August 22, 2017

Legends to Busts: The 50 Best (and Worst) #1 Draft Picks in NBA History

2017/06/18 1:47 pm 1:47 pm1:47 pm0 0 comments

Being selected with the #1 pick in the NBA draft is definitely an honor. How can a prospect not be excited to being crowned the cream of the crop of their class by the best basketball league in the world?

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You know where we’re going with this, the #1 pick can also be a curse if you’re not ready or capable of living up with being the top choice of your class. For every LeBron James (2003), there’s a LaRue Martin (1972) as well as players like Doug Collins (1973) and Danny Manning (1988) that fall somewhere in-between superstar and bust.

Being Ready for the NBA vs. Thinking They’re Ready

All NBA players at the top of the draft think they’re ready for the next level. Not only do they think they’re ready, but they think they’re going to the next great superstar. That’s because at this point, these prospects have been their team’s best basketball player since they can remember.

However, the NBA is a difference story. It’s a league packed of the best of the best; the most talented in a league full of talent. As well as the biggest, fastest and smartest; in short, it’s 300 of the most talented basketball players in the world.

So it’s no surprise that some first selections rise to the occasion and surpass the expectations as the number one pick. The following list are the #1 picks that were pegged for NBA greatness from the time they were in the fifth grade and have gone on to fulfill their destiny as the next big thing:

The Legends (And #1 Picks)

Career High in Points: The Best
Player Career High Draft Drafted by Rookie PPG
LeBron James 61 2003 Cleveland Cavaliers 20.9
Magic Johnson 46 1979 Los Angeles Lakers 18.0
Shaquille O'Neal 61 1992 Orlando Magic 23.4
Tim Duncan 53 1997 San Antonio Spurs 21.1
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 55 1969 Milwaukee Bucks 28.8
Hakeem Olajuwan 52 1984 Houston Rockets 20.6
Oscar Robertson 56 1960 Cincinnati Royals 30.5
David Robinson 71 1987 San Antonio Spurs 24.3

There’s no buyer’s remorse here. The list above contains players that are all NBA champions as well as having at least one regular season MVP. This is a good portion of the shortlist of the greatest to put basketball shoes on; a group known by just filled with one-namers: LeBron, Shaq, Magic, Hakeem, Kareem, and Oscar. And there wasn’t any slow growth with these superstars, they came out of the gate as forces to be reckoned with. Everyone above, except Magic who is known more for his passing, averaged over 20 points in their inaugural season. And just got better from there.

The Superstars

Right under the legends are the superstars; players that were chosen the the first pick in he NBA draft and had five or more all-star appearances, a scoring title or two, and was/is the man on their respective teams. They’re also either in the NBA Hall of Fame, or very likely to make it.

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Though these #1 picks have impressive resumes, they’re not quite in the legendary category because they lack an MVP trophy, an NBA Championship or both

Career High in Points
Player Career High Draft Drafted by All-Star
Elgin Baylor 71 1958 Minneapolis Lakers 11
Elvin Hayes 54 1968 San Diego Rockets 12
Allen Iverson 60 1996 Philadelphia 76ers 11
Patrick Ewing 51 1985 New York Knicks 11
Chris Webber 51 1993 Sacramento Kings 5
James Worthy 38 1982 Los Angeles Lakers 7
Bill Walton 36 1974 Portland Trailblazers 2

yao bellamy iverson dwight rose nba draft

The Semi-Stars

The following are the player that tasted some success with a couple all-star appearances and maybe even an NBA championship, but their careers never went next level — these guys had respectable careers, but won’t make the Hall of Fame as players based just on their NBA numbers.

