Ranking the Greatest Draft Steals in Modern NBA History

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 28, 2020

Ranking the Greatest Draft Steals in Modern NBA History

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Let's make one thing clear right out of the gate: There is no one way to define an NBA draft steal. They come in all forms, at all spots, through many different means.

    First overall picks can be draft steals. Sure, they're held to higher, often superstar, standards. But LeBron James didn't enter the league in 2003 under the presumption that he'd become a consensus top-two player of all time.

    Late-lottery selections can be steals. No one's expecting to get Devin Booker-level value out of the No. 13 spot. Later picks can be even bigger steals. Giannis Antetokounmpo was taken just outside the lottery, at No. 15. Jimmy Butler was taken at No. 30.

    Draft-day trades can be steals. Kawhi Leonard straddles two lines. Finals MVP value isn't expected out of No. 15, but does he follow the same megastar trajectory if he lands with the Indiana Pacers instead of the San Antonio Spurs?

    This particular look into draft-day bargains ignores all of these instances and instead focuses on second-round picks since 1989, when the league switched to a two-round format. It's a subjective interpretation, but not an arbitrary one.

    The expected value of a prospect dwindles as the draft wears on. Teams don't bank on gleaning the same impact from a second-rounder as they do from a top-five selection or lottery choice. This exercise seeks to celebrate the best of the most unlikely careers relative to their draft position.

    No singular set of criteria will determine these rankings. They try to juggle the height of a player's peak with the longevity of his prime. What's already happened matters a great deal, but career forecasts will be weighted for active candidates whenever it's prudent.

    Let's roll.

Honorable Mentions

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    These folks were all considered for one of our seven spots but juuust missed the cut. They remain all-time steals regardless:

    • Toni Kukoc (No. 29 in 1990)
    • Nick Van Exel (No. 37 in 1993)
    • Rashard Lewis (No. 32 in 1998)
    • Michael Redd (No. 43 in 2000)
    • Kyle Korver (No. 51 in 2003)
    • Lou Williams (No. 45 in 2005)
    • DeAndre Jordan (No. 35 in 2008)
    • Goran Dragic (No. 45 in 2008)
    • Khris Middleton (No. 39 in 2012)

7. Isaiah Thomas (2011)

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Pick Number: 60

    Career Averages: 18.1 points, 2.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 0.9 steals, 57.5 true shooting percentage

    Resume Notables: 1x All-NBA; 2x All-Star; fifth place on 2016-17 MVP ballot

    Isaiah Thomas defied his draft position by taking the floor at all.

    Last picks aren't called "Mr. Irrelevant" just because. That designation, while crass, nods to the relative impossibility of mining value from this spot. Teams aren't smart for grabbing useful players so late in the draft. They're lucky.

    And in 2011, the Sacramento Kings got really lucky.

    Thomas is most remembered for his two-plus seasons with the Boston Celtics—and rightly so. That short span represented his apex. But he was annihilating expectations, insofar as there were any, long before arriving in Boston. He cleared 20 points per game by his third season and was a sought-after option in free agency that summer, when he landed with the Phoenix Suns in a sign-and-trade.

    A failed three-point-guard experiment later, he ended up on the Celtics. His performance in Boston didn't make sense. He averaged 24.7 points and 6.0 assists during his time there. How could someone standing 5'9" be the engine for an offense of an Eastern Conference irritant and, eventually, fringe contender?

    The 2016-17 campaign was his magnum opus. He put up 28.9 points (third-most in the league) and 5.9 assists while converting 52.8 percent of his twos and 37.9 percent of his threes. The gravity of that season, which earned him a top-five MVP finish, cannot be overstated. Larry Bird and Stephen Curry remain the only other players to maintain those per-game benchmarks for an entire year.

    Larry freaking Bird. And Stephen freaking Curry.

    Others might have the impulse to discredit Thomas' spot for a lack of longevity. A hip injury has derailed his career following his 2016-17 masterpiece. The Celtics traded him that summer, and he has appeared in just 84 games since. He didn't finish the 2019-20 season on a roster.

    Pish posh. Thomas' absolute pinnacle was bonkers, and even if his hip issue robs him of any more meaningful moments—he's apparently pain-free for the first time in years—his prime still included more than a half-decade of high-impact offense. Getting that much value from the last pick in the draft remains unfathomable.

6. Gilbert Arenas (2001)

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    PAUL SAKUMA/Associated Press

    Pick Number: 31

    Career Averages: 20.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 54.7 true shooting percentage

    Resume Notables: 3x All-NBA; 3x All-Star; 2002-03 Most Improved Player

    Gilbert Arenas is difficult to place within this discussion.

    His peak was lofty, the kind usually reserved for franchise cornerstones. It was also finite. He enjoyed five fullish seasons at his most sublime level, a much shorter window than anyone in front of him.

