There are no sure things when it comes to a basketball player moving from college (or once upon a time, high school) to the pro ranks. The speed of the game and the level of competition may just prove to be too much. The same goes for the demands that the pursuit of excellence can put on a player’s shoulders after they get that first payday. They want to keep climbing, but do they want to put in the work? And then, of course, there are the times where bad luck happens and a bright career is snuffed out. The basketball Gods, like they can in all facets of life, can be cruel.
Regardless of the path, though, these players wear the “bust” label, assuring them an unwanted NBA legacy. At least they got there, even though what happened next qualifies as sad in comparison to some of the players that entered the league with less hype. Here now is a list of the 25 biggest NBA draft busts of all-time.
25. Pervis Ellison
Pervis Ellison’s career trajectory resembled the flight pattern of an overly optimistic chicken – occasionally surprising moments that look like something is going to happen, only to be followed by an immediate crash. As a matter of fact, his downward spiral was so drastic at times that his own teammates changed his nickname from “Never Nervous” to “Out of Service” after he caught the injury bug early and missed half of his rookie season.
Out of fairness, the No. 1 overall pick from 1989 did perform very well when he was healthy, averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds in the 1991-92 season, which got him Most Improved Player. But think about that. A No. 1 player should never be playing so poorly that they’re even eligible for the NBA’s most bittersweet award in the first place. The perennial Louisville star center had a career plagued with injuries and eventually had to call it quits 9 games into the 2000-01 season.
24. Dajuan Wagner
Dajuan Wagner was the legendary high school kid who pulled a respectable Wilt Chamberlain impression and scored 100 points in a game. (Just don’t ask us why he was still in the game when his team was up by 75 points.) While no one expected him to do that well in the NBA, it was a fair expectation that he’d score when needed. Averaging 13 points as a rookie isn’t quite what you’d want, but it’s a good sign for the future.
Then Wagner started having some very serious health issues – namely, colitis, which led to his colon being completely removed. That restricted him to playing only 11 games in 2004-05, while only averaging 4.0 points. He’d go on to miss the next season entirely and work hard to make a one-game comeback with the Warriors where he only scored 4 points. He would later make a return to professional basketball by playing overseas and joining the ABA’s Philadelphia Spirit in 2014. But he hasn’t been seen in the NBA since 2006.
23. Jay Williams
Not every player on this list qualifies as an underachiever, some just had terrible luck. Jay Williams is the embodiment of this. A standout point guard at Duke who was supposed to be the answer for the struggling Bulls years before they got back on the good foot by drafting Derrick Rose to be their point guard of the future, Williams had a solid enough debut averaging 4.7 APG and 9.5 PPG in the 2002-03 campaign.
There was promise there. The Bulls were still pretty bad, but there was reason to believe that Williams, Jamal Crawford, Tyson Chandler, and a not-yet-useless Eddy Curry might form the nucleus of a playoff team in coming years.
Then, a devastating motorcycle accident and the resulting leg injuries wrecked Williams’ career, though he made numerous comeback attempts, most notably with the New Jersey Nets in 2006. It’s a sad story made worse by Williams’ descent into painkiller addiction during his recovery. Thankfully, he eventually found his way and has launched a second career behind the mic as a college basketball analyst for ESPN.
22. Robert “Tractor” Traylor
Despite his backboard-breaking days at Michigan – which isn’t quite as impressive when you’re pushing 325 lbs. – the same overwhelming size that gave Robert Traylor so much dominance in college was mostly detrimental to his NBA career. While it was always inspiring to see him trample down the court with surprising deftness to make a play, it was admittedly rare. The larger-than-life center never averaged more than 6 points and 5 rebounds a game in his NBA career and is mostly known for being traded for Dirk Nowitzki on draft night and that time former Deadspin editor Will Leitch wrote glowingly about his manhood.
Traylor was completely out of the league by 2005 and forced to play overseas while his health issues never let up.
Unfortunately, in 2011, he died of a heart attack.
