Best and Worst Pick at Every NBA Draft Position over Past 20 Years
The NBA draft runs on speculation. Nobody can know for sure how any pick will turn out as a player during his rookie season, let alone five years down the line. But scouts and executives can certainly make educated guesses based on medical histories, physical measurements, skill evaluations and past performances, among other things.
Still, the draft is as much an art as it is a science, if not more so. Each slot may typically yield players of a certain value, but each also has its outliers. Its soaring stars. Its substandard duds.
To get a feel for what the 2017 draft could yield from its first round, we went back through every draft since 1997 to sort out the best and worst players taken at each of the top 30 slots. Here's what we found.
First Overall Pick
Best: Tim Duncan, Power Forward/Center, San Antonio Spurs, 1997
By the time he retires, LeBron James may go down as the greatest player to be taken No. 1 overall since 1997. Heck, there’s an argument to be made that James is already there. His three titles, eight Finals appearances, seven MVPs (four during the regular season, three in the Finals) and countless other accolades comprise a strong case in support of King James.
But don’t let recency bias distract from consideration of Tim Duncan for this spot. The Big Fundamental won five championships, two regular-season MVPs and three Finals MVPs along the way.
Duncan’s arrival in the Alamo City 20 years ago laid the foundation for the Spurs to become one of the league’s flagship franchises that they are today. James has done some of the same in Cleveland, though it’s fair to suggest the Cavaliers wouldn’t be able to sustain their excellence in his absence the way San Antonio did during Year 1 A.T. (After Timmy).
Worst: Anthony Bennett, Power Forward, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2013
Anthony Bennett’s NBA career didn’t just get off on the wrong foot; it never found the right one.
After the Cleveland Cavaliers shocked the world by making him the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, Bennett sat out summer league in Las Vegas with a shoulder injury then, once healthy, proceeded to miss his first 16 regular-season shots—an NBA record.
The UNLV product played for four teams in four years before flaming out of the league entirely. But Bennett, wherever he goes, will always be the answer to at least two basketball trivia questions: Who was the first Canadian taken No. 1 overall? And, who was the other No. 1 pick traded to Minnesota in the Kevin Love deal?
Second Overall Pick
Best: Kevin Durant, Small Forward, Seattle SuperSonics, 2007
Kevin Durant didn’t have to win a title or be named Finals MVP to go down as the best No. 2 pick of the last 20 years. He was already a four-time scoring champion, a regular-season MVP, a perennial All-Star and All-NBA talent and—at nearly 7’ with the ability to shoot, handle, pass and defend all over the floor—perhaps the closest we’ve yet seen to the ideal basketball player.
Those latest accolades only further burnish his claim to this particular throne. It didn’t hurt that he reached that summit alongside three other guys who also check in as the best picks at their respective spots.
Worst: Hasheem Thabeet, Center, Memphis Grizzlies, 2009
The sting of taking Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade might still hurt the Detroit Pistons and their fans to this day, but don’t overlook what the Memphis Grizzlies missed out on by taking Hasheem Thabeet at No. 2 in 2009.
Three eventual All-Stars—James Harden, Stephen Curry and DeMar DeRozan—came off the board within the first seven picks after Thabeet was taken. As for the 7’3” Tanzanian himself, he never averaged more than 3.1 points and 3.6 rebounds in a season, both of which he posted as a rookie in Memphis.
Third Overall Pick
Best: Pau Gasol, Center, Memphis Grizzlies, 2001
Pau Gasol has been nothing if not a marvel of consistency and productivity over the course of his 16 years in the NBA. The 7’ Spaniard has been a double-figure scorer every season thanks to the signature skill and scoring touch that continue to defy the demands of Father Time.
Along the way, Gasol has racked up six All-Star appearances, four All-NBA selections and two titles while putting one franchise (the Memphis Grizzlies) on the map and revitalizing another (the Los Angeles Lakers). He thrived through two years of dysfunction in Chicago to finally land on the team with which his sporting spirit has always most closely aligned: the San Antonio Spurs.
Worst: Adam Morrison, Small Forward, Charlotte Bobcats, 2006
Adam Morrison, too, has two championship rings—both due in large part to Gasol. He was a human victory cigar on both of the Lakers’ most recent title-winners in 2009 and 2010.
The Gonzaga product’s selection at No. 3 in 2006 was among the many monumental mistakes that set back the Charlotte Bobcats during their years prior to Michael Jordan’s ownership takeover. He was a double-digit scorer as a rookie, but an ACL tear prior to his sophomore season, combined with the challenge of monitoring his diabetes day in and day out, submarined Morrison’s basketball career.
"Once you get that 'bust' label, it's hard to shake it," Morrison told Bleacher Report’s Yaron Weitzman. "And rightfully so. Somebody spent a top-five pick on you, and you didn't deliver."
Fourth Overall Pick
Best: Chris Paul, Point Guard, New Orleans Hornets, 2004
There are plenty of No. 4 picks over the past 20 years who have enjoyed more postseason success as stars than Chris Paul has.
Chris Bosh went to four Finals and won two titles with the Miami Heat. Russell Westbrook has played in four conference finals and one NBA Finals series, and might soon be named the league’s MVP. Lamar Odom went to three straight Finals with the Lakers, winning two.
But nobody at this spot has impacted a team’s ability to win with such ruthless efficiency as CP3 has. The numbers all back this up, from his Point God-like assist-to-turnover ratio (better than 4-to-1) to his win share per 48 minutes (.250).
