: No. 4

    Four-Year Win Shares: 55.3

    Despite going No. 4 in the 2005 NBA draft, far higher than the last few players you've read about, Chris Paul is the No. 1 draft steal of the past 25 years. It's not even close. 

    Let me put this in perspective: CP3 outperformed the expectations by 38.27 win shares over the first four years of his career, outpacing Manu Ginobili and the rest of field by over five. In the last 25 years, only 10 players have earned that many four-year win shares in total, much less beaten the expectations by that much. 

    In fact, no player earned as many as Paul's 55.3. If you expand the range back to 30 years, David Robinson is the only player with a higher four-year total. Not even Michael Jordan could match it, as he fell in at "only" 53.6. 

    Coming out of Wake Forest, Paul needed no adjustment period to make his impact felt. He averaged 16.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game as a rookie, shooting 43 percent from the field. Thanks to his stellar perimeter defense and those offensive contributions, he earned 10.4 win shares during that 2005-06 campaign. 

    Injuries held him back during his second season, but he led the NBA in assists and steals per game during his third and fourth go-arounds with the New Orleans Hornets. He also led the league in win shares during the third, but lost that crown the next year despite improving his total. 

    CP3 is currently marching toward becoming the second-best point guard of all time (a few titles would aid that quest greatly), and it started when his career hit the turbo button from Day 1.