The NBA Draft is a time of optimism in a team’s offseason because drafting the right player is absolutely essential to short-term and long-term success. The goal for every NBA franchise is to win championships, and that means focusing on building through the draft, making trades, or attracting stars in free agency to get there. While trades and free agency acquisitions are rare, the Draft happens every year, so it is so important because it gives teams the chance to take the players they need out of college. That is why we have seen an incredible mix of rookies coming into the NBA, most of them coming within the top 3 of a particular NBA Draft.
We have seen some iconic rookies such as Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan dominate the game in their first seasons, and both are obviously responsible for two of the game’s greatest franchises. But flops have also happened over the history of the NBA, and there have been a ton of them taken No. 1 overall, including Kwame Brown, Darko Milicic, and Anthony Bennett, among others. It has been clear throughout NBA history that the correct draft choice alters a franchise’s season and future because a selection can either make or break a franchise in the long and short term.
To revisit history over a decade of some of the greatest draft selections ever, it is time to uncover the players that have had the most impact on their teams, and the original top-3 draft picks that actually occurred between 1981 and 1990. It is not easy for rookies to get acclimated to the NBA, but we have seen some excellent talents accomplish this in surprisingly great fashion. Without further ado, it is time to revisit a period of historical draft classes to remind ourselves which players were taken No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 overall from each draft class from 1981 to 1990.
1981 NBA Draft
No. 1 Overall Pick - Mark Aguirre
No. 2 Overall Pick - Isiah Thomas
No. 3 Overall Pick - Buck Williams
Obviously, the 1981 Draft gave us incredible talent from top to bottom. For one, Mark Aguirre was a safe option at No. 1 overall because he would go on to be one of the best small forwards of his era. The swingman made 3 All-Star Teams and won 2 NBA titles in his career, although he earned the former of those achievements with the Dallas Mavericks and the latter with the Detroit Pistons. Aguirre is underrated because he had 6 straight seasons of averaging at least 24 PPG with the Mavericks starting in his 2nd season.
Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas was taken No. 2, and he had some all-time great years as the starting point guard for the Detroit Pistons. A strong scorer and scrappy defender, Thomas has had a legendary career that includes back-to-back championships with the Pistons in 1989 and 1990, along with a Finals MVP award in 1990. One of the greatest point guards and leaders ever, Thomas helped make the NBA a worldwide market because he was easily one of the most iconic stars of the 1990s era that also featured other greats, including Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.
No doubt, Buck Williams had the best rookie campaign out of all the players drafted in 1981 and has an argument for being taken No. 1 overall as a result. The big man had a great start to his career, posting 15.5 PPG and 12.3 RPG for the New Jersey Nets while also making his first All-Star Team at age 21. Williams would go on to make 2 more All-Star Teams in his career for a total of 3 selections. While the big man had a very nice career, he was not as talented or impactful as Isiah Thomas when looking at his career as a whole.
1982 NBA Draft
No. 1 Overall Pick - James Worthy
No. 2 Overall Pick - Terry Cummings
No. 3 Overall Pick - Dominique Wilkins
Nobody had a problem with James Worthy going No. 1 overall in the 1982 NBA Draft at the time because his potential was off the charts. An extremely athletic wing player, Worthy was expected to become a lockdown defender and 20 PPG scorer for the majority of his career. That did end up happening, and Worthy ended up having a first-ballot Hall of Fame career as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. A player who would soon be called “Big Game James”, Worthy ended up winning 3 NBA titles, a Finals MVP in 1988, and also made 7 All-Star Team selections. Clearly, the Lakers had a tough decision to make between Worthy and Dominique Wilkins, and they might have made the right choice in the end.
Terry Cummings played 1,183 games in his career, averaging a career 16.4 PPG and 7.3 RPG and having an excellent start to his career when he posted 23.7 PPG and 10.6 RPG in 70 games played. The forward was so good that he won Rookie of the Year over Worthy and Dominique Wilkins because he showed the ability to be an efficient scorer and strong rebounder. Cummings would go on to make 2 All-Star Teams and 2 All-NBA selections over a long 18-year career, an impressive career for a 6’9” power forward out of DePaul.
Some will always argue that Dominique Wilkins deserved to be the No. 1 overall pick as he ended up being a league scoring champion and 9-time All-Star, but instead, he fell to No. 3 overall. Considered arguably the greatest dunker in NBA history, Dominique was the player that your favorite player loves most. He was a tremendous athlete and efficient scorer, using his skill and explosiveness to make highlights and terrorize defenses. He is also arguably the greatest player in Atlanta Hawks history (alongside Bob Pettit) because when one thinks of the Hawks, Dominique comes to mind.