The strongest proof of Paul’s proficiency, though, is the extent to which he’s transformed the Los Angeles Clippers from long-time league laughingstock to perennial playoff threat. Since Paul landed in L.A., the Clippers have won two division titles, put together five consecutive seasons with 50 or more victories and appeared in six straight postseasons—all franchise firsts for the team once haunted and taunted by Donald Sterling.
Worst: Marcus Fizer, Forward, Chicago Bulls, 2000
Marcus Fizer was far from the only lottery pick to go belly-up in Chicago during the post-Michael Jordan malaise. But while some of the Baby Bulls—like Tyson Chandler, Jamal Crawford and Elton Brand—found success after leaving the Windy City, Fizer fell short of any such opportunity.
He started out stuck behind Elton Brand and Ron Artest on Tim Floyd’s depth chart when he arrived in 2000, and was in no physical condition to leapfrog either one. Fizer was only buried further the following year, when the Bulls added three more bigs (Chandler, Eddy Curry and Dalibor Bagaric) in the draft.
Three major knee injuries, the first two of which Fizer suffered with Chicago, ultimately sealed his NBA fate.
"If LeBron went through three ACL surgeries,” Fizer told Bleacher Report, “we would never know what he would've been in his career.”
Fifth Overall Pick
Best: Dwyane Wade, Guard, Miami Heat, 2003
Dwyane Wade isn’t just the best No. 5 pick of the last two decades; he might also be one of the greatest players to ever suit up as a shooting guard.
Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant already have their spots locked up in the NBA’s two-guard pantheon. Beyond those two legends, Wade could make a case as the best of the bunch.
At this point, his top challengers are Jerry West and Klay Thompson. Wade’s five Finals appearances fall short of West’s nine, though he’s won as many championships (three) as the Logo and Thompson combined.
As far as individual abilities are concerned, Wade has never been quite the sharpshooter that West was and Thompson is. But his unique ability to attack off the dribble at his own pace and run the offense as a pseudo-point guard set him apart from the competition at his position.
Worst: Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Forward, Denver Nuggets, 2002
If Darko Milicic is the poster boy for the downfall of the NBA’s Euro craze in the 2000s, Nikoloz Tskitishvili might be second in line. The 7-footer from the Republic of Georgia never averaged more than 3.9 points per game or so much as sniffed 40 percent shooting from the field during his stints with the Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns.
Tskitishvili was last spotted stateside in training camp with the Clippers in 2015.
Sixth Overall Pick
Best: Damian Lillard, Point Guard, Portland Trail Blazers, 2012
The Portland Trail Blazers know full well what it’s like to reap the fruits of the Nets’ foolishness. The year before Brooklyn made its franchise-crippling deal with Boston, it dealt a top-three-protected pick to Portland in exchange for Gerald Wallace. The move may have helped the Nets re-sign Deron Williams in time for the team’s move from New Jersey to Brooklyn, but the swapped selection definitely boosted the Blazers' fortunes. They spent that No. 6 pick on Damian Lillard, the scoring point guard out of Weber State with a sweet stroke and a toughness bred on the streets of Oakland.
Lillard, who was the unanimous Rookie of the Year during the 2012-13 season, has since established himself as one of the league’s premier leaders and floor generals. With C.J. McCollum by his side, he’s helped to keep Portland in playoff contention even after the departures of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez in 2015.
Worst: Jonny Flynn, Point Guard, Minnesota Timberwolves, 2009
The Minnesota Timberwolves, then led by general manager David Kahn, had not one but two shots at Stephen Curry in the 2009 draft. Instead, they opted for Ricky Rubio, a Spanish passing phenom, at No. 5 and Jonny Flynn, a quick attacking guard out of Syracuse, at No. 6.
Rubio has thus far turned in a more-than-defensible NBA career, albeit one limited by his lack of a reliable outside shot. Flynn, on the other hand, fell flat after averaging 13.5 points and 4.4 assists as a rookie.
A hip condition kept Flynn from fulfilling his considerable promise thereafter. He spent his sophomore season in Minnesota and split the 2011-12 campaign between Houston and Portland before seeking employment overseas in Australia and Italy.
Seventh Overall Pick
Best: Stephen Curry, Point Guard, Golden State Warriors, 2009
The Golden State Warriors were lucky to land Stephen Curry with the No. 7 pick in the 2009 draft. Don’t take my word for it; just ask Travis Schlenk, who worked under Larry Riley and Bob Myers at Golden State before taking over as general manager in Atlanta.
“You need guys to maybe slip through the cracks and hope teams make mistakes, quite frankly,” Schlenk told The Vertical’s Chris Mannix. “Look at Steph Curry. There were two point guards drafted by the same team in front of us. That’s what allowed Steph to fall to Golden State. You need to get a little luck in there, as well.”
That little bit of luck has since yielded two MVP trophies and two championships by way of a once-in-a-generation player in Curry who, at 29, has already established himself as the greatest shooter in NBA history.
Worst: Chris Mihm, Center, Chicago Bulls/Cleveland Cavaliers, 2000
Chris Mihm might've been better suited to today's NBA than the league he found upon entry in 2000. He lacked much in the way of a forceful low-post game coming out of Texas, but he carried noteworthy credentials as a rebounder (9.8 boards per game in college), shot-blocker (he still holds all of UT's school records related to blocked shots) and finisher at the rim.