21. Michael Olowokandi
In all fairness to Michael Olowokandi, he was drafted during the NBA’s lockout year. So the often difficult transition to the NBA game was made exponentially worse for him with even less time to adjust than usual. But that’s the end of that excuse as he stayed in the league for 9 years of mediocrity. His best season only saw 12 points and 9 rebounds per game and he was never really a viable starting NBA center — a huge disappointment considering he was the No. 1 selection in the draft that year.
He had all the essentials to excel, but even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar grew frustrated with his unwillingness to be coached and actually work at improving his game. He is one of the few that can say they dunked on Shaq, though.
20. Fran Vázquez
Do you remember how annoying it was when the Timberwolves drafted Ricky Rubio in 2009 and we had to wait two years just to see if all the hype was real? Multiply that by ten and you’ve got Fran Vázquez, who was a lottery selection by the Orlando Magic in 2005 (No. 11 overall) and became one of the biggest wastes of a draft pick of all time. That’s because he’s never even set foot on an NBA floor.
That’s a bust if there ever was one. You can at least use highly drafted players as trade bait against other teams. You can’t do a damn thing with one who never shows up.
19. Darius Miles
“But he made the All-Rookie team!” – The small remaining handful of Darius Miles loyalists.
Logical Response: Yes, in one of the worst NBA draft classes ever.
Darius Miles had all the upside in the world when he got drafted and has plenty of highlights to show for it. The closest comparison everyone makes in hindsight is Kevin Durant; except, without that wet jumper, a pretty big component of the 2014 MVP’s game. But Miles’ work ethic – or lack thereof – and attitude off the court got him shipped out of almost every city he played in for what seemed like a better option. The Clippers traded him for Andre Miller, and the Cavaliers cut him in the overhaul that was the early LeBron-era.
Just when things were looking up for him, he injured his right knee late in the 2005-06 season and was sidelined with a season-ending microfracture surgery that doctors performed to prevent a potentially career-ending injury later. Unfortunately, the surgery didn’t help and he didn’t play much after that. He’s now doomed to toil in lists like this one after his potentially otherworldly talent was waylaid by a difficult — for some — attitude and a series injury to the knee.
18. Shawn Bradley
Shawn Bradley’s not as high on this list as he likely is on others because he actually made a difference on the teams he played for. Plus, he was in Space Jam, which is automatic points in all fields of life. And constantly getting dunked on and beat up doesn’t mean much as far as on-court productivity goes, so it’d be unfair to hold this against him. And this. And even all of these.
But you can’t come into the league drafted No. 2 at 7-foot-6 and never come close to averaging 10 rebounds per game. Dude, just jump. The ball will probably bounce straight into your hands half the time. What Bradley was good at, though, was blocking shots. He led the league in 2000-01 while with the Dallas Mavericks and is 16th all time. So he’s barely a bust, really.
17. Kent Benson
Kent Benson played back in a time — he was drafted in 1977 when the ABA had, previously in the decade, helped send basketball contracts into the stratosphere — where players were given long-term contracts no one in their right mind would offer today. So being a No. 1 pick guarantees you a lengthy career, even if you eventually just become trade bait like he did. Which is the only reason he could milk an 11-year career despite being a huge disappointment as the top pick with the ceiling of a role player — at best. But the thing he’s still most known for is getting punched in the face by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his first ever game as a pro. Maybe the punch is what made his career go sour? We’ll probably never know.
Outside of a year with the Utah Jazz, Benson was traded around the Central Division like frisbee whenever a team wanted to take a better player from a rival.
16. Jonathan Bender
Jonathan Bender is an example of what happens when a team drafts a player with a lot of hype and a small sample size. Most teams didn’t even take him seriously until he broke Michael Jordan’s record and scored 31 points in the McDonald’s All-American game. While he surely had flashes of excellence during his NBA career, he could hardly get on the floor due to — you guessed it — lingering injury issues.