1983 NBA Draft
No. 1 Overall Pick - Ralph Sampson
No. 2 Overall Pick - Steve Stipanovich
No. 3 Overall Pick - Rodney McCray
Certainly one of the most unique big men in NBA history, Hall of Famer Ralph Sampson, had a terrific career. The 7’4” center was dominant, averaging 19.7 PPG and 10.5 RPG with the Rockets franchise and earning important accolades such as Rookie of the Year when he posted 21 and 11 for the team that took him No. 1 overall. Sampson made 4 straight All-Star teams with Houston, making All-NBA once, and was a dominant low post presence. At his size, Sampson was a terrific athlete and a great all-around player, and the first 5 seasons of his career ultimately placed him in the Hall of Fame.
A 6’11” center with a decent offensive game, Steve Stipanovich was not a bad player by any means, although he should not have been taken No. 2 overall and was better suited to falling a bit more in the draft. The center averaged 12.0 PPG and 6.9 RPG in his rookie season, good enough for the All-Rookie Team. Stipanovich would go on to average at least 13 PPG for four straight seasons after his rookie campaign, ending his career with an average of 48.6% from the field as a member of the Indiana Pacers.
Rodney McCray was a gamble by the Houston Rockets even though they also took Ralph Sampson No. 1 overall in the 1982-83 draft. The 6’7” forward had an interesting skill set because he would make 2 All-Defensive Teams in his career and also win a title with the 1993 Chicago Bulls. But McCray would not turn out to be anything more than a solid role player, meaning the Rockets probably should have taken Clyde Drexler with either the No. 1 or No. 3 pick.
1984 NBA Draft
No. 1 Overall Pick - Hakeem Olajuwon
No. 2 Overall Pick - Sam Bowie
No. 3 Overall Pick - Michael Jordan
Hakeem Olajuwon would be the deserved No.1 overall pick selection in almost any other season, except that he was taken ahead of the greatest player ever in Michael Jordan. Hakeem still ended up rewarding the Rockets for their faith in him. The Dream helped gift the Rockets two straight championships in 1994 and 1995 (when Michael Jordan briefly retired) and is easily one of the top-five centers of all time. Armed with some of the best two-way play in NBA history, Hakeem is a top-5 center who ever played the game.
The Portland Trail Blazers franchise will continue to hear ridicule for choosing Sam Bowie ahead of Michael Jordan, even until today. Choosing big men was the norm back then, but not when Jordan could have been taken No. 2 overall. Bowie was a solid big man, but because he was taken ahead of the GOAT, many seem to label him a bust. Sam could score inside when he had position and was also a capable shot blocker at 7’1”. But Jordan’s name will forever be attached to him, although no fault of the big man’s own.
Instead, Jordan fell to the Chicago Bulls, and the franchise benefited forever. Michael would go on to have the greatest career in NBA history, capturing 6 NBA titles and 6 Finals MVPs while creating arguably the greatest dynasty ever. Michael is the best shooting guard of all time and widely regarded as the most talented star of all time, so he should have gone No. 1 overall, even ahead of the great Hakeem Olajuwon. The Rockets do not receive ridicule for choosing Hakeem, but the Trail Blazers messed up the 1984 Draft very badly.
1985 NBA Draft
No. 1 Overall Pick - Patrick Ewing
No. 2 Overall Pick - Wayman Tisdale
No. 3 Overall Pick - Benoit Benjamin
One of the greatest New York Knicks in NBA history, Patrick Ewing, was a very impactful center in the paint due to his scoring ability and lockdown defense. Ewing never won an NBA title, and that will stain his otherwise Hall of Fame legacy, but that does not take away from his elite rookie season. Patrick averaged 20.0 PPG and 9.0 RPG while also chipping in 2.1 BPG to win Rookie of the Year. He would put up similar numbers throughout his career with the Knicks and retired with a total of 11 All-Star Team appearances and 7 All-NBA Team selections. A Hall of Famer, Ewing was a great No. 1 overall selection by the Knicks.
Wayman Tisdale was never going to match up too well with No.1 overall pick Patrick Ewing, but he held his own nonetheless with a solid rookie campaign that saw him drop 14.7 PPG and 7.2 RPG. Tisdale was a solid paint presence at 6’9” and 240 lbs, and as a left-handed player, he was awkward to defend against at times. Finishing his career with averages of 15.3 PPG and 6.1 RPG, Tisdale was not a bust by any means.