In truth, it wouldn't have mattered which era in which he played with all the injuries that plagued him throughout his career. He sat out 23 games as a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers—one of six seasons (out of nine total) in which Mihm missed more than 20 games. That includes the entire 2006-07 campaign, when he was sidelined by ankle trouble.
He played his last NBA game with the Los Angeles Lakers in February 2009. They subsequently dealt him to Memphis, where he retired after undergoing right ankle surgery, mere months before the Lakers went on to win the first of their consecutive titles.
Eighth Overall Pick
Best: Andre Miller, Point Guard, Cleveland Cavaliers, 1999
Andre Miller may not be the most talented player to be taken with the No. 8 pick, what with Jamal Crawford and Rudy Gay coming out of that spot. But the same steadiness that allowed Miller to hang around the Association for 17 seasons makes him the choice at this spot.
He’s the only player among the top-10 all-time in assists to never once be tapped for the All-Star Game. The Los Angeles native was also the author of one of the most surprising 50-point explosions in NBA history. While with Portland in 2010, Miller exploded for 52 points in a win over the Dallas Mavericks, with just one three-point make (in one attempt) to bolster his output.
Worst: Rafael Araujo, Center, Toronto Raptors, 2004
If the NBA of 2004 was anything like the league today, Rafael Araujo might not have been drafted at all. At 6’11” and 280 pounds, Araujo was an impossible matchup for all comers during his two collegiate seasons at BYU.
In the NBA, though, he struggled as a big stiff among the league’s more limber athletes up front. Araujo played sparingly during his two seasons with the Toronto Raptors before he was traded to the Utah Jazz in 2006. His one season in Salt Lake City would be his last in the NBA.
Ninth Overall PIck
Best: Dirk Nowitzki, Power Forward, Dallas Mavericks, 1998
All Dirk Nowitzki’s done during his 19 NBA seasons is score the sixth-most points in league history, win a title and an MVP, put the Dallas Mavericks on the map and singlehandedly change the game of basketball as a 7-footer who could shoot and handle the ball.
And to think, Dallas nearly went with Paul Pierce after trading for the No. 9 pick in the 1998 draft instead.
“But at the end of the day, we went with the guy that was 7 foot, a guy that could play power forward and center and we thought could revolutionize the power forward position,” Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson told Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Abrams.
Not that Pierce would’ve been a poor choice (more on him shortly), but the Mavs must be pleased with their selection all these years later.
Worst: Patrick O’Bryant, Center, Golden State Warriors, 2006
You may not believe it now—what with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green attesting to the Warriors’ draft acumen—but there was a time when Golden State got its picks wrong more often than not.
Among those many misfires was Patrick O’Bryant. The 7’ center opened eyes with his size and athleticism as a sophomore at Bradley, but never brought those abilities to bear in the Bay Area. He suffered a foot fracture in September 2006, just prior to his rookie campaign, and became the first lottery pick to be sent down to the D-League mere months later.
10th Overall Pick
Best: Paul Pierce, Small Forward, Boston Celtics, 1998
Just as the Mavericks were more than fine with Nowitzki at No. 9 in 1998, the Boston Celtics won’t ever regret picking up Paul Pierce at No. 10 that same year. The Inglewood-raised swingman won a title and a Finals MVP trophy while etching himself into Celtics lore as one of the franchise’s all-time leaders in points (second), three-pointers (first), steals (first) and games played (third) before hopping between Brooklyn, Washington and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Pierce wrapped up his NBA career this season among the top-20 all-time in points and games played, and well within the top-10 in free throws and three-pointers.
Worst: Mouhamed Sene, Center, Seattle SuperSonics, 2006
Mouhamed Sene was hardly one of the more noteworthy players to make the trek from Seattle to Oklahoma City in 2008. He logged all of 231 minutes across 41 games during his two seasons with the SuperSonics, and added a mere 23 minutes over five appearances during his lone season with the Thunder before joining the New York Knicks for one game during the 2008-09 season.
Along the way, the 6’11” Senegal native was assigned to and recalled from the D-League’s Idaho Stampede four times. He later went on to play pro ball in Spain and France.
11th Overall Pick
Best: Klay Thompson, Shooting Guard, Golden State Warriors, 2011
As much luck as the Golden State Warriors needed to nab Stephen Curry in 2009, it took almost the same share of serendipity to land Klay Thompson in their lap two years later.
The Sacramento Kings traded down to No. 10, with an eye toward drafting a sharpshooter. But rather than selecting Thompson out of Washington State, the Kings opted for BYU’s Jimmer Fredette. That left Thompson ripe for the taking elsewhere in Northern California.
Fredette bounced around the NBA before heading to China, where he became a shooting star this past season. Thompson, on the other hand, has two championships, two All-NBA nods and three All-Star appearances on his resume, along with recognition as one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and one of the greatest shooters to ever lace ‘em up.
Worst: Fran Vazquez, Power Forward, Orlando Magic, 2005
It’s one thing to spend a second-round pick on an international player who never makes it stateside. It’s another entirely to waste a precious lottery spot on such a prospect, let alone for said prospect to decline opportunities to test his game in the NBA.
The Orlando Magic learned that lesson all too well. In 2005, they gambled the No. 11 pick on Fran Vazquez, a 6’10” Spaniard whom they hoped to install as Dwight Howard’s frontcourt sidekick. Rather than make the leap to the NBA, he decided to stay in Europe and hasn’t come close to crossing the Atlantic since.
