Ranking the Biggest NBA Draft Flops from the Past 5 Years
Draft season is upon the NBA again, finally, and you all know what that means: It's time to have some awkward discussions about past rookie classes—conversations that repeat the words flop and bust and mistake and, well, you get the point.
This particular swing at low-hanging fruit aims to be a little bit different. It does not rank picks from the past five drafts solely according to how players turned out or who was selected after them. That is part of the process, but not the whole shebang.
Instead, this is about identifying the instances in which teams whiffed at the largest scale. Did they clearly choose the wrong player in the moment? Make a gamble that failed spectacularly? Give up on a player too soon?
Our scope will be limited solely to lottery decisions. All misses thereafter are easier to defend because they're not made against the same level of importance. Mistakes made higher up the draft ladder, inside the top five, will be given priority, since those selections, in theory, mean more to a team's outlook.
Not all drafts take place in the same vacuum, so flops are ranked relative only to their particular class. The context of trades will shape inclusions, but those transactions won't be looped among the uh-ohs themselves. Ergo, the Philadelphia 76ers taking Mikal Bridges at No. 10 in 2018 and sending him to the Phoenix Suns is not a focus. They took the right player; they just didn't keep him. And while the context of an entire career matters within these discussions, they are more specifically about the value—or lack thereof—prospects gave to the team who ended up with them on draft night.
Finally, and most importantly, please remember not all of these rankings are etched in stone. Inclusions from the 2018 and 2019 classes specifically have plenty of time to put their careers on a rosier track. This is strictly a snapshot of the biggest misses as they stand now, ahead of the 2020 draft.
Notable Exclusions: Cameron Payne (No. 14)
Cam Payne has spent more time on the fringes of the NBA than teams want from their lottery picks, but the 2015 class, in hindsight, wasn't that deep and he provided some electric minutes off the bench during his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder. They also flipped him with other spare parts to get Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and the pick that became Mitchell Robinson from the Chicago Bulls.
And on an even happier note, Payne recouped serious value during his stint at Disney with the Phoenix Suns. Through eight games, he averaged 10.9 points and 3.0 assists while canning 51.7 percent of his threes.
4. Willie Cauley-Stein (No. 6), Emmanuel Mudiay (No. 7), Stanley Johnson (No. 8)
Pick Number: 7
Looping all three of these players together is the only way to go. They were taken in succession, and it speaks to the minefield that this lottery class became.
Emmanuel Mudiay is probably the biggest miss of the trio. The Denver Nuggets didn't take him with the expectation he'd be a savior, but he was billed as the starrier prospect compared to Willie Cauley-Stein and Stanley Johnson.
None of them have panned out, though. Cauley-Stein isn't a switch-everything big with disarming offensive range. Mudiay isn't John Wall reincarnated. Johnson isn't Jimmy Butler 1.5.
3. Mario Hezonja, Orlando Magic
Pick Number: 5
Mario Hezonja could be tethered to the WCS-Mudiay-Johnson trio. I mean, yeesh, picks five through nine (hang on a sec!) of this draft were caps-lock brutal. Treating those selections as an aggregate failure, because they were always going to wind up somewhere inside the top 10, is fine.
Expectations are just different for top-five selections, even from drafts that don't wow in the moment. (Note: This wasn't considered a lukewarm class in real time.) Hezonja tantalized with his athleticism and shooting, a functional meld that never translated to anything resembling stardom, or fringe stardom, or even a reliable starter.
Orlando gave up on him before he finished his rookie contract, electing to decline his fourth-year option. This brand of miss is a major blow for a franchise that was, and still is, searching for its first genuine cornerstone post-Dwight Howard. Failing to hit on a top-five pick just plain sucks in general. It hurts even more when the player in question finds a suitable permanent home, something Hezonja has yet to do after stops with the New York Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers. (He has a player option to stick in Portland next season.)
2. Frank Kaminsky, Charlotte Hornets
Pick Number: 9
Frank Kaminsky, it can be argued, doesn't belong here. He is the lowest pick of the five and has probably carved out the most effective career. He has two seasons of at least league-averageish three-point shooting under his belt, and ninth overall selections don't face the same pressure as top-five choices.
