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Looking At The NBA Draft: The No. 5 Picks

David Yapkowitz checks out a decade’s worth of No. 5 overall picks in the NBA Draft.

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We’re in the middle of May, which is when the NBA playoffs are usually in full swing. That isn’t the case this year due to current events and it’s still unclear if and when the 2019-20 NBA season will resume.

With this break in play, Basketball Insiders has been exploring a wide range of topics. This week, we’ve begun a new series where we’ve gone back about ten years or so and taken a look at the draft, pick by pick. Going as far back as about 2009, we’ve thus far analyzed picks one through four and which players have or have not lived up to expectations. Moving right along, here’s a breakdown of the players picked at No. 5 over the last decade.

The Hits

DeMarcus Cousins – Sacramento Kings – 2010

Although he was drafted in the top five, there’s an argument to be made that if the draft was re-done, Cousins should be the No. 1 pick. Yes, in recent years he’s had his unfortunate struggle with injuries. But during his years in Sacramento and his initial time in New Orleans, Cousins was a bonafide superstar and franchise-type player. When he was at his best, no big man in the league had Cousins’ combination of offensive skill. He was a monster post-up threat. He could run the floor like a wing in spurts. He could handle the ball and take defenders off the dribble. He could shoot from the three-point line. He could see the floor and pass like a guard. He was the victim of inept management in Sacramento and before he got hurt in New Orleans, he looked like he was finally going to be a driving force on a playoff team.

De’Aaron Fox – Sacramento Kings – 2017

For all the problems they’ve had in the front office, the Kings have actually managed to have some good drafts, among some bad ones as well. Fox is another player who, although he was selected in the top five, would certainly be drafted higher if his draft was done over. Fox was arguably playing at an All-Star level this season. There are plenty of good point guards in the Western Conference, but it’s tough to envision Fox not making an All-Star appearance or two in the near future. He’s the quarterback of his team and a prime reason why the Kings were in playoff contention. His floor game is much improved and he’s learning how to read defenses and react. His outside shooting will come with time. The Kings have found their franchise point guard.

Trae Young – Atlanta Hawks – 2018

I’ll say it, Young is arguably the best player of his draft class thus far. The Hawks were crucified on draft night for selecting Luka Doncic and immediately trading him in a larger transaction to the Dallas Mavericks for Young. Doncic is a budding superstar in his own right, but so is Young. He started his rookie season a little slowly, but he picked it up as the year went on. This season, he picked up right where he left off in route to an All-Star selection in only his second year in the league. He’s one of the best pick and roll guards in the NBA. He has unlimited shooting range. His court vision/IQ and playmaking game is elite. He will be a perennial All-Star. Atlanta has found its franchise player.

The Misses

Thomas Robinson – Sacramento Kings – 2012

I mentioned that the Kings actually had some good drafts over the years and that they’ve had some duds too. Well, this was one of those duds. Robinson was drafted in the hopes that he could be paired alongside Cousins and the Kings would have their frontcourt of the future. Things didn’t quite work out that way.

Thomas only lasted half a season with the Kings before they gave up on him and traded him to the Houston Rockets. He only lasted five years in the NBA and played for six different teams during that time frame. With the shift in the game with less emphasis on traditional positions, Robinson just never was able to find a role. He was a tweener who couldn’t shoot. It could be argued the Kings gave up on him way too early, but in his other NBA stops he didn’t too much to dispel that notion. He did have a knack for rebounding though but he’s currently out the league.

Dante Exum – Utah Jazz – 2014

Exum had plenty of hype coming into the 2014 draft. He was in the mold of a big point guard and the Jazz had hopes that he would be their franchise lead guard. He suffered through a series of injuries and never was able to show much on the court before the Jazz traded him earlier this season to the Cleveland Cavaliers. His time in Cleveland has been short so far, but he did show some encouraging signs. The Jazz are a team in playoff contention and being on a rebuilding team like Cleveland might be better for him for the time being with no major expectations. It’s still too early to determine whether or not he’s on the verge of turning the corner so, for now, he remains on the “misses” list.

Mario Hezonja – Orlando Magic – 2015

Hezonja was also a player who had high expectations when he came to the NBA. He was also supposed to be a versatile, big wing-player with playmaking abilities. After three lackluster years with the Magic, Orlando allowed him to become a free agent. He spent one year with the New York Knicks before opting for a near-minimum deal with the Portland Trail-Blazers last summer.
He’s shown some flashes at each of his stops in the NBA. At times he has displayed solid court vision and an ability to find open teammates for easy buckets. He can be solid in transition. He’s decent defensively. Hezonja just hasn’t been able to put it all together for a consistent, sustained period of time. If he could do that, he’d be a decent role player in the league. But he’s running out of chances to prove himself.

The Middle of the Road

Ricky Rubio – Phoenix Suns – 2009

Rubio had a lot of hype when he came over to the NBA and he didn’t quite live up to all of it. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t an important player. Rubio will probably never make an All-Star game appearance, but he’s a legit starting NBA point guard. This season, he proved his worth in being one of the most important players for the Suns. He’s a true floor general and has great court vision and awareness. His presence has taken a lot of the ball-handling and creating pressure off of Devin Booker. His 8.9 assists this season are a career-high. The Suns were in contention for a playoff spot at one point and Rubio was a major reason why.

Jonas Valanciunas – Toronto Raptors – 2011

Valanciunas is another player who will likely never make an All-Star lineup, but he’s a very good starting center in the NBA nonetheless. His early years in Toronto were mired with inconsistency, but he slowly started to put it all together as his career went on. This season, Valanciunas is the elder statesman on a very young Memphis Grizzlies team. He’s an integral part of a team that had a firm grip on the eighth playoff spot out West. In a league where big men are becoming more of a three-point threat, Valanciunas remains one of the NBA’s last throwback centers. He is a good low post scorer and one of the league’s best rebounders.

The Role Players

Alex Len – Phoenix Suns – 2013

Len is never going to be confused with a franchise-caliber center, nor will he ever be a regular starter in the league. He started slowly in his early years in the Valley of the Sun, but he’s since been able to carve out a solid niche for himself in the NBA. He signed with the Atlanta Hawks in the 2018 offseason and ended up having a solid outing in Atlanta. He’s become a tough, interior presence, and a good rebounder. Len can block shots and anchor the paint, and he’s an overall physical player. He can stretch the floor with his three-point shooting or he can score in the paint. He’s a good option for a team in need of a solid backup center.

Kris Dunn – Minnesota Timberwolves – 2016

Dunn is also likely never going to be a starting-caliber player worthy of being the No. 5 overall pick, but he too has managed to find a nice role in the NBA. He only lasted one season in Minnesota before the Timberwolves dealt him to the Chicago Bulls. It’s been there that he’s found NBA success.

In Chicago, he’s been a part-time starter and part-time bench player, but he seems best suited to be a backup point guard and running the second unit. He’s displayed a solid floor game and ability to run the offense and create for his teammates. He’s also one of the better defensive point guards in the league. His offense is likely what’s hindering him from being a consistent starter, but if he can play with other scoring options off the bench, he’d be great for a team in need of a backup floor leader.

Going back the past ten drafts, it’s been kind of a mixed bag of results with the fifth overall pick. You’ve got some stars, you’ve got a couple of decent starters, you’ve got a few role players, and you have the busts. It’s interesting to note that all of these players are still in the NBA with the exception of Thomas Robinson. With a top-five pick, you’re hoping for an All-Star caliber player, but it doesn’t always work out that way. For the most part though, it’s best to probably compare players’ success relative to the talent level of their particular draft. Some drafts are more talented than others. One player might be a top-five pick one year, but if he was in another year, he wouldn’t be. In any case, it’s fun to go back and see the progression, or lack thereof, of various players in terms of what spot they were picked.

David Yapkowitz has been a staff writer for Basketball Insiders since 2017. Based in Los Angeles, he focuses on the Pacific Division as well as the NBA at large.

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