    Then again, whoa, was that peak lofty. He averaged 24.4 points, 5.7 assists and 1.8 steals while hitting 36.1 percent of his threes between 2002-03 and 2006-07. He could be mentioned in the same breath as Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady without it sounding incoherent.

    At the same time, Arenas never headlined any truly elite teams during his most productive years. How much of that falls on him is debatable. But you'd still expect someone with his output to finish higher than 16th in value over replacement player (VORP) during that time.

    Nitpicky much? Determining how much of a steal Arenas was qualifies as a 1 percenter's problem. Second-rounders aren't supposed to become recurring All-NBA players. He didn't defy the odds; he broke them. And he'd have stronger footing within this conversation if not for knee injuries truncating—and ending—his prime.

5. Paul Millsap (2006)

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    Douglas C. Pizac/Associated Press

    Pick Number: 47

    Career Averages: 14.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.0 blocks, 56.0 true shooting percentage

    Resume Notables: 4x All-Star; 1x All-Defense

    Paul Millsap's career arc has been something of a slow burn. He obliterated expectations immediately, appearing in all 82 of the Utah Jazz's games as a rookie and in three of his first four seasons. Had his trajectory held serve after his first seven years, he'd still be remembered among the most ridiculous steals.

    But his stock exploded once he joined the Atlanta Hawks as a free agent in 2013. He was, essentially, the 2010-11 version of himself every year. Slightly higher usage gave way to more sustained scoring, and he endeared himself to hoops nerds as one of the league's most portable defenders—not quite positionless, but a paragon of switchiness.

    That Millsap made only one All-Defense team feels criminal in hindsight. Under-recognition is an occupational hazard for someone who was never the primary backbone of an entire system, and many of the Jazz squads he contributed to most were far from elite on the less glamorous end. Still, he easily could've, and perhaps should've, earned nods in 2014-15 and 2016-17.

    It'll be interesting to look back upon Millsap's resume, in full, once he retires. Not everyone would slot him here, ahead of Gilbert Arenas and Isaiah Thomas, both of whom turned in higher peaks. But Millsap's longevity is king. He has been a critical rotation player in 12 of his 14 seasons and isn't yet done.

    Even at 35, even as he showed his age throughout the 2020 postseason, Millsap has personified functional scalability. He just fits, everywhere, alongside anyone. And his defensive value endures. The Denver Nuggets will have to figure out how to replace him if he leaves in free agency. Pivoting entirely into Jerami Grant (player option) probably won't be enough on its own.

    The breadth of Millsap's impact is best viewed through his versatility. Among everyone who has logged at least 5,000 career minutes, only two other players have maintained his defensive rebound, assist, steal and block rates: DeMarcus Cousins and Draymond Green. Not too shabby for someone barely drafted inside the top 50, eh?

4. Marc Gasol (2007)

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Pick Number: 48

    Career Averages: 14.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.4 blocks, 55.6 true shooting percentage

    Resume Notables: 1x champion; 2x All-NBA; 1x All-Defense; 3x All-Star; 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year

    Remember when Marc Gasol was considered a throw-in to the trade that landed Pau Gasol, his brother, with the Los Angeles Lakers? Good times.

    Marc Gasol's longevity gives him a case over two of the players still to come. It would be more airtight if he tapped into his higher-volume side earlier. His best scoring seasons came toward the tail end of his time with the Memphis Grizzlies, more than a half-decade into his career.

    This is hardly an insult. That there was a theoretical path to his going down as one of the two biggest draft steals in modern history is more so that point.

    What he actually became is still astounding. He is among the best passing bigs of all time and the smartest defenders of the era at his position. Like Paul Millsap, his singular All-Defense selection is preposterous in its loneliness. He and Tony Allen were the heart and soul of the Grit 'n' Grind Grizzlies' peskiness. Gasol's recurring absence from the All-Defense squads between 2010 and 2015ish speaks to the ambiguity of the selection process—he made second-team All-Defense when he won DPOY—along with the stigma tied to centers without ludicrously high rebound and block totals.

    Surviving the shift toward positionless basketball might be Gasol's greatest feat. His defensive utility waxed and waned in the years following his 2013 DPOY, but he remains a whiz at using space to his advantage, and his ability to stretch his range beyond the three-point line both era-proofed him and further ensured he could work as either a playmaking hub or offensive complement.

3. Draymond Green (2012)

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Pick Number: 35

    Career Averages: 9.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks, 53.1 true shooting percentage

    Resume Notables: 3x champion; 2x All-NBA; 5x All-Defense; 3x All-Star; 2016-17 Defensive Player of the Year

    Draymond Green's career has not yet spanned as long as those of Marc Gasol and Paul Millsap. And, in theory, his ascent into stardom shouldn't be as shocking, since he was taken close to the first round.

