The Curse and the Comfort of Being the No. 2 Draft Pick in the NBA

You don’t have the pressure of the No. 1 pick, but are you really better off getting drafted next? Look at Kevin Durant … and Darko
photo of Jonathan AbramsJonathan Abrams@jpdabramsSenior Writer, B/R MagJune 21, 2017

Kevin Durant didn't know whose name then-NBA Commissioner David Stern would announce when he walked to the podium to begin the 2007 draft.

"I held my mother's hand and we both looked at each other in the eye, and when he said 'Greg,' I figured where I was going to be going next," Durant said then.

The Seattle SuperSonics took Durant second after the Portland Trail Blazers passed on him for Greg Oden. "I know we are going to be linked for a long time," Durant said. "We are one and two. We were one and two in high school. We were both in the Northwest."

Durant said he was happy for Oden, but years later, he confessed to Sports Illustrated that he felt slighted that night.

"I've been second my whole life," Durant told the magazine. "I was the second-best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I've been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals. I'm tired of being second. I'm not going to settle for that. I'm done with it."

Now he's on top of the world, knocking down Twitter trolls one by one.

Kevin Durant has felt he's been second his entire life in every aspect and once told Sports Illustrated he was done with it.
Kevin Durant has felt he's been second his entire life in every aspect and once told Sports Illustrated he was done with it.(Getty Images)

Durant dethroned The King—LeBron James, that is—earlier this month, claiming a Finals MVP trophy to go with that elusive championship ring. But most No. 2 picks never ascend to such heights; in fact, over the past 20 years, only four have even become All-Stars.

Should Lonzo Ball be afraid? Is this year's likely No. 2 pick a Durant—the former second pick who torched the Cavaliers in this year's Finals—or a Derrick Williams—the 2011 No. 2 who could only watch from Cleveland's bench as KD ended his team's championship dreams?

"It's potential-based a lot of the time, so you don't know what you're getting," Tyson Chandler, the 2001 No. 2 pick, tells B/R Mag. "It's five players on the court at one time, so no matter what, you're just taking best available, unless you're in a situation like when Detroit was set and they passed on Carmelo [Anthony] or situations like that in the past where you have a clear-cut star, but you move on because you're already a championship team and you're going for a player that you feel can go on and help or replace a vet in the lineup."

"You never necessarily know how that's going to pan out."


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The NBA draft's first runner-up is not burdened by either the target or pressure of being the top pick, like when Washington picked Kwame Brown in 2001 and tried to accelerate his adjustment. Teams with the second pick are virtually guaranteed the player they like most or second-most after all the many hours poured into research and scouting.

"Everybody pretty much settled on Jabari [Parker] and Andrew Wiggins, in some order [in 2014]," says John Hammond, Milwaukee's former general manager. "For us [at No. 2], we went into that draft night knowing that we were going to probably have the opportunity to draft one of those two players."

But often, with the draft's singular greatest talent off the board, teams choosing second will wish they had a mulligan. Franchise players like Isiah Thomas, Gary Payton and Jason Kidd all went second overall. But three of the four No. 2s who have become All-Stars in the last 20 years only dropped down after major misfires on that crucial first pick (Greg Oden over Durant, Brown over Tyson Chandler in 2001 and Andrea Bargnani over LaMarcus Aldridge in 2006).

Thursday's draft is set to begin with little suspense when the Philadelphia 76ers take Washington's Markelle Fultz first overall after swapping picks with Boston.

Though the Lakers are looking toward UCLA's Lonzo Ball as their No. 2 pick, they could also go for Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox.
Though the Lakers are looking toward UCLA's Lonzo Ball as their No. 2 pick, they could also go for Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox.(Getty Images)

The true intrigue starts with Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka, the Los Angeles Lakers and the next selection. The franchise sits at the wheel with a choice that can drastically improve recent misfortunes. Will the Lakers opt for the seemingly preordained and designate Lonzo Ball the organization's savior? Will they take another prospect with a high ceiling, such as De'Aaron Fox or Josh Jackson? Or will they trade the selection in hopes of packaging it for a proven commodity like Paul George?

The organization is cognizant of the highs and lows associated with the slot. Brandon Ingram, last year’s No. 2 pick, has been deemed untouchable by Magic in trade discussions. Meanwhile, he reportedly jettisoned 2015's No. 2 pick, D'Angelo Russell, in a proposed trade with the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday.

"It's pretty much already said and done that we're going to be linked throughout our careers," Fox tells B/R Mag about the debate over him and Ball for the second pick

If recent history prevails, no matter whom they take, the Lakers will leave a player who matures into a star on the draft room table. The majority of recent drafts have showcased no-brainer, lightly debated names in the top overall spot from LeBron James to Karl-Anthony Towns (although, there are certainly exceptions, like the case of the Cleveland Cavaliers surprisingly choosing Anthony Bennett with the first pick four years ago). Top selections who suffered career debilitating injuries like Oden or who did not live up to their potential like Michael Olowokandi are well-chronicled, but more often than not, the team with the top pick will land a Kyrie instead of a Kwame.