But the Hornets turned down four first-round picks from the Boston Celtics to move No. 9. That is unforgivable unless you end up drafting a star. They didn't. Kaminsky played out his four-year rookie contract and left for Phoenix during the 2019 offseason.
This isn't a tale of woe because of Myles Turner at No. 11 or Devin Booker at No. 13. Plenty of other teams passed on them, too. But the decision to rebuff Boston's offer didn't compute then, and it most certainly doesn't now.
1. Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers
Pick Number: 3
Philly might be able to plead consensus on its Jahlil Okafor draft pick. He was in the running for the No. 1 pick before Karl-Anthony Towns went kaboom. This was, simply, an organization taking the best player available.
And yet, the Sixers already had Joel Embiid. He didn't make his debut until two years after the 2014 draft, but they still had him. And they had Nerlens Noel.
Adding a lumbering big who didn't project to space the floor or anchor a defense should've been deemed dangerous regardless of roster context. The league was moving in the complete opposite direction. Burning another top selection on a third center made the optics worse, particularly when the Sixers didn't immediately move any of them. They couldn't play together, and it created an aura of combustibility to an already-flammable situation.
Whether Philly could have pivoted into anything better is a matter of perspective. Kristaps Porzingis, taken at No. 4, wouldn't work out for the team. No one was talking about Booker at No. 3. Still, the scale at which the Sixers were thrown is monstrous. They used the third pick on a player they later threw in to a trade that landed them—*checks notes*—Trevor Booker.
Notable Exclusions: Kris Dunn (No. 5) and Denzel Valentine (No. 14)
Kris Dunn has not followed the arc of what a top-five pick is supposed to be. Stardom felt like a possibility if he improved his jumper and decision-making on the ball. Both issues have followed him into the NBA.
Maybe Dunn constitutes a flop for the Minnesota Timberwolves if they don't trade him. They did. He was among the assets they sent out in the Jimmy Butler trade, a fantastic acquisition they then botched. Even if Dunn stuck around, it might not have mattered. He has developed into a viable three-position defender and would've made an All-Defensive team this past year if he never sprained his right MCL.
Denzel Valentine doesn't fit the bill of a flop, either. He was drafted at the end of the lottery, and health has plagued him more so than ability. Left knee and ankle injuries have hindered his place in the league—specifically on the Bulls—but shooters who can, ya know, actually shoot always have use.
4. Thon Maker, Milwaukee Bucks
Pick Number: 10
The Bucks seemed to outsmart themselves by taking Thon Maker at No. 10. It registered as an immediate risk, but they rolled the dice on Giannis Antetokounmpo three years earlier and look how that turned out.
Selecting Maker was a flex. He was their secret unicorn. But not really. He has some to stretch to his game and not much else. His defensive role is nonexistent. He shouldn't be the primary backline rim protector and can be overmatched versus 4s. He has never held down a high-minutes spot in the rotation and often fouls too much when his court time is lengthened.
Milwaukee eventually shipped out Maker and a trillion seconds in a deal that earned it a Nikola Mirotic rental. Its mistake is mitigated by an absence of can't-miss players who went after No. 10. Would the Bucks have taken Domantas Sabonis (pick No. 11)? Would he have turned into what he is now with Giannis emerging and their offensive fit less than seamless? Would they have taken Malik Beasley (No. 19)? Could they have talked themselves into the then-injured Caris LeVert (No. 20)?
3. Marquese Chriss, Phoenix Suns
Pick Number: 8
Marquese Chriss rebooted some of his stock with the Golden State Warriors this year—his passing was a revelation—but that does nothing for the Suns. They traded him after his second season, along with Brandon Knight, to the Houston Rockets for Ryan Anderson and De'Anthony Melton.
Taking Chriss at all didn't receive much criticism. The Suns had already selected Dragan Bender at No. 4, but this was viewed as their stacking two project bigs on top of each other, in hopes one would hit or that they could play together. It was Phoenix leaning into boom-or-bust investments.