Career High in Points
Player Career High Draft Drafted by All-Star
Mark Aguirre 49 1981 Dallas Mavericks 3
Joe Barry Carroll 52 1980 Houston Rockets 1
Glenn Robinson 45 1994 Milwaukee Bucks 2
Dwight Howard 45 2004 Orlando Magic 8
Brad Daugherty 44 1986 Cleveland Cavaliers 5
Larry Johnson 44 1991 Charlotte Hornets 2
Elton Brand 44 1999 Chicago Bulls 2
Ralph Sampson 43 1983 Houston Rockets 4
Danny Manning 43 1988 Los Angeles Clippers 2
Derrick Coleman 42 1990 New Jersey Nets 1
Derrick Rose 42 2008 Chicago Bulls 3
Yao Ming 41 2002 Houston Rockets 8
Doug Collins 39 1973 Philadelphia 76ers 3
Walt Bellamy 48 1961 Chicago Packers 4

The Solid Role Players / Journeymen

These guys may have a a couple all-star appearances, but they didn’t quite live up to the rest of the players in their same draft. Though their careers didn’t blossom nearly as big as they did at previous levels, these former number ones are rarely referred to as “busts” — they instead carved out solid careers contributing. Many of the players below played for multiple teams.

Not Busts: #1 Picks with Solid Careers
Player Career High Draft Drafted by All-Star
Kenyon Martin 35 2000 New Jersey Nets 1
Cazzie Russell 49 1966 New York Knicks 1
Rod Hundley 33 1957 Cincinnati Royals 2
Andrew Bogut 32 2005 Milwaukee Bucks 0
Joe Smith 38 1995 Golden State Warriors 0
Jimmy Walker 44 1967 Detroit Pistons 2
Frank Selvy 42 1954 Baltimore Bullets 2
Mychal Thompson 38 1978 Portland Trailblazers 0

Too Soon: Still Optimistic

The #1 draft picks from the last 6-7 years have shown a lot of promise and aren’t close to whatever legacy they end up with. If they have another 6-7 years of all-star performances and lucky enough to get themselves a ring or two, they can be superstars or legends. But just as easily, if their careers were cut short tomorrow, they could fall below the line. Only time will tell with these seven players:

Too Early to Call
Player Career High Draft Drafted by All-Star
Anthony Davis 59 2012 New Orleans Hornets 4
Kyrie Irving 57 2011 Cleveland Cavs 4
Blake Griffin 47 2009 Los Angeles Clippers 5
John Wall 47 2010 Washington Wizards 4
Andrew Wiggins 47 2014 Minnesota Timberwolves 0
Karl-Anthony Towns 47 2015 Minnesota Timberwolves 0
Ben Simmons n/a 2016 Philadelphia 76ers n/a

worst number one picks in nba history

Too Late: The Draft Busts

And then there’s the ones that will live in infamy; the draft busts whose names are drug through the mud every June as the flipside of making the wrong decision come draft day. None of these players ever sniffed an all-star game. Unfortunately, even 4-5 years in, these former top choices never really got out of the gate to become worthwhile journeymen. We sorted them by their career high in points, which nearly aligns with their point average during their rookie season. Their rookie points per game were early indicators of their readiness and potential.

Career High in Points: The Worst
Player Career High Draft Drafted by Rookie PPG
Anthony Bennett 20 2013 Cleveland Cavaliers 4.2
LaRue Martin 22 1972 Portland Trailblazers 4.4
Kwame Brown 30 2001 Washington Wizards 4.5
Kent Benson 28 1977 Milwaukee Bucks 7.7
Pervis Ellison 31 1989 Sacramento Kings 8.0
Michael Olowokandi 30 1998 Los Angeles Clippers 8.9
Greg Oden 24 2008 Portland Trailblazers 8.9
Andrea Bargnani 41 2006 Toronto Raptors 11.6

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To be fair to Greg Oden, he played fewer than two full seasons thanks to ongoing injuries. Same goes to other big men whose careers were longer, but also cut short: Brad Daughtery, Joe Barry Carroll, Yao Ming and Ralph Sampson.