Kyrie Irving spent much of the NBA Finals snaking through Golden State's defense, releasing a dizzying arsenal of eye-popping finishes at the rim. The Warriors' Klay Thompson fired daggers from beyond the three-point arc when he wasn't harassing and harnessing Irving on defense.

Each had already played a significant role in Finals victories—Irving dropping 40 in Game 4's win; Thompson hitting six threes in Game 3—before Golden State downed Cleveland in five games earlier this month. The Cavaliers and Warriors both landed the indispensable pieces in the 2011 NBA draft when Irving, decked in a Giorgio Armani navy pinstripe suit, went first overall. Golden State took Thompson 11th overall that night with MVP finalist Kawhi Leonard coming off the board four picks later.

Meanwhile, Derrick Williams found himself glued to Tyronn Lue's bench for the bulk of these Finals. The Minnesota Timberwolves got Williams with the second overall pick six years ago, directly after Irving and long before future All-Stars Thompson, Leonard, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler and Isaiah Thomas (who was the last player picked at all). The Cavaliers are Williams' fifth NBA team—and the first to give him a (brief) taste of the NBA playoffs.

A former No. 2 pick for the Timberwolves, Williams' career has faced ups and downs from being on a team lacking leadership to being with a team who gave him a taste of his first NBA Finals.
A former No. 2 pick for the Timberwolves, Williams' career has faced ups and downs from being on a team lacking leadership to being with a team who gave him a taste of his first NBA Finals.(Getty Images)

When he was drafted, Williams was Minnesota's highest pick in franchise history. He was a combination forward who projected well for an NBA moving into a hybrid world. But Minnesota's roster already featured a glut of youngish forwards, including Kevin Love and another former No. 2 overall pick trying to right his career in Michael Beasley (who was ticketed for marijuana possession and speeding).

"I think there would have been bonfires and pitchforks in front of my office if we hadn't taken Derrick Williams," David Kahn, Minnesota's then-president of basketball operations, told the Star Tribune the day of his firing in 2013. "You just had to do it, even though we were deep at that position, and I think you could also make an argument he really was the right pick. In time, I think it will prove to be the right pick. Derrick's very young, though, and people tend to be impatient. I think Derrick's on course to be a very fine player in this league."

Instead, his career is unraveling along the same lines of several of the second picks before him.

"A lot of ups and downs," says Williams, who leveraged two 10-day contracts from the Cavs in February for a deal through the end of the season. "I've been on a few other teams with not too much veteran leadership, and with these guys, Bron, K-Love … RJ [Richard Jefferson], Channing Frye, the list can go on with the amount of guys that are 30-plus, that are 10 years in the league, that can really teach me how to prepare for this game. That's the best thing about it from all my years until now."


Tyson Chandler turned crestfallen after a workout against Kwame Brown in the summer of 2001. He had spent weeks canvassing the country from workout to workout against other top draft-eligible big men like Brown, Eddy Curry and DeSagana Diop.

He felt off that day, a step too slow, for whatever reason. Brown outperformed him in the session attended by Michael Jordan, then-Wizards coach Doug Collins and others.

"You have no reason to be frustrated," Jordan said, according to Chandler's recollection. "What you frustrated for? You good. You had a good workout today."

"I had a read on him at that point, pretty much," Chandler says. "I knew at that point that he had made his decision and he was going to go with Kwame, and later on I found out after I got back to the hotel."

“When you’re coming out in the draft and you’re young, you’re just thinking about being the best,” Chandler tells B/R Mag.
“When you’re coming out in the draft and you’re young, you’re just thinking about being the best,” Chandler tells B/R Mag.(Getty Images)

Chandler, like many others before him, wanted to go No. 1. "When you're coming out in the draft and you're young, you're just thinking about being the best," Chandler says. "Being the No. 1 overall pick is being recognized that you're the best in that class."

Ingram says he made the goal in high school to get off the draft board first. The 76ers took Ben Simmons No. 1 last year, and Ingram went to Los Angeles where bright lights and large expectations still awaited him.

"My dad always told me these guys look at you from high school all the way up to college basketball," Ingram says. "My senior year, leading up to my freshman year in college, I just tried to play as hard as I can and especially try to be one of the best college players that I could be. They saw my potential, and I knew the range was from one or two. But I had no problem going anywhere."

As Chandler predicted after his workout, Washington infamously took Brown first overall in 2001. The Clippers grabbed Chandler with the second pick before trading him to Chicago where he became a member of the Baby Bulls.

The draft is a crapshoot where no one, no matter his pedigree, is a certain product beyond once-a-generation talents like LeBron. Years of hindsight undoubtedly clear vision. We now recognize the absurdity of a 17-year-old Darko Milicic being picked second overall in 2003, while Detroit bypassed proven collegiate commodities Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

"I could give a dissertation on that," Joe Dumars, Detroit's then-president of basketball operations told MLive.com in 2012. "After I drafted Darko, from that point on, the amount of background we do on every single player that you see us draft is ridiculous. We do as much or more background than any other team in the NBA because of that."

