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Looking At The NBA Draft: The No. 1 Picks

Matt John begins Basketball Insiders’ Looking Back series by taking a look at which first overall picks since 2009 were hits, misses or somewhere in between.

Matt John

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Last week, Basketball Insiders dove into NBA nostalgia by looking back at previous NBA drafts of recent memory, starting from 2014 all the way to 2017. Over the next two weeks, we’re going to be changing the formula up a tad. Instead of looking at entire drafts, we’re looking at the individual picks – starting from number one to number 14 – and how they have fared over the last 11 years.

In this new series, we’ll be going over which particular selections over the last ten years were hits, which were misses, which were square in the middle between the previously mentioned two terms, and who were the role players. Today, we’re starting at the top – the first overall pick.

The number one pick in the draft is the golden ticket. There aren’t a whole lot of better fortunes that a team can receive than winning the draft lottery. It can alter your fortunes on the flip of a dime. It doesn’t always happen, but for obvious reasons, a team’s future prospects usually get better the day when they pick first in the NBA draft. Speaking of obvious, most number one picks are hits because they were selected number one for a reason. Over the last 10 years, that’s been the case although there have been a few odd instances since 2009.

In order for a player who was picked number one to be deemed a hit, he has to meet one or two of the following criteria.

1. Has he been the best player – or at least one of the best players – in his draft?
2. Has (or had) his team’s fortunes changed for the better because of him?

The Hits

Blake Griffin – Los Angeles Clippers – 2009

Not many players in NBA history have gone through the ups and downs that Blake’s had to since being drafted by the Clippers 11 years ago.

In that time, the following has happened to him.
1. He missed his first season because of a preseason knee injury
2. He became the NBA’s most entertaining highlight reel as a rookie
3. He evolved his game towards becoming an MVP candidate by the age of 25
4. He was the poster boy for one of the biggest underachieving teams in NBA history
5. He injured himself so many times that he fell off everyone’s radar
6. He had a redeem season in his first full year in Detroit
7. He now is regarded as an awful contract as injuries have continued to keep him off the court

Craziest of all, he just turned 31.

All in all, Blake has absolutely been a hit as the number one overall pick in his draft. He’s more often been either the best player or one of the best players on the floor when he’s playing. Fellow 2009 draftees Stephen Curry and James Harden have made more substantial impacts on the league, but Griffin has done everything in his power to live up to the hype.

The only question that remains is where he goes from here. The more surgeries he gets, the less likely we are to see prime Blake come back. Even before his most recent surgeries, Blake was no longer the freak athlete during his heyday in LA. That’s why he deserves more recognition for accommodating his game to make up for his lost athleticism. If Blake loses even more of his natural abilities, let’s cross our fingers that he has a career much akin to Grant Hill’s when Hill faced a similar impediment in his 30’s.

John Wall – Washington Wizards – 2010

Not a lot of point guards have come into the NBA with the same amount of hype that John Wall did back in 2010. He was fast. He could jump. He had great vision. He had all the makings of a franchise floor general. For Washington, a team that was fresh off a locker room scandal the year before, any sort of youthful infusion was a welcome one, and they got one in Wall. Ten years later, the verdict on the Kentucky alum as of now is satisfactory.

Wall’s averaged a career 19/9.2/4.3 on 43/32/78 splits over his nine-year career, and had it not been for ongoing injuries over the last few years, those numbers could have been even higher and the Wizards could have had deeper playoff runs.

Wall has been a 5-time All-Star, he’s been borderline unstoppable when he’s at the top of his game and he’s led the Wizards to the most success they’ve had since the days of Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. Paul George has had a better overall career, but those accolades alone are indisputable and certify him both as a hit and as one of the draft’s best players.

When he comes back, Wall’s got a lot of hurdles to clear to prove he’s still got it. Coming off season-ending surgery to remove bone spurs from his left heel is one thing. To then tear your Achilles by the flukiest of circumstances is a whole different realm and not to mention, unlucky. The worst part is, in his own words, Wall opted for the surgery in hopes of avoiding tearing his Achilles. Well, the worst will hopefully have passed when he returns next season (whenever that starts), and then, Wall, even though he’s shown himself as a star already, will have something to prove.

Kyrie Irving – Cleveland Cavaliers – 2011

Irving’s career arc is a little odd. His first three years in the league, he was putting up impressive numbers on Cleveland teams that went absolutely nowhere. Then, he became the perfect second-in-command to LeBron James when he returned to the Cavaliers for the next three years. He even won a championship in that time. Irving then decided he was tired of being the second banana and opted to become the guy in Boston. He soon grew sick of that too and went back to being a partner-in-crime when he decided to team up with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn.

