Sometimes, the No. 1 overall pick is a surefire pick. The idea behind the top draft selection is that the player is the best of the class. That player is expected to help change an organization that was ranked near the bottom the year prior. There are times when that player doesn’t pan out. There are other times when that player turns into one of the greatest players ever.
The NBA has been around since 1947, which was the first draft class ever. Each decade has seen the league evolve into something better. That includes the talent. What has always been consistent is that the player that stands above the rest has a brilliant resume. When we go back to the 1940s, there is only one player that reigns supreme. For a lot of them, you will notice that many of them were the top pick of the draft.
These are the top draft picks from each decade.
1940s - Dolph Schayes
Career Stats: 18.5 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 3.1 APG
Awards and Achievement: NBA Champion (1955), 12x All-Star (1951-1962), 6x All-NBA First Team (1952-1955, 1957, 1958), 6x All-NBA Second Team (1950, 1951, 1956, 1959-1961), Rebounding Leader (1951), NBA Anniversary Team (25th, 50th, 75th), Rookie of the Year (1949), No. 4 retired by 76ers
Once Schayes began his career with the 76ers, he never looked back. Schayes embarked on a legendary Philadelphia career, where he stayed from 1949 to 1964. During that time, he racked up the most points in a career for Philly, which stood for many years before Hal Greer and Allen Iverson passed him. Regardless, Schayes scored over 18,000 points for his career and helped the 76ers win a championship in 1956.
That also included making 12 All-Star appearances in 15 seasons, as well as 12 All-NBA teams. Schayes was the best at the free throw line, owning a franchise record of 6,712 made free throws, which was more than 1,600 than Iverson. While the 40s was a limited decade, Schayes would have pushed anyone for the title of being the best.
2nd Place: Vern Mikkelsen
1950s - Bill Russell
Career Stats: 15.1 PPG, 22.5 RPG, 4.3 APG
Awards and Achievement: 11x NBA Champion (1957, 1959-66), 1968, 1969), 5x MVP Award (1959, 1961-1963, 1965), 12x All-Star (1958-1969), All-Star Game MVP (1963), 3x All-NBA First Team (1959, 1963, 1965), 8x All-NBA Second Team (1958, 1960-1962, 1964, 1966-1968), All-Defensive First Team (1969), 4x Rebounding Leader (1958, 1959, 1964, 1965), NBA Anniversary Team (25th, 35th, 50th, 75th), No. 6 retired by Boston Celtics
When you win 11 championships, it’s hard to go against you. Russell remains the ultimate winner among players in NBA history. Russell helped the Celtics win eight consecutive championships at one point in his career. He also won five MVP Awards and was a rebounding legend. Russell is one of two players ever to record more than 20,000 career rebounds, where his 21,620 rebounds rank second most of all time.
Russell might own just one All-Defensive appearance, but that was because the award didn’t come out until the late 60s. Had Russell been given the opportunity, he would have ranked higher than the likes of Tim Duncan and Gary Payton. Without Russell, the Celtics would not be the dynasty that they are today.
2nd Place: Wilt Chamberlain
1960s - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Career Stats: 24.6 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 3.6 APG, 0.7 PG, 2.0 BPG
Awards and Achievement: 6x NBA Champion (1971, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988), 2x Finals MVP (1971, 1985), 6x MVP Award (1971, 1972, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1980), 19x All-Star (1970-77, 1979-1989), 10x All-NBA First Team (1971-74, 1976, 1977, 1980, 1981, 1984, 1986), 5x All-NBA Second Team (1970, 1978, 1979, 1983, 1985), 5x All-Defensive First Team (1974, 1975, 1979-1981), 6x All-Defensive Second Team (1970, 1971, 1976-1978, 1984), Rookie of the Year (1970), 2x Scoring Champion (1971, 1972), Rebounding Leader (1976), 4x Blocks Leader (1975, 1976, 1979, 1980), NBA Anniversary Team (35th, 50th, 75th), No. 33 retired by Milwaukee Bucks, No. 33 retired by Los Angeles Lakers
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is just an all-around great. He remains the all-time leading scorer for a brief time. He won six championships and MVP Awards and led the league in scoring two times, but was also a defensive force that made 11 All-Defensive Teams. That includes leading the league in rebounding once and in blocks four times. More importantly, he proved his legacy was legit by leading two different franchises to titles, which included the Bucks in 1971 and the Lakers five more times during the 80s.