There’s something about those 7-footers and staying healthy that just doesn’t work out. Bodies just aren’t designed to be that size and particularly not when they’re tasked with lumbering up and down an NBA hardwood. Bender came into the league barely making a splash — 2.7 points and 0.9 rebounds in 5.4 minutes a game — due to injuries that always popped back up. Except for one season where he played 78 games and averaged a whopping 7.8 points per game.
He eventually left, surprised everyone by making a respectable 25-game comeback with the Knicks in 2009, then the JB Intensive Trainer, which is meant to help alleviate back and shoulder pain.
15. Jared Jeffries
No, he’s not the Australian comedian who’s got more sense about the 2nd amendment than most Americans. That’s Jim Jefferies.
Jared Jeffries is the NBA player that may have duped, not one, but two NBA franchises into paying him millions of dollars to never average more than seven points and two assists per game. It’s not entirely clear what the Knicks were thinking, besides “Let’s be the Knicks,” but he was a long body with a decent-looking shot from beyond the three-point arc that only went in a quarter of the time for his career. Some kind of higher power must have been working with Jared Jeffries to keep him in the league for 10 years, often as a starter, while accruing over $40 million in the process.
14. Jan Vesely
I’m usually all for NBA teams riding it out with their lottery picks just to see if they can get some kind of return on their investment. But Jan Vesely is an exception because of how incredibly bad he was. The Washington Wizards should honestly still be a little embarrassed that they let this guy play 12 minutes a game while shooting a lowly 31% from the free-throw line in the same season where he averaged 2.5 points per night. Sit. Him. Down.
There was once talk of a possible comeback because the Czechoslovakian center went to the Euro League and seriously stepped up his game. (We’ll let you decide who that reflects more poorly on).
Note: Vesely was the second bust on this list to get traded for Andre Miller. Does anyone else sense a pattern? (Again, you can decide who that reflects more poorly on, but the Professor is all time).
13. Eddy Curry
Question, what do you think is worth more in 2016? An Eddy Curry autograph from 2004 or the $24 my mom spent on breakfast at the Original Pancake House where she got him to sign the receipt?
Curry got drafted to his hometown Bulls straight out of high school and was paired with Tyson Chandler, another prep-to-pro prospect. They were supposed to be the front court of the future to keep the post-Jordan era Bulls moving in the right direction.
On the contrary, his time in Chicago was mostly met with disappointment and heartache. He’d finally play up to his potential in his sixth season, but it appeared to be a fluke of sorts because he never approached that production ever again, and his heart condition made him a risk for any NBA team even if he had been producing more on the court.
12. LaRue Martin
It’s always great when players get offered a shot at their dreams because the right people notice them at the right time. But drafting them No. 1? If you’re Portland in 1972, you’ve either got to be extremely desperate, or – nope. That’s actually it. They were just really desperate, and they really were Trail Blazers for future draft bungles, as you’ll see later.
Martin lasted four years in the league after impressing scouts while playing for Loyola. At the time, Loyola went against the juggernaut that was the Bill Walton-led UCLA Bruins. But Martin couldn’t possibly live up to the standards that Portland had set form him and was inevitably replaced with, you guessed it, Bill Walton.
Do you know how much of a disappointment LaRue Martin was? He was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 1972 and actually played basketball for my high school. But, during my four years there, I don’t think I ever heard his name.
11. Danny Ferry
Sometimes the worst players make the best coaches and/or executives. Danny Ferry falls into this category. Well, besides that one time he had to fire himself from the Hawks after he said Luol Deng’s “got some African in him. And I don’t say that in a bad way.” There’s no good way to say that, Dan. But this list isn’t about his ups and downs as a GM.
If you’re one of many people who don’t like Duke, Ferry probably makes you smile. If you’re a Duke fan, you likely act like he stopped existing after he left the Blue Devils in 1989 as one of their best players to date, one who still holds the record for most points in a single game with 58. Ferry came into the league and got signed to a 10-year deal – yes, those used to exist – to the Cavs. But, based on his numbers, it’s safe to say that a No. 2 overall pick wouldn’t have even gotten the initial five years of mediocrity he needed to peak at 13.3 points per game.
