NBA PM: Most Controversial Draft Picks


Every year when watching the draft, there are at least one or two picks that literally put fans’ jaws on the floor in disbelief. Anybody who watched the 2013 NBA Draft, for example, may remember when Bill Simmons, then of ESPN, literally yelled “Whoa!” when Cleveland pulled the trigger on Anthony Bennett as the No. 1 overall pick in that draft. It was genuinely surprising, after all, but far from the only time in NBA history that a team has completely shocked the fans and analysts who tuned in to watch.

The following are the other more controversial, jaw-dropping picks of the last five years. Some of them turned out just fine for the teams that took gambles, while others confound the general basketball-watching public to this very day. Either way, here’s a look at the recent draft picks that proved to be the most stunning to viewers and fans:

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks (#4, 2015) – It’s only been a year, but it’s impossible to forget that young Knicks fan who came very close to breaking into tears once the selection was made official. In the weeks leading up to the draft, Knicks fans were forced to come to terms with the fact that Porzingis really could be the guy. But even with Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor likely off the board by the time New York made their pick, fans still were hoping for Willie Cauley-Stein, Emmanuel Mudiay or Justise Winslow. Instead, they got the gangly Latvian about which fans knew close to nothing. They were shocked Phil Jackson actually pulled the trigger, and understandably so, but it didn’t take long for those fans to change their minds.

Despite all that, it’s hard not to feel bad for this kid. Chicken Little really thought the sky was falling that day.

Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics (#16, 2015) – If you watched college basketball in the years leading up to the 2015 NBA Draft, you knew who Terry Rozier was, but that didn’t stop an absolute firestorm from occurring on Twitter in the moments after his selection as the 16th player selected that year. When SI’s Chris Mannix wrote his quick hit draft grade for the selection, his first sentence was just the word, “Wow.”

Rozier only played in 39 games his rookie year, which isn’t surprising considering he’s behind Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley on the point guard depth chart in Boston, so it’s a little early to determine whether or not Danny Ainge did a solid job with this pick. But considering Jerian Grant, Bobby Portis and even Tyus Jones all were picked within eight selections south of Rozier, it remains a pretty surprising pick even a year later.

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (#3, 2014) – Admittedly, the Sixers were in a tough spot a couple of years ago when it was clear that Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker would both be gone by the time they made their pick at No. 3. For most of the month of June, Embiid actually seemed like the safest pick, should he fall, but then that foot injury happened and many mock drafters had him slipping way down the draft board toward the end of the lottery. There were even some rumors swirling at the time that Wiggins could fall to them at No. 3, and then they’d take Embiid at No. 10.

That obviously didn’t happen, and while there certainly was an argument to be made for Embiid as the third-best player in the draft in terms of talent (some were comparing him to Hakeem Olajuwon at the time), the fact that it was known he was going to miss an entire year made his selection still rather surprising. Dante Exum felt like the safer pick, though he’s had his injury woes early in his career, as well. Not quite Embiid bad, but bad nonetheless.

Anthony Bennett, Cleveland Cavaliers (#1, 2013) – “Whoa” was an appropriate response for this pick, though maybe not for someone who was actually covering the event on live television. Still, though. Whoa.

In retrospect, we now know that Bennett probably is the worst No. 1 overall pick in the history of the NBA, but even at the time everybody knew that there probably were better options for the Cavaliers than Bennett with that No. 1 pick. Nerlens Noel was the most popular in mock drafts and even with his ACL recovery he would have made a more worthwhile selection there than Bennett, though there also was real talk at the time about Otto Porter, Alex Len or Ben McLemore. Those three guys have had varying degrees of success in the pros, but none look to be on the cusp on stardom. Still, anybody but Bennett. The Cavaliers wanted to outsmart the league with some of their crazy picks over the last five years, but this particular selection was a waste. Even in a weak draft, there were so many better options.

Cody Zeller, Charlotte Bobcats (#4, 2013) – Again, this was a weak draft, and there were rumors leading up to it that Michael Jordan and Rich Cho really wanted Zeller, but with Nerlens Noel still on the board at that point, passing him over for Zeller seemed (and still seems) like a bad idea. It was supposed to be the safest possible pick, but Zeller was pegged for late lottery, not No. 4 overall. With Noel still on the board, this pick didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (#15, 2013) – When “The Alphabet” was first selected by the Milwaukee Bucks halfway through the first round of the 2013 Draft, it wasn’t so much a “Whoa” moment as it was a “Huh?” moment. Most people just hadn’t heard of him at that point, and with known commodities like Mason Plumlee, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Hardaway, Jr. still on the board, it’s easy to see how fans may have been a little miffed at the selection of some gangly Greek teenager with a name that nobody could spell, let alone pronounce.

Bucks fans have very different feelings about Antetokounmpo three years later, obviously, as he’s turned into one of the most fascinatingly talented players in the league. It turned out to be an amazing gamble by Milwaukee, even if fans weren’t so sure about it at the time.

Dion Waiters, Cleveland Cavaliers (#4, 2012) – This is another example of the Cavaliers trying to outsmart the world, which they truly did not do with this pick back in 2012. There were rumblings the day before the draft that Waiters would be the pick, but anytime anybody talked about that possibility it was shrugged off. Harrison Barnes and Andre Drummond were both possibilities for Cleveland that year, as well, so to have gone with the guy who never started a college game just because he drew some comps to Dwyane Wade seems a little ridiculous now. It’s not that Waiters has been awful, because he hasn’t. It’s just that Barnes and Drummond have looked so much better and they were the more logical selections even then.

Royce White, Houston Rockets (#16, 2012) – Teams knew heading into the draft that White had obsessive compulsive disorder and an anxiety disorder, as he made it known to teams that he would not be traveling via airplane during his NBA career, which would obviously cause problems in fulfilling his career obligations. Houston had a ton of picks in that draft and so they could afford to take a gamble on the talented big man with one of them, but in a lot of ways it was pretty surprising that a team used a first-round pick on White knowing the baggage that came with him. In his career, he played only three games for Sacramento on a 10-day contract a couple of seasons ago, and that was it. It turns out we were all surprised by the pick for a reason.

There have been all kinds of insane draft picks over the years, and there almost certainly will be one or two jaw-droppers when this year’s draft rolls around in a few weeks. Bad though they may occasionally be, it’s the unpredictability of those gambles that makes the draft so fun to watch. And watch we will, in hopes that another announcer is moved to “Whoa” his way through his commentary.


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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.

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