Even if he’s now paired with his best friend and playing for his hometown team, no one really knows what Kyrie wants except Kyrie. Off the court, he embodies being an enigma. On the court, there’s no denying that he is one of the league’s best scorers.

Putting the ball in the bucket has never been an issue for Kyrie. For his career, he’s averaged 22.4 points on 46/39/88 splits. He already has plenty of playoff success to his name, and, should he and KD avoid the injury bug, there should be more to come. “Should” being the operative word.

Kyrie may never be the first option on a championship team, but he has definitely proven himself both as a winner and as an unguardable scorer. That makes him well worth the billing of a number one pick, even if he too has not shown himself to be the best player from his respective draft.

Anthony Davis – New Orleans Pelicans – 2012

We’ve discussed how previous players mentioned have proven themselves to be hits even if they haven’t been the best players in the draft. With Davis, he’s been a hit because he improved the fortunes of his team (at least as well as he could have) and he is the best player from the 2012 draft.

Davis has a once-in-a-generation physique that gives both him and his team so many advantages on the floor. His long-limbed body combined with his body control makes him incredibly hard to stop on the offensive end and impossible to avoid on the defensive end. Not many bigs can say that they averaged over 20/10 as well as two blocks at least one steal a game for his entire career, but Davis can.

Things didn’t work out as well as they should have in New Orleans, but AD did the best he could for them. He also probably could have handled his exit from the Pelicans better, but both sides are better off in the end. Now that he’s in Los Angeles, his efforts are going to really good use for a change. The Lakers have taken a huge jump this year, and Davis deserves much of the credit for that.

There doesn’t really need to be much more explaining as to why Davis is a hit. He’s an all-time talent who should finally taste some playoff success when the season resumes. Although, much like Irving, we haven’t seen if he can be the number one guy on a title team. Time will tell if we even get the chance.

Karl-Anthony Towns – Minnesota Timberwolves – 2015

See this is where things get a little muddled. Since entering the league, Towns has demonstrated that he may very well be the best player from his draft. In regards to if he’s made his team better, well that’s a loaded question. Towns is an offensive phenomenon. He can score from pretty much anywhere on the court. He’s also a talented passer and can get after the ball on the boards. Yet somehow, Minnesota has been one of the worst teams in the league throughout most of his tenure.

Basketball is most certainly a team game, so there’s accountability to go around for everyone, but Towns’ shortcomings on the defensive side are certainly worth noting, especially since he has the makings of a rim protector. Yet for some reason, he just isn’t one. As the Timberwolves’ leading man, he has to prove himself on that end if they are to go anywhere.

Even so, Towns was the sensible pick at No. 1 for Minnesota, and he’s still a wonder on the offensive end. In a lot of ways, he’s the perfect center for the modern NBA. With the growing emphasis on stretch bigs, many teams like having one who is efficient. Towns, in spite of whatever is ailing him on the defensive end, has become incredibly efficient as a shooter.

Not many players can boast that they are in the 50/40/90 club. For his career, Towns has a 53/40/83 for his career splits. There’s so much that Towns does right that it’s painful to see it not translate into anything. Minnesota’s future overall remains murky, but Towns’ brilliant future is certainly not.

Ben Simmons – Philadelphia 76ers – 2016

Simmons is quite a divisive prospect. What he’s good at, he is absolutely incredible. What he’s bad at, he’s just flat-out awful. Luckily for Philly, the good definitely outweighs the bad overall. That does not cancel out the bad. Simmons is already on a superstar-like level with the positives he brings to the court, but the weaknesses to his game limit his ceiling as a player.

Simmons came into the league with great physical advantages. Even for how tall he is, Simmons runs like a gazelle and has excellent vision. As an oversized point guard, he brings so many mismatches. Contrary to what his skeptics will tell you, he has actually improved in some areas since entering the league. The one aspect of his game that actually has come along pretty nicely is his overall defense. With hit footwork and statute, he’s evolved into one of the league’s better defenders. Is there anyone questioning if he’s going to make an All-Defense team?

It’s just the shooting that’s the problem. We can’t even say he’s a bad shooter because bad shooters at least attempt to shoot jumpers. That’s something Simmons flat-out refuses to do. He can do pretty much everything else on the court on offense except that. In the modern NBA, superstars can’t get away with that.

As of now, he is atop of his fellow 2016 draftees – which makes him a hit – but if nothing improves in the shooting department, then how much better will be than them when he hangs it up?