10. Joe Alexander
Joe Alexander got a bad hand. That’s fact. He didn’t get much of an opportunity to prove himself on the Bucks – or, at least the kind of opportunity expected for a top 10 pick. The Bucks cut the cord on him after just a season where he appeared in 59 games and averaged 12 minutes instead of choosing to develop him. The next season, he only lasted long enough to play 8 games for the Bulls.
Alexander recently took a pretty interesting and fair approach on the “bust” label, claiming it should be shared with the teams and the players.
“If you want to label anyone with the term ‘bust’ — it’s the Bucks,” Alexander has said. “When Milwaukee drafted me, I was touted as a ‘project’ and someone with a lot of potential who could contribute had I learned to play the game. That’s what the Bucks told me. I needed time.”
Since he got cut by the Bulls in 2009, Alexander was once lighting everybody up on the Warriors’ D-League team, but he never found a foothold in the league after Milwaukee’s too-short experiment with him.
9. Todd Fuller
Jermaine O’Neal, Peja Stojaković, Derek Fisher, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant. All of these players have two things in common. 1) They will never end up on a list like this. 2) They were all drafted after Todd Fuller, a center taken with the No. 11 pick by the Golden State Warriors in that heralded 1996 Draft.
He would go on to average 3.7 PPG and 3.0 RPG over the course of his career in the NBA, which is a bit of a surprise considering Fuller’s dominance in the college ranks with NC State, where he averaged 20.9 points and 9.9 rebounds per game in his senior year. With stats like those, it’s understandable why Fuller was selected so early. It’s not entirely understandable why he never averaged more than 12.7 minutes per game in the NBA. But he didn’t do very much with the time that he was on the floor, so it’s not like coaches missed out.
8. Hasheem Thabeet
Before Anthony Bennett, Hasheem Thabeet was the highest drafted player to be sent to the NBA’s Development League. And that was only halfway into his rookie season. The Tanzanian talent just couldn’t stick it out in the big leagues despite his 7-foot-3 frame and his great season at UConn where he helped them reach the Final Four.
Last year, Thabeet was still in the NBA’s D-League fighting for a chance to prove himself, despite barely making a splash on the stat sheet.
His biggest headline was when he got ejected from a game while playing for the Grand Rapids Drive. Since then, he’s followed the path of the forsaken NBA prospect and disappeared off the face of most NBA maps.
7. Robert Swift
Despite all temptations to make joke about steals, we’re going to keep it professional here because Robert Swift’s career and personal life are incredibly sad. The straight-from-high-school 12th pick from 2004 crashed and burned so fast that he spent just as much time in the NBA as he likely would have at USC. Sadly, his issue wasn’t development, because even when the SuperSonics practically threw minutes at him, he could barely muster seven points a game.
Then things went from sad to paralyzingly depressing. He was squatting in his own house with who knows what kind of wildlife, and was living down the street from an elementary school with his drug dealer buddy. He eventually got arrested for basically filling in as an enforcer for that same drug dealer friend.
Just remember, when you’re seven feet tall, putting on a ski mask when you rob people really doesn’t help.
6. Darko Milicic
Darko Milicic wasn’t even as bad of a flop as he could’ve been. He just had the worst draft position of all time. As the No. 2 pick in 2003, arguably the best draft class ever, he was picked after LeBron James, but before Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Which means, out of the first five picks, he was the only one who didn’t have a franchise-changing impact.
His excuse is that the NBA system isn’t as good at nurturing young talent as foreign markets. To be fair, he got drafted to a Pistons team that had one of the best front courts in the league, comprised of Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace (no relation). So comparing the opportunities he was or wasn’t given to those of LeBron – on a Cavs team that had nothing to lose – isn’t a sound argument.
He later took a stab at professional kickboxing, but he may have been even less naturally inclined for that than he was basketball. He got disqualified from his first fight because he bled too much after getting kicked in the leg.
Then again, here he is chugging a beer and giving some to the tattoo on his torso, so can you really call him a bust?
