Which No.1 NBA Draft Picks from Last 5 Years Would Still Go First Overall?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 10, 2020

Which No.1 NBA Draft Picks from Last 5 Years Would Still Go First Overall?

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Why yes, another relitigation of past NBA drafts does sound good.

    Those allergic to repetition needn't worry. This lookback is a little bit different. There will be no redrafting of an entire class. Nor are we scouring previous lotteries for busts or even searching for steals.

    We are instead asking one simple, salient question: Would the past five No. 1 selections still go first overall if their drafts were held right now?

    Similar exercises would make this a matter of identifying the best player from every class. That's not this—well, not technically.

    Fit will be weighed if the situation allows for it. First overall picks are typically about taking the best player available, as are most redrafts. But the benefit of hindsight, along with a smaller sample of past choices, is in the granular details. We now know what teams that were on the clock at No. 1 need years into the future. That opens the door to weigh prospective fits whenever we have a close call.

    To the time machine!

2015: Karl-Anthony Towns

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Karl-Anthony Towns catches a lot of flak for his inconsistent defensive motor and execution, but the Minnesota Timberwolves wouldn't have to think twice if given the chance to take a mulligan. They made the right choice.

    By a mile.

    Towns is one of the most complete offensive bigs of all time. His role doesn't call for the facilitation of Nikola Jokic, but his scoring arsenal knows no constraints. He is both fury and finesse, someone capable of bullying or outmaneuvering opponents on the block and attacking outside-in off the dribble.

    The spacing he guarantees is divine. He has put down 40 percent of his three-pointers in each of the past three seasons, and Brook Lopez is the only center who has hit more triples since Towns entered the league...while appearing in 13 more games.

    And hey: KAT was quietly averaging a career-high 4.4 assists when he fractured his left wrist midway through February.

    He's doing a better job passing out of double-teams and has even shown the capacity to make less obvious finds when given time to survey the floor. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Charles Barkley are the only other players to clear 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists per game for an entire season with a higher true shooting percentage. (Note: Towns made just 35 appearances in 2019-20.)

    No one else from the 2015 class will sniff KAT's sustainable peak. Devin Booker (No. 13) is the next-best option, and he's closer to a top-30 player than the top 10. D'Angelo Russell (No. 2) is closer to top-50. Kristaps Porzingis (No. 4) probably still doesn't hold a candle to Towns in an alternate universe in which he's injury-free his entire career.

    Conversations about whether Towns can be the best player on a championship team will continue. That's not unfair. So few fall into that category.

    At the same time, just nine players finished ahead of him in regularized adjusted plus-minus this season after accounting for luck, according to NBA Shot Charts. If Towns, who is only about to turn 25, doesn't reach best-player-on-a-title-contender territory, he's on track to come awfully close.

    Verdict: Towns, by far and away, remains the No. 1 pick.

2016: Ben Simmons

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Ben Simmons had a monopoly on top-pick stock in 2016. Hindsight might compel some to strip it from him.

    Jaylen Brown (No. 3) is a more universal fit. Brandon Ingram (No. 2) is a point wing who can actually shoot. Jamal Murray (No. 7) doesn't provide nearly as much defensive optionality, but he's volcanic from ranges beyond three feet. Pascal Siakam (No. 27) offers more shooting and comparable defensive portability, and he's being groomed as the Toronto Raptors' lead initiator.

    Resist whatever urge there might be to side with one of the alternatives. And just so we're clear, said urge shouldn't be that strong.

    Going against Simmons places too much emphasis on his finite range. No, he doesn't pose a threat to score from the perimeter. But he's established himself as one of the league's best defenders and passers through his first three seasons.

    Simmons spent at least 17 percent of his time guarding every position on the floor this past year, save for center, according to BBall Index's Krishna Narsu. And among all players who logged at least 1,000 minutes, only Terrance Ferguson and Royce O'Neale defended No. 1 options on a more frequent basis.

    Though he doesn't hit threes himself, Simmons tees up quality triples for his teammates as much as anyone—if not more than anyone. Look at where he's ranked in total points generated from long distance off assists since his first season, per PBP Stats:

    Having Simmons should dictate how the rest of the roster gets fleshed out. That's not actually a problem. The Philadelphia 76ers have made a chore of it so far, but he's a player around whom you build a team.

    And even after baking in his imperfect, albeit not-at-all-doomed, fit with Joel Embiid, there's no convincing evidence that Philly would be better off replacing him with Brown, Ingram, Murray or Siakam—none of whom, for all they do, have the ceiling of someone who can lead the league in assists and win Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.

    Verdict: Simmons remains the correct pick almost a half-decade later.

2017: Markelle Fultz

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Now this is a pick Philadelphia should want back.

    Selecting Markelle Fultz at No. 1 is hardly unforgivable. He was the consensus choice. The Sixers were largely applauded for trading up—surrendering the No. 3 pick (Jayson Tatum) and what became the No. 14 pick in 2019 (Romeo Langford)—and attempting to complete a Big Three nucleus that already included Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

    Sometimes, though, things go wrong. Extremely wrong. This is one of those times.

