When it comes to the NBA Draft, and projecting what a player was versus previously versus what a player could be in the future, at the risk of using even more sports cliches, it really is all about beauty being in the eye of the beholder, and the process being much more of an art than a science.
For every “generational, can’t-miss” prospect that enters the NBA and changes the league’s landscape, there are countless players whom we all thought would be future superstars… only to watch their careers fall disappointingly flat. And then, there are those “diamonds in the rough” – the guys who get overlooked in the draft’s beauty contest, only to end up being among the “prettiest” players we have in the NBA today.
Here’s our look at 15 players who fell greatly short of their lofty draft status, and 15 NBA Draft gems unearthed outside of the top picks.
Shelden Williams: 2007, Pick #5
The two-time NABC Defensive Player of the Year (2005 and 2006), First-Team All-American in 2006, and John R. Wooden National Player of the Year Finalist in 2006, Shelden Williams lived up to his 5-star billing when arriving in Durham, having his Number 23 retired after four successful years at Duke.
The Atlanta Hawks selected Williams with the 5th overall pick in the 2006 NBA Draft, but less than two seasons later, Atlanta traded him to Minnesota. Over the next two years, Williams spent time on three different teams, before heading to Europe to finish out his career.
NBA Resume: Played on 7 different NBA teams in 6 years
Tyrus Thomas: 2006, Pick #4
Remember when the Bulls drafted LaMarcus Aldridge with the second pick of the 2006 draft? Most Chicago fans don’t either. The Bulls traded the rights to Aldridge for number four pick Tyrus Thomas, hoping to pair him with Eddy Curry to bring back the glory days of the 90s.
The Twin Towers pairing never got off the ground for the Bulls as Thomas farted his way through four meaningless seasons, and Aldridge just played in his seventh All-Star Game and is still going strong.
NBA Resume: 7.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, 0.9 assists per game
Wesley Johnson: 2010, Pick #4
Wesley Johnson might be one of the players that NBA scouts will point back to, in terms of the risk you take on guys who have played four years of college; namely, they’ve maximized all their talent, and won’t really further develop in the NBA. The Minnesota Timberwolves used the fourth overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft on Johnson, who played at Iowa State University and then Syracuse University.
But through nine seasons in the NBA, Johnson has bounced around six different teams. His career stat line hasn’t been terrible, but they’re the type of empty stats that clearly haven’t meant anything to his employers.
NBA Resume: 3.4 points, 1.9 rebounds, and 0.6 assists per game
Thomas Robinson: 2012, Pick #5
It’s hard to believe Robinson was a top five pick this decade as much as the game has changed the last few years. Robinson was a classic college big man, dominating in the post for three years with the Jayhawks, and the Sacramento Kings took him with the number five pick, one spot ahead of Damian Lillard.
He didn’t even last one season in Sacramento, traded at the deadline his rookie season in a package for Patrick Patterson.
NBA Resume: Played for six NBA teams in five seasons, averaging 13 minutes a game and compiling a whopping 12 starts
Tyler Hansbrough: 2009, Pick 13
Tyler Hansbrough was the first player in ACC history to not only be named First Team All-ACC four times, but to also be named to a First Team All-American squad in each of his four seasons. He was also named ACC Rookie of the Year in 2006 and ACC Player of the Year in 2008, while sweeping all national player of the year awards that year as well.
After an eight-year NBA career, where he played for three different NBA teams, Hansbrough continued his NBA career in China, signing with the Guangzhou Long-Lions in 2017.
NBA Resume: 6.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 0.4 assists per game
Raymond Felton: 2005, Pick #5
One of the most decorated college basketball players of this century, Raymond Felton made one of the three All-American teams in each of his three years in Chapel Hill. As a junior in 2005, Felton averaged 12.9 points and 6.9 assists per game, and helped North Carolina advance to — and win — the NCAA Tournament Finals.
Felton became the third guard taken in the 2005 NBA Draft, infamously being picked immediately after two perennial All-Stars: Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Felton was a decent player during his five years in Charlotte, who took him with the aforementioned pick, though the questions about his ability to shoot the basketball certainly followed him to the NBA and lingered early on in his career. While Felton has enjoyed a 14-year NBA career to date, his overall resume doesn’t really fit with a top five NBA Draft selection.
NBA Resume: 11.2 points, 5.2 assists, 3 rebounds per game
Jimmer Fredette: 2011, Pick #10
Playing for the usually unheralded Brigham Young University men’s basketball team, James Taft “Jimmer” Fredette led all NCAA Division I players in scoring during his senior season (2010-2011), en route to being named the 2011 National Player of the Year. Fredette helped the Cougars reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament that year, which was the first time in 30 years that they had made it that far.
Fredette left BYU holding 11 scoring records, which still stand today. Unfortunately, Fredette was never able to translate that scoring touch into the NBA game, as he’s now playing for the Shanghai Sharks in China, less than seven years after being drafted into the NBA.
