Draft day is a time of hope for many NBA teams and their fans. Everyone anxiously awaits which top prospects will go where and which players will forge legendary or sub-par careers.
The young man selected first overall always has high expectations, but those who earn the honor don’t always live up the hype. Sometimes it’s because of the situation the player is drafted into, other times it’s because of injury, and in a select few cases, the player simply couldn’t cut it at the next level. Those who do are revered and typically at the top of the league during their prime.
There have been 73 No.1 picks throughout NBA history. Some are legends, some were horrid, and many were in between. Let’s rank them all by tiers, ranging from absolute busts to all-timers.
Tier 5: Busts
Clifton McNeely (1947), Andy Tonkovich (1948), Howie Shannon (1949), Gene Melchiorre (1951), Mark Workman (1952), Bill McGill (1962), Art Heyman (1963), LaRue Martin (1972), Greg Oden (2007), Anthony Bennett (2013)
This tier is designated for the bottom of the barrel of top picks. Luckily for basketball fans, this is the least-populated tier on this ranking, but almost all of these players completely whiffed on their chance at a lengthy NBA career.
Greg Oden would have been at least a good player, but knee injuries limited him to just three seasons. Others like Clifton McNeely and Gene Melchiorre didn’t even play a single minute in the league, the former because he opted to be a high school coach instead (the NBA didn’t exactly pay handsomely back then) and the latter because he was banned from the NBA because of a point-shaving scandal in college.
The most deserving busts are the Anthony Bennett and LaRue Martin-types. These guys, for whatever reason, fooled a team into selecting them, only to then flame out of the league soon after. It’s hard to comprehend how a professional basketball organization can pick players like this. Thankfully, these busts are few and far between in the modern era.
Tier 4: Role Players
Chuck Share (1950), Ray Felix (1953), Frank Selvy (1954), Dick Ricketts (1955), Si Green (1956), Hot Rod Hundley (1957), Jim Barnes (1964), Fred Hetzel (1965), Kent Benson (1977), Pervis Ellison (1989), Joe Smith (1995), Michael Olowokandi (1998), Kwame Brown (2001), Andrea Bargnani (2006), Markelle Fultz (2017)
The “Role Player” tier categorizes those who enjoyed decent and sometimes lengthy NBA careers but didn’t achieve anything noteworthy. Many people would deem some of these players as busts, but you can’t discredit a player’s ability to stay in the league for an extended period, however underwhelming they may have been.
Some of these guys, like Pervis “Out of Service” Ellison, could never stay healthy enough to maximize their talent. Joe Smith had some nice moments early on, yet he wasn’t versatile or overly skilled, so he found his lane as a member of many teams’ supporting cast. Andrew Bargnani was a skilled perimeter scorer in his early days, only he was atrocious on defense and on the glass and had a horrible attitude.
Kwame Brown and Michael Olowokandi were both consistently clowned for their lackluster play and were devoid of toughness, yet they each found limited success as backups in the later stages of their careers.
Markelle Fultz still has plenty of time to change the course of his career. For now, though, he looks like an athletic role player with a suspiciously-funky jumper.
Tier 3: Good
Bob Boozer (1959), Cazzie Russell (1966), Jimmy Walker (1967), Austin Carr (1971), Doug Collins (1973), John Lucas (1976), Mychal Thompson (1978), Joe Barry Carroll (1980), Danny Manning (1988), Derrick Coleman (1990), Larry Johnson (1991), Glenn Robinson (1994), Elton Brand (1999), Kenyon Martin (2000), Andrew Bogut (2005), Andrew Wiggins (2014), Deandre Ayton (2018)
Tier 3 marks good but not great No.1 picks. These guys found extended success in the league, many making an All-Star game or two, but never quite made the leap to a championship-caliber star. Most of them at least helped their franchise escape from out of the NBA’s gutter, even if the team only rose to mediocrity.
Almost all of these guys had the talent to do so. But whether it was because of injuries, bad roster fit, off the court issues or lack of work ethic/motor, they seldom led contending teams. Some of them, however, did win rings later in their careers by morphing into contributing role players.
Andrew Wiggins (less likely) and Deandre Ayton certainly can be in another tier by the end of their careers. They both just need to show they have a fiery streak in them and can truly help their teams win, rather than compiling mostly empty stats on bad teams.
Tier 2: Stars
Walt Bellamy (1961), Bob Lanier (1970), Bill Walton (1974), David Thompson (1975), Mark Aguirre (1981), James Worthy (1982), Ralph Sampson (1983), Brad Dougherty (1986), Chris Webber (1993), Yao Ming (2002), Dwight Howard (2004), Derrick Rose (2008), Blake Griffin (2009), John Wall (2010), Kyrie Irving (2011), Anthony Davis (2012), Karl-Anthony Towns (2015), Ben Simmons (2016), Zion Williamson (2019)
These are the players who came through. All of these guys, in their own ways, made good on their team’s commitment to drafting them. They played hard, were either the first or second options on contending teams and most are or will be in the Hall of Fame.
A few of these players could have made it to the top tier, but factors like injuries (Bill Walton, Ralph Sampson, Yao Ming, Derrick Rose) or even drugs (David Thompson) unfortunately got in the way. Many in this group inspired the next generation to exceed their accomplishments and fulfill the potential they could not.
Most players in this tier simply weren’t talented enough to be the best of the best at all times, but some like Chris Webber, John Wall, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns had the ability but didn’t, or have yet to, capitalize. When players are this incredible, it’s the little things that separate them from becoming true legends. It could be killer-instinct, work ethic, clutchness or simply having a poor attitude that held these guys back.
Ben Simmons, however, simply lacks a jump shot.
Zion Williamson appears on track toward stardom. It’s maybe early to put him in a tier with several other Hall of Famers, but you cannot deny his other-worldly talent and production when healthy. For the sake of basketball fans around the world, hopefully he gets in shape and enjoys a long and successful career.
Tier 1: All-Timers
Elgin Baylor (1958), Oscar Robertson (1960), Elvin Hayes (1968), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1969), Magic Johnson (1979), Hakeem Olajuwon (1984), Patrick Ewing (1985), David Robinson (1987), Shaquille O’Neal (1992), Allen Iverson (1996), Tim Duncan (1997), LeBron James (2003)
Somehow, these 12 superstars surpassed all expectations one could have of a No.1 pick. They carried great teams, provided countless highlights and defined the eras they played in. Their skills were artforms that paved the way for the stars that followed.
Many were just as, if not more, influential off the hardwood as they were on it. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James helped fight social injustices and gave back to the community, pushing the boundaries of what athletes in their personal lives. Magic Johnson partly saved the league from irrelevancy and later helped destigmatize AIDS and HIV. Hakeem Olajuwon facilitated basketball’s growth in Africa. Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson were two of the early black stars in the NBA and helped integrate the league for future generations. Allen Iverson brought a new culture to the public eye, expanding the idea of what NBA athletes could dress, talk and act like.
You could go on and on about the accomplishments of almost all of these men without mentioning basketball. Those who were maybe less involved in off-the-court issues were just as memorable for humor (Shaquille O’Neal), class (David Robinson), humility (Patrick Ewing), consistency (Tim Duncan) and durability (Elvin Hayes).
On the court, they were nearly unstoppable. They played some of the most jaw-dropping basketball ever. Their highlights will live on forever, as will their legacies.