It’s too bad for the rest of the 60s draft selections. Abdul-Jabbar was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1969 draft, which just qualifies him for this decade. There were some quality players during this decade, including the all-time leading scorer for the Boston Celtics in, John Havlicek. In the end, records and championships make it easy to lead with Abdul-Jabbar.
2nd Place: John Havlicek
1970s - Magic Johnson
Career Stats: 19.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 11.2 APG, 1.9 SPG, 0.4 BPG
Awards and Achievement: 5x NBA Champion (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988), 3x Finals MVP (1980, 1982, 1987), 3x MVP Award (1987, 1989, 1990), 12x All-Star (1980, 1982-1992), 2x All-Star Game MVP (1990, 1992), 9x All-NBA First Team (1983-1991), All-NBA Second Team (1982), 4x Assists Leader (1983, 1984, 1986, 1987), 2x Steals Leader (1981, 1982), NBA Anniversary Team (50th, 75th), No. 32 retired by Los Angeles Lakers
Easily, the top-2 picks of this draft decade are Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. As for Bird, he won three straight MVP trophies with the Celtics and helped the team win three titles. The problem with Bird is that his rival of the decade won more. It was often the Lakers and Celtics in the NBA Finals, and most of the time, they played each other. In the end, Johnson won five championships.
Combine that with an equal amount of MVP Awards, and Johnson has enough ammo to push Bird to second place. Johnson has the record for career assists as well. Had Johnson never been forced to retire early, he might have pushed John Stockton for the most assists of all time. With that said, Johnson is potentially the greatest point guard ever, regardless.
2nd Place: Larry Bird
1980s - Michael Jordan
Career Stats: 30.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 5.3 APG, 2.3 SPG, 0.8 BPG
Awards and Achievement: 6x NBA Champion (1991-1993, 1996-98), 6x Finals MVP (1991-1993, 1996-1998), 5x MVP (1988, 1991, 1992, 1996, 1998), 14x All-Star (1985-1993, 1996-1998, 2002, 2003), 3x All-Star Game MVP (1988, 1996, 1998), 10x All-NBA First Team (1987-1993, 1996-1998), All-NBA Second Team (1985), Defensive Player of the Year (1988), 9x All-Defensive First Team (1988-1993, 1996-1998), Rookie of the Year (1985), 10x Scoring Champion (1987-1993, 1996-1998), 3x Steals Leader (1988, 1990, 1993), 2x Slam Dunk Champion (1987, 1988), No. 23 retired by the Bulls, No. 23 retired by the Heat, NBA Anniversary Team (50th, 75th)
How amazing was the 1984 NBA Draft class? The top two picks of the decade came from the same draft class. Hakeem Olajuwon was the No. 1 overall pick. He deserves some credit for his play since he led the Rockets to back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995. Six more titles came from another pick from that draft as Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to two three-peats from 1991 to 1993 and 1996 to 1998.
Jordan also won 10 scoring titles but also nine All-Defensive First Team selections. Jordan is often regarded as the greatest player of all time for his 6-0 record in the Finals, which includes six Finals MVP Awards. Both of these players ruled the 90s with their respective teams. The biggest “what if” is wondering what could have happened had Jordan never retired early after the 1993 title.
2nd Place: Hakeem Olajuwon
1990s - Kobe Bryant
Career Stats: 25.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 4.7 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.5 BPG
Awards and Achievement: 5x NBA Champion (2000-02, 2009, 2010), 2x Finals MVP (2009, 2010), MVP Award (2008), 18x All-Star (1998, 2000-2016), 4x All-Star Game MVP (2002, 2007, 2009, 2011), 11x All-NBA First Team (2002-04, 2006-2013), 2x All-NBA Second Team (2000, 2001), 2x All-NBA Third Team (1999, 2005), 9x All-Defensive First Team (2000, 2003, 2004, 2006-2011), 3x All-Defensive Second Team (2001, 2002, 2012), Slam Dunk Contest Champion (1997), NBA Anniversary Team (75th), No. 8 and 24 retired by Los Angeles Lakers
Like the 80s, another amazing thing happened regarding the 90s draft picks. The top-2 draft picks of this decade played together for many years. Shaquille O’Neal won three Finals MVP Awards with Kobe Bryant as the Lakers won three titles from 2000 to 2002. While O’Neal was great during those years, Bryant proved that he was equally great. O’Neal won an MVP Award in 2000, but Bryant equalized that by winning an MVP Award in 2008. Then, he led the Lakers to back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. That included winning Finals MVP both times.
