What NBA Draft History Tells Us Teams Should Expect From Each Pick In The Top 10

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The NBA Draft is all about hope. For the prospects, it’s the hope of fulfilling their NBA dream and suddenly being paid for playing basketball. For the teams and fans, it’s the hope that their draft pick will develop into a player capable of taking the franchise to a new level of success.

The league and the teams themselves sell that hope. They point to the successes from all over the draft board. The idea that you can get a superstar that could make your franchise one of the league’s elite almost overnight. In a sense, that’s true. You can go down the list of first round selection spots and find at least one player that became a superstar, but there’s also the reality that the chances of that happening are very slim, even at some of the higher draft slots.

Lottery teams in particular sell the dream of their franchise’s fortune changing on draft night because it’s what many of them have built their season around, whether they admit it or not. However, a top 10 pick is far from a guarantee that you’ll get a starting caliber player, much less a star player for years to come. This is part of the reason first round picks are often overvalued as assets by fans, media, and sometimes teams themselves, because of the promise of the unknown that could be a generational star.

This year’s draft class is heralded as one of the deepest in years, at least at the top, where many have pointed out the tiers that go to about the 10th or 11th pick feel like they have some very good future players. But history dictates some of the players will overachieve and go on to greatness, but, for a variety of factors not always of their own fault, many will not live up to the expectations placed on them.

Those expectations are something I hope to temper a bit with this look at the top 10 picks over the last 18 years (since 2000). Below you’ll find the list of all 18 picks in that slot, as ranked by me, to provide context to what should constitute as a good to great, bad to terrible, and average pick for each of the spots in the top 10.

It’s important to note that not all draft classes are created the same — for example, the 2003 class was far deeper than, say, 2012 — and extenuating circumstances can lead to some of the outliers on either end of the spectrum. It’s also difficult to place many of the most recent picks in the draft, who still have plenty of potential to possibly be tapped into. Still, a look at 18 years of draft history does tell you some things about what should be reasonably expected success from players at each spot, or at the least in various tiers of picks.

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No. 1 Overall

LeBron James
Anthony Davis
Dwight Howard
Kyrie Irving
Derrick Rose
John Wall
Blake Griffin
Yao Ming
Karl-Anthony Towns
[Ben Simmons]
Kenyon Martin
Andrew Bogut
[Andrew Wiggins]
Andrea Bargnani
[Markelle Fultz]
Kwame Brown
Greg Oden
Anthony Bennett

The top pick in the draft should absolutely be expected to be a star. What level of star can be debated, as can my list which assuredly will get me yelled at over (prime Dwight was a monster and let’s not forget that), when you’re talking about 10 players deep (down to Simmons) being All-Star caliber players at worst, that should be what fans expect. I’m not going to debate you on that. I’ll also point out that aside from Oden (awful injuries) and Bennett (outlier of a terrible pick), your worst case is often a reasonably fine role player, which isn’t what you want but is far less disastrous than, well, the next pick.

No. 2 Overall

Kevin Durant
LaMarcus Aldridge
Tyson Chandler
Victor Oladipo
Emeka Okafor
Marvin Williams
Jabari Parker
[D’Angelo Russell
Brandon Ingram
Lonzo Ball]
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Evan Turner
Michael Beasley
Stromile Swift
Derrick Williams
Jay Williams
Darko Milicic
Hasheem Thabeet

Again, the point of this is less the specifics of the rankings, you can debate some of these all you want I won’t fight you on much, but to illustrate the tiers and who falls in the middle of these rankings. I clumped the trio of Lakers guys in the middle and they very well may all jump over many of the players in front of them, but up to now none have done quite enough to merit much more upward movement than this. The second pick has been a disaster, and honestly this list is even too harsh for what I think fans should expect. You should hope for a star at No. 2, but if you get a starter that can play on your team for the eight years of team control, that’s a win.