Benoit Benjamin was selected No. 3 overall in the 1985 Draft, and he probably should not have gone that high when looking at the fact that Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, and Joe Dumars were drafted behind him. Benjamin averaged 11.1 PPG, 7.6 RPG, and 2.6 BPG, which are solid numbers, although the center would miss out on making the All-Rookie Team. The big man would have a solid career as a shot-blocker, but he wasn’t as great as the Hall of Famers listed.
1986 NBA Draft
No. 1 Overall Pick - Brad Daugherty
No. 2 Overall Pick - Len Bias
No. 3 Overall Pick - Chris Washburn
A 5-time All-Star as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Brad Daugherty was a great player for the franchise. The 7’0” center combined size and scoring power to be an impactful player on the floor, starting his career when he was chosen No. 1 overall in the 1986 Draft by Cleveland. Daugherty averaged 15.7 PPG and 8.1 RPG in his rookie season, making All-Rookie Team, and followed that up with 7 straight seasons of averaging over 16 PPG. Making the All-NBA Team in the 1992 season, Daugherty had a great career with the Cavaliers and is also a top-10 scorer for them, and a decent selection with the No. 1 overall pick.
The late Len Bias did not get a chance to showcase his elite talent on the NBA floor because an unfortunate tragedy cut short his professional career. Coming out of college, Bias was supposed to be the face of the league. In fact, Bias was drawing comparisons to Michael Jordan for the way he could create plays and also dominate the game with athleticism. We never got to see what Bias could have been as a member of the Boston Celtics or as an NBA player. Of course, Bias was also taken ahead of other strong players, including Dennis Rodman, Mark Price, and Jeff Hornacek.
As previously mentioned, Dennis Rodman, Mark Price, and Jeff Hornacek were all players not selected at No. 1 or No. 2 overall, and they were not selected by the Golden State Warriors with the No. 3 pick either. Rather, the Warriors went for Chris Washburn, who was, unfortunately, a flop for the franchise. The 6’11” center only lasted 2 seasons in the league and finished with career averages of 3.1 PPG, 2.4 RPG, and 0.2 BPG. The big man did not have a chance to get going because after his second season, he received a suspension for substance abuse and never returned to the league after that. Clearly, the Warriors would have been better off with a defensive-minded Rodman or an offensively-inclined Mark Price.
1987 NBA Draft
No. 1 Overall Pick - David Robinson
No. 2 Overall Pick - Armen Gilliam
No. 3 Overall Pick - Dennis Hopson
The Admiral has to be one of the most underrated big men in NBA history, mainly because he had to take a backseat to Tim Duncan, who carried the Spurs to 5 NBA championships. Robinson was a force down low and had one of the most impressive physiques in NBA history. Armed with powerful shoulders and elite basketball IQ, Robinson could not be stopped when he had a position down low and was also a nightmare on defense. The Admiral ran away with Rookie of the Year, averaging 3.9 BPG and chipping in a ridiculous double-double, making him one of the best No. 1 overall selections ever. Going into the Draft, everybody and their mothers knew that Robinson was going No. 1 overall, and he certainly did not disappoint. Robinson would end his career as a Hall of Famer, 10-time All-Star, a former MVP, and Defensive Player of the Year winner.
The 6’9” power forward known as “The Hammer” was a good yet unspectacular selection as the No. 2 overall pick. Armen Gilliam made the All-Rookie Team by putting up 14.8 PPG and 7.9 RPG and would finish his career with averages of 13.7 PPG and 6.9 RPG. Gilliam was a solid scorer around the rim and shot a strong 48.9% from the field over his career that lasted 13 seasons. The big man was not a star, but he was certainly productive on the court and was not a bust, although the Phoenix Suns probably would have drafted Reggie Miller or Scottie Pippen if they could go back in time.
Dennis Hopson was taken No. 3 overall ahead of some very talented players, including Reggie Miller, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Johnson, and Mark Jackson. All are worthy of being top-5 picks, although the best option probably would have been Reggie Miller due to the shooting guard’s ability to lead a team to the playoffs every year. Hopson ended up being a decent but unspectacular player, competing in 5 total NBA seasons and playing the majority of his professional career outside of the USA. Hopson finished with career averages of 10.9 PPG, 2.8 RPG, and 1.6 APG.
1988 NBA Draft
No. 1 Overall Pick - Danny Manning
No. 2 Overall Pick - Rik Smits
No. 3 Overall Pick - Charles Smith
A 2-time All-Star with the Los Angeles Clippers, 6’10” Danny Manning was a solid scorer through the first 6 seasons of his professional career. The power forward was adept at scoring the ball, holding career averages of 19.1 PPG and 6.4 APG during his time with Los Angeles. These are solid numbers, although it was expected because the big man was the No.1 overall pick in the 1988 Draft. Whether he deserved the No. 1 selection is to be discussed because even if the power forward was not a once-in-a-generation player, he was still an effective scorer.