Bryant finished his career with the Lakers as the all-time leading scorer on the team. Among his other accolades, Bryant was a scoring champion, 18-time All-Star, and made nine All-Defensive First Teams. Bryant was the closest player to Michael Jordan during the 2000s. Remember, he was the No. 13 overall pick in 1996 by the Hornets, who traded his services to the Lakers.
2nd Place: Shaquille O’Neal
2000s - LeBron James
Career Stats: 27.1 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 7.4 APG, 1.6 SPG, 0.8 BPG
Awards and Achievement: 4x NBA Champion (2012, 2013, 2016, 2020), 4x Finals MVP (2012, 2013, 2016, 2020), 4x MVP Award (2009, 2010, 2012, 2013), 18x All-Star (2005-2022), 3x All-Star Game MVP (2006, 2008, 2018), 13x All-NBA First Team (2006, 2008-2018, 2020), 3x All-NBA Second Team (20005, 2007, 2021), 2x All-NBA Third Team (2019, 2022), 5x All-Defensive First Team (2009-2013), All-Defensive Second Team (2014), Rookie of the Year (2004), Scoring Champion (2008), Assists Leader (2020), NBA Anniversary Team (75th)
The coincidence trend sort of stops here in the 2000s. Both of the top-2 picks hail from the state of Ohio, but both players are very different. Steph Curry could make a play at pushing LeBron James down to second place if he wins a fifth championship. Stay tuned for that. With that said, James holds a firm grip on the second-best spot behind Jordan, so he must earn this spot for the best draft pick from the 2000s. James, the No. 1 overall pick from 2003, has won four championships of his own, which includes winning with three different franchises and four Finals MVP Awards.
James also owns four MVP Awards and owns numerous records with the Cleveland Cavaliers. His greatest accomplishment was leading the Cavaliers to their first NBA championship in 2016. He also won titles with the Heat in 2012 and 2013, as well as the Lakers in 2020. James has led the league in assists in his last 30s and led the league in scoring earlier in his career. It’s a long, accomplished resume for James, who still has work to do to finish off his legacy.
2nd Place: Stephen Curry
2010s - Giannis Antetokounmpo
Career Stats: 21.8 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 4.6 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.3 BPG
Awards and Achievement: NBA Champion (2021), Finals MVP (2021), 2x MVP Award (2019, 2020), 6x All-Star (2017-2022), All-Star Game MVP (2021), 4x All-NBA First Team (2019-2022), 2x All-NBA Second Team (2017, 2018), Defensive Player of the Year (2020), 4x All-Defensive First Team (2019-2022), All-Defensive Second Team (2017), Most Improved Player of the Year (2017), NBA Anniversary Team (75th)
This is a tough one. Kawhi Leonard has two Finals MVP Awards and two championships with the Spurs and Raptors. The dealbreaker is that Leonard had Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili in 2014, so you could say that one of those championships was truly led by Leonard in 2019 with the Raptors. Given that Antetokounmpo owns one championship led by himself with the Bucks in 2021, it’s a fair argument that both are similar in career resumes.
The tiebreaker is that Antetokounmpo is a two-time MVP Award winner, which is something Leonard has never done before. Antetokounmpo once won the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Award in the same season. His rise to the top is a great story, and he is currently in his prime and looking to add to his resume. His ceiling could be as high as Tim Duncan. Either way, he solidified himself as an all-time great by leading the Bucks to their first title in 50 years.
2nd Place: Kawhi Leonard
2020s - Anthony Edwards
Career Stats: 20.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.6 BPG
Awards and Achievement: All-Rookie First Team
Both players from this decade have played just two seasons in the NBA. LaMelo Ball won Rookie of the Year in 2021, but Anthony Edwards has just as much of a reason to win, especially since he played in 20 more games. Edwards probably could have played in the league right after high school. In two seasons, Edwards owns a career line of 20.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.3 steals. While Ball is trending in the right direction, Edwards looks like a future star.
With a win-now expectation in Minnesota, the team is expecting Edwards to rise to All-Star status. That seems likely in his third season. Edwards has scored 2,925 points, which is over 600 more than Ball. While Ball might have more rebounds and assists than Edwards in two seasons, that is because Ball doesn't have a player like D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns on the team. In the end, keep an eye on both of these players, as well as future players such as Cade Cunningham, Paolo Banchero, and the rest of the decade’s draft picks.
2nd Place: LaMelo Ball