The Plight of No. 1: Leading Off NBA Draft Is an Honor, but Often a Curse Too

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterMay 19, 2015

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D'Angelo Russell knows how talented he is—"the best player in the draft," he says, with unwavering convictionand he knows what it would mean to be the NBA's No. 1 pick next month.

"It would be a blessing," said Russell, the dazzling Ohio State guard.

Who could argue? The No. 1 pick is assured instant fame, endorsement offers and the richest rookie contractabout $26 million over four years. And then there's the designation itself: No. 1.

Number one. Is there any cooler title? It's the universal goal, the rallying cry of athletes and strivers in every field. "I'm No. 1!" "We're No. 1!" Being chosen No. 1 conveys a prestige all its owna notion ingrained in our psyches the first time we line up to be picked for kickball at recess.

For an NBA rookie, there is no greater honor than to be No. 1. And no greater burden.

"It's just the pressure, man," said Derrick Rose, the No. 1 pick in 2008. "It's a lot of pressure being in that No. 1 spot."

To be No. 1 is to be labeled a can't-miss star, a superstar, a savior. Expectations are astronomical, and patience is rare.

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PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 21:  D'Angelo Russell #0 of the Ohio State Buckeyes takes a free htrow in the second half against the Arizona Wildcats during the third round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Moda Center on March 21, 2015 in Portland, O
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The No. 1 pick is measured against every player drafted behind him, and against every other No. 1 in NBA history. A No. 1 can have a perfectly productive career and still be deemed a "bust" if he fails to reach stardom. When you're drafted No. 1, you are No. 1 foreverand forever judged through that prism.

The label fueled Rose and John Wall, dogged Andrew Bogut and crushed Kwame Brown. LeBron James delivered instantly on his promise. Dwight Howard took a few years to get there. Andrea Bargnani never did.

On Tuesday, the NBA will conduct a lottery to determine which team gets the No. 1 pick in the June 25 draftand that team will then decide which prospect is worthy of this thorny crown.

Russell is in the mix, along with Duke's Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns. All should heed the advice given to Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 pick of 2014.

"It's not where you start, it's where you finish," Wiggins said. "That just in my mind replays, for mejust keep patient and keep working at what I'm doing."

It is rarely that easy. We live in an era of snap judgments and hot takes, where every misstep becomes a Vine, a list and a blog post, and fodder for TV scream fests. Tuning out the negative feedback loops is nearly impossible.

A Google search for "NBA draft busts" delivers 200,000 hits. And although some lower lottery picks turn up on those lists (Adam Morrison, Darko Milicic), it's the hapless No. 1s who are the most memorableand who evoke the greatest winces.

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Think Pervis Ellison (1989, Sacramento Kings), Joe Smith (1995, Golden State Warriors), Michael Olowokandi (1998, Los Angeles Clippers), Bargnani (2006, Toronto Raptors) and Brown (2001, Washington Wizards).

For them, the honor of being No. 1 was thoroughly eclipsed by the burden of expectations. It's an experience they would rather not relive. B/R reached out, via intermediaries, to Olowokandi, Brown and Smith for interviews; none responded. (Bargnani grumbled through a 30-second interview on the topic last year.)

But those who have played with, coached and watched the No. 1s over the years say there is no doubt: Their situation is unique.

"Is there more pressure? Absolutely," said Doug Collins, a former No. 1 pick himself (1973) who was Brown's first NBA coach, in Washington.

The Wizards' fascination with Brown was, at the time, completely understandable. Here was a 6'11", 240-pound prep star who combined raw power with a guard's shooting touch. He drew comparisons to Kevin Garnett. Scouts and executives across the NBA were enamored of him. If the Wizardswho also considered prep stars Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curryhadn't misfired on Brown, another team with a top-five pick would have.

But the Wizards did take Brown, slapping him with a designation he could never live up to, or handle emotionally. That became clear in the middle of his rookie season.

"We went through a stretch there where I actually had Kwame take a couple games off, just to try to relieve some of the pressure," Collins said. "His face was breaking out.… I wish I could have done a better job taking that pressure off of him. I blame myself."

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Every NBA career is shaped to some degree by luck and circumstancesby the team that drafts you, by the coach, by teammates, by the medical staffall of which can contribute, positively or negatively, to a young player's career. None of these things, including draft position, are in a rookie's control.

The highest picks are generally awarded to the worst franchises. So the No. 1 pick, by design, perennially lands with a losing team (and sometimes a colossally dysfunctional team), and then is asked to play savior.

The player doesn't choose to be No. 1, but it's the player who takes the brunt of the criticism and ridicule when he falls short.

