The Cleveland Cavaliers may have gotten lucky once again in landing the top overall pick, but that doesn’t mean their decision is necessarily an easy one. The guy they’re supposedly leaning toward taking—Joel Embiid—hasn’t been playing the game all that long yet already has a somewhat intimidating injury history.
Big men with back issues are absolutely frightening, which means however good Embiid looks as a potentially franchise-defining big man, he could ultimately prove to be a bust. Whether or not that’s true, there have been plenty of promising young players over the years that have not delivered despite leaving the draft process as the No. 1 overall selection.
Here’s a look at the worst of them:
#5 – 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 clocked in the eye by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar!” Literally two minutes into Benson’s professional career, he irked the most dominant player in the game to the point where Kareem hauled off and punched the rookie right in the face. That must have shaken his confidence, because he never did prove to be a talent worthy of a top overall selection. He had a handful of double-digit scoring seasons, but never anything spectacular.
#4 – Michael Olowokandi (L.A. Clippers, 1998) – There were a lot of good players available in 1998, including college studs like Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison and Mike Bibby, all of whom would have made a better top overall selection than Olowokandi, an overly-creative No. 1 selection that clearly didn’t pan out. He averaged only 8.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game for his career, and in his last three seasons in the league he never got up above six points per game. To really bang the point home, his “Career Highlights and Achievements” box over at Wikipedia is filled only with “N/A.” It was an incredibly stupid mistake, but that’s how things went for the Clippers in the ‘90s.
#3 – Kwame Brown (Washington Wizards, 2001) – At the peak of an era in which teams were keen to draft high school players with sky-high potential, Brown landed in Washington as the top overall selection in a draft that saw three high schoolers go in the first four picks. He never did live up to the hype, though, averaging a scant 6.6 PPG and 5.7 RPG over the course of a career that saw him wear seven different uniforms over 12 seasons
#2 – Greg Oden (Portland Trail Blazers, 2007) – The problem with Oden wasn’t talent; it was that he simply couldn’t stay on the floor. In his first three seasons in the league, he played only 82 games total, and before his comeback in 2013-14 he hadn’t played a game since 2010. In 23 appearances this season, including six starts, Oden averaged 2.9 PPG and 2.3 RPG, wiping away any optimism that he may have been able to return to his old form despite so long a hiatus. Back in 2007, there was a real debate about whether he or Kevin Durant should be the top pick, and all these years later it’s very clear that Portland made the wrong call. Durant is an MVP and scoring champion, while Oden is, at best, a footnote in Blazers media guides. He could have been something special, but bad luck and bad knees stole away his opportunity.
#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 the kid No. 1 overall. However, Martin was so bad as a pro that, two years later, when the Blazers ended up with the No. 1 pick yet again, they went ahead and drafted—of all people—Bill Walton. That bumped Martin way back on the depth chart and essentially eradicated any opportunity he would’ve had to redeem himself on the court. He was out of the league after four seasons, having averaged a meager 5.3 points and 4.6 rebounds per game for his career. 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 ‘72 draft: Bob McAdoo and Julius Erving. Considering all that, it’s no wonder he’s considered by many to be the worst No. 1 pick of all time.
Pervis Ellison (Sacramento Kings, 1989) – Back in 1989, the No. 1 pick in the draft had delivered huge returns for so many consecutive years that it was almost implausible to imagine one flopping. In fact, from 1979 to 1994, only one top overall draft pick didn’t make a single All-Star appearance over the course of his career, and that would be “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison. Danny Ainge would later go on to joke that he should have been re-christened “Out of Service” Pervis since he missed so many games, but he did win Most Improved Player in 1992 (20 PPG, 11.2 RPG)—meager consolation for Sacramento having used a No. 1 pick on a guy who averaged 9.5 PPG and 6.7 RPG for his career.
Joe Smith (Golden State Warriors, 1995) – The fact that Smith played for 12 different teams during his career shows his inability to be indispensable the way a No. 1 overall pick should be. He’s a great guy and was a more than serviceable starter earlier in his career, but has never been on an All-Star or All-NBA team. He’s also never won a championship. All that has to go into consideration when deciding whether a top pick is a bust or not, right?
Anthony Bennett (Cleveland Cavaliers, 2013) – To be fair, the 2013 NBA Draft wasn’t exactly steeped in talent, but there were players (Victor Oladipo and Nerlens Noel, to name two) that not only may have been a better fit with Cleveland, but could have made more of an impact. In 52 games this year, Bennett scored 4.2 PPG on 36 percent field goal shooting and added only three rebounds, all of which contributed to his comically awful 6.9 PER. His weight and health already are concerns, and the only reason he hasn’t made the top five at this point is because there’s not a big enough sample size to make a call on him yet. He could still put it together, but based on what he showed in his rookie campaign, it’s difficult to imagine.
Will Embiid fall into this group somewhere down the road? For that matter, could other potential top picks like Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker face similar difficulties? It doesn’t seem quite as likely, but you never know in the NBA. A lot of these top overall picks felt like the right call at the time. Only time and years of experience have proven which top overall picks have been historically bad.
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