Those remaining are known as the infamous picks not just known for unfulfilling careers, but for the players that were drafted below them. For example, the 1998 draft featured future NBA Hall of Famers in Vince Carter, Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki, but it was Michael Olowokandi to go #1. Then there was the 1972 Draft featured LaRue Martin, but later on, the draft was known for Julius Erving and Bob McAdoo. In 2001 was Kwame Brown, but should have been Pau Gasol, Tyson Chandler, Joe Johnson, Gilbert Arenas or Zach Randolph.

The Best #1 Draft Picks by Career High in Points

While some #1 draft picks look lost and never find their way — we’ll call these the infamous ones. And many more in-between. In many ways, you can look at a player’s career high in points as an indication of their NBA success. It’s not always the case, but sorting by their best scoring game helps separates the superstars from the busts. Take a look:

The Best (and Worst) #1 Draft Picks
Player Career High Draft Drafted by
Elgin Baylor 71 1958 Minneapolis Lakers
David Robinson 71 1987 San Antonio Spurs
Shaquille O'Neal 61 1992 Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James 61 2003 Miami Heat
Allen Iverson 60 1996 Philadelphia 76ers
Anthony Davis 59 2012 New Orleans Hornets
Kyrie Irving 57 2011 Cleveland Cavs
Oscar Robertson 56 1960 Cincinnati Royals
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 55 1969 Milwaukee Bucks
Elvin Hayes 54 1968 San Diego Rockets
Tim Duncan 53 1997 San Antonio Spurs
Joe Barry Carroll 52 1980 Houston Rockets
Hakeem Olajuwan 52 1984 Houston Rockets
Patrick Ewing 51 1985 New York Knicks
Chris Webber 51 1993 Sacramento Kings
Cazzie Russell 49 1966 New York Knicks
Mark Aguirre 49 1981 Dallas Mavericks
Walt Bellamy 48 1961 Chicago Packers
Blake Griffin 47 2009 Los Angeles Clippers
John Wall 47 2010 Washington Wizards
Andrew Wiggins 47 2014 Minnesota Timberwolves
Karl-Anthony Towns 47 2015 Minnesota Timberwolves
Magic Johnson 46 1979 Los Angeles Lakers
Glenn Robinson 45 1994 Milwaukee Bucks
Dwight Howard 45 2004 Orlando Magic
Jimmy Walker 44 1967 Detroit Pistons
Brad Daugherty 44 1986 Cleveland Cavaliers
Larry Johnson 44 1991 Charlotte Hornets
Elton Brand 44 1999 Chicago Bulls
Ralph Sampson 43 1983 Houston Rockets
Danny Manning 43 1988 Los Angeles Clippers
Frank Selvy 42 1954 Baltimore Bullets
Derrick Coleman 42 1990 New Jersey Nets
Derrick Rose 42 2008 Chicago Bulls
Yao Ming 41 2002 Houston Rockets
Andrea Bargnani 41 2006 Toronto Raptors
Doug Collins 39 1973 Philadelphia 76ers
Mychal Thompson 38 1978 Portland Trailblazers
James Worthy 38 1982 Los Angeles Lakers
Joe Smith 38 1995 Golden State Warriors
Bill Walton 36 1974 Portland Trailblazers
Kenyon Martin 35 2000 New Jersey Nets
Rod Hundley 33 1957 Cincinnati Royals
Andrew Bogut 32 2005 Milwaukee Bucks
Pervis Ellison 31 1989 Sacramento Kings
Michael Olowokandi 30 1998 Los Angeles Clippers
Kwame Brown 30 2001 Washington Wizards
Kent Benson 28 1977 Milwaukee Bucks
Greg Oden 24 2007 Portland Trailblazers
LaRue Martin 22 1972 Portland Trailblazers
Anthony Bennett 20 2013 Cleveland Cavaliers

We’ll see what happens in this yera’s NBA draft. The first question is whether it’ll be Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball, maybe Josh Jackson or D’AAron Fox. Whomeever is selected in that number one spot, they’ll always be remembered as such and depending on how their careers pan out, they can go down as legends, infamy or something in-between.

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