    Right shoulder issues and thoracic outlet syndrome limited Fultz to just 33 games through his season-plus in Philly, during which time he seldom, if ever, looked like an NBA rotation player. He certainly wasn't someone who could co-headline the Big Three of a franchise that wanted to win now.

    The Sixers' failed dice roll is exacerbated by the relative pittance they accepted to move him at the 2019 trade deadline. They sent him to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Jonathon Simmons, a 2019 second-round pick (Carsen Edwards) and the Oklahoma City Thunder's 2020 first (No. 21).

    More than half of the other players who came off the board in the first round would, in hindsight, be better bets for Philly. Tatum is chief among them.

    He becomes the only realistic option after factoring in proximity to the No. 1 discussion. He and Lonzo Ball (No. 2) were the only other players who generated even tangential top-pick buzz. The Boston Celtics might've taken him even if they didn't move out of the No. 1 spot.

    It's also hard to draw up a more perfect fit for the Sixers knowing what we do now. They need a secondary creator who splashes in off-the-dribble jumpers and stretches defenses away from the ball. That is Tatum. And while he doesn't put Jimmy Butler-level pressure on the rim, something tells me Philly wouldn't gripe about it.

    Perhaps there is a parallel reality in which the Sixers took Tatum—either at No. 1 or at No. 3 after not trading up and after the Celtics didn't stand by their "We'd take him anyway!" slant. The ramifications that would have on the team's trajectory are profound. (Do they still trade for Butler?)

    Not all situations are created equal. Tatum may not have the same on-ball influence he has in Boston. But when you consider what actually became of the Sixers' No. 1 investment, it doesn't really matter.

    Verdict: Tatum would go to Philadelphia at No. 1.

2018: Deandre Ayton

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    Kevin Hagen/Associated Press

    Deandre Ayton is not a miss relative to the No. 1 spot. His ceiling is that of an All-Star building block. He's just the 12th sophomore to average at least 18.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, and his company has turned out alright: Charles Barkley, Elton Brand, Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan, Joel Embiid, Bob McAdoo, Alonzo Mourning, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson and Ralph Sampson.

    Relative to who else was in his draft class, though, he came off the board too soon.

    Different arguments can be made for Ayton against Trae Young (No. 5), Jaren Jackson Jr. (No. 4) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (No. 11). He has no case over Luka Doncic (No. 3). No one does.

    Doncic is a generational talent, the brand of player who won't just spearhead a title contender but can develop into the face of the league. And he didn't come out of nowhere.

    Plenty considered Ayton the better—or at least safer—prospect, but Doncic was firmly in the mix and atop a ton of big boards. Passing on him amounts to an actual miss. His prospective fit with the Phoenix Suns doesn't help the retrospective optics. Every franchise could use a 6'7" offensive engine who can ferry title aspirations while conceivably leading the league in both scoring and assists.

    That he is already exploring super-duper-megastar heights makes the decision not to go with him, which, in fairness to the Suns, was also made by the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks, all the harder to reconcile. He just finished fourth on the MVP ballot as a sophomore and on the heels of his age-20 season, which makes him the youngest player to garner top-five consideration.

    Phoenix will have an easier time soldiering on than Sacramento. Ditto for Atlanta. Ayton and Young are shaping up to have much better careers than Marvin Bagley III (though it's still early). But that merely changes the context of the mistake, not the mistake itself.

    If the goal is to select the player who will have the best career at No. 1, Doncic would be the first name called in a prospective do-over—without the slightest trace of hesitation.

    Verdict: Luka Doncic would go to Phoenix at No. 1.

2019: Zion Williamson

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Zion Williamson didn't have any real competition for the No. 1 pick last year. He was an airtight consensus option.

    Ja Morant has since turned it into a discussion, at least for the time being.

    Zion's health is part of the equation. His anomalous build invited questions about his longevity when measured against his extraterrestrial athleticism. Those doubts will persist after he missed most of his rookie season with a torn right meniscus.

    Boiling the debate down to Zion's health alone does a disservice to Morant. His inaugural campaign wasn't just special because Zion's limited availability meant no one could legitimately challenge the Memphis Grizzlies point guard for Rookie of the Year. It was special because it was historic.

    Only six other first-year players have ever matched Morant's usage rate (25.9) and true shooting percentage (55.6): Terry Cummings, Walter Davis, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson. Morant is the lone lead guard of the bunch and, along with Shaq, the youngest of them all.

    This isn't just another budding All-Star; this is someone who, by all early indicators, could wedge his way into future MVP discussions.

    Is that enough to think the New Orleans Pelicans would consider going in a different direction? Probably not. Zion was dominant during his pre-Disney World minutes, providing glimpses into a player who can shift the tenor of the game with his floor-running, put-backs, self-creation and even passing. If his defensive awareness grows to match his physical gifts, and if he is in fact able to knock down ultra-wide-open threes, he has the chance to be a generational cornerstone himself.

    It likewise helps that, at the time of the draft, the Pelicans had just traded for Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. They might not flinch at adding Morant if they knew Jrue Holiday would be on the move by 2020-21 or slightly thereafter, but his fit beside so many other ball-handlers is more awkward.

    In a toss-up situation such as this one, that makes all the difference.

    Verdict: Zion sticks as the No. 1 pick, but Morant is an even closer No. 2 than before.

    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.


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