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Looking At The NBA Draft: The No. 6 Picks

Jesse Blancarte checks out a decade’s worth of No. 6 overall picks in the NBA Draft to find the hits, misses and and in-betweens.

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Basketball Insiders continues to revisit the last decade of NBA drafts by taking a look back at which players were selected sixth overall. The sixth pick has been a mixed bag over the last decade, with superstar guard Damian Lillard headlining the group. There are certainly a couple of picks teams would love to have back, especially considering that many of the league’s current star players were left on the board beyond the sixth pick over the last decade. With that said, let’s take a look at the last decade of the sixth overall pick.

The Hits

Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers – 2012

There is no real debate here. Damian Lillard is the best player to be drafted sixth overall in any draft over the last decade. Lillard was an absolute steal for the Portland Trail Blazers, who acquired the right to select Lillard sixth overall in 2012 by trading Gerald Wallace to the Brooklyn Nets as part of a larger deal that proved costly for Brooklyn.

Lillard is arguably the best overall point guard in the league right now (as long as you don’t count players like James Harden or LeBron James as point guards), at least until Stephen Curry shows he is fully recovered from the hand injury he suffered earlier this season and shakes off any lingering rust. Through 58 games this season, Lillard is averaging 28.9 points, 7.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds and one steal per game, while shooting 45.7 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from three-point range…on 9.9 three-point attempts per game!

Lillard has placed the struggling Trail Blazers on his back this season and has kept them in striking range of the eighth seed.

Marcus Smart – Boston Celtics – 2014

Marcus Smart has always been a defensive ace and has improved his offensive game throughout his six seasons in the NBA. Smart has the size, strength and tenacity to guard the league’s most explosive guards, dynamic wings and physical big men. Smart isn’t going to be tasked with guarding Joel Embiid in the post but, in an emergency situation, he probably has as good of a shot at stopping Embiid as any guard in the league.

Through 53 games this season, Smart is averaging 13.5 points, 4.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. Smart’s value to Boston cannot be accurately captured in traditional or even advanced metrics, but he is truly a game-changing player for the Celtics.

Buddy Hield – New Orleans Pelicans – 2016

The 2016 draft featured several quality players who are each working their way up the NBA’s totem pole. Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, Jamal Murray, Domantas Sabonis, Caris LeVert, Pascal Siakam and Malcolm Brogdon are some of the most prominent players to come out of this draft, along with Buddy Hield.

Hield played four years of college ball, so there was concern that he had limited upside. However, Hield proved himself to be a lethal shooter and big-time performer in college and entered the NBA with high expectations. Hield did not last long with the New Orleans Pelicans, as he was a featured piece in the trade that landed DeMarcus Cousins in New Orleans in 2017. Hield has performed well for the Sacramento Kings, though he has faced some tough stretches at times. He will never be a lockdown defender, but when he is in rhythm, he can be one of the most explosive scorers in the league. Through 64 games this season, Hield is averaging 19.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting 42.9 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range (on 9.7 three-point attempts per game).

The Misses

Jonny Flynn – Minnesota Timberwolves – 2009

Here is the thing about Jonny Flynn: He was drafted sixth overall in the 2009 draft, ahead of other players like Curry, DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague, Darren Collison, Taj Gibson, DeMarre Carroll, Wayne Ellington and so on. Here’s the other thing: Flynn was drafted sixth overall by the Timberwolves right after they had drafted Ricky Rubio, another point guard, with the fifth overall pick in the draft. There were issues regarding when Rubio would leave Spain and come play in the NBA, so drafting another point guard wasn’t a crazy idea, but passing on Curry in favor of Flynn was questionable at the time and turned out to be a historically disastrous decision.

To be fair to Flynn, he was a highly rated prospect as we approached the 2009 draft and it’s not his fault the Timberwolves decided to take him — even after selecting Rubio one pick ahead of him. It’s also not his fault Curry was drafted after him and turned into one of the best point guards of all time. Flynn would only play in 163 total NBA games in his career and just 18 in the 2011-12 season. Injuries derailed Flynn’s career unfortunately, and the rest is history. Were it not for injuries, Flynn could have developed into a solid point guard. But between the injuries, the early end to his career and with several players drafted after him (Curry most notably) putting together excellent careers, Flynn definitely has to be considered a “miss” in this series.

Ekpe Udoh – Golden State Warriors – 2010

If you gave the Golden State Warriors the chance to go back and do the 2010 draft over, they would probably pass so as to not risk changing history. When you have a dominant run with a historically great group of players, there’s little reason to look back a decade and worry about a missed draft pick. However, if you take away the dynastic run, then Golden State would definitely take the chance to go back and take someone other than Ekpe Udoh with the sixth overall pick in the 2010 draft.

The players the Warriors passed on include: Paul George, Gordon Hayward, Eric Bledsoe, Ed Davis, Avery Bradley, Greg Monroe and so on. George and Hayward are the obvious missed opportunities here, but, as we said, Golden State isn’t losing sleep over how things worked out. Notably, Udoh never put up major stats, but he was in the league as recently as the 2018-19 season with the Utah Jazz and proved to be a fringe role player at times throughout his career. That’s not what you’re looking for with the sixth overall pick, but Udoh didn’t completely flame out.

Jan Vesely – Washington Wizards – 2011

Jan Vesely’s NBA career didn’t pan out the way he or many analysts expected. But it wasn’t for lack of confidence. Before coming to the NBA, Vesely was compared to Blake Griffin because of his athleticism and highlight-worthy dunks. When asked about being called the “European Blake Griffin” during an interview, Vesely responded “I don’t know. I think Blake Griffin is the American Jan Vesely.”

Again, Vesely never lacked confidence. Unfortunately, that confidence and his overall skillset never translated into much production in his short stint in the NBA. Over three seasons (162 total games), Vesely averaged 3.6 points, 3.5 rebounds and 0.6 assists in 15.2 minutes per game. Vesely signed a contract with Turkish club Fenerbahçe in 2014 and signed a three-year extension with the same club last year. He has found more success since leaving the NBA, including winning 2018-19 Euroleague MVP.

The Middle of the Road

Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic – 2017

Jonathan Isaac hasn’t necessarily become a household name in his time in the NBA, but he was having somewhat of a breakout season until injuries sidelined him earlier this year. Most of Isaac’s per-game averages were up but more importantly, he was becoming a major difference-maker on the defensive end. Through 32 games, Isaac averaged 12 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 2.4 blocks per game.

At 6-foot-11, Isaac has the length, speed and athleticism to guard smaller players on the perimeter, bigger players in the post and act as an effective weakside shot blocker. Isaac has been contributing all over the court the Magic, a team that features several other lengthy and athletic forwards and big men. As Isaac continues to develop and carve out a more defined role on the Magic, it is likely he will continue to climb his way up the NBA totem pole and establish himself as a unique big man who can cause havoc on the defensive end.

Jarrett Culver – Minnesota Timberwolves – 2019

Culver is in the middle of his rookie season, which is currently on hiatus. So the jury is still out on Culver but, for the time being, we are putting him in the “Middle of the Road” category. Culver has shown some defensive ability in his rookie season, but it is clear his offensive game is a work in progress.

Culver is shooting 40.4 percent from the field and 29.9 percent from three-point range (on 3.5 attempts per game) this season. While Culver is a capable passer and playmaker in the pick-and-roll, he has often been hesitant this season and made unforced errors. However, this is Culver’s rookie season and he’s only played in 63 NBA games overall so far, so it’s too early to come to any long-term assessments of the young prospect.

Mohamed Bamba – Orlando Magic – 2018

Mo Bamba has the size, length and developing skill set to one day be an impact player in the NBA. He likely won’t punish teams in the post on a nightly basis, but he has skill around the basket and can shoot from three-point range. However, if Bamba is ever to be a major difference-maker, it will likely be on the defensive end.

Bamba wasn’t the obvious pick for the Magic on draft night, especially since Orlando already had Jonathan Isaac on the roster. Bamba and Isaac aren’t completely duplicative players, but they overlap in some key areas and aren’t a great fit (at least so far) on the court. But if Bamba and Isaac develop more chemistry and come anywhere close to reaching their respective potential, they could make for a dynamic frontcourt duo.

Notably, in picking Bamba, the Magic left players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the board. To be fair, however, Gilgeous-Alexander was not projected to be picked so early in the draft and had made his desire to go to the Los Angeles Clippers known. The jury is still out for most of the other notable players selected after Bamba, so it’s not as if the Magic made an obvious mistake in selecting Bamba. This is especially true considering that Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young were off the board by the time Orlando was up to pick.

In 60 games this season, Bamba averaged 5.5 points, five rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 46.8 percent from the field and 35.6 percent from three-point range.

The Role Players

Nerlens Noel – New Orleans Pelicans – 2013

Nerlens Noel was drafted sixth overall by the New Orleans Pelicans, who traded Noel on draft night, along with a 2014 first-round draft pick, to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Jrue Holiday. Holiday has been a fixture for the Pelicans ever since, so the deal certainly worked out well for New Orleans. Noel spent several seasons with the 76ers, struggling with injuries and eventually being nudged out by a logjam of centers, including Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor.

It’s not great when you are one of the 14 players drafted ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo, but that hasn’t really been held against Nerlens Noel during his NBA career. However, Noel’s inability to live up to expectations and his off-court issues have been. Though it seems that Noel has been in the NBA for a long time, he’s still just 26 years old and has plenty of time to stabilize his career and try to recoup some of the money he lost when he turned down a four-year, $70 million contract from the Dallas Mavericks and opted instead for a one-year, $4.1 million qualifying offer.

When Noel is healthy and focused, he is a mobile big man who can guard wings on the perimeter, switch effectively and serve as a solid rim protector. Noel’s offensive game is limited but he generally takes high percentage shots and doesn’t demand to be a focal point on offense. In 55 games this season, Noel is averaging 7.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, one assist and 1.5 blocks in 18.4 minutes per game.

Willie Cauley-Stein – Sacramento Kings – 2015

Leading up to the 2015 NBA Draft, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor and, to a lesser extent, Kristaps Porzingis, were the prized prospects that many believed would have star potential. After that, it was a mixed bag of players who had talent but it was unclear who was the best of the rest. To drive home this point, after those four players came off the board, the next five picks were Mario Hezonja, Willie Cauley-Stein, Emmanuel Mudiay, Stanley Johnson and Frank Kaminsky. So it’s not as if the Sacramento Kings left an obvious future star on the board when they picked Cauley-Stein (unless you are one of the people that knew Devin Booker was destined to become a star).

While Cauley-Stein has not developed into a top-level center, he has had some pretty explosive performances in his career and is a nice option as a backup. Like Noel, Cauley-Stein has solid athleticism and the ability to be a difference-maker defensively when he is healthy, focused and put in a position to succeed. Cauley-Stein will probably never live up to early expectations but he can be a quality rotation player on a good team.

The last decade has provided us with a wide range of outcomes with the sixth overall pick. We have a superstar in Lillard, an elite defender in Smart, intriguing prospects like Isaac and Bamba and busts like Flynn and Vesely. Sometimes bad picks are made to look even worse when future star players are still on the board, with arguably no greater example than the case of Jonny Flynn. But the draft is tough to get right, even with a pick as high as the sixth overall pick.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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