There is something to why the second pick has gone so poorly over the years. Most drafts have a clear top choice, which leaves teams often debating various players at No. 2. Being that these teams were often awful the year before, they choose the player with the highest upside in hopes they knock the pick out of the park and get a generational player out of it. The problem is, really bad teams are often not the places players with high ceilings and low floors develop the best, and thus, you end up with a lot of busts. Basically what I’m saying is, listen to what you’re hearing about why the Kings want Michael Porter Jr. or Marvin Bagley III over Luka Doncic and think on why that is. Doncic is more of a finished product, likely a very good player but maybe not with the potential to be the best player in the league. Porter and Bagley’s physical gifts make them higher ceiling players, but the floor is likely much lower.

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No. 3 Overall

James Harden
Pau Gasol
Carmelo Anthony
Al Horford
[Joel Embiid]
Deron Williams
Bradley Beal
[Jayson Tatum
Jaylen Brown]
Derrick Favors
Ben Gordon
Otto Porter
Mike Dunleavy Jr.
Enes Kanter
O.J. Mayo
Darius Miles
Adam Morrison
Jahlil Okafor

The third pick often goes much better because the other guy in that tier at the top is often the one with a higher floor but maybe not the all-world ceiling, although a guy like James Harden found that. Joel Embiid also exists as an outlier here, as if he were healthy he goes No. 1 overall in his draft and was a significant risk. Still, if you combine the No. 2 and No. 3 picks, that’s the tier we’re talking about as the cap for really expecting to get an All-Star player. Seven of these players have been All-Stars, Tatum and Brown look to be on their way, and Favors, Gordon, Porter, Dunleavy Jr., and Kanter have all been at worst more than serviceable starters. Also Adam Morrison’s got two rings.

No. 4 Overall

Chris Paul
Russell Westbrook
Chris Bosh
Mike Conley
[Kristaps Porzingis]
Tyreke Evans
Aaron Gordon
Shaun Livingston
Drew Gooden
Tristan Thompson
Dion Waiters
Eddy Curry
Wesley Johnson
Cody Zeller
[Josh Jackson
Dragan Bender]
Marcus Fizer
Tyrus Thomas

There are stars to be had at four, depending on the draft and the decisions of teams ahead of you, but the odds suddenly shift to you hoping to get a quality starter first and an All-Star second. There aren’t a ton of real disasters at No. 4, which is the good news for Memphis, and three Hall of Famers at the top of this list, but after Conley and Kristaps, you’re suddenly in “good starter” range. That, of course, is still good! However, just because Chris Paul went No. 4 doesn’t mean everyone has to be that good or close to that good to be a success.

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No. 5 Overall

Dwyane Wade
Kevin Love
DeMarcus Cousins
Jason Richardson
Devin Harris
Mike Miller
Ricky Rubio
Raymond Felton
Jeff Green
Jonas Valanciunas
Alex Len
[DeAaron Fox
Kris Dunn
Dante Exum
Mario Hezonja]
Thomas Robinson
Shelden Williams
Nikoloz Tskitishvili

Now we’re into the area of the draft that leaves fans the most frustrated due to expectations lofted onto picks 5-10 that are unreasonable. Wade, Love, and Cousins are amazing players, the first two being Hall of Famers and the third possibly on his way there if he recovers from his Achilles injury. However, after that you drop off a pretty steep step to a very underrated player in Jason Richardson followed by Devin Harris, Mike Miller, Ricky Rubio, Raymond Felton, Jeff Green, and Jonas Valanciunas, all of whom have been starters but never the best players on their team (aka role starters). Those are the guys you should be expecting at No. 5, with the hope you get one of those top three guys, not expecting All-Star and being disappointed when they’re fringe starters and role players for a decade.

