The 2018/19 NBA Season finally in the books, the basketball world is extremely quick to move on. Toronto, now littered with flipped cars, empty fireworks cartridges, burnt out flares and buses with dented roofs, will continue to party as it has liberally since the Raptors won their first title last Friday morning Aussie time, the rest of the league will focus on this week's NBA Draft.
This is the opportunity for teams to get the very best talent coming predominantly out of the esteemed US collegiate basketball system, but also from the international scene, hoping to bolster their ranks for a shot at the title, while other teams will hope this is a stepping stone towards rebuilding into a consistently competitive top tier ball club. Of course, this is the dream.
For every draft pick that has gone on to become a superstar, there are countless examples that prove your coveted high Top 5 draft pick may self destruct on entry to the league, high (sometimes quite literally) on the feeling of having finally ‘made it’. But once the water settles and the cream rises, we are gifted with some of the biggest superstars of the modern game. Let’s look at the last decade of Top 5 picks in the NBA Draft, with the great benefit of hindsight, and take a look at the unselectable and the unbelievable, ranking them through the lens of which position they were drafted.
Please enjoy the trip down memory lane as much as I did.
The Unselectables - From #1 picks to #5 picks.
Anthony Bennett - Cleveland Cavaliers
The first Canadian to go first overall, Bennett was a UNLV prospect that wasn’t thought of as likely to go 1st overall, but like many other #1 overall picks, had a record breaking NBA career. His records however, were not so revered as those of #1 picks past and present. He took 3 times as long as any other #1 overall pick to score in double digits, finally ticking up his 10th point in his 33rd game. He became the first #1 overall pick to play in the NBA Development League (now G-League), surging back to prominence this year when he finally cracked 30 in a Development League game against part time ballers. Bennet’s desire to stay mediocre devastated Cavs management, who just couldn’t understand how someone that was bigger, faster and stronger than most anyone just didn’t see any need to get better. At the time the draft wasn’t exactly brimming with exciting prospects but it’s quite likely that another pick from that very draft will be named this years MVP next month, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Easily the worst #1 pick of the last 10 years, and the definition of a draft bust.
Hasheem Thabeet - Memphis Grizzlies (2009)
Perhaps the lowest moment in Grizzlies history would have to be looking back now at the laundry list of all stars that came from this draft, and knowing that instead, with the number two pick, you took a big, slow, clueless Tanzanian centre, who essentially built his draft stock on one breakout year in the Big East, the Grizzlies hoping he would just transform himself into a dominant force in the paint. All of the other top 5 picks in the 2009 draft played playoff basketball this year, notably Blake Griffin (#1) and James Harden (#3), but Hasheem was traded between 6 teams his first 5 years and then fizzled out in the dark depths of B League Japanese basketball. After hearing an interview with former Grizzlies star veteran Tony Allen, it becomes clear why Thabeet was never going to make it. He was the Shane Warne of NBA Rookies, eating hotdogs 35 minutes before first tip, telling veteran stars of the league (former teammate Marc Gasol just won a title) that he didn’t need their help, and amongst an organisation notorious for screwing up the development of young players, he was never a hope of making the jump to the next level. He held all the raw materials to make him a superstar, but none of the mental fortitude required to lay the foundations, a recurring theme in this list it seems.
Jahlil Okafor - Philadelphia 76ers (2015)
Poor guy, a mere victim of the ‘6ers infamous ‘Process’. Of all the #3 draft picks throughout the last decade, there have been some success stories, Okafor is the worst of a decent bunch. Starting off his career as part of a squad that went 0-18 to start a disastrous season, Okafor became embroiled in numerous off court incidents and was assigned a security guard in public places, before getting suspended due to related misconduct. Okafor missed the last section of both his rookie and sophomore season with injury, before being held out as the team decided to forge ahead with Joel Embiid as their centrepiece. Now located in New Orleans after a season with Brooklyn in which he played only 26 games, his minutes may mercifully take an upturn now to realise his potential if the Pelicans don’t beef up their roster in the wake of the AD trade, but that’s only if he can keep his well worn fists in his pockets.
Wesley Johnson - Minnesota Timberwolves (2010)
This was a tough one. The injury riddled class of #4 picks throughout the last decade has kept the medical staff on their toes, but one had to be picked and here he is. Johnson, unlike some others above him on this list, has carved out a lengthy career but has never reached the heights you’d expect out of a 4th overall that has lasted 10 years in the NBA. Only going to the playoffs twice and never starting in a postseason game, Johnson has never averaged double digits in scoring throughout his career as a role playing swingman. His career just never gained momentum, and having played only 12 games this season after stints in Minnesota, Phoenix, both LA teams and the Pelicans, he’s now a free agent that teams aren’t exactly clamouring over. Honourable mention Cody Zeller.
Thomas Robinson - Sacramento Kings (2012)
With the 5th pick of the Unselectables draft, we have Thomas Robinson. His rookie highlight reel including elbowing Jonas Jerebko in the face and getting a 2 games suspension, and... well that’s about it. Similarly to Johnson, Robinson’s career never really took off, becoming fodder for the trade merry-go-round of the NBA, and then taking 4 years to earn his first NBA starting gig. His best year netted him 8 PPG on a purpose built losing machine in Philly, and after a few years at the very end of the bench, Robinson is now plying his trade at the glamourous Maine Red Claws of the NBA G-League.