"If you were [allowed] to sit on the bench two, three years, develop, like some of the other young guys, who knows how your game would develop," said Elton Brand, the No. 1 pick in 1999. "But they're like, 'Look, we need this production out of you right now.' And if you're not ready or you're not having success, that pressure definitely weighs on you."

Over time, Brown matured into a solid post defender, playing 12 seasons for seven teams, and reuniting with Collins in Philadelphia in 2012-13. In the end, he was a productive rotation player.

"I wish he would have been more willing to accept that as a younger player," Collins said. "Hey, defend and rebound and bring those kind[s] of things you can bring. And then let your offensive game grow. But there's so much pressure on those guys to want to score."

What if Brown had been taken 10th in 2001? Or 15th? We would see his career in a much kinder light. And Brown, freed from the burdens of being No. 1, might have evolved much differently.

"I don't think there's any question, that had he been out of the scrutiny, that maybe it could have been: Day by day, let's just get better, let's put down the fundamentals," Collins said.

The same could be said for Bargnani, who was taken No. 1 in 2006 by the Toronto Raptors.

WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 9:  Andrea Bargnani #7 of the Toronto Raptors tries a to pass the ball against Brendan Haywood #33 and Antawn Jamison #4 of the Washington Wizards in an NBA basketball exhibition game on October 9, 2006 at the Verizon Center in Washin
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"I think if Andrea was the 10th pick, he would have been fine," said Sam Mitchell, the former Raptors head coach. "I just think being No. 1, it was just maybe too much for him. … I think the problem was, he didn't think he deserved to be No. 1."

Contrast Bargnani's experience with that of Paul George, the Indiana Pacers' star forward. Today, George is one of the league's 15 best players. But he was largely unheralded when the Pacers took him with the 10th pick in 2010, and he therefore got the benefit of growing into his stardom gradually, without the scrutiny or spotlight of a No. 1 pick.

The challenge of high expectations is as much psychological as physical. Every top pick has established his skill set by the time he is drafted. His success or failure often comes down to other qualities: work ethic, intelligence, confidence. He also needs a head coach with the guts to say: Don't worry about stats or win totals.

That's what Pelicans coach Monty Williams and his staff told Anthony Davis after taking him first in 2012.

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"They told me from the beginning to go out there and play—don't worry about trying to carry this team, do any of that right now,'" Davis said. "I haven't been thinking about it. I've just been going out there and having fun, and I think it's helped me out."

This is in fact the right approach, according to Dr. Charles Maher, a sports psychologist who has worked with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The No. 1 label, and the expectations that come with it, are "a distraction," Maher said, "because it's always there. It's hard to get rid of.

"The natural tendency is to want to live up to that, to do more, to really perform well," Maher said. "But in the process of doing that, they're thinking about outcomes…rather than what I refer to as the process of playing basketball."

Strip away the labels, and every career looks a little different. Today, Andrew Bogut is one of the NBA's top rim protectors, the anchor of the Warriors' top-ranked defense and a key to their championship hopes. But when he was drafted No. 1 in 2005 by Milwaukeeahead of point guards Chris Paul (fourth) and Deron Williams (third)Bogut became an instant target.

"I got it from Day 1," Bogut said. "[ESPN's] Stephen A. Smith, before I even played an NBA game, has hated me. So it didn't really bother me. You're going to have your critics, you're going to have people that love you. But I'm not [a] huge stat guy, which kind of hurts me a little bit, being a No. 1 pick."

By his own estimation, Bogut "probably wasn't ready for the league" when he declared for the draft. But he was guaranteed to be a top-five pick and could not pass up the opportunity.

Although he could never compete with Paul's career, Bogut had become one of the NBA's better two-way centersaveraging 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds in 2009-10before a brutal series of injuries set him back.

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 24:  Andrew Bogut #12 of the Golden State Warriors shoots against the Portland Trail Blazers on March 24, 2015 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or us
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So how do we define Bogut now? He's never been an All-Star, nor averaged 20 points, nor won a rebounding title. But he led the NBA in defensive RPM (real plus-minus) this season and ranked among the top rim protectors in the league. He is not a star, but he is certainly not a bust, even by No. 1 pick standards.

"I play a role on a great team," Bogut said. "If you pick up a stats sheet, have me on [your] fantasy teams, I suck, you know? But I know the role I play for this team, and I'm happy in my own skin doing that. It's not about, for me, being on bad teams and putting up big numbers. I know what that end of the stick is, and you end up going home in April."