No. 6 Overall

Damian Lillard
Brandon Roy
Shane Battier
Danilo Gallinari
Chris Kaman
Marcus Smart
Martell Webster
Josh Childress
[Buddy Hield
Willie Cauley-Stein
Jonathan Isaac
Nerlens Noel]
Ekpe Udoh
Yi Jianlian
Dajuan Wagner
Jan Vesely
Jonny Flynn
DerMarr Johnson

Shoutout to the Blazers for crushing the sixth pick historically. Everyone else, not so much. We have a pair of perennial All-Stars at the top, then we drop down to a very good role player in Shane Battier. Gallo, Kaman (underrated career), and Smart all are good role players but cannot be anything close to your top star, and that makes up the top half of this list! So, for Magic fans, you’re probably not getting a franchise changing star, but you should be looking for a possible starter that can help whenever that star caliber guy does land on your roster.

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No. 7 Overall

Steph Curry
Luol Deng
Eric Gordon
Harrison Barnes
Kirk Hinrich
Greg Monroe
Charlie Villanueva
[Julius Randle
Jamal Murray
Lauri Markkanen]
Randy Foye
Corey Brewer
Chris Mihm
Ben McLemore
Bismack Biyombo
[Emmanuel Mudiay]
Eddie Griffin

Much like the fifth and sixth pick, we’re talking about one Hall of Famer, best shooter in history, one fringe All-Star, and then some guys whose best years of their career came as a starter/sixth man. There’s value in that, and those guys are critical to building a successful team. However, that’s what you should expect out of this pick, not the outlier in Curry. I like the recent picks in that middle group, and think they can all climb up into that top 5 range on this list, but even then, all of those players appear to have ceilings at fringe All-Star and that would take some pretty incredible work to get there.

No. 8 Overall

Rudy Gay
Channing Frye
Jamal Crawford
Brandon Knight
T.J. Ford
Al-Farouq Aminu
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Chris Wilcox
Jordan Hill
Terrence Ross
[Frank Ntilikina
Marquese Chriss
Stanley Johnson]
Brandan Wright
Nik Stauskas
DeSagana Diop
Joe Alexander
Rafael Araujo

The eighth pick has been really bad over the last 18 years. Like the second pick, I think this is even too rough for what you should want. You have a guy that was a 20 point scorer, a guy that has been a very useful role player, a perennial sixth man candidate, two starting caliber point guards with injury issues, and another emerging useful role guy. That’s your top six! The middle group is kind of nasty, and the bottom is outright ugly. I still think you can hope for a starter at eight, but you shouldn’t get your hopes up for all that much more and should probably just expect a role player. That said if these teams had hindsight glasses many would look a lot better because there is hope at nine.

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No. 9 Overall

Amar’e Stoudemire
Joakim Noah
Andre Iguodala
DeMar DeRozan
Gordon Hayward
Kemba Walker
Andre Drummond
D.J. Augustin
Trey Burke
[Dennis Smith Jr
Jakob Poeltl
Frank Kaminsky]
Noah Vonleh
Joel Pryzbilla
Ike Diogu
Rodney White
Mike Sweetney
Patrick O’Bryant

The top seven here are pretty incredible with the worst of that group being fringe All-Stars. There is, however a steeper drop from the best to the next tier, which is a pair of backup point guards and your “clump of potential” for lack of a better term that to this point hasn’t gone great for any of the three. After that the bottom of this list is rough, so there is serious bust potential to balance out the perennial All-Star possibilities at the top. Again, expect a role player that contributes positively and be thrilled if they’re more than that.

No. 10 Overall

Joe Johnson
Paul George
Brook Lopez
C.J. McCollum
Caron Butler
Andrew Bynum
Brandon Jennings
Spencer Hawes
Keyon Dooling
Austin Rivers
[Justise Winslow
Thon Maker
Zach Collins
Elfrid Payton]
Jimmer Fredette
Jarvis Hayes
Luke Jackson
Mouhamed Sene

First, in this house we put respect on Joe Johnson’s name. Argue with someone else about his placement atop this list. Second, the tenth pick has, like the ninth pick, yielded some very good players (two perennial All-Stars at the top and two explosive offensive players behind them) and some real thuds at the bottom. The middle group is one featuring a few long time role players and some that flashed great potential but burned out quickly. We are firmly in “expect a bench role player” territory here, with landing a starter being an above average pick.