The Unbelievables (from 5 up to 1)
DeMarcus Cousins - Sacramento Kings (2010)
This controversial big man is an electric sight, when he’s on the court that is. Plagued by suspensions and behavioural issues as a young player, ‘Boogie’ has become one of the league's premier big men despite his behaviour not improving on the same trajectory. Averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds in all but 4 of his years in the league, Boogie unfortunately succumbed to injury just days after recording 44 points, 24 rebounds and 10 assists in early 2018 during a career year, putting him out for 12 months and changing the course of his NBA career. Despite never leading a team to the playoffs (this year he was merely a passenger on a fast track to the Finals) and playing 2nd fiddle in his return this season with the Warriors, there’s hope for Boogie to return to his pre-injury form and become a star once again. The only issues that will continue to plague him as he searches for a good fit is which GM is willing to put up with this larger than life character and the risks of re-injury that come with this 3 time All-Star.
Kristaps Porzingis - New York Knicks (2015)
This big Latvian star has yet to fully take off in the NBA mainly hammered by questionable coaching, inept roster construction and injuries but his upside is something to be admired. Possessing skill unmatched at his towering height of 7 foot 3 inches, Porzingis naturally drew comparisons to his European counterparts Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki, and has been anointed a ‘unicorn’ by the NBA’s very best in Kevin Durant. Unfortunately his career has also been stymied by injury for now, but on his return for the 2019-20 season with the Dallas Mavericks we could see him become part of a dynamic European pairing with Slovenian star in waiting Luke Doncic after sitting out the entire 2018-19 season rehabbing his knee. If Porzingis can stay healthy, with his length and range he could be the next generation’s star player as he moves into his prime.
James Harden - Oklahoma City Thunder (2009)
This man needs no introduction. 7 time all star, NBA Most Valuable Player, two time scoring champ, Harden’s style of play is changing the league as we know it. It’s difficult to comprehend how a player could play better this year than during his 2017-18 MVP season but Harden took
his game to another astonishing level this season, using Daryl Morey’s Moneyball analytics to jack up insane scoring numbers and put him in the conversation with Chamberlain and Jordan as one of the greatest scorers of all time. Records just continue to tumble in Harden’s freakish prime, but the one prize that has eluded him to this point is the big one. Expect to see him rise to another level again next year, as he continues to add weapons to his offensive arsenal, a scary thought considering he was the first to average over 36PPG in a single season since Michael Jordan back in 1987! Whether his situation in Houston, where he is currently on the richest contract in NBA history, is healthy enough to give them a deep playoff run again is to be seen as they battle with a clash of egos between the teams stars. The most decorated player on this list, Harden is a future Hall Of Famer who has changed the way the game is played, for better or for worse depending on who you speak to.
D’Angelo Russell - Los Angeles Lakers (2015)
This will rustle some feathers, as he beat out the extremely talented Victor Oladipo in being the best #2 pick in the last 10 years of the Draft. The recency bias is strong here, as the only thing that separates these two for me is that if DLo went down this season, the Brooklyn Nets would have missed the playoffs. On the other hand, Oladipo’s Indiana Pacers didn’t seem to miss a beat after he went down injured after just 36 games this year, locking up 5th place and a first round matchup with the Celtics. Russel did have his challenges on and off the court while playing for the Lakers, under a mammoth amount of pressure to succeed as the next face of their franchise, has come of age in Brooklyn after a change of scenery and is high in the list of players likely to collect Most Improved Player honours, a trophy Oladipo received a few seasons back. Leading the Nets to the playoffs for the first time since the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce era, Russell picked up an All-Star gig this year and has consolidated himself as one to watch moving forward.
Kyrie Irving - 2011 (Cleveland Cavaliers)
The only champion on our list, and in fact the only #1 overall drafted in the last 10 years with a ring. A six time all star and the Rookie of the Year in his draft class, Kyrie’s handle, clutch shot capability and scoring prowess put him among the best at his position in the league. Famously the man who hoisted the shot many point to as the one that sunk the NBA Record 73-9
Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals, Kyrie is still striving to push to another level and win another title. When he’s not reading conspiracy theories and testing the curvature of the earth, Kyrie is likely to be found asking LeBron for forgiveness and hoping to god Anthony Davis doesn’t take this spot as the best #1 pick of the last decade, a mantle Davis will surely snatch if he continues to play at such a high level - Of course Davis, an avid Unsportsmen reader.
So there you have it, the best and worst of each Top 5 draft position of the last decade. As ever, this years draft is proving to be a sliding doors moment for the league, with teams shamelessly moving mountains to be mediocre and put themselves near the top of the draft. If Zion Williamson is anywhere near the player that draft scouts project him to be, we are in for a hell of a season folks.
The 2019 NBA Draft will take place in Brooklyn, NY this Friday Australian time.
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