"The background on [Milicic] was about 20 percent of what we do now. I look back on it now and realize you didn't know half of the stuff you needed to know."

The dilemma over how to handle the second pick has flummoxed organizations for years—most famously when the Portland Trail Blazers (with future HOF guard Clyde Drexler already on the roster) chose Kentucky center Sam Bowie over Jordan in 1984.

Dr. Jack Ramsay, the Trail Blazers coach in 1984, says not selecting Michael Jordan was an "oversight."
Dr. Jack Ramsay, the Trail Blazers coach in 1984, says not selecting Michael Jordan was an "oversight."(Getty Images)

"[Jordan] never misses the opportunity to remind me of that single oversight all those years ago," Dr. Jack Ramsay, Portland's coach at the time, told NJ.com eight years ago. "And I've said to him, 'Michael, we couldn't draft you—we had players at your position. Had we known what you would be, we would have taken you and traded for a center.' But Michael has a great talent for remembering slights of any kind."

Several players picked second overall ripened into perfectly suitable professionals (without the projected star power). And some No. 2s of recent drafts, like Ingram and Russell, still need time to develop.

Some have been hindered by injuries (Parker and 2002's Jay Williams). The promise of size merging with potential blinded some franchises (2000's Stromile Swift and 2009's Hasheem Thabeet).

"We kept coming back to the fact of where are you going to find a 7'3", shot-blocking center?" Memphis GM Chris Wallace said to the Commercial Appeal at the 2009 draft.

Occasionally an organization steeped in losing is bereft of veterans to steer a young talent. Chandler says that was the case in Chicago. Had he gone to Washington, he felt he would have learned the game faster as a rookie under veterans like Jordan and Christian Laettner.

"I honestly think I may have been better earlier [being the first pick], just because when I went to Chicago, Chicago wasn't necessarily ready for me," Chandler says. "Not even just me, a lot of the other players that you see there. You see Jamal Crawford. He's still having a successful career. Brad Miller was a back-to-back All-Star. Ron Artest. We were all there together."

Chandler tells B/R Mag he felt he could've learned to play the game quicker if he played in Washington under veteran presences like Jordan and Laettner.
Chandler tells B/R Mag he felt he could've learned to play the game quicker if he played in Washington under veteran presences like Jordan and Laettner.(Getty Images)

At other times, the player's potential never merged with the professionalism needed to succeed in a competitive atmosphere (2008's Beasley).

"Now that I'm retired, I can say this: Some people look at that No. 1 pick as a curse," says Larry Riley, a former executive with the Vancouver Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors. "Look at all the No. 1s where you've had this tremendous expectation and then it never came through. So, you don't have that to deal with [at No. 2], and believe me, that's a minor issue."

"If a player's there at No. 1 you want, you take him and you're happy about it, but down the line, on other issues, you sit there at No. 2 and you say, 'OK, you just take the next best player and it becomes pretty simple.'"

The issue is in figuring out the next-best player.

In 1998, the Vancouver Grizzlies plucked point guard Mike Bibby from Arizona at No. 2 with Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce still available. Vancouver took another point guard with the second pick the following season in Maryland's Steve Francis. Bibby enjoyed the best seasons of his career later in Sacramento with the Kings. Francis pushed for a trade—eventually landing in Houston— and never played a game for Vancouver.

"You're picking that high, you almost think, Well, we're picking an All-Star," Riley says. "You don't want to strike out. It may be a double, triple or home run, but you don't want to strike out."

In 2010, Philadelphia took Evan Turner second overall after Washington selected John Wall with DeMarcus Cousins, Gordon Hayward and Paul George still available. Turner excelled at Ohio State and appeared as a ready-to-contribute guard. Philadelphia's brass said he had been its unanimous choice.

Evan Turner, who plays for Portland, was selected second overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2010, who believed he had the entire package.
Evan Turner, who plays for Portland, was selected second overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2010, who believed he had the entire package.(Getty Images)

"We would have taken a project if that was the best player available," Ed Stefanski, then Philadelphia's general manager, said at the time. "But at the No. 2 spot, you have to take the best player, and I don't think there is any doubt that Evan is the best player. I'm not saying these other kids aren't going to be good players; they are. But what Evan brings, what we keep talking about, is the total package. We think he's a winner, and he's such a tough-minded kid, which is really important for this team as we are changing the culture here."

Years later, Philadelphia is still trying to change the culture by adding Fultz. Turner spent parts of four seasons there. The Trail Blazers became his fourth team last season, and he has averaged 10.5 points and 5.0 rebounds in his seven-year career.

He still has time for a solid career, as Chandler has proved. Long after he entered the league, Chandler became a champion with the Dallas Mavericks and the Defensive Player of the Year with the Knicks.

Chandler laughed when asked if Jordan, himself a slighted draftee, had ever voiced regret over his decision to pass on him for Kwame Brown.

"Yeah, we talked about it," Chandler says, "but I'll keep the conversation between me and him."


Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.

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