12th Overall Pick
Best: Steven Adams, Center, Oklahoma City, 2013
Keep harping on the James Harden trade if you wish, but don’t forget that the Oklahoma City Thunder got something good out of it—namely, the pick that became Steven Adams.
The imposing 7’ Kiwi has become one of the premier physical forces in the NBA, regardless of position. His ability to set screens, roll hard to the hole and finish at the rim has made him invaluable to OKC with Russell Westbrook running the show. According to NBA.com, Adams finished 16th in screen assists (3.4 per game) while scoring 1.09 points per possession in the pick-and-roll this past season.
Worst: Aleksander Radojevic, Center, Toronto Raptors, 1999
Aleksander Radojevic’s basketball career was pockmarked with problems before he ever set foot in the NBA. The 7’3” center didn’t start playing basketball until the age of 16 and was ruled ineligible at Ohio State after playing pro ball in Montenegro, opting instead to play two years of community college ball.
That didn’t stop the Raptors from making him a lottery pick in 1999, though their decision quickly turned sour. Radojevic appeared in three games as a rookie before injuries derailed the rest of his debut campaign. Toronto traded his rights to Denver in January 2001 before the Nuggets traded him to Milwaukee that October.
It wasn’t until the 2004-05 season, after stints in Slovenia, Italy, Germany and Greece, that Radojevic returned to the U.S. to play 12 games for the Utah Jazz. He returned to Europe thereafter, where he last played professionally in 2012.
13th Overall Pick
Best: Richard Jefferson, Small Forward, Houston Rockets/New Jersey Nets, 2001
Fans who are newer to the NBA will recognize Richard Jefferson as “that old dude on the Cavaliers bench who goofs around on his own podcast.” Those who’ve had their eye on the league since Y2K, though, will recall RJ’s earlier days as a floor-running, high-flying, dunk-tastic wingman for Jason Kidd on the New Jersey Nets.
The Arizona product never cracked the All-Star Game, despite averaging close to 18 points per game during his seven seasons in the Garden State. That he’s won a ring and earned upward of $109 million playing basketball should soothe any lingering resentments he may (or may not) have about that.
Worst: Marcus Haislip, Forward, Milwaukee Bucks, 2002
The Milwaukee Bucks thought enough of Marcus Haislip to not only pluck him out of Tennessee with the No. 13 pick in 2002, but also make him a starter for nine games at the end of his rookie season. Haislip responded by scoring a modest 5.8 points on 39.2 percent shooting to close out the regular season, with another eight points on 4-of-6 shooting in his lone postseason start.
He would never start in the NBA again. He played 31 games for the Bucks in 2003-04 and just nine in 2004-05 after signing with the Indiana Pacers as a free agent. He spent the next four seasons overseas before returning stateside for 10 games with the San Antonio Spurs.
14th Overall Pick
Best: Troy Murphy, Power Forward/Center, Golden State Warriors, 2001
In some respects, Troy Murphy would be a better fit for the Golden State Warriors today than he was when the team drafted him out of Notre Dame in 2001. At 6’11” and 245 pounds, Murphy emerged as a sharpshooting power forward (38.8 percent from three for his career) who could also crash the glass, as his five seasons averaging a double-double would suggest.
But Murphy played his last game for Golden State in January 2007. The team traded him to the Indiana Pacers in a deal that brought back Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington, among others.
Three months later, Jackson and Harrington were among the central figures guiding the “We Believe” Warriors past the Dallas Mavericks to score one of the biggest upsets in NBA playoff history.
Worst: William Avery, Point Guard, Minnesota Timberwolves, 1999
The 1999 draft marked the first major exodus of underclassmen from Duke during Mike Krzyzewski’s tenure. Elton Brand and Corey Maggette left Durham after their sophomore and freshman seasons, respectively, en route to productive NBA careers.
William Avery, a sophomore in 1999, wasn’t so successful. He averaged 2.7 points on 33.0 percent shooting during his three seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Avery failed to find any takers after his rookie contract expired, opting instead to head overseas, where he played for 11 teams over the ensuing nine years.
15th Overall Pick
Best: Kawhi Leonard, Small Forward, Indiana Pacers/San Antonio Spurs, 2011
The trade that brought Kawhi Leonard to San Antonio in exchange for George Hill looks like a slam dunk now. But back on draft night in 2011, it was one that incited all sorts of agony for Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich.
“The toughest [decision] in whatever, 20, whatever years I’ve been coaching here as a head coach. It’s not even close,” Popovich told Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Abrams. “We were scared to death sitting in the room.”
Whatever fear the Spurs had then has since been softened by Leonard’s emergence as one of the best players in the NBA today. He’s already been named Defensive Player of the Year twice, taken home Finals MVP honors along with San Antonio’s title in 2014 and is well on his way to being a perennial regular-season MVP candidate.
Not bad for a kid who could barely shoot coming out of San Diego State and who might’ve caused an ulcer or two in Pop’s stomach.
Worst: Frederic Weis, Center, New York Knicks, 1999
Say what you will about Shawn Bradley’s penchant for getting dunked on, but at least his posters featured NBA players and arenas in the background. Frederic Weis, on the other hand, will likely always be best known for being on the embarrassing end of a Vince Carter slam that took place not in an NBA game, but at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
The so-called “dunk de la mort” didn’t end his hoops career—he was active in Europe until 2011—but it certainly didn’t help his chances of making the leap to the NBA after the New York Knicks picked him 15th overall in 1999.
