We Rank the Worst No. 1 Picks in NBA Lottery History

We Rank the Worst No. 1 Picks in NBA Lottery History

You might say it’s too early to call Markelle Fultz a bust but that won’t stop us from doing it.
You might say it’s too early to call Markelle Fultz a bust but that won’t stop us from doing it.
Image: AP

Since the NBA’s first draft lottery in 1985, there have been 11 first-overall picks who did not make an All-NBA team or appear in an All-Star Game. That number is a little inflated because Zion Williamson and DeAndre Ayton are just getting started, so when you’re trying to figure out which is the worst pick, which is what we’re doing, it’s really a list of nine candidates.

So, who is the worst No. 1 pick of the lottery era? Let’s rank them.

Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.

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9. Pervis Ellison, Sacramento Kings, 1989

9. Pervis Ellison, Sacramento Kings, 1989

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Image: AP

Career: Never Nervous Pervis did win the 1991-92 Most Improved Player award while with the Washington Bullets, who acquired him in a trade after his rookie season. Ellison was a solid shot blocker and rebounder in his NBA career, but never a star, in large part because he was always injured, leading to his other nickname, Out Of Service Pervis.

Draft Context: Mookie Blaylock, Tim Hardaway, and Vlade Divac were the best players in this draft, but they went 12th, 14th, and 26th, respectively. The most reasonable alternative at the top of the draft for Sacramento would have been Glen Rice, who went at No. 4 to Miami. The picks between Ellison and Rice were Danny Ferry to the Clippers and Sean Elliott to the Spurs.

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8. Joe Smith, Golden State Warriors, 1995

8. Joe Smith, Golden State Warriors, 1995

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Image: AP

Career: Smith got 1,030 games in the league and was legitimately good for the Timberwolves for a minute. He kept getting chances with new teams because he brought something to the table, but also there was a reason he never lasted too long in any one spot.

Draft Context: Kevin Garnett went No. 5. That’s really all you need to know, but the Warriors also would have done better drafting anyone who came between Smith and Garnett, which would be Antonio McDyess (Clippers), Jerry Stackhouse (76ers), and Rasheed Wallace (Bullets). But, uh, No. 6 was Bryant Reeves. Big Country! Also, Smith had comparable numbers in the NBA to Greg Ostertag, who was picked 28th.

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7. Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers, 2017

7. Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers, 2017

Illustration for article titled We Rank the Worst No. 1 Picks in NBA Lottery History
Image: AP

Career: This season was the first time that Fultz was on the court on anything resembling a regular basis after two injury-plagued seasons in Philadelphia, and he was alright as the Orlando Magic’s point guard, albeit still a 27% three-point shooter, which won’t cut it. He turned 22 in May, and while Fultz may not wind up being an All-Star or shake the ire of Philadelphia, he still has a chance to be a very productive NBA player.

Draft Context: Jayson Tatum, who went to the Celtics at No. 3, was the correct pick. At least Boston and Philadelphia don’t have any kind of rivalry, right? Well, at least that pick didn’t initially belong to the 76ers before they traded it and another first-round pick to the Celtics, right? Oh dear. At least the other top players in the draft (at least so far) came from further down the board: Donovan Mitchell (13), Bam Adebayo (14), John Collins (19), and Jarrett Allen (22).

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6. Andrew Wiggins, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2014

6. Andrew Wiggins, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2014

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Image: AP

Career: Wiggins has had three seasons averaging better than 20 points a game in his first six years in the league, and he was the 2014-15 Rookie of the Year, so that’s something, too. Would it work for him to be a rotation player on a good team instead of one of the top players on a garbage team? Maybe we’ll eventually find out. He’s still young enough for that to happen with Golden State next season.

Draft Context: You can understand having reservations about making Joel Embiid the No. 1 pick given the physical issues that have troubled him going back to college. The Cavs took Wiggins over Jabari Parker, which, fine. After Embiid, the next picks were Aaron Gordon, Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, and Julius Randle. The actual top player in the draft went at No. 41, Nikola Jokic, and the other guy who wound up truly being good was Clint Capela, who was picked 25th.

