Ranking the Best NBA Draft Classes Since 2000
The 2017 NBA draft is almost upon us, which means so are overreactions and premature evaluations.
But before we rip this current class to shreds or shower it with unearned praise, we're going to do something bold: evaluate past drafts using the benefit of hindsight.
It sounds crazy, but the idea is that with years of actual NBA data at our disposal, we can get an accurate assessment of how an entire draft class has fared. Since we're using multiple seasons to make these judgments, we have spared the most recent classes from our rankings.
For those in the running, multiple measures are used to find their strength in relation to the others. Nothing helps more than the presence of elite talents, while early busts are most damaging. The highest-ranked drafts are those with star power, depth and minimal misfires.
The 2000s have seen some gems, a few flops and everything in between. This worst-to-first walk-through of recent history will reveal all the bright spots and blemishes on the league's collective draft record.
Too Early to Rank
The latest batch of NBA newcomers did not make a great first impression. The class was often regarded as a two-player crop—one lost the entire season to injury (Ben Simmons), the other had the worst true shooting percentage of anyone who logged 2,000-plus minutes (Brandon Ingram). Only one of the Rookie of the Year finalists came from this class, and he was a second-rounder (Malcolm Brogdon).
There's a reason these evaluations must be delayed, and this class could prove much better than expected if some of the greener players at the top of the board pan out. As it stands, it's already yielded some pleasant second-round surprises like Brogdon, Ivica Zubac and Patrick McCaw.
Even with No. 3 pick Jahlil Okafor looking like a time-traveler from basketball's back-to-the-basket past, this class impresses first with its unicorn collection. Two of the four players with at least 100 blocks and 100 triples this season came from the 2015 draft: Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis. Myles Turner (No. 11) hinted he could join that club in short order.
Consistency eludes D'Angelo Russell, while Okafor's skills seem outdated. Mario Hezonja has struggled to find minutes on some bad Orlando Magic teams. The offensive games of Emmanuel Mudiay, Stanley Johnson and Justise Winslow have all raised alarms. But this season's single-game high-scorer came from this draft (Devin Booker), as did steals like Willy Hernangomez (35th pick), Josh Richardson (40) and Norman Powell (46).
Depth was always seen as a strength of this group, and hindsight hasn't found any egregious early missteps. Nik Stauskas and Noah Vonleh both seem overdrafted as top-10 selections, but each also just capped the best season of his career, so they're trending the right way.
The question here is whether this draft produced solid or star-level talent. Injuries haven't made that easy to figure out, as five of the top seven picks have all missed at least 30 games in a single season—Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon, Dante Exum and Julius Randle. Embiid has centerpiece potential if he can stay healthy. The only other player to show that level of upside is the 41st pick, Nikola Jokic.
Outside the Top 10
While neither are confirmed, there are two narratives around the 2000 NBA draft commonly heard in basketball circles. One is that the draft board—pictured above—can turn people to stone if viewed directly for more than five seconds. The other is that this class would later inspire the creation of the poop emoji.
Just three of the 58 players drafted eventually made an All-Star roster, and none of the trio—Kenyon Martin, Michael Redd and Jamaal Magloire—was selected more than once. Super-sub Jamal Crawford is the only class member to clear 12,000 career points (he's put in 18,084), while "Dancin'" Hedo Turkoglu paced the group with 63.3 career win shares.
If you think about the good of this class, you think about flashes of dominance. Yao Ming had some unguardable moments. Amar'e Stoudemire appeared to be headed down a Hall of Fame path. Carlos Boozer went from second-round flier to 20-point, 10-rebound All-Star.
But longevity was not a strength. The bodies of Ming and Stoudemire broke down before they reached historical greatness. Boozer was a two-time All-Star by 26 and remains a two-time All-Star. Four different lottery picks played four seasons or fewer—Jay Williams, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Dajuan Wagner and Marcus Haislip.
This class is famous for providing the league with its last preps-to-pros superstar in Dwight Howard. Not everyone may view him as such, given the twists and turns his career his taken. But he was selected to eight consecutive All-Star Games, won three Defensive Player of the Year awards and averaged 19.5 points, 13.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks over that stretch.