Perhaps this pick isn't viewed so unfavorably if the Suns didn't move up to get it. Not much thought was given to the price at the time, but they sent the Sacramento Kings No. 13 (Georgios Papagiannis), No. 28 (Skal Labissiere), Bogdan Bogdanovic and the Detroit Pistons' 2020 second-rounder. Knowing how Bogdanovic has since fared after coming stateside, this looms as a bitter decision.
2. Georgios Papagiannis, Sacramento Kings
Pick Number: 13
Choosing Papagiannis at No. 13 is one of those mistakes that seemed so overwhelmingly obvious from the moment his name was called. As Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal wrote on draft night:
"Papagiannis is massive, standing at 7'2" and weighing 240 pounds. He's an incredibly strong prospect with good low-post skills, though there are some questions about his motor. And that's troubling, especially since it was a massive reach for the Kings to take him in the lottery. Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman had him at No. 48 on his Big Board. DraftExpress had him at No. 50.
"The value here is just plain awful, even factoring in the other assets Sacramento got for the No. 8 selection. Plus, why are the Kings using their top pick on a 5 when the roster's two centerpieces—DeMarcus Cousins and Willie Cauley-Stein—both line up in the frontcourt?"
Time has not helped Sacramento's selection. Papagiannis appeared in 38 games across one-season-and-change before getting released and hasn't played in the NBA since 2018. The Kings evade the worst slot only because end-of-lottery flubs aren't franchise-crippling, and they did, to their credit, snag Bogdanovic as part of the trade-down scenario.
1. Dragan Bender, Phoenix Suns
Pick Number: 4
Three-point shooting. Ball-handling. The ability to run the floor. The potential to hold up defensively. Bender had it all.
Except, he actually didn't.
Pretty much nothing from his predraft scouting report translated to the NBA. His 36.6 percent clip from downtown as a sophomore, when he averaged a career-high 25.2 minutes per game, provided only a glimmer of hope. The Suns invariably declined his fourth-year option, and he ended the 2019-20 season having signed a second 10-day contract with the Warriors.
It doesn't help that Buddy Hield (No. 6) and Jamal Murray (No. 7) are on track for stellar careers. Then again, who knows whether Phoenix touches either one with Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker and Brandon Knight already on the docket. The real kicker is in the net opportunity cost: The Suns burned two top-10 picks—plus trade assets—on two tweener bigs, neither of whom finished out the life on their rookie deals.
Notable Exclusions: Frank Ntilikina (No. 8)
Yes, in the most basic sense, Frank Ntilikina was not the right choice for the Knicks. Donovan Mitchell (No. 13), Bam Adebayo (No. 14), John Collins (No. 19) and OG Anunoby (No. 23), among other more impactful players, were taken after him.
But flops cannot solely be measured by who went after particular players. That presumes the Knicks would've taken any one of them instead. Big boards are different in real time. If not Ntilikina, they probably would've selected Dennis Smith Jr., in which case they'd still be here.
Besides, at least part of Ntilikina's minimal value is rooted in misuse. New York has deployed him inconsistently and in warring lineup capacities. His defense has largely stood the test of that unpredictability. The Knicks have allowed noticeably fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the court in each of his first three seasons. Chances of him actualizing his top-eight status aren't great, but this whiff isn't nearly at the level of those in front of him.
3. Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas Mavericks
Pick Number: 9
Dennis Smith Jr.'s bouncy offense was celebrated ad nauseam entering the 2017 draft. He was the player teams in front of the Mavericks would regret not taking. Superstardom was in play if his perimeter shooting could stabilize.
What has since followed almost couldn't be further from projections. Smith has not only failed to meet lofty expectations amid the best situations—Dallas gave up on him in Year 2, and injuries have dogged him in New York—but he's still failed, entirely, to meet expectations.
Among every player who logged as many minutes and matched his usage rate through their first three seasons, Smith's 47.5 true shooting percentage ranks dead last. He doesn't turn 23 until November, and youngsters tasked with running and driving offenses have higher-variance learning curves. Only 45 players have actually matched his usage through their first three seasons. That matters.