NBA Resume: 6.0 points, 1.4 assists, 1.0 rebounds per game
Trey Burke: 2013, Pick #9
Alfonso Clark “Trey” Burke III played for two years at the University of Michigan, and was constantly referred to as one of the best — if not the best — players in the nation during his sophomore year in college. In 2013, Burke became the first player to win the college basketball player of the year award and lead his team to the national championship since Ed O’Bannon in 1995.
But college basketball appeared to be the peak of Burke’s career, as he was one of those guys whose game simply couldn’t translate in the NBA. After being dumped by the Utah Jazz (who originally drafted him), Burke has had a couple of forgettable seasons as of late, with the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks.
NBA Resume: 10.9 points, 3.6 assists, 2.1 rebounds per game
Adam Morrison: 2006, Pick #3
As bad as the drafting history of the Charlotte basketball organization (in its most recent iteration) has been, it’s hard to fault them for drafting Adam Morrison. The All-American was the co-national player of the year, and helped make Gonzaga University a college basketball powerhouse.
But Morrison’s reasons for failure in the NBA were two-fold: for one, he simply lacked the pure athleticism needed to really be a star at the professional level; teams — like Charlotte — overlooked that fact, because of his production in college. Then, Morrison tore his ACL in his second season, taking even more away from his already-limited athletic ability.
NBA Resume: 7.5 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists per game
Joe Smith: 1995, Pick #1
Coming out of the University of Maryland, few would have believed Joe Smith would someday end up on this list. The 6-foot-10 forward was a two-time All-American for the Terrapins, and the Naismith College Player of the Year as a sophomore. He skipped his last two years of school, and was taken #1 overall in the 1995 NBA Draft by the Golden state Warriors.
After Smith expressed his desire to return to the east coast, the Warriors feared a situation similar to what they went through with Chris Webber (the player leaving town in free agency and getting nothing in return), Golden State traded Smith to the 76ers. Over the next 13 seasons, Smith bounced around 12 different teams, never realizing his immense talent.
NBA Resume: 10.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.0 assists per game
Markelle Fultz: 2017, Pick #1
As ESPN’s Zach Lowe quipped: some day, somebody is going to write a book about the tragedy that was the start of Markelle Fultz’ star-crossed NBA career. He was considered a no-brainer, no-way-you-should-think-twice lock to be the #1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, and the league took notice when the Philadelphia 76ers traded up for the #1 pick, seemingly to pair Fultz with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
But after one of the most mysterious shoulder injuries in the history of professional athletics completely robbed Fultz of his ability (and his confidence) in shooting the basketball, his presence became an ugly blemish on the rising 76ers.
NBA Resume: 15 starts through his first two NBA seasons. A jump shot that only a mother could love.
Sam Bowie: 1984, Pick #2
In the early-to-mid 1980’s, then Portland Trail Blazers General Manager Stu Inman was considered to be something of a “basketball genius.” He was so highly thought of that other teams would validate their confidence in a player if Inman believed in that player. Yet, ironically, Inman is the man who will forever be held responsible for the greatest draft night mistake in the history of the NBA, and maybe professional sports: selecting Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA Draft.
To make matters worse, Charles Barkley and John Stockton — two future Hall of Fame players — also went in the first round. But “Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan” will forever live in draft infamy. Bowie was a two-time All-American at the University of Kentucky, but he was plagued by injuries in college, and they only got worse in the NBA.
NBA Resume: Played 63 games out of a possible 328 during his last four seasons in Portland.
Andrew Wiggins was the first pick of the draft in 2014, going ahead of Kansas teammate Joel Embiid, who is not exactly an NBA bust. Wiggins is a different kind of bust, considering he’s 23 years old and averaging 19 points a game over almost 400 NBA games and just finishing the first year of a five year $146 million contract.
Normally you’d think that’s pretty good for a top pick, but Minnesota Timberwolves fans and basketball watchers in general beg to differ. Wiggins hasn’t shown any real improvement in five seasons in the league, declining if anything, and he’s a sieve on defense with a lackadaisical motor and effort level. Wiggins has a career 103 offensive rating with an even worse 114 defensive rating.
NBA Resume: 19.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists per game
Shawn Respert: 1995, Pick #8
Shawn Respert left East Lansing as Michigan State’s all-time leading scorer; remember, this is a school where Magic Johnson once played. That led to the Portland Trail Blazers taking Respect with the 8th overall pick in the 1995 NBA Draft; Portland then traded his rights to the Milwaukee Bucks. Respect was never able to recapture his magic in the NBA, playing for four teams in five seasons, before heading overseas to play ball.
In 2005, it was later revealed that Respect was diagnosed with stomach cancer early in his NBA career, but kept that fact tightly under wraps; only the Bucks and a few close friends knew of the diagnosis that likely altered the course of his NBA career. Respect most recently served as an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies between 2014 and 2016.