Why so much Howard talk? Because the rest of the class was fairly forgettable. It did provide complementary stars like Andre Iguodala and Luol Deng. It also included lottery throwaways like Rafael Araujo, Luke Jackson and Robert Swift. When history looks back on this draft, it remembers Howard's high-flying heroics, then decides it needs a nap.
This is the don't-judge-a-draft-class-by-its-historically-bad-No.-1-pick reminder. Anthony Bennett was an all-time bust. He played for four teams in four seasons and was most recently waived by the 62-loss Brooklyn Nets. What's worse is this draft included eight additional top-20 picks who have been worse than replacement players.
And somehow, this class has still seen the rise of some elite talents. Giannis Antetokounmpo (15th pick) made his All-Star debut this season while stuffing the stat sheet at an historic rate. Rudy Gobert (27th) could win multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards. C.J. McCollum (10th) has been a 20-points-per-game scorer for two years running. Hope isn't lost for this class, even if it's run out for Bennett.
All-Stars: LaMarcus Aldridge, Kyle Lowry, Paul Millsap, Rajon Rondo, Brandon Roy
Most Win Shares: LaMarcus Aldridge, 86.7 (second pick)
The success rate in the 2006 draft would make for an awful batting average. There was a swing-and-miss at the top with Andrea Bargnani going first, then another misfire with Adam Morrison at No. 3. Shelden Williams was a dud at No. 5, while the ninth and 10th selections were wasted on Patrick O'Bryant and Saer Sene, respectively.
All told, nearly half of the first-round picks (13) played five NBA seasons or fewer.
But the good grabs were borderline great.
LaMarcus Aldridge, selected second, has been a rock-solid five-time All-Star. Once Kyle Lowry (24th) found his footing, he proved potent enough to lead a 50-win team. Paul Millsap was a larcenous find as the 47th selection. Rajon Rondo was more of the same at 21. And if injuries hadn't befallen Brandon Roy, the No. 6 pick had the makings of a perennial All-Star.
Most Win Shares: Chris Paul, 154.6 (fourth pick)
The 2005 draft is a testament to Chris Paul's talent.
Some 12 years after its completion, the point god still stands as the most influential selection made that night. Never mind that he wasn't the first pick (Andrew Bogut), nor the first point guard (Deron Williams), nor one of the eight high-school hoopers who were the last to make the draft jump before the age limit barred their entries.
Paul could walk away now and still be one of only seven players to tally at least 15,000 points, 8,000 assists and 1,500 steals. He's already an all-time great, which makes it more impressive that at one time, Williams provided a serious threat to Paul's point-guard throne.
The two floor generals were the draft's only transformative talents, but the class shines for its depth and lack of major misses. Ike Diogu was the only bust in the top 10—Andrew Bynum had star skills when he suited up—and the second round was loaded with valuable finds: C.J. Miles (34th), Monta Ellis (40th), Lou Williams (45th), Amir Johnson (56th) and Marcin Gortat (57th).
Most Win Shares: Kevin Durant, 119.8 (second pick)
Among the first four players drafted in 2007 were an MVP (Kevin Durant), an All-Star Swiss Army knife (Al Horford) and the current owner of the biggest contract in NBA history (Mike Conley). Absent from that list is the actual first pick, Greg Oden, who squeezed only 105 appearances into six injury-riddled years.
"I know I'm one of the biggest busts in NBA history," Oden told Mark Titus, then with Grantland, in 2014, "and I know that it'll only get worse as Kevin Durant continues doing big things. ... It's frustrating that my body can't do what my mind wants it to do sometimes."
But Oden wasn't a bust for playing purposes. In fact, he averaged 14.9 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per 36 minutes for his career. Really, this class only had one major gaffe in the first 10 picks, and that was using the sixth selection on Yi Jianlian, a 7-footer who shot just 40.4 percent over five seasons.
As for superstars, only Durant and Marc Gasol—a heist as the 48th pick—fit the bill. But Horford, Conley and Joakim Noah all served in Robin-esque support roles. The 20s also ran heavy on longtime pros like Jason Smith, Jared Dudley, Wilson Chandler, Aaron Brooks, Arron Afflalo and Tiago Splitter.
