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The Different Types of NBA Draft #1 Picks

In what was the first ever #1 pick in franchise history, the Minnesota Timberwolves applied conventional wisdom and went for Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns. The rest of the first round unfolded in an almost chaotic matter, with several surprises and strange picks. However, the impact of having the #1 pick can never be overstated, as it can usually represent the difference between starting anew and getting stuck in the NBA’s mediocrity cycle. More so than any other sport, NBA teams need their high draft picks to yield results quickly, and botching one of them can turn out to be devastating.

Minnesota’s draft history has been sketchy at best, with the franchise never really acing any top-10 pick since picking Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen on consecutive seasons in the mid-90’s. Now Towns, who becomes the third #1 pick coming from Kentucky since 2010, will try to become an immediate impact player in a franchise with enough marginal talent to build something interesting in the West.

#1 picks have tended to follow a number of career arcs over the NBA’s most recent era, ranging from the unforgivable busts to the history-altering superstars. With this in mind, today we take a look at the past 20 #1 picks in the NBA draft and group them into the different paths they have followed. How will Town’s career look in 3 or 5 years? At least no one can blame Minnesota for getting too cute with their pick.

The Absolute Busts

Michael Olowokandi – 1998 – Clippers
Kwame Brown – 2001 – Wizards
Greg Oden – 2007 – Trail Blazers

These guys have been anointed as the ultimate mistakes of the past 20 years, as they each all set back their franchises for a few years and their picks was made even worse by the players that were selected after them.

Olowokandi posted a career 11.0 PER with the Clippers, who suffered more than a decade of failure before nailing their next #1 pick and turning the franchise around. The rest of the 1998 Draft included Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, and Dirk Nowitzki, amond others.

In a career that saw him play for 7 franchises and post a well-below-average 12.5 PER, Brown was the biggest mistake of Michael Jordan’s early venture with the Wizards. Even as the 2011 Draft was not particularly top-heavy, it still saw the likes of Pau Gasol and Tony Parker fall through the cracks. The Wizards bottomed out again before emerging as a mid-level contender in the mid 00’s, when Brown was long gone.

Oden’s career path may be the most depressive in recent memory, as the Ohio State big man was never really able to launch his NBA tenure. Crushing knee injuries derailed his early start and his attempted comebacks, as Oden is now practically out of the league after only 105 games. Even as the Blazers recovered nicely and established a solid team in the years following the pick, it will always be closely remembered for Portland choosing Oden over Kevin Durant.

Role Players

Joe Smith – 1995 – Warriors
Andrea Bargnani – 2006 – Raptors

The next tier includes a couple of players that were not absolute busts, but still were disappointments in their own right.

Joe Smith went from college star to the ultimate swingman, with a 17-year career that spanned 12 teams. His 15.4 career PER solidifies his cases as a perfectly average player, and one that played for 10 playoff squads and earned a cool $60+ million in the NBA. The ‘95 draft included Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett.

The 2006 Draft has failed to produce a single superstar, but it still had several fringe stars that have made a bigger impact in the league, such as Rajon Rondo and LaMarcus Aldridge. On the other hand, Bargnani disappointed in Toronto before become a punchline with the Knicks, especially as his 3-point game has eroded. He can still have some use now that he is a free agent, but it is nothing compared to the pedigree he was supposed to have when he was picked.

Too Soon to Tell

Anthony Bennett – 2013 – Cavaliers
Andrew Wiggins – 2014 – Cavaliers

As the centerpieces of the Kevin Love trade last year, Bennett and Wiggins were shipped to Minnesota, where they will now share the court with the new #1 pick. The former McDonald’s All-Americans have had inconsistent starts, even as Wiggins came up with the Rookie of the Year award already. Bennett’s game still has a lot to be polished, but he is 22 and deserves the benefit of the doubt, while Wiggins is much more advanced and will have to prove his worth as a sophomore in 2015-2016. With Love’s status now murky in Cleveland, the trade may turn out to be a huge win for Minnesota.

Solid Careers

Elton Brand – 1999 – Bulls
Kenyon Martin – 2000 – Nets
Andrew Bogut – 2005 – Bucks

The middle tier features a handful of players who never lived up to expectations, but excused themselves nicely and had above-average careers in the league.

It all starts with Brand, who was supposed to be Chicago’s next big thing after the dynasty ended. Instead, he could only play two years for the Bulls (even as he won the ROY) before being shipped to the Clippers, were he had a nice 7-year run that included 2 All-Star appearances and the status as one of the NBA’s most underrated players. Still active at age 35, Brand has reinvented his career as a veteran presence for the Atlanta Hawks, surviving on smarts and his preternatural basketball IQ.