Brand has traveled a similar path, albeit with better stats. Chosen No. 1 by the Bulls in 1999, Brand first had to deal with the specter of Michael Jordan, who had just retired a year earlier. And although Brand produced immediately, averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds as a rookie, the Bulls lost 65 games, which fed another unflattering narrative: that Brand was a player who put up big numbers on bad teams.

The 1999 class was a talented group, featuring Steve Francis (No. 2), Baron Davis (No. 3), Lamar Odom (No. 4), Richard Hamilton (No. 7) and Shawn Marion (No. 9). That meant every night, someone was whispering to Brand, "Did you see Francis get 30? Did you see Odom's triple-double?"

"And you feel that pressure, too," Brand said.

There have been busts at No. 2 and 3, and throughout the lottery. But those names are more quickly forgotten.

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The preps-to-pros wave of the late 1990s, followed by the one-and-done wave of the last 10 years, has made the draft all the more difficult for teams. Today's top prospects are generally younger and less seasoned than rookies of earlier generations. So it often takes longer for a No. 1 pick to blossom.

It's rare now for a rookie to lead his team to the playoffs, as Rose did in 2009. It took Howard (No. 1 in 2004) three years to make the playoffs. Davis (No. 1 in 2012) was a star by his second season, but also needed three years to make the postseason. Wall (No. 1 in 2010) was hampered by injuries and lousy rosters for three years, finally making the playoffs in his fourth season.

WASHINGTON - JUNE 25: Draft pick John Wall of the Washington Wizards signs autographs during a press conference at the Verizon Center on June 25, 2010 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or usin
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"You're No. 1, you're going to definitely go through some tough situations, with a team that's rebuilding," Wall said. "And they want you to end up becoming…that franchise type of guy. And it takes time. And you have to deal with it."

No. 1 picks offer no guarantee of success. Of the 20 players taken No. 1 from 1990 to 2009, just three led teams to championships: Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and LeBron James. And James and O'Neal did so after leaving the teams that drafted them. (Glenn Robinson, No. 1 in 1994, won a ring as a Spurs reserve in 2005.)

Fourteen of the 20 did make at least one All-Star team. But half of them had fairly ordinary careers.

Some No. 1s were derailed by injuries (Greg Oden, 2007), while others either lacked the proper drive or the right support or simply were not as talented as the scouts believed.

The experience is still fresh for Wiggins, who was recently named Rookie of the Year after averaging 16.9 points per game this season. Drafted by Cleveland last June, Wiggins was later traded to Minnesota for three-time All-Star Kevin Love, adding another layer of pressure. The early returns for Wiggins were shaky, and by late December he was already being picked apart as a potential bust. He rallied in the latter half of the season, averaging 20 points and shooting 45 percent after the All-Star break.

"If you're the No. 1 pick, I feel like people expect you to come to the league right away and put up numbers, have big games," Wiggins said. "I'm sure I lived up to some people's expectations, but there's a lot of people that thought I was going to be a lot better, or a lot worse."

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 1: Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Minnesota Timberwolves goes for the layup against the Toronto Raptors during the game on April 1, 2015 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees th
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At least Wiggins was accustomed to the scrutiny. He had been on the radar of NBA scouts since his sophomore year of high school, and on magazine covers long before he starred as a freshman at Kansas. And while stardom is not assured, he has demonstrated, rather quickly, that he belongs in the NBA.

The experience has been much tougher for Wiggins' teammate, Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 pick in 2013. Bennett, who was also chosen by the Cavaliers, is already engraved on the list of all-time draft busts. He averaged a modest 5.2 points this past season, which was at least an improvement from his rookie year, when he battled health and conditioning issues and could hardly make a shot.

The whispers of "bust" came quickly"I think it was my first couple games," Bennett said.

Also worth noting: No one had ever pegged Bennett as a No. 1 pick. The Cavaliers shocked everyone, taking Bennett at the top of an exceptionally weak draft class.

"I was shocked," Bennett said. "Shocked, happy, just excited for everything."

Is it Bennett's fault that the Cavs made him the top pick? No. But it is his namenot that of former general manager Chris Grantthat turns up in the Google search for draft busts. That is the burden of being No. 1.

Next month, it will likely be Towns, or Okafor, or Russell, who will inherit this complex honor. He will hear his name called, hug his family and friends, walk across the stage, shake hands with commissioner Adam Silver and pull on the first baseball cap of the evening.

"Every kid's dream," Wiggins said.

"Surreal," Davis said.

"It's a lot that comes your way," Rose said, sounding a slight cautionary note, "but if you're ready for it, it's a blessing."

The moment only comes once. The label endures for a lifetime.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.


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