5. Sam Bowie
Let’s keep it 100 percent real here. Sam Bowie isn’t nearly as much of a bust as he is misplaced. Sure, he underperformed for a No. 2 pick, but he nearly averaged 11 points and 8 rebounds over 10 years. The truth is everyone likes to pick on the guy because he got drafted behind one of the most dominating big men of all time, Hakeem Olajuwon, and before the GOAT.
And we can’t ignore the fact that he had the leg strength of a newborn calf. With regular injuries to his left leg, he’d sometimes just get hurt because he landed the wrong way. The Trail Blazers understandably still curse themselves for passing on Michael Jordan. But, as ESPN made clear, you can’t completely blame them for it.
4. Kwame Brown
Back when teams were allowed to draft kids straight out of high school, then 19-year-old Kwame Brown was the first such plebe to go No. 1 overall. He was picked by Michael Jordan, who was then the head of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards. Unfortunately for Brown, Jordan soon transitioned back to the floor, playing alongside the youngster and busting him hard — allegedly enough verbal abuse to ruin almost anyone in the same position. The decision backfired as most know by now.
A suspension and four disappointing seasons are pretty much all Washington got out of Brown, but he did go on to bounce around the league for a while as a role player. Not what you want out of a top overall pick, obviously. But, it’s worth noting that — with the exception of Pau Gasol, who was drafted third — the top of the 2001 NBA Draft featured a lot of solid, if unspectacular players. Kwame was just the biggest name among them and he played under the blistering gaze of the most competitive person in basketball history.
3. Adam Morrison
Morrison came into the league and actually started off pretty well for a rookie. Not a ROY-contender by any means, but a capable rookie.
Except, his sophomore slump decided to come a whole year early and hit him in his second month on an NBA hardwood. He never got his starting spot back once everyone learned he couldn’t play defense or match the incredible 28.1 points per game he averaged while knocking down shots for Gonzaga. Then came the ACL tear that cost him an entire year, and it was all downhill from there. He never scratched 20 points again in his remaining years in the league.
But, hey, he got two rings out of the deal with the Los Angeles Lakers. Not bad for a bust.
2. Greg Oden
No player has quite matched the hype that LeBron James had entering the draft. But Greg Oden came extremely close. And for good reason. Even with Kevin Durant being in the same draft, Oden was seriously the best college player in the country the year before, helping Ohio State reach the National Title Game in 2007 against Florida. But his body couldn’t keep up with his hype.
Before he even played one regular season game, Oden had to get season-ending surgery. Anyone who’s followed the game knows to ignore all the spin that suggests doing so is to prevent injuries later on. In reality, it’s a red flag that a player likely won’t last long. Then, in his first game, he didn’t score at all before leaving with a foot injury that took him out for two weeks.
When Oden was rarely healthy, he was a force to be reckoned with. But the NBA doesn’t stop for anybody, and he was officially out after barely playing 100 games in seven years. But now he’s playing over in China, which may be best for him because he’s playing the way many thought he might in Portland.
1. Anthony Bennett
Ignore all of the retrospective know-it-alls. Anthony Bennett getting drafted by the Cavaliers with the No. 1 overall pick didn’t come out of left field, it came from the ticket scalper in the parking lot. In hindsight, this pick may have been an integral part of Cleveland’s plans to tank a whole year in advance just to score LeBron James in free agency the next year. And we all fell for it.
We’re fully aware that Bennett is only 23, but he may very well be the worst No. 1 pick of all time. The only way he wouldn’t be is if he became an all-star overnight. That’s not happening, despite the fact he’s been signed by the Brooklyn Nets.
To add some perspective, Bennett didn’t even score in double digits until halfway through his rookie season; he’s only started three games to date, none of which came with the team that made the reach of the century and drafted him first overall. The first-ever Canadian to go in the top spot wasn’t even able to prosper in his native land as the Raptors were the third team in three years to part ways with him. Hopefully it goes better in Brooklyn this coming season.