Zion Williamson – New Orleans Pelicans – 2019

There’s not really much to say about Zion because he only played in 19 games this season. In those 19 games, he’s looked not only like the insanely-hyped prospect we believed he would be going in, but he also might be the most dominant rookie big we’ve seen since Shaquille O’Neal.

His massive physique and his ultra-athletic body makes him a cannonball in the open floor. He’s already intimidating defenses and as long as he doesn’t get hurt again, he should be a force of nature. New Orleans previously had a force of nature just the year before. The difference this time is that it looks like they’ve built around their young superstar the right way.

The future is bright again in the Big Easy, and Zion is at the center of it.

The Misses

Anthony Bennett – Cleveland Cavaliers – 2013

When NBA bust came into people’s minds, the first names were Kwame Brown, Darko Milicic and Greg Oden. That was until the Cleveland Cavaliers shocked the masses when they took Bennett first overall.

In their one single solitary defense – and it’s not a good one – the 2013 draft did not have a good crop of talent upfront coming in. Outside of Victor Oladipo and CJ McCollum, no one from the draft’s top 10 has panned out to be anything more than a complementary player. Amazingly, pretty much everyone else who came to the NBA after being drafted has had a better career than Anthony Bennett.

At least the likes of Brown, Milicic and Oden actually did something when they played. Bennett showed us absolutely nothing outside of the occasional electrifying dunk. Those guys at least played a fair amount of time in the league. That’s something Bennett didn’t do as he hasn’t played in the league since 2017. For that, he has earned the title as the biggest bust in NBA history.

The Middle of the Road

Andrew Wiggins – Cleveland Cavaliers – 2014

Wiggins may have played his first NBA game with the Timberwolves, but for the first month of his NBA career, he technically was on the Cavs. Anyway, it’s difficult to label how Wiggins has fared as the first overall pick. He’s been able to put up pretty gaudy numbers since coming into the league, but his best numbers have never contributed to any sort of success.

Outside of the lone year they had Jimmy Butler, the Wolves hve remained among the NBA’s worst teams with many pinning the blame on Wiggins’ failure to evolve into a star. Even though Wiggins has shown improvements as a playmaker this season, the results have still remained the same to the point where Minnesota had to trade a first-rounder to unload him to Golden State for D’Angelo Russell. Lucky for him, this new situation gives Wiggins to prove he can be what many don’t think he is – an effective contributor.

It’s probably too late for Wiggins to be deemed a hit because he’s never been a star and his teams as a whole have almost never won with him at the forefront, but now that he’s with the Warriors, he does have the chance to prove he can help a winner. That might just be the perfect role for him.

Deandre Ayton – Phoenix Suns – 2018

It’s a little harsh to not deem Ayton a hit, but thus far, he hasn’t exactly shown enough to prove he’s going to be a game-changer. Compare him to the likes of Luka Doncic and Trae Young. Those two look like they are going to important fixtures in the league for years to come. Ayton has yet to prove he’s on their level. In his defense, it’s only been two years.

Besides, in those two years, Ayton has shown promise. In his second year, he’s averaging 19/12 on a cool efficiency of 55 percent shooting from the field. The problem is that it hasn’t led to much. The 25-game suspension early on this season didn’t help. The Suns playing arguably their best basketball of the season during that suspension doesn’t either. Now, the Suns are out of the playoff picture which means Ayton will need another year to prove he was worth picking number one.

Again, it’s only been two years, and it’s not his fault other young juggernauts from his draft have exploded onto the league so quickly. For now, we can’t call him a hit until we see results that justify that classification.

The Role Players

Markelle Fultz – Philadelphia 76ers – 2017

So Fultz was most definitely a bust in Philly. He did pretty much nothing for them and they knew it too. We all know that, in spite of his issues, there’s still plenty of time for him to figure it out and get his career back on track. This season was a step in the right direction even if it wasn’t

Fultz has not been spectacular in Orlando – definitely not good enough to justify being picked number one – but he has been a rotation player on a playoff team. That counts for something. At least he’s proven that he should be in the NBA. That was something that very much remained cloudy when this season started.

This is either going to be the first step towards Fultz reaching his potential or it just might be the first sign of what he is – a starting-caliber point guard. Either way, it’s nice to see that whatever was keeping him out of the league has been resolved now. He can play basketball again, and that’s what’s important.

As we can see, the first overall pick definitely makes a large impact whether it’s negative or positive. If he’s a franchise talent, that changes a team’s outlook for years to come. If he’s a bust, then the team has to look elsewhere following a likely wasted season. If it’s somewhere in between, then the future, while not necessarily golden, is still exciting.

Stay tuned as Basketball Insiders continues to dive into who were the best from each selection over the past 11 years.

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