All-Stars: Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Draymond Green, Damian Lillard
Most Win Shares: Anthony Davis, 48.8 (first pick)
Leading up to the event, the 2012 draft was seen as Anthony Davis and everyone else. Five years later, that still rings true.
The New Orleans Pelicans' single-browed superstar has been elite almost from the start. He had 21 points and seven rebounds in his NBA debut, then 23 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks two games later. His career 26.6 player efficiency rating is the league's fourth-highest since the start of 2012-13.
The draft delivered another franchise face in Damian Lillard at No. 6, plus All-Stars Andre Drummond (No. 9) and Draymond Green (35). Its All-Star list could grow with Bradley Beal (No. 3) and Harrison Barnes (No. 7) both topping 19 points per game this season. The worst top-10 selection was the still-serviceable Thomas Robinson at five.
The first round provided hits almost everywhere—it's a shame Royce White's career was never kickstarted—and the draft's depth spilled over into the second round. Jae Crowder (34), Green (35), Khris Middleton (39) and Will Barton (40) all came off the board within a span of seven selections.
Most Win Shares: Greg Monroe, 45.2 (seventh)
The 2010 draft was either John Calipari's finest hour or best recruiting tool (or both). The Kentucky head coach had a record five players selected in the first round, including the program's first No. 1 pick (John Wall).
"Right now, it feels like we won a national title," Calipari told Andy Katz, then with ESPN. "That's how I feel. I have a tingle in my body, more so than when we went to the Final Fours [at UMass and Memphis]."
It doesn't hurt that four of his five first-rounders produced. Wall and DeMarcus Cousins (No. 5) have both made All-Star appearances. Eric Bledsoe (18) has put up All-Star numbers on a bad team. And despite seldom starting, Patrick Patterson (14) always plays his way into a prominent role. The lone miss, Daniel Orton (29), last played an NBA game in January 2014.
As for the non-Kentucky picks, Gordon Hayward (9) and Paul George (10) have proved they fell farther than they should have. Greg Monroe (7), Derrick Favors (3), Al-Farouq Aminu (8) and Trevor Booker (23) lead a group of solid bigs, while Avery Bradley (19) has been a steal. The top 10 had one major flop (Ekpe Udoh, 6), while the second round eventually produced a surprise star (Hassan Whiteside, 33).
Most Win Shares: Pau Gasol, 137.0 (third pick)
It's inaccurate to say the 2001 draft lacked star power. The class includes two Hall of Fame locks—Pau Gasol, taken third, and Tony Parker, 28th—and the second-most All-Stars of any group in our rankings.
This was a great class for good players. Of the 57 players selected that night—the Minnesota Timberwolves forfeited their first-round pick for the Joe Smith fiasco—24 would play 10-plus seasons in the league. That group included the biggest "busts" in the class, top pick Kwame Brown and No. 4 choice Eddy Curry.
Where this class ultimately lacked was in franchise-face talent. There were second or third options on great teams (like Gasol and Parker), or alphas on non-contenders (Gilbert Arenas and Joe Johnson). No one transformed teams overnight.
But a ton of guys helped strengthen their organizations. The All-Star list was extensive, and it didn't even include Jason Richardson (No. 5), Shane Battier (No. 6) and Richard Jefferson (No. 13).
Most Win Shares: Russell Westbrook, 80.1 (fourth pick)
Looking back now, the biggest disappointment of the 2008 draft was probably how tame Russell Westbrook kept his attire. Granted, no one knew the Brodie would become a fashion icon—let alone an Oscar Robertson impersonator—but a bold Westbrook draft suit would have been epic.
That's a credit to the class, by the way. Unless you were a big believer in Joe Alexander (No. 8) or Anthony Randolph (No. 14), there weren't significant letdowns at the top of the class. Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo had flaws, sure, but both also made more than 500 NBA appearances.
As for the success stories, Westbrook is the easy choice now. But don't forget how forceful pre-injury, MVP-winning Derrick Rose was. Kevin Love and Brook Lopez can both fill a box score, and Roy Hibbert had his run as a premier defensive anchor.