Smith's inefficiency—and total offensive collapse in New York—still isn't a good harbinger. The Mavericks themselves would be vulnerable to more criticism for this pick if he didn't help them complete the Kristaps Porzingis trade.
2. Josh Jackson, Phoenix Suns
Pick Number: 4
Josh Jackson may be working toward reestablishing his value. He averaged 20.3 points and 4.3 assists in extensive G League action this year while downing 38 percent of his threes. His time with the Memphis Grizzlies wasn't as splashy, but he seems more disciplined away from the ball on defense and has a better feel for offense in the half-court.
That doesn't help the Suns. They drafted him at No. 4, one year after taking Bender at No. 4, with plenty of real-time alternatives on the board. (De'Aaron Fox (No. 5) and Jonathan Isaac (No. 6) are the two biggest what-ifs.)
To Phoenix's credit, Jackson wasn't considered a reach. Taking a playmaking wing who could shoot and defend bordered on a no-brainer. (For what it's worth: I myself said some pretty enthusiastic things about Jackson leading up to and after the draft.) This whole process is a giant crapshoot. I can't reiterate that enough.
But you can't bonk the No. 4 pick in a quality draft without facing retroactive callouts like this one. And the Suns' miscue is exacerbated by its ending. They needed to surrender De'Anthony Melton and two seconds (2020 and 2021) to unload him on the Grizzlies for cap relief, Kyle Korver (who they waived) and Jevon Carter (interesting!).
1. Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers
Pick Number: 1
Markelle Fultz has successfully escaped all-time-bust territory over the past year or so. There's a lot to unpack in that sentence.
This year proved that Fultz belongs in the NBA. He stayed healthy, hotfooted his way to the basket, created opportunities for teammates on drives and shot 50 percent from mid-range after the All-Star break. The Magic picked up his fourth-year option worth $12.3 million, a price point that doesn't seem so steep anymore.
That's all great, and feel-good, but Fultz was a No. 1 pick. Every first overall selection is forever judged against superstar goals, unless you're Anthony Bennett. More than that, Fultz isn't salvaging his career with the Sixers, the team that bought him high and sold him low.
Philly sent No. 3 (Jayson Tatum) and what became No. 14 in 2019 (Romeo Langford) to the Celtics in exchange for moving up two spots and securing the rights to draft Fultz. And make no mistake, Fultz was the pick. Tatum and Boston say he would've been the team's choice either way, but that didn't jibe with the consensus. Fultz had a top-pick monopoly.
Right shoulder issues limited him to just 33 appearances through one-plus seasons with the Sixers. They traded him to Orlando midway through his second year...for the grand price of Jonathon Simmons, a 2019 second-round pick (Carsen Edwards) and Oklahoma City's 2020 first (No. 21). The scale at which they failed is gigantic; there is no higher level.
Fultz was supposed to complete their Big Three and budding giant. The end result instead left them to ramble along without him, scramble to invest in finishing-piece trades elsewhere and accept a pittance as part of his exit.
Notable Exclusions: Deandre Ayton (No. 1) and Trae Young (No. 5)
Deandre Ayton and Trae Young will forever be linked to Luka Doncic, because they are not Luka Doncic, and because one of them was traded for Luka Doncic. But they're also their own players, with their own careers, and they're damn good.
Young is already an All-Star, and Ayton, after making serious strides on defense, is a dependable jumper away from entering the elite-big discussion. Phoenix and Atlanta, respectively, missed on the much better player in their draft slots. They didn't pick bad ones.
4. Mo Bamba, Orlando Magic
Pick Number: 6
Two years into his career, Mo Bamba doesn't look like he'll ever come close to living up to his hype entering the 2018 draft. His size, absurd wingspan and shooting had him firmly in the top-five running, a significant feat given the ridiculous depth of the 2018 rookie class.