In a similar fashion, Martin had a brief tenure with the team that drafted him, as the Nets sent him to Denver after only 4 seasons. Martin will be mostly remembered for his time with the high-flying Nuggets coached by George Karl, where Martin was a solid defensive enforcer that played in the playoffs six times. Kenyon still played last season, for the Milwaukee Bucks, but his injuries and age limited him to only 11 games off the bench. The end is probably near for the former #1 pick, but he at least has a decent career.

Bogut has followed a weirder career path to this point, as he has been really good when he is on the court, but perennial injury concerns have greatly limited his potential. As a defensive wiz with above-average mid-range shooting, he was a sound #1 pick, even as his draft class included Chris Paul. Bogut was the best player in many lousy Milwaukee teams before signing with the Warriors, where he has ridden an up-and-down tenure before settling as a role player who was part of the 2015 championship, albeit with limited playing time. He will be 31 next season, so there is still time for Bogut to maintain his status as a good pick.

The What-Ifs

Yao Ming – 2002 – Rockets
Derrick Rose – 2008 – Bulls

Here we have a couple of cautionary tales, who have been great but ultimately derailed by terrible injuries that took away almost everything.

Yao was a cultural phenomenon that backed the hype with solid play for the Rockets, making seven straight All-Star games to start his career, while also being part of 5 second and third-tier All-NBA teams. His 7’6’’ frame was betrayed by nasty foot injuries that forced him to retire at age 30, thus never fulfilling Houston’s destiny as a potential championship team. Yao has now become an international basketball ambassador, and he remains one of the best commercial pitchmen among athletes.

Derrick Rose’s name still makes many Bulls fans cringe, as he once represented the centerpiece of another potential Chicago dynasty, only to lose 3 years of his prime to knee injuries. Rose won the ROY before becoming an MVP, but his body could never keep up with his aggressive playing style. Rose finally came back in an extended role for 2014-15, but he now has to follow a cautious approach and become a different kind of player, which is certainly sad from a fan’s point of view. He is only 26, so there is still time to change the script.

Franchise Building Blocks

Blake Griffin – 2009 – Clippers
John Wall – 2010 – Wizards
Kyrie Irving – 2011 – Cavaliers

When people point out that NBA scouting and projections have gotten better over the years, you can point out to the 2009-2012 period as evidence of it. These three players, plus one that belongs in a different category, have been instrumental in taking downtrodden franchises gradually back to the top.

Griffin has evolved from a highlight reel machine to a better all-around player, Wall has been the key cog in Washington’s slow climb to respectability, while Irving just took a leap in 2015 to be considered among the elite modern point guards in the NBA.

However, it has been clear for all three of them that they need support to become part of potential championship teams. Griffin has been the perfect sidekick for Chris Paul, Kyrie was in the perfect situation with LeBron, while Wall’s turnaround coincided with a better supporting cast. There are still years to go to fully evaluate these picks, but so far they have been hugely positive for their franchises.


Allen Iverson – 1996 – 76ers
Dwight Howard – 2004 – Magic
Anthony Davis – 2012 – Hornets/Pelicans

Just below the top tier, here are the guys that you can build a franchise around. However, they have remained just close to the final step.

The iconic Iverson, who will endure as one of the most colorful characters in NBA history, single-handedly revived the Sixers franchise with his hero-ball type of play and unique basketball smarts. He won an MVP, took a middling roster to the Finals, and remains a cult hero to this day. As a future Hall of Famer, he only needed a title to cement his legacy.

Despite all character concerns regarding Howard, there is no way to deny that he has been a truly special player in the NBA. Similarly to Iverson, he took an average roster to the Finals, while having four top-5 MVP finishes, and becoming the best defensive player of his generation. His Lakers tenure and injuries have put a dent on his career, but Howard is still capable of being a solid #2 alongside another star player, much like he showed with the Rockets last season.

The Brow is bumped to this tier by virtue of his historic pace and the potential he has shown during his short stay in the league. His career PER so far is an outrageous 26.8, right in line with the league’s top performers, and he is still only 22. Now that the Pelicans will have a better coach and presumably better players to surround Davis, it will be interesting to see if he fulfills his potential as a perennial MVP candidate.

Franchise Makers

Tim Duncan – 1997 – Spurs
LeBron James – 2003 – Cavaliers

Out of all the top #1 picks in history, which includes the likes of Shaq, Magic, Kareem, and other legendary players, we can count Duncan and LeBron among them as the players that changed basketball history.

Duncan has been the leader of a San Antonio franchise that has won 5 titles under his watch, while LeBron has been a transcendental player in his own right, with 2 titles and amazing consistency. Duncan is close to retirement, while LeBron has a few years left in the tank to rewrite his legacy, so it may be time for a different #1 pick to start a new era of dominance in the NBA.

In the end, players like Duncan and James represent the ultimate return a franchise can have with a #1 pick, and a fate that Minnesota will hope to see now that its roster is full of them.


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