16th Overall Pick
Best: Metta World Peace, Small Forward, Chicago Bulls, 1999
Metta World Peace isn’t just the best player to be taken 16th in the NBA draft; he might also be the author of the one of the most interesting careers the league has ever seen.
From drinking “Henny at Halftime” with the Baby Bulls and becoming Defensive Player of the Year in Indiana to swinging at the epicenter of the Malice at the Palace and shouting out his therapist after winning a championship with the Lakers, the Basketball Player Formerly Known as Ron Artest has been a fixture of fascination over his 17 NBA seasons.
If his 2016-17 campaign in L.A. turns out to be his last in the Association, it won’t likely be the last chapter in a basketball life whose value and impact extend far beyond NBA hardwood.
Worst: Royce White, Forward, Houston Rockets, 2012
If production in other leagues mattered here, Royce White wouldn’t be on this list. This past season, he averaged 20.1 points, 10.1 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.3 steals while leading the National Basketball League’s London Lightning to a 35-5 record and earning MVP honors for himself.
But White’s exploits up north can’t discount his impact (or lack thereof) in the NBA. The hulking 6’8” forward never played a single minute for the Houston Rockets, who drafted him out of Iowa State in 2012. He finished with a total of three minutes across three games with the Sacramento Kings during the 2013-14 season before flushing out of the Association entirely.
That being said, kudos to White for finding a place where he can live his life and play his game while coping with his anxiety.
"Every time we lace up and do it, I have fun,” White told Bleacher Report’s Ray Bala.
17th Overall Pick
Best: Roy Hibbert, Center, Toronto Raptors/Indiana Pacers, 2008
Once upon a time, Roy Hibbert was one of the most dominant players in the NBA, when even LeBron James steered clear of the lane for fear of getting turned away by the Georgetown product.
That Hibbert is now a journeyman who might struggle to find any takers in free agency this summer says more about how the game has changed than it does about him. In today’s era of pace and space, there is no place for a slow-footed center who has neither extended shooting range nor the foot speed to keep up with the pick-and-roll.
Still, none of that should take away from the force Hibbert was during his heyday. His two All-Star appearances, near-Defensive Player of the Year campaign in 2013-14 and back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances make him more decorated than any other No. 17 pick in the last 20 years.
Worst: Johnny Taylor, Small Forward, Orlando Magic, 1997
Johnny Taylor did what most players taken in the second half of the first round do: hop around the NBA before flunking out entirely. Taylor, the No. 17 pick out of Tennessee-Chattanooga in 1997, played 12 games as a rookie for the Orlando Magic before he was traded to Denver. The Nuggets traded him back to Orlando in February 2000.
18th Overall Pick
Best: David West, Power Forward, New Orleans Hornets, 2003
The Warriors’ 2017 title came as vindication for David West—not just for bailing on his $12 million option with the Indiana Pacers to sign with San Antonio for the veteran’s minimum in 2015, but for a lifetime of doubts about the Xavier product. As West told The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears after Golden State clinched its second championship in three seasons:
Fourteen years, man. I’ve been in the pros for 14 years, fam. C’mon, they’re telling me, ‘You ain’t better than this, you ain’t better than that’ my whole career. I got drafted 18th, and they’re telling me I could be a second-round pick. There are different options at 18. All that s— out the window, man.
In truth, West had cemented his bona fides well before he first touched the Larry O’Brien Trophy with the Warriors. He was a two-time All-Star next to Chris Paul with the New Orleans Hornets, then went to Indiana as the missing veteran piece for a Pacers squad that went on to push the Miami Heat in consecutive Eastern Conference Finals.
Worst: Mirsad Turkcan, Power Forward, Houston Rockets, 1998
If you’ve never before heard of Mirsad Turkcan, you’re far from alone. The 6’9” Turkish-Serbian forward appeared in 19 total games—seven with the New York Knicks, 10 with the Milwaukee Bucks—during his lone NBA season in 1999-00.
Turkcan promptly returned to Europe, where he spent the next dozen years playing in France, Italy, Russia and Turkey. This year, he became the sixth recipient of the EuroLeague Basketball Legend award.
19th Overall Pick
Best: Zach Randolph, Power Forward, Portland Trail Blazers, 2001
During a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr revealed to ESPN’s Zach Lowe that Zach Randolph, as a rookie with the infamous Jail Blazers, didn’t realize that NBA players don’t get time off to go home for Christmas.
“You think about a guy coming into the league, doesn’t know anything about what’s going on and what he’s accomplished now,” Kerr said, “not only how well he’s played but what a pro he’s become, what a huge impact he’s had in the Memphis community. Zach is an absolute stud. A pro and a great human being and what he’s accomplished coming from where he came and where he started in this league is just incredible.”
Indeed, Randolph has come a long way from his more dubious days in Portland. After brief stints with the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers, he wound up with the Grizzlies, where he became not only an All-Star, but a figure central to the franchise’s signature Grit-N-Grind identity.
Along the way, Z-Bo has averaged 20 or more points in a season five times and a double-double nine times.
Worst: Ryan Humphrey, Forward, Utah Jazz, 2002
Movement was fundamental to Ryan Humphrey’s playing career.
In college, he spent his freshman and sophomore seasons at Oklahoma before finishing up at Notre Dame. In the pros, he was dealt from Utah to Orlando on draft night in 2002, only for the Magic to move him to Memphis in February 2003.