Injuries and opportunity haven't helped his case. A left tibia issue prematurely ended his inaugural campaign, and the Magic had, and continue to have, a logjam up front with Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Nikola Vucevic. But Bamba hasn't exactly done his part. He has yet to shoot a league-average clip from deep or even decidedly beat out Khem Birch for secondary big minutes.
On the flip side, Bamba's three-point percentage did jump by 4.6 points from his rookie to sophomore season, and his shot-blocking continues to be an asset in small bursts. He closed 2019-20 averaging 3.5 swats per 36 minutes, and opponents saw their accuracy inside six feet drop 10.5 percentage points below their normal rate when being challenged by him.
All of which renders Bamba something of an enduring a mystery box. That works in service of preserving hope for his future. But the Magic needed to make more of their top-six pick in a ludicrously talented draft. And it most certainly doesn't bode well for them that Bamba's best-case scenario includes their finding a new home for him or Vucevic.
3. Jerome Robinson, Los Angeles Clippers
Pick Number: 13
Jerome Robinson has used his time with the Washington Wizards to show he has NBA minutes in him. His bubble performance in particular hinted at a more reliable microwave scorer. He averaged 14.8 points and 2.8 assists while downing 36.7 percent of his treys through those eight games—though his efficiency dipped after his first outing, in which he went 7-of-9 from the floor.
Questions abound about his future in Washington. He isn't clearing 25-plus minutes per game following the return of John Wall. Nor is he the type of player who's accustomed to spending large swathes of time off the ball. He may need more touches to develop than the Wizards can afford to give.
Of course, Robinson could explode in Washington, and it wouldn't do anything for the Clippers. Taking him when they already had Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and acquired Shai Gilgeous-Alexander felt a little redundant. They never had the runway to give him ample opportunity, and his greatest contribution came as the salary cog in the three-team deal that net them Marcus Morris Sr.
2. Kevin Knox, New York Knicks
Pick Number: 9
Kevin Knox coaxed observers into a state of hoppy optimism thanks to his 2018 summer-league performance. He flashed off-the-dribble shot-making and pick-and-roll initiation. What did it matter that he converted under 35 percent of his twos and left Las Vegas with more turnovers than assists? It looked promising.
So much for that.
Knox's first two seasons with the Knicks have been disastrous. He is shooting under 39 percent inside the arc for his career and saw his efficiency drop amid a less-prominent role as a sophomore. New York hasn't given him nearly as much control over the offense as he enjoyed during summer league, but he never projected as a primary creator.
To be sure, the Knicks haven't made his life easy. His playing time has waxed and waned, and they don't have the table-setters necessary to set him up for high-quality looks or the shooting around him to let him plumb the depths of his on-ball creation. They'll be lucky to sell medium on him if he can't turn into a viable catch-and-fire marksman.
Striking out at No. 9 doesn't usually warrant so much hair-pulling, but distinct alternatives were still on the board. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made too much sense in the moment, and if the Knicks didn't want to invest in an older rookie like Mikal Bridges, they certainly could have afforded to take Michael Porter Jr. and give him a redshirt year.
1. Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings
Pick Number: 2
I count myself as a Marvin Bagley III optimist. The tail end to his rookie season swayed me. He buried 40 percent of his threes after the trade deadline and displayed better, more deliberate movement without the ball. His comfort level on turnaround jumpers was chef's kiss material. They weren't always the smartest looks and he wasn't an efficient post player, but he sank 54.2 percent of his hook shots and 51.6 percent of his turnaround hooks.
This was never going to help him escape the Boogieman, Luka Doncic. It might've been enough to sneak him into the Ayton and Young tier: good players, wrong choices. But Bagley's sophomore season did more harm than good. Injuries limited him to 13 appearances, and the games he played did nothing to quash concerns about whether he'll hang defensively at either the 4 or 5.
The good news: Bagley is just 21. He has time to become a really good NBA player. For now, he's the guy who played in just 75 games over his first two seasons when the Kings could have taken Luka Doncic.
First, an aside: Declaring any decision a concrete flop after just one season is bad form. All these players have plenty of time to reinvent their stock. Some may only be here by virtue of unideal team fits. In immediate retrospect, though, their selections don't yet pass the sniff test and are worth monitoring over the next couple of years.
Notable Exclusion: Darius Garland (No. 5)
First impressions of Darius Garland are a mixed bag. The Cleveland Cavaliers might be better off with Coby White (No. 7)—Tyler Herro (No. 13) wasn't on anybody's radar this high—and he's less intriguing long term, for now, than Kevin Porter Jr. and Collin Sexton. But his rookie campaign wasn't exactly discouraging.
Fresh off a left meniscus injury that held him to just five games at Vanderbilt, Garland always warranted a more gradual learning curve. His feel in the half-court was less manic and more controlled by season's end, and as Nylon Calculus' Ian Levy wrote, his shooting didn't disappoint:
Garland shot a robust, 39.2 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts, ranking in the 65th percentile among the 45 players in this sample. His overall percentage was dragged down because he attempted 142 pull-up 3-pointers last season, the 11th-highest total of all rookies in the sample. He made just 31.7 percent but even that ranked in the 61st percentile. Just seven players in the 45-person sample ranked in the 60th percentile or better in both pull-ups and catch-and-shoot attempts and Garland was among a smaller group of just five—along with Tyler Herro, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield and Sexton—who did so on at least 100 attempts of each shot variety.
Honorable Mention: Alen Smailagic, Golden State Warriors
Pick Number: 39
Rules were meant to be broken, so I'm throwing away the "lottery picks only" shackles. Sort of. Alen Smailagic isn't getting the full-on nod, but the 2019 draft class is so ultra-recent that going partially renegade in the form of an honorable mention feels OK.
Second-round picks aren't supposed to be framed as wrong-footed decisions. They are taken under the guise of extremely mild to nonexistent expectations. But the Warriors forked over two second-rounders, in 2021 and 2023, plus $1 million to get Smailagic, only for him to spend most of his time in the G League and not really impress for long stretches there or with the big club.
His crowning achievement? Missing a dunk so badly that Stephen Curry laughed himself into a coma.
2. RJ Barrett, New York Knicks
Pick Number: 3
RJ Barrett is only 20. I repeat: RJ Barrett is only 20. He has time to grow. And he already knows how to use his size and strength on offense. That self-awareness just hasn't translated to quality finishing.
Three-point shooting was always going to be his swing skill. His 33.3 percent hit rate on wide-open treys incites neither intense unease or confidence. His 54 percent clip at the rim (22nd percentile), where nearly half of his looks came, is a different story. Ditto for his 61.4 percent shooting at the foul line. And his 28 percent success rate from mid-range.
The Knicks have yet to do Barrett any favors. Their failure, so far, to surround him with an adequate number of floor-spacers is inexplicable. It likewise matters that Barrett was a consensus top-three pick. New York wasn't taking White or Herro.
Still, the list of rookies to match Barrett's usage (24) and then post a true shooting percentage below 58 is hardly comforting. Kemba Walker looms as a success story, but the remaining members of that club never entrenched themselves as stars.
1. Jarrett Culver, Minnesota Timberwolves
Jarrett Culver has proved to be portable after only a year in the league, but he enters his sophomore season still without a clear offensive role.
Playing alongside so many other scorers complicates matters. Malik Beasley (restricted), D'Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns all have to eat first. But Culver didn't provide many positive offensive indicators. He shot 33.7 percent on wide-open threes; 29.3 percent on all catch-and-fire triples; 29.2 percent on pull-up treys; 54 percent at the rim (27th percentile); and 38.8 percent on drives—the 11th-lowest mark among 138 players with at least 100 field-goal attempts.
Unless the Timberwolves are married to the idea of using him as a backup point guard, Culver really needs to get his standstill jumper down. He did can 38 percent of his triples over his final 30 outings, but that clip must hold up for longer than a half-season and in games that matter before it's considered a new normal.
Minnesota's exposure is considerable if Culver doesn't find an offensive niche. It cost Dario Saric and Cameron Johnson to get him. Neither would do much for the Wolves defense, but they are both—especially Johnson—cleaner fits beside Russell and Towns.