The fact of the matter is that the higher the draft selection, the better chance you have at adding a superstar. Does that always mean that a top-3 draft pick will guarantee you a Hall of Famer? No, but with that said, if you look back on history, it certainly helps. Over time, 18 players taken in the first three selections have gone on to win MVP, while an additional 10 players were taken in the top-15.
Being considered a lottery pick has shown that there is a greater chance of being tabbed as the greatest in the league, but there are few outliers as well. Two players were taken between No. 15-30, while two more players were taken in the second round. Back in the old days, third-round picks were a thing, as well as territorial picks, which led to three more MVPs.
When your team is rebuilding, getting near the top of the draft board is a must in some cases. When it comes to the MVP, it’s your best chance of getting one on your team. Here are the MVPs broke down by draft selection.
Top 3 Pick - 38 MVP Awards
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (6), Bill Russell (5), Michael Jordan (5), LeBron James (4), Magic Johnson (3), Bob Pettit (2), Tim Duncan (2), Bob Cousy, Wes Unseld (1), Bob McAdoo (1), Bill Walton (1), Hakeem Olajuwon (1), David Robinson (1), Shaquille O’Neal (1), Allen Iverson (1), Derrick Rose (1), Kevin Durant (1), James Harden (1)
The first to ever do it was Bob Pettit, the former St. Louis Hawks superstar that led the franchise to their last NBA championship. Pettit was one of 11 players to ever win an MVP after being selected with the No. 1 overall pick. The others include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, and Derrick Rose.
When gauging the plethora of talent that makes up this list, you can break it down into categories. For starters, the greatest scorers are Kareem, Russell, Michael Jordan, Kevin Durant, Allen Iverson, and James Harden. These players were an instant offense, while some did a little extra work on the offensive glass. The debate between Jordan, Iverson, and Durant is hard enough, so talking about all six is even more of a challenge.
The big men that made this list were special. That included Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, and David Robinson. The combination of Robinson and Duncan is almost unfair to some teams as both were partners in crime when the San Antonio Spurs won two championships in five years. Olajuwon is the best contender for the top two-way player in the league, while Shaq is easily the most skilled offensive player on this list. The best overall defensive player in this list might be Wes Unseld, who could make a run at being the best overall rebounder.
Pick No. 4-14 - 14 MVP Awards
Larry Bird (3), Karl Malone (2), Steph Curry (2), Dave Cowens (1), Julius Erving (1), Charles Barkley (1), Kevin Garnett (1), Dirk Nowitzki (1), Kobe Bryant (1), Russell Westbrook (1)
The list shrinks when you get to the next 10 picks, but make no mistakes, there are some special players here too. Let’s start with the obvious modern-day players in Kobe Bryant and Steph Curry. For starters, Bryant was a top-5 player in this league for a decade and a half. Keep in mind that Bryant was a No. 13 overall pick that was traded by the Hornets to the Lakers. With no Bryant, the Lakers might not have three-peated from 2000-2002.
As for Curry, he knows all about being overlooked. Curry was overlooked in college, which is what led him to join Davidson. In the draft, Curry dipped to No. 7 despite leading Davidson to the Elite 8. He is now the greatest shooter of all time and the only unanimous MVP in league history. Larry Bird fills out the guard list but holds the most distinct honor of being the only player in league history to win the award three consecutive years.
Among the big men that fill this list, Karl Malone is the best overall scorer. After all, he ranks No. 2 in all-time points. Julius Erving should be right up there in consideration given that he was a three-time leading scorer in the ABA before the merger. Charles Barkley was an underrated scorer in the league, averaging as much as 28.3 points per game.
Both Kevin Garnett and Dave Cowens were more than scorers. Both were All-NBA and All-Defensive caliber players. Garnett gets the overall nod as he was a nine-time member of the All-Defensive First Team and a former Defensive Player of the Year.
Russell Westbrook is one of the most explosive athletes. He became the first MVP since Oscar Robertson in 1961 to average triple-double, and has accomplished that feat four times in his career. In today’s NBA, Westbrook remains the most explosive player in the league.
Pick No. 15-30 - 4 MVP Awards
Steve Nash (2), Giannis Antetkounmpo (2)
This is where the picks start to branch off just a little bit. What’s interesting is that the two players that have been taken in the mid to late first-round are both players that have won the MVP two times in their career. Both also won the award in back-to-back seasons. Both Steve Nash, two times with the Phoenix Suns, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, both times with the Milwaukee Bucks, are multi winners of the MVP.
Starting with Nash, the point guard for the Suns led the best offense in the league during his heyday. That included leading the league in assists. His second MVP, he was a member of the 50-40-90 club. Nash barely makes this group, having been a former No. 15 overall pick.
Want another deja vu moment? Not only have both Nash and Giannis won the award twice, in back-to-back years, but Giannis is also a No. 15 overall pick? While Giannis is a completely different player, you have to love the weird coincidence. Giannis’ best showing came in 2020 when he won the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. While his accolades are impressive, he will be the first to tell you that he was happier about his Finals MVP this past season, something Nash has never been close to getting.
Second Round - 2 MVP Awards
Willis Reed (1), Nikola Jokic (1)
In 1970, Reed got to live the dream. He was named MVP, All-Star Game MVP, and Finals MVP after helping the New York Knicks win a championship. It’s been over 50 years since that time, but Reed remains one of the most polarizing figures in Knicks’ history. Reed was an All-Defensive selection that year too.
As for Jokic, he is establishing himself as the greatest center to ever play the game. Jokic has yet to lead the Denver Nuggets to the NBA Finals, but he is a walking triple-double at seven feet tall. Jokic became the second, second-round pick in league history to win the MVP this past season. Let that sit in for a moment. It took 51 years for a second-round pick to win MVP.
Jokic is no ordinary second-round pick. He averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists last season. He is the best passing big man we have ever seen. Jokic is just 26 years old, so he has plenty of time to add to his MVP collection. The question is: how many more?
Other - 8 MVP Awards
Wilt Chamberlain (4), Moses Malone (3), Oscar Robertson (1)
Both Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson were considered territorial picks. A territorial pick was a type of special draft choice used in the Basketball Association of America in 1949 and then continued in 1950 when the league changed its name to the National Basketball Association. In the draft, NBA teams took turns selecting college basketball players. At the time, the league was trying to gain popularity, and this helped teams select popular players in their surrounding area and add them to their team.
At the time, the Warriors were still based in Philadelphia but were able to select Chamberlain out of the University of Kansas. Chamberlain is the best rebounder of all time and owns several NBA records in that department, which will likely never be broken. Chamberlain once averaged 27.2 rebounds per game to go with 38.4 points. He was on another level back then.
As previously mentioned about territorial picks, Robertson was another territorial draft selection when the Kings were formally known as the Cincinnati Royals. Robertson attended school at the University of Cincinnati, which made him an ideal selection. In 1961, Robertson averaged a triple-double for the regular season for the Royals. He remained as the only player to ever accomplish that feat until Russell Westbrook in 2017.
As for Moses Malone, the ABA’s draft featured a round three, which Malone was taken by the Utah Stars. Eventually, Malone blossomed into the face of the league when the ABA and NBA merged. In 1983, Malone won both MVP and Finals MVP with the 76ers. Like Chamberlain, Malone was one of the best rebounders of his generation, leading the league as high as six times in his career.
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