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5. Andrea Bargnani, Toronto Raptors, 2006

5. Andrea Bargnani, Toronto Raptors, 2006

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Career: If Bargnani had been 6-10 instead of a 7-footer, maybe he would’ve been cast as a big small forward instead of having the expectation placed on him that he’d become a star center. If Bargnani had been a later pick, he might have been able to take a little more time to develop. If ifs and buts were candies and nuts… Anyway, he wasn’t an embarrassment as an NBA player, but never was in the right situation and absolutely wasn’t No. 1 pick material.

Draft Context: The top of this draft was a tire fire, as after LaMarcus Aldridge went at No. 2, the next picks were Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas, and Shelden Williams. The best players in the whole draft were Aldridge, Rajon Rondo (21), Kyle Lowry (24), and Paul Millsap (47). Yes, the Raptors should’ve taken Aldridge, but they could’ve done so much worse.

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4. Greg Oden, Portland Trail Blazers, 2007

4. Greg Oden, Portland Trail Blazers, 2007

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Career: Oden needed microfracture knee surgery before he even played an NBA game, and his career wound up lasting only 105 of those. He averaged 19.3 minutes in those games, with eight points and 6.2 rebounds, which is pretty impressive, rate-wise. But nobody ever got to see the Oden from Ohio State play in the NBA. It’s more sad than anything else.

Draft Context: The entire conversation leading up to the draft was whether Oden or Kevin Durant should be the No. 1 pick, and how they’d be rivals in Portland and Seattle for the next decade. Well… uh…. yeah. It’s an even tougher pill to swallow for the Blazers that after Durant, the next picks were Al Horford and Mike Conley. Nobody can be blamed for passing on the actual best big man in the draft, as Marc Gasol was a second-rounder.

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3. Kwame Brown, Washington Wizards, 2001

3. Kwame Brown, Washington Wizards, 2001

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Career: Mostly known for being treated like shit by Michael Jordan, it’s important to remember that Brown also was treated like shit by Kobe Bryant. Could Brown have thrived in a friendlier environment for his development? Yes. It’s called college. Some guys need to go there, and his NBA venture came at the peak of guys jumping from high school who really shouldn’t have.

Draft Context: Similar to Brown, you could find Eddy Curry at No. 4 and DeSagana Diop at No. 8. The best player in this draft also didn’t play a minute of NCAA ball, but for a different reason: Pau Gasol came from Spain. Tyson Chandler, another high school star, went at No. 2 and has had a very solid career. Jason Richardson (5), Shane Battier (6), Joe Johnson (10), and Tony Parker (28) were the other best players from this draft.

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2. Michael Olowokandi, Los Angeles Clippers, 1998

2. Michael Olowokandi, Los Angeles Clippers, 1998

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Image: AP

Career: A 23-year-old who dominated one season at the University of the Pacific didn’t pan out in the NBA? Olowokandi was horrendous. Like, worse than Michael Doleac and Jerome James, who also went in this draft. Oh, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called him “uncoachable.”

Draft Context: There were three future Hall of Famers taken in the top 10 — Vince Carter (5), Dirk Nowitzki (9), and Paul Pierce (10). Mike Bibby, the No. 2 pick, had a solid career, and if the Clippers were insistent on a big guy out of college, Antawn Jamison went at No. 4. Heck, Raef LaFrentz, the No. 3 pick, was a 6-11 guy who was at least decent — he also would’ve been on this list, but in the Pervis Ellison/Joe Smith area.

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1. Anthony Bennett, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2013

1. Anthony Bennett, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2013

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Career: In four NBA seasons, Bennett played for four NBA teams — the Cavaliers, Timberwolves, Raptors, and Nets — and started a total of four NBA games. He did win the EuroLeague with Fenerbahçe in 2017, then returned to America to play for the Northern Arizona Suns, Maine Red Claws, and Agua Caliente Clippers in the G League. Waived by Houston last July, Bennett never did find a team for 2019-20.

Draft Context: This draft had Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he went 15th, so it’s hard to just get on the Cavs for having passed. Same for Rudy Gobert at No. 27. But Victor Oladipo was the No. 2 pick, Otto Porter was No. 3, and CJ McCollum was No. 10. Bennett was a complete whiff.

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Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.