Humphrey topped out at 2.9 points per game with the Grizzlies in 2004-05 before tumbling out of the league entirely. His comeback attempts with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2005 and Los Angeles Clippers in 2006 both ended during those teams’ respective training camps.
20th Overall Pick
Best: Jameer Nelson, Point Guard, Denver Nuggets/Orlando Magic, 2004
It would be easy to talk about Jameer Nelson’s career in the past tense. His marquee 2008-09 season, when he was named to the All-Star Game and played in the Finals with the Orlando Magic, now feels like a lifetime ago.
But Nelson is still alive and well in the NBA. This past season, he started 39 of his 75 games for the Denver Nuggets, who nearly nabbed the West’s No. 8 seed thanks in part to his steady hand at the point.
The Saint Joe’s grad has one more year left on his contract. Whether or not he calls it quits after that, Nelson will have registered an extraordinary career for someone taken 20th overall, let alone as a diminutive point guard from a mid-major school.
Worst: Paul Grant, Center, Minnesota Timberwolves, 1997
If the name Paul Grant rings a bell, that recognition likely has nothing to do with his on-court exploits in the NBA. He averaged 1.6 points in 16 career games, 10 of which came with the Utah Jazz after he spent four years bopping around the CBA, ABA, D-League and Serbia.
Rather, Grant is probably best known as one of the throw-in names from the three-team trade that moved Stephon Marbury from Minnesota to New Jersey during the lockout-shortened 1999 season.
21st Overall Pick
- As the 21st pick, he was the first point guard taken in 2006—a far cry from the current day and age, wherein floor generals seem to fly off the draft board during the lottery.
- Rondo could’ve been Steve Nash’s understudy at the point in Phoenix. Instead, he started out amid a rebuild in Boston.
- Where teams now hoard first-round picks like precious provisions in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, the Suns regularly sold theirs for cash, Rondo included.
Best: Rajon Rondo, Point Guard, Phoenix Suns/Boston Celtics, 2006
Rajon Rondo’s draft story is a throwback to a bygone era of the NBA in a number of ways:
In spite of all that, Rondo went on to run point next to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen on the Celtics squad that stormed to the 2008 title before earning four All-Star nods in Beantown. The Louisville native seemed to be teetering on the league’s edge between clashes with coaches and an unsteady recovery from a torn ACL, before re-establishing his credentials as the Association’s assist king in Sacramento in 2015-16 and as a playoff force for the Chicago Bulls this past season.
Worst: Joseph Forte, Shooting Guard, Boston Celtics, 2001
The Celtics’ 2001 was replete with promise unfulfilled in Boston, but not because of Joseph Forte. It was another Joseph—Joe Johnson—who would leave the C’s to wonder “what if?” after the team traded him to Phoenix during the 2001-02 season.
Forte, on the other hand, barely registered a blip on the NBA’s radar after leaving North Carolina. He appeared in eight games as a rookie with Boston and another 17 as a sophomore with Seattle before taking his talents to the D-League and overseas.
22nd Overall Pick
Best: Kenneth Faried, Power Forward, Denver Nuggets, 2011
Kenneth Faried once looked like a budding star for the Denver Nuggets. He averaged 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds as a rookie, and was a key cog on the 2012-13 squad that won 57 games and snagged the West’s No. 3 seed after trading Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks the season prior.
Though Faried went on to post five straight double-digit scoring seasons to start his pro career, his role as a rebounder and energy guy seemed to stagnate along with his skill set.
Then again, the coaching turnover during his tenure hasn’t likely helped the Manimal carve out a role in which he might emerge as something more than what he’s been in the league since he made the leap from Morehead State in 2011. Either way, he’ll make at least another $26.7 million before he hits free agency in 2019.
Worst: Fab Melo, Center, Boston Celtics, 2012
Fab Melo’s NBA highlight came not during a game, but at the 2012 Rookie Photo Shoot, when he unwittingly crushed a folding chair. The 7’ Brazilian drafted out of Syracuse played just 36 minutes across six appearances with the Boston Celtics between stints in Maine playing for the D-League’s Red Claws.
In 2013, the Celtics traded Melo to Memphis, where the Grizzlies waived him. He tried to latch on with the Dallas Mavericks for the 2013-14 season but didn’t make it past the preseason. Melo went on to play sparingly in his native Brazil before passing away in his sleep this past February at the age of 26.
23rd Overall Pick
Best: Tayshaun Prince, Small Forward, Detroit Pistons, 2002
Tayshaun Prince faced down bigger challenges in his life than making a solid career for himself as the No. 23 pick in the draft. Long before he became a staple of the Detroit Pistons’ most recent glory years, he was a skinny kid trying to play his way out of Compton, California.
To that end, Prince passed with flying colors. He graduated from Kentucky, then fashioned himself into one of the NBA’s most formidable perimeter defenders in Detroit. The four-time All-Defensive performer also averaged double figures as a scorer for 10 straight seasons, including the last nine-and-a-half of his career-starting stint with the Pistons.
Prince last set foot in the NBA in 2015-16, when he served as a veteran mentor for the young Minnesota Timberwolves.
Worst: Brandon Armstrong, Shooting Guard, Houston Rockets/New Jersey Nets, 2001
How many people can say they became social media stars after they played in the NBA? To that end, Brandon Armstrong might be one of a kind.
Armstrong played 108 games with the Nets after winding up in New Jersey by way of a draft-day trade with the Houston Rockets involving two other players on this list: Richard Jefferson and Eddie Griffin.