    But let's be real: He championed a defense that both spearheaded an actual dynasty and changed the way we look at, think about and evaluate defensive systems and the players who populate them.

    Never mind the numbers. He has them, in droves, satisfying both counting-stat and granular-details criteria. His impact is most evident when reflecting upon the imprint it has left.

    "Switchability" became a mainstream buzzword at least in part because of him. He can guard all five positions, seamlessly and effectively, while instructing those around him. Watch him off the ball, at the absolute peak of his powers and focus, and he's breaking up plays before they happen, anticipating an offensive player's next move before even he probably knows it. Eyes will water trying to keep track of all he's doing on single possessions.

    Combine generational defense with his downhill playmaking, and you get one of the most versatile players in league history. The search for the next Draymond Green started once he rose to prominence and remains a parameter to this day.

    He hasn't quite invented a player archetype, but he's sure as hell redefined the value of one.

2. Nikola Jokic (2014)

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Pick Number: 41

    Career Averages: 17.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.7 blocks, 60.4 true shooting percentage

    Resume Notables: 2x All-NBA; 2x All-Star

    Some will be inclined to stash Nikola Jokic behind Marc Gasol and Draymond Green—and maybe even lower. He has just five seasons under his belt, only four of which adequately represent his peak.

    Here's the thing: That peak is higher than that from anyone on this list, save for maybe Gilbert Arenas, including the lone player to come after him.

    Neither Gasol nor Green topped out as a top-10 player. Jokic has entrenched himself in that conversation for the past two years, if not three. He already has two top-10 MVP finishes to his name—and one top five. Gasol, Green and Paul Millsap have two top-10 MVP spots between them, not one of which is top five.

    Factoring in the brevity of Jokic's career to date is fair. But projecting what's to come is equally so. He is the best passing big man the NBA has ever seen, someone who not only elevates the offense of his teammates but also can almost entirely sustain them.

    Criticisms of his scoring mentality no longer hold weight—not that they ever did. He is averaging 18.8 points per game over the past four seasons and has developed into one of the league's most dependable closers since 2018-19. No one dropped in more crunch-time buckets than him this year.

    Questioning whether he can be the best player on a title contender is similarly futile. He already is that player. The Nuggets are fresh off a Western Conference Finals appearance that, despite overcoming two 3-1 series deficits, was neither an accident nor solely because of Jamal Murray's molten moments.

    Catch-all metrics are an imperfect means of gauging a player's entire value, but they tell at least part of the story. Since entering the league, Jokic ranks 11th in win shares, sixth in VORP and ninth in regularized adjusted plus-minus. That is an accurate snapshot of where he currently stands relative to the rest of the Association's stars, and it suggests an arc that could eventually, if inevitably, render him the single biggest draft steal of the lottery era.

1. Manu Ginobili (1999)

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    Darren Abate/Associated Press

    Pick Number: 57

    Career Averages: 13.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 58.2 true shooting percentage

    Resume Notables: 4x champion; 2x All-NBA; 2x All-Star; 2007-08 Sixth Man of the Year

    Manu Ginobili's career is at once success in long form and a model of potential deliberately unplumbed.

    The resume is ridiculous as it stands. Ginobili played 16 seasons, all of them in San Antonio, during which he supported aggregate dominance. The Spurs never won back-to-back titles, but they were a dynasty by virtue of their ubiquity.

    And they endured well past any reasonably expected shelf life in part thanks to Ginobili's timelessness. Long after he stopped playing at an All-Star level, he brought offensive flair in smaller bursts. San Antonio could rely on him to jump-start the offense, play off Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and, obviously, give head coach Gregg Popovich wrinkled-forehead face-palm syndrome with his theatrical, verging on reckless, drives to the basket.

    Extracting any value from what was the second-to-last pick in the draft would've been wild in its own right. Ginobili cobbled together a Hall of Fame career, all without, potentially, exploring the full scope of his talent.

    What if he didn't spend a lion's share of his prime coming off the bench? Starter status may be overrated, and running with second units no doubt helped inflate his usage, but serving as a backup also inherently capped his minutes. What if he was always a 30-plus-minutes-per-game player, like he was in 2007-08, when he averaged 19.5 points and 4.5 assists and bagged his only Sixth Man of the Year Award?

    This isn't meant to be one of those painful pangs of wonder. Ginobili's role was mutually beneficial to he and the Spurs, and he doesn't struggle to stand on his own historically. His career averages of 18.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.9 steals per 36 minutes are, as of now, matched by only three other players: Clyde Drexler, Magic Johnson and Jerry West.

            

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Adam Fromal.