A 1-time All-Star with the Indiana Pacers, 7’4” Rik Smits was a solid paint presence through the twelve seasons of his professional career. The center was adept at scoring the ball inside and defending the rim, holding career averages of 14.8 PPG and 6.1 RPG during his time with the Pacers. These are solid numbers, although it was expected because the big man was the No.2 overall pick in the 1988 Draft. Whether he deserved the No. 2 selection is to be discussed because even if the big man was not a once-in-a-generation player, he was still an effective paint presence.
Charles Smith was a capable big man who definitely should have been a top-10 draft pick in the 1988 NBA Draft, but there is no way he should have gone ahead of Mitch Richmond or Rod Strickland. Both guards ended up becoming All-Stars and bonafide studs as offensive players, something Smith was never able to do. But Smith had a respectable career nonetheless, averaging 14.4 PPG and 5.8 RPG while also making the All-Rookie Team as a power forward for the majority of his career. After his stint with the Los Angeles Clippers was over, Smith joined the New York Knicks and San Antonio Spurs.
1989 NBA Draft
No. 1 Overall Pick - Pervis Ellison
No. 2 Overall Pick - Danny Ferry
No. 3 Overall Pick - Sean Elliott
Pervis Ellison had promising moments as he averaged 20.0 PPG and 17.4 PPG in his third and fourth seasons, respectively, but injuries kept him from becoming the star he was expected to become. Ellison managed to play over 65 games three separate times in his career, with only one season eclipsing 70 games. After Ellison's fourth season, he never averaged double-digit scoring again. A 6'9" center, he was already undersized, so an injured body rendered him ineffective. The likes of Shawn Kemp and Tim Hardaway were certainly better options than Ellison with the No. 1 overall pick.
Danny Ferry was a bust because he should have never been taken No. 2 overall in the 1989 Draft. The 6’10” forward brought size and toughness, but he lacked the skill to be an impactful player over his career, even if he won the 2003 NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs at age 36. Ferry averaged double-digits in scoring only twice in his career and finished with an average of 7.0 PPG and 2.8 RPG over 13 seasons. Cleveland has a mixed track record in selecting busts with valuable picks in a particular draft, and Danny Ferry is another one to add to the list.
Finally, Sean Elliot was taken No. 3 overall in the 1989 NBA Draft. The forward was one of the most “NBA-ready” players coming out of the draft because he showed focus, defensive intangibles, and basketball IQ from his very first game. Standing 6’8”, Elliot was a valuable member of the Spurs as he ended up making 2 All-Star selections with the team and also made the All-Rookie Team by averaging 10.0 PPG, 3.7 RPG, and 1.9 APG.
1990 NBA Draft
No. 1 Overall Pick - Derrick Coleman
No. 2 Overall Pick - Gary Payton
No. 3 Overall Pick - Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf
Derrick Coleman became an All-Star with the New Jersey Nets at age 26 and competed in the NBA for his first 5 seasons with the franchise. The power forward was known for his paint play and decent floor spacing and was generally consistent in providing all the above for his side. Capturing Rookie of the Year, averaging 18.4 PPG for the Nets, the big man rewarded the Nets for believing in him with the valued No. 1 overall pick. Derrick’s prime was not of superstar level, but he was a capable scorer and rebounder, which makes him a decent selection because, at the very least, he would have gone in the top-3 in a hypothetical re-draft.
Already an elite defensive player, Gary Payton was taken No. 2 overall in the 1990 Draft by the Seattle SuperSonics. In many ways, Payton should have gone No. 1 overall because he was a much more impactful player than Coleman was over his career. Payton would become a bonafide All-Star on both ends of the floor, making the All-Star Team in his fourth season when he posted 16.5 PPG, 6.0 APG, and 2.3 SPG and eventually making 9 total All-Star appearances and winning a Defensive Player of the Year award. The Glove had a tendency to pick ball-handler’s pockets, but his improvement as a scorer inside and outside the paint was impressive to see as he matured from a young rookie to a bonafide superstar point guard.
Before he became an exile from the league, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf had to be one of the best marksmen in NBA history. The guard went on to make the All-Rookie Team in his first season, posting 14.1 PPG and 3.1 APG on 41.3% shooting from the field. Just two years later, Mahmoud would win Most Improved Player of the Year by posting 19.2 PPG and 4.2 APG on 45.0% from the field and 35.5% from three. The guard was one of the first players in the NBA to create his own perimeter shots and pull up on a fast break, and Denver Nuggets fans will never forget him.