Armstrong went on to play pro ball in Italy, Poland, Venezuela and the D-League before building a following online as a basketball impressionist under the moniker BDotADot.
24th Overall Pick
Best: Kyle Lowry, Point Guard, Memphis Grizzlies, 2006
Kyle Lowry just wants a ring. Is that so much to ask?
He’s done just about everything else since leaving Villanova as a sophomore in 2006. He was a late pick-turned-backup point guard in Memphis, a promising point guard-turned-trade chip in Houston and a steady starter-turned-All-Star in Toronto. He’s helped to turn the Raptors into a perennial playoff power in the East, and was the best player on a squad that took the Cleveland Cavaliers to six games in the 2016 conference finals.
Not bad for someone taken in flyer territory. Even better for Lowry: This summer, he’ll be eligible to sign a super-max contract with the Raptors.
Whether he signs for something in the neighborhood of $200 million over five years may be beside the point. He’s already advanced further in his career than just about anyone who’s been drafted at No. 24, including Andrei Kirilenko, Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson.
Like Lowry said, all he wants now is a ring.
Worst: Rodrick Rhodes, Guard/Forward, Houston Rockets, 1997
Rodrick Rhodes’ basketball pedigree, as a stud prospect at St. Anthony in New Jersey and a three-year player at Kentucky under Rick Pitino, wasn’t enough to keep him in the NBA for long. Rhodes averaged 5.8 points on 36.7 percent shooting in 58 games as a rookie with the Houston Rockets but never came close to matching any of those numbers over his two subsequent seasons in the Association.
25th Overall Pick
Best: Nicolas Batum, Small Forward, Houston Rockets/Portland Trail Blazers, 2008
There’s an argument to be made that Gerald Wallace deserves this nod over Nicolas Batum. After all, Wallace was once an All-Star who averaged 18.0 points and 7.9 rebounds over a four-season stretch, whereas Batum scored a career-best 15.1 points per game this past season.
But while Wallace was a fine rebounder, finisher and defender in his heyday, he was never the all-around contributor Batum has become. In fact, Batum is one of just 12 players in NBA history with a 5x5 game (i.e., at least five points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks in the same contest) on his resume.
Where Batum and Wallace see eye-to-eye: Their best days as basketball players took place in Charlotte, albeit with the Hornets for the former and the Bobcats for the latter. Where Wallace’s game careened once his athleticism waned, Batum’s skills as a shooter, ball-handler, passer and perimeter defender should allow him to hang around as a crucial element on competitive teams long after his hops have dissipated.
Worst: Tony Wroten, Point Guard, Memphis Grizzlies, 2012
At a certain point in his basketball career, Tony Wroten looked like he might be the latest in a long line of freakishly athletic point guards who took the NBA by storm. Instead, he may go down as another casualty from the less promising days of The Process in Philadelphia.
Wroten was a high school All-American-turned-All-Pac-12 performer in the Pacific Northwest before the Memphis Grizzlies spent the 25th pick of the 2012 draft on the freshman out of Washington. He appeared in just 41 total games with the Grizzlies as a rookie while shuttling to and from the D-League regularly.
In August 2013, Memphis traded him to the 76ers for a second-round pick that never conveyed. Wroten put up solid (if inflated) numbers during his first two seasons in Philly (14.2 points, 3.7 assists) before an ACL tear turned him into a basketball vagabond.
26th Overall Pick
Best: George Hill, Point Guard, San Antonio Spurs, 2008
George Hill has long been one of the NBA’s steadier two-way point guards. His pedigree as a product of San Antonio’s coaching served him well in Indiana, where he averaged 12.3 points and 3.9 assists over four seasons while pestering opposing floor generals at the head of Frank Vogel’s stingy defense.
It wasn’t until he got to Utah, though, that Hill’s abilities came into clearer relief. He scored a career-best 16.9 points per game as the reliable veteran leader on an up-and-coming Jazz team this past season. If not for a frustrating series of injuries, he might have guided Utah to more than the 51 regular-season wins and second-round sweep with which the team finished.
Hill should still garner a hefty payday this summer, though concerns about his age (31) and injury history could hinder his market somewhat.
Worst: Ndudi Ebi, Power Forward, Minnesota Timberwolves, 2003
Ndudi Ebi did almost all of his NBA work in just two games. He closed out the 2004-05 campaign, his second with the Minnesota Timberwolves, with nine points and eight rebounds against the New Orleans Hornets and another 18 points and eight boards opposite the San Antonio Spurs.
Those would be the final performances of Ebi’s short-lived NBA career. He was shunned by the D-League in 2005 and cut by the Dallas Mavericks during the 2006 preseason before continuing has basketball career overseas. Thus, Ebi became one of the final cautionary tales of the league’s preps-to-pros era.
27th Overall Pick
Best: Rudy Gobert, Center, Denver Nuggets/Utah Jazz, 2013
One might be inclined to marvel at how the Utah Jazz managed to unearth a Defensive Player of the Year candidate at No. 27...except Rudy Gobert would hardly be the first such stopper taken so late in the draft.
Dennis Rodman, who was the back-to-back DPOY in 1989-90 and 1990-91, was the 27th pick in the 1986 draft. Mark Eaton, who was named the league’s top defender just prior to Rodman, was the 72nd pick in 1982, back when the draft lasted 10 rounds. Ben Wallace won two DPOYs after going undrafted entirely in 1996.
And that’s to say nothing of this year’s race, with Draymond Green, the No. 35 pick in 2012, looking like the frontrunner heading into the inaugural NBA Awards show.