NBA Resume: 4.9 points, 1.3 rebounds, 1.0 assists per game
Ed O’Bannon: 1995, Pick #9
After almost enrolling at UNLV, following in the footsteps of the great UNLV team that won the national championship in 1993, Ed O’Bannon instead enrolled at UCLA, and led the Bruins to a national championship of their own in 1995. The New Jersey Nets selected O’Bannon with the 9th pick in the 1995 NBA Draft, but the knee injuries sustained in college by O’Bannon really sapped him of his playing potential in the pro’s.
O’Bannon has found his name in the news quite a bit after his playing days were over, as he’s the lead plaintiff in O’Bannon v. NCAA, an antitrust class action lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
NBA Resume: 5.0 points, 2.5 rebounds, 0.8 assists per game
15 Surprise Stars
The Zion Williamson hype is out of control, and Williamson may well be worth the hype like previous number one picks LeBron James and Tim Duncan. But not every NBA star is a former number one pick, and many unheralded stars were barely even a blip on the radar when they got drafted.
Never has that been clearer than in these 2019 NBA Finals, which feature five of the biggest recent NBA stars that were all unheralded coming out of college. Three other stars from the Conference Finals have far exceeded their college and draft expectations, and two others were a Game 7 away from taking their place.
Let’s count down 15 of the biggest surprise NBA stars who blew away expectations and went on to far greater professional heights than anyone ever saw coming in college…
Kawhi Leonard: 2011, Round 1, Pick #15
Kawhi Leonard was a top 50 recruit who chose his own path, heading to San Diego State in the MWC to ply his trade. Leonard was drafted in the middle of the first round, and few people batted an eye when the Pacers sent Leonard to San Antonio for veteran point guard George Hill.
A few years later, Kawhi was guarding LeBron James in the NBA Finals, leading the Spurs dynasty to one last title and locking up both LeBron and a Finals MVP trophy. Now he’s back in the Finals for a third time, trying to do it again.
Notable Achievements: 1x champion, 1x Finals MVP, 3x All NBA, 3x All Star, 2x Defensive Player of the Year, 5x All Defense
Pascal Siakam: 2016, Pick #27
Pascal Siakam may well be the 2019 Most Improved Player by the time you read this, and he’d certainly be deserving. A year ago at this time, most casual basketball fans had never even heard of Siakam after an off the radar career at New Mexico State.
Siakam was a late first round pick but spent most of his rookie season in the G league, leading Raptors 905 to a championship while winning Finals MVP. Now here he is only two years later trying to repeat his accomplishments on basketball’s biggest stage.
Notable Achievement: 2019 Most Improved Player candidate
Malcolm Brogdon: 2016, Round 2, Pick #36
Malcolm Brogdon was a first team All American as a senior at Virginia, but few expected him to make much of a splash in the NBA. Brogdon slipped to the second round but exploded onto the scene as a rookie, becoming the first second round pick to win Rookie of the Year in over 50 years.
This year Brogdon joined a hallowed club shooting at least 50% from the field, 40% from deep, and 90% from the line. The future is bright for The President.
Notable Achievement: 2017 Rookie of the Year
C.J. McCollum: 2013, Round 1, Pick #10
You definitely watched C.J. McCollum in college, even if you don’t remember it. McCollum was the best player for Lehigh Mountain Hawks out of the Patriot League, and he put up 30 points to lead his 15 seed to a shocking upset over 2 seed Duke, the biggest Blue Devils upset in tournament history.
Still, no one expected four consecutive 20 ppg seasons from McCollum, forming one of the league’s most devastating back courts with another small school stud, Damian Lillard from Weber State.
Notable Achievement: 2016 Most Improved Player
Draymond Green: 2012, Round 2, Pick #35
Perhaps you’ve heard of him? Draymond Green wasn’t exactly unheralded after leading Michigan State to two Final Fours, recording the seventh triple-double in NCAA tournament history.
Still, no one expected much in the NBA from this undersized tweener, including then Warriors coach Mark Jackson who brought Draymond off the bench behind David Lee.
Perhaps that’s why Jackson is calling the NBA Finals now while Steve Kerr leads Draymond and the Warriors in an attempt for their fourth title in five years.
Notable Achievements: 3x champion, 2x All NBA, 3x All Star, 2017 Defensive Player of the Year, 5x All Defense
Khris Middleton: 2012, Round 2, Pick #39
Khris Middleton was a very ho hum dude that played for a nondescript Texas A&M Aggies team that won only one NCAA tournament game in Middleton’s three years there.
That’s probably why Middleton slipped into the second round and never even seemed like much of a miss until the Bucks got Giannis Antetokounmpo too and saw Middleton blossom next to the Greek Freak. Now he’s an All Star and looks set to hit it big with a possible max contract payday this summer.
Notable Achievement: 1x All Star
Klay Thompson: 2011, Round 1, Pick #11
Klay Thompson is our second Warrior on the list, and he’s a different type of unheralded considering his father Mychal played for the Showtime Lakers and was the former number one pick. