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NBA AM: Worst No. 1 Picks Of All-Time

Anthony Bennett has disappointed as a #1 pick, but he’s nowhere near the worst top selection of all-time.

Joel Brigham profile picture
Updated 12 months ago on
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Worst No. 1 Picks Of All-Time

Following the NBA Draft Lottery this past Tuesday evening, Jahlil Okafor made an interesting comment about how the debate over the #1 overall pick is more for the fans than the for the players actually involved in the draft process. While there’s a difference in salary that makes that comment more than a little incorrect, the truth is that just because a player is made the #1 overall pick in the draft doesn’t mean that he’s going to end up being the best player from that draft. In fact, it rarely happens that way.

Of the 62 top overall picks since 1953, only 42 have made at least one All-Star appearance. The #1 pick in the draft has won the Rookie of the Year award only 18 times ever, and only 13 have been elected into the Hall of Fame.

In other words, it’s far from a sure thing that the top pick will yield a franchise-changer. But of those who didn’t make an All-Star game or win Rookie of the Year, several still had very meaningful careers. Not all of them did, however, and the names that follow represent the most memorable (or, perhaps, least memorable) of those top flops:

Honorable Mention:

Andrea Bargnani (Toronto Raptors, 2006) – In nine seasons, Bargnani has dealt with a number of injury issues and has never even come close to making an All-Star roster. It hasn’t all been bad, though, as he’s averaged double-figures every season he’s played, including one season in which he put up 21.4 PPG. Considering that LaMarcus Aldridge was the second player selected in that draft, it’s easy to judge the Bargnani selection a little more harshly, but even ignoring that, in terms of #1 overall picks it’s impossible to deem Bargnani an overwhelming success.

Greg Oden (Portland Trail Blazers, 2007) – Oden’s talent was never the problem; it was just that he couldn’t stay on the floor. In his first three seasons in the league, he’s played only 82 games total, and he never really got his groove back following that horrible string of injuries. Portland labored over whether to take Oden or Kevin Durant with that top pick in ‘07, and they even needed help at small forward at the time, but the Blazers went with the big guy instead of the eventual MVP. It’s a decision they may never stop regretting.

Danny Manning (L.A. Clippers, 1988) – Manning had some good seasons in his career, including two All-Star appearances (1993 and 1994) and a Sixth Man of the Year Award (1998), but bad knees plagued him his whole career. Admittedly, it was the smartest pick at the time because of what Manning did at the University of Kansas, but as far as his professional career is concerned, he had only a flash of brilliance and then several seasons of mediocrity.

Joe Smith (Golden State Warriors, 1995) – The fact that Smith played for 12 different teams (that’s almost half the league) before retiring shows his inability to be indispensable the way a #1 overall pick should be. He was a great locker room guy and was a more than serviceable starter earlier in his career, but he never made an All-Star or All-NBA team. He also never won a championship. And all of that has to go into consideration when determining his place among the most disappointing #1 picks of all time.

The Top Five:

#5 – Pervis Ellison (Sacramento Kings, 1989) – Considering the track record that teams with the #1 overall selection had had leading up to 1989, the Kings must’ve been feeling pretty good about themselves when they made “Never Nervous” Pervis the top pick in the 1989 draft. The #1 picks in the preceding years were pretty stellar: Manning, David Robinson, Brad Daugherty, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson, James Worthy, Mark Aguirre, Joe Barry Carroll and Magic Johnson were all selected in consecutive years leading up to 1989.

Ellison, however, was the only top overall pick between 1979 and 1994 to have never made a single All-Star appearance, leading Danny Ainge to eventually joke that Ellison’s nickname should actually have been “Out of Service” Pervis since he missed so much time in his career due to injuries. Ellison did win Most Improved Player in 1992, but never did live up to the expectations of a #1 overall pick.

#4 – Kent Benson (Milwaukee Bucks, 1977) – When long-time NBA fans hear the name “Kent Benson,” they don’t immediately think, “Hey, he was the top overall pick in 1977!” Instead, they probably think, “Hey, he’s that guy who got punched in the face by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar!” Two minutes into Benson’s professional career, he irked the most dominant player in the game to the point that Abdul-Jabbar lost his cool and went after Benson. Perhaps that destroyed Benson’s confidence as a pro because he never really did find himself in the NBA after that. There were a few double-digit scoring seasons, but never anything spectacular.

He also had a reputation for being not very nice; Larry Bird always said Benson was a huge part of the reason he transferred from Indiana to Indiana State after his sophomore year. Because Benson was so unkind to underclassmen, Bird left, and it’s a grudge he held for years afterward. To recap, two of the top five players in league history hated the guy, though it’s unclear what, if anything, that has to do with him being a bust as a top overall selection.

#3 – Kwame Brown (Washington Wizards, 2001) – In Brown’s defense, this draft occurred at the peak of the “Let’s-Take-High-School-Players-Because-of-Their-Potential” Era, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that it was an atrocious pick. Fellow high-schoolers Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry and DeSagana Diop were also taken in the top eight that year, and only Chandler ever made an All-Star team. It’s still hard to believe that Washington got Caron Butler for Brown in a 2005 trade, but being traded for an All-Star is the closest to actually being an All-Star that Kwame Brown ever got.

#2 – Michael Olowokandi (L.A. Clippers, 1998) – In 1998, when it started to become clear that Olowokandi would be the top pick, the NBA community let out a collective, “Huh?” That was the year of Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison and Mike Bibby, and even Laef LaFrentz and Paul Pierce out of Kansas looked like smarter top picks than the Kandi Man, who averaged only 8.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game for his career.

In his last three seasons in the league he never averaged above six points. To really bang the point home, his “Career Highlights and Achievements” box over at Wikipedia is filled only with “N/A,” which is appropriate considering how little he accomplished over the course of his career.

#1 – LaRue Martin (Portland Trail Blazers, 1972) – When Loyola Chicago’s LaRue Martin outplayed UCLA’s Bill Walton in the midst of great college seasons for both players, the Blazers went out on a limb and took Martin #1 overall in 1972.

It was, to put it lightly, a huge mistake. Martin’s play was so poor in his first couple of seasons that the Blazers used another #1 overall selection in 1974 to pick up—of all people—Bill Walton, and that pretty much knocked out Martin’s chance of seeing floor time after that. The guy was so bad that he retired after only four seasons, and, fittingly, that just so happened to be a year before Portland won the title.

For his shortened career, Martin averaged a meager 5.3 points and 4.6 rebounds per game, and to make things worse, the Blazers could’ve taken fliers on a couple of Hall of Famers who were also selected in the first round of that year’s draft: Bob McAdoo and Julius Erving. Taking everything into consideration, that makes him the worst top overall selection in league history.

 

In the last five years, only Anthony Bennett has looked like a bust, but even he’s still young enough to turn things around if things bounce the right way. Still, he could end up on this list someday, too, though Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Davis and John Wall have proven just how important a top overall pick can be to a struggling franchise.

This year, it will likely be Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns competing for that top spot. Maybe Okafor is better off going #2, not only for the opportunity to play in Hollywood, but also because there aren’t a whole lot of “Worst #2 Overall Picks” articles out there.

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

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