None of this takes away from the gem Gobert has become. At 24, he’s already a nightly double-double threat (14.0 points, 12.8 rebounds, 2.6 blocks in 2016-17) and a bona fide cornerstone on a team that could be a perennial power out West, pending the outcome of Gordon Hayward’s upcoming free agency.
Worst: Chris Jefferies, Guard/Forward, Los Angeles Lakers/Toronto Raptors, 2002
The outset of Chris Jefferies’ NBA career didn’t portend much opportunity, let alone success, in whatever time he got. The 6’8” swingman was drafted out of Fresno State in 2002 by the Los Angeles Lakers, who already featured Kobe Bryant as a three-time champion and bona fide superstar, and immediately dealt to Toronto, where Vince Carter ruled the roost on the wing.
In December 2003, Jefferies wound up in Chicago by way of the trade that landed Jalen Rose and Donyell Marshall on the Raptors. He appeared in 19 games for the Bulls that season and was waived before the 2004-05 campaign.
28th Overall Pick
Best: Tony Parker, Point Guard, San Antonio Spurs, 2001
Tony Parker says he intends to hit 20 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, per an interview with French website RMC Sport (via News 4 San Antonio’s Jeff Garcia).
Whether Parker can last another four seasons, three of which would come after his current contract expires, will depend on how well he recovers from a quad injury that could put him out of commission until January. In truth, he could retire today and still be a first-ballot Hall of Famer—a remarkable feat for someone drafted 28th overall.
Also remarkable: his resume of accolades. Six All-Star Games, four All-NBA teams, four championships and a Finals MVP. If he plays for two decades, he’ll likely reach 20,000 points. That’s good enough for Parker to go down as the greatest European guard in NBA history.
Worst: Keith Booth, Small Forward, Chicago Bulls, 1997
Keith Booth couldn’t have picked a much better time and place to be a rookie in the NBA. He had a front row seat to Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls in 1997-98.
Booth played just six games that year, his first after four at the University of Maryland. He stuck around the Windy City for a second season—long enough to collect the ring and 39 more appearances for the Baby Bulls. His days of playing pro ball were done by the time he turned 25 in October 1999.
29th Overall Pick
Best: Josh Howard, Small Forward, Dallas Mavericks, 2003
Josh Howard proved to be Dirk Nowitzki’s trustiest sidekick during the years between Steve Nash’s departure from and Jason Kidd’s return to Dallas. At the peak of his powers, Howard averaged 19.0 points and 6.4 rebounds while serving as the Mavericks’ secondary scorer and one of the team’s top playmakers.
Dallas did well to land him in the first place. Howard was named ACC Player of the Year during his senior season at Wake Forest. He was the first Demon Deacon to win that award since Tim Duncan took home two of them in the mid-1990s.
Howard was no Timmy, but he was a productive NBA player nonetheless. In 2006, he was invited to play for Team USA, but he declined and instead spent his summer running his camps back in North Carolina. The following season, Howard snuck into the All-Star Game as an injury replacement amid Dallas’ historic 67-15 campaign.
In 2010, the Mavericks traded Howard to the Wizards, with whom he suffered an ACL tear that played a part in his falling out of the league after the 2012-13 season.
Worst: Serge Zwikker, Houston Rockets, 1997/Steve Logan, Golden State Warriors, 2002
Serge Zwikker and Steve Logan share this spot because they accomplished exactly as much as each other in the NBA, which is not much beyond hearing their names called at No. 29 on draft night.
Zwikker spent his rookie season riding the pine in Houston before leaping to Europe during the 1998-99 lockout.
As for Logan, he was technically the No. 30 pick in the 2002 draft but was actually the 29th player taken. Why the discrepancy? Because the Minnesota Timberwolves had to forfeit their spot in the order.
Whichever pick Logan was didn’t matter in the end. He never signed with the Warriors. Nor did he ever land with another NBA team, despite graduating from Cincinnati as a first-team All-American.
30th Overall Pick
Best: Jimmy Butler, Guard/Forward, Chicago Bulls, 2011
It’s not every year that you find a franchise cornerstone with the 30th pick in the draft. But it happens more often than you might think.
That’s where the Golden State Warriors found Gilbert Arenas in 2001 and the New York Knicks happened upon David Lee in 2005. It’s also where the Chicago Bulls stumbled into Jimmy Butler. The 6’7” swingman out of Marquette has improved steadily over his six NBA seasons. Once a defensive specialist next to Derrick Rose in the Windy City, Butler is now the team’s leading man and nightly 20-point scorer, a perennial All-Star in his prime.
It’s a wonder, then, that the Bulls have seemingly been so willing to field offers for Butler. They got exceedingly lucky with him, even more so since he wants to stay in Chicago.
Worst: Mark Sanford, Miami Heat, 1997/Petteri Koponen, Philadelphia 76ers, 2007
Folks, we have another tie between two players who never logged a minute in the NBA.
A string of injuries kept Mark Sanford out of the Association. First, it was a torn plantar fascia that ended his rookie season in 1997-98. Then, it was another injury that knocked off Sacramento’s roster in 1999, when Sanford went by his middle name, Tywan. He tried again three years later, only to wind up injured once more.
In 2007, Petteri Koponen became just the second player to be drafted out of Finland and into the NBA. Koponen’s draft rights were traded a couple times, but his time playing stateside was limited to some summer league appearances in 2007 and 2008.