Outside of Westbrook, though, this group's biggest claim to fame might be its incredible depth. Nicolas Batum, DeAndre Jordan, George Hill, Goran Dragic, Serge Ibaka, Ryan Anderson, Courtney Lee and Kosta Koufos were all taken after the first 20 picks were made.
All-Stars: Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Isaiah Thomas, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker
Most Win Shares: Kawhi Leonard, 55.4 (15th pick)
It takes more than one player to make a great draft class, and the 2011 version was far from a solo act. That said, the conversation must start with Kawhi Leonard, taken 15th then and now among the NBA's best.
"He is a really unique player," New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said, per ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright. "You don't want to say Michael Jordan, but it's that type of situation, where you've got a really, really good offensive player and a tremendous defensive player."
Leonard, already a Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, is a two-way superhero. He was one of only three players with an offensive real plus-minus of five-plus and a defensive real plus-minus of at least one, per ESPN.com. Leonard was also the only player to rank among the top six in both offensive and defensive win shares.
Two other two-way studs landed outside the top 10—Klay Thompson (11) and Jimmy Butler (30)—while elite scoring guards went first (Kyrie Irving), ninth (Kemba Walker) and 60th (Isaiah Thomas). Kenneth Faried (22), Reggie Jackson (24) and Chandler Parsons (38) all slipped outside the top 20. That's more than enough value to make up for the early mistakes of Jan Vesely and Jimmer Fredette at Nos. 6 and 10, respectively.
Most Win Shares: James Harden, 91.3 (third pick)
The 2009 draft was never supposed to shine this bright. In fact, The Ringer's Bill Simmons, then writing for Grantland, wrote "it's the worst draft class since the infamous Kenyon Martin Draft in 2000."
That projection was just a bit off. Thank the seventh pick Stephen Curry, already a two-time MVP—the first-ever unanimous selection—historically proficient shooter and two-time champion. Thank the third selection James Harden, already a five-time All-Star, assist champion, MVP runner-up (2014-15) and current MVP finalist. Thank top choice Blake Griffin, a five-time All-Star and third-place MVP finisher in 2013-14.
Curry and Harden are franchise anchors. Griffin has displayed that ability, if his body would ever cooperate. DeMar DeRozan is now an All-Star regular. Jrue Holiday and Jeff Teague had the game to get there at one point. And rotations are filled with this draft's value picks—Darren Collison at 21, Taj Gibson at 26, DeMarre Carroll at 27, Patrick Beverley at 42, Danny Green at 46, Patty Mills at 55.
Hasheem Thabeet (second) and Jonny Flynn (sixth) were top-10 disasters. But they weren't damaging enough to bring down this combination of stars and supporting pieces. The only thing capable of that is the Hall of Fame-bound super class at No. 1.
Most Win Shares: LeBron James, 205.4 (first pick)
"When you've been around long enough, you get to where you know it when you see a potential franchise player," Miami Heat president Pat Riley told ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst. "We all knew there were several special players in that draft. You could feel it. And we all wanted them."
Against all odds, the reality of the 2003 draft exceeded the hype. Four franchise pillars were announced among the first five picks—LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. The quartet, which has accumulated 46 All-Star selections, all have Hall of Fame probabilities north of 98 percent. Only two other sets of classmates on this list both clear 90—Gasol and Parker; Curry and Harden.
The top of the 2003 draft is enough to garner the No. 1 ranking, even while subtracting the whiff on Darko Milicic at No. 2. James is the best player of his generation, if not of all time. Wade was Batman on one world champion and Robin on two others. Bosh put up major numbers on his own before serving as a two-time champion's X-factor. Anthony's scoring average stands above every active player's but James' and Durant's.
But this wasn't a four-player class. It leads all this millennium everyone with nine All-Stars, two of whom were second-rounders (Mo Williams at 47, Kyle Korver at 51). Twenty-seven of the picks played at least 10 NBA seasons, not including T.J. Ford, who almost surely would've hit that mark if not for neck and spine injuries that forced an early retirement. Even with some lottery misses, this draft outclassed the rest of the 2000s.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.