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NBA AM: Biggest All-Time Draft Risks

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The NBA Draft is an exercise in weighing risk versus reward. Some years, there are clear first overall picks with no-doubt futures as NBA juggernauts. There was the LeBron James draft, the Tim Duncan draft and the Blake Griffin draft.

But no matter the year, there always are a handful of players that come with more risk than usual, but general managers love a high ceiling a whole lot more than a sturdy floor, so there comes a time in every draft when those calculated risks seem like they’re worth it. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they just aren’t.

The following is a look at some of the riskiest first-round picks of the last 10 years. Some of them worked out great, and some of them are Anthony Bennett. So it goes in the life of an NBA executive.

Thon Maker, Milwaukee Bucks (2016) – While it’s way too early to make any sort of judgement on Maker, there’s no question that he was the first jaw-dropping selection of last year’s draft. There couldn’t have been a single mock draft in existence (outside of Sudan, naturally) that had Maker going in the top ten, but that’s where he went. Milwaukee just had him higher on their board than anybody else did.

In his rookie season, Maker showed flashes of some really good stuff, playing well enough to start every game in the postseason. If he puts on a little muscle and figures out how to rebound in this league, he still could be really good, though probably not as a perennial All-Star. There’s plenty to like, but not enough to make any definitive conclusions about him either way.

Georgios Papagiannis, Sacramento Kings (2016) – Just a few picks later in that same draft, Sacramento nabbed Papagiannis, a Greek giant that served as the centerpiece of the trade down that landed Phoenix Marquese Chriss. Unfortunately, Papagiannas only played 22 games in his rookie season, all toward the end of the year when Sacramento had nothing better to do but play the kids big minutes, and the overall numbers were modest. He came along a bit toward the end and reportedly is working to slim down this summer, but he could struggle to stay relevant throughout his career. Looking back, there wasn’t a whole lot the Kings could have done to get more out of that selection, but Papagiannis was an especially risky selection considering how many big men Sacramento already had rostered at the time.

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (2014) – In the weeks leading up to the 2014 NBA Draft, it seemed all but certain that Embiid would be the first overall pick. His combination of size, range, footwork and offensive ability drew comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon, but shortly before the draft, news came out that he had a navicular fracture in his right foot to go along with a back injury, causing him to drop to Philly at number three. Frankly, players with those sorts of injuries would typically drop a lot more than that.

The pick was widely lauded at the time, with a lot of “He’ll be great if he can stay healthy” chatter, but three years later, the pick still hasn’t stopped being incredibly risky, even with those amazing 31 games Embiid finally gave us this past season. When big guys have that foot injury, it can be a big problem, and it looks like Embiid could spend much of his career fighting off injuries. Just like everybody said when was chosen in 2014, however, he’s a monster when he’s actually on the court.

Anthony Bennett, Cleveland Cavaliers (2013) – Nobody expected Cleveland to take Bennett with the first overall pick in 2013, the thought being that someone like Victor Oladipo or Otto Porter would be a better for that iteration of the Cavs. Time and again, though, that front office stunned fans with their audacity and nabbed a guy who had concerns about his weight even then. What Cleveland wanted was a modern stretch four, but what they got was a player who couldn’t keep his weight under control and never exhibited the drive that has made so many other NBA players wildly successful. He was out of the league within three years and probably will go down with Greg Oden as the worst number one overall pick in the history of the NBA.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (2013) – There were a lot of questions about Antetokounmpo when he was drafted, most of which had something to do with the spelling of his name. Even moderately-engaged NBA fans hadn’t heard of him, and the announcement of his name and forthcoming grainy international scouting footage were enough to confuse most draft viewers that night.

Turns out, Antetokounmpo is really, really good. He’s probably got an MVP season in his near future. There may not have been a more successful gamble in recent draft history.

Dion Waiters, Cleveland Cavaliers (2012) – Waiters wasn’t a starter at Syracuse, which is what made this pick so risky when players like Damian Lillard, Harrison Barnes and Andre Drummond all still were on the board with more certain pedigrees. At the time, Waiters’ ceiling was viewed as something like Dwyane Wade, which made this past season as Wade’s successor in Miami all the more prophetic. The pick didn’t necessarily work out for Cleveland, but Waiters has come into his own and is four or five weeks from getting paid like a player who lived up to his potential.

Hasheem Thabeet, Memphis Grizzlies (2009) – This was a deeply risky second overall pick, even at the time, if only because Memphis already had Marc Gasol on the roster before drafting Thabeet, a defensive specialist that never did figure out how to do anything productive offensively. You can’t teach 7-foot-3, but even before the draft, there were concerns about his work ethic. Those concerns were validated almost immediately, as Thabeet struggled so badly as a rookie that he was sent down to the D-League in February of that season. Nobody drafted that high had ever been forced to play in the minors before, so the demotion was bad for just about everybody.

He played for six teams in his first five seasons and then never made his way back to an NBA organization. James Harden was the third pick in that draft, by the way. Stephen Curry was picked seventh, and DeMar DeRozan went ninth. In terms of risk/reward, this pick was all risk and no reward.

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This year’s draft is no less risky, with all sorts of prospects that could metaphorically shoot the teams drafting them in the collective foot. That’s what makes the draft so fun, though.

Who will be this year’s big surprise risky pick? All we can do is tune in on June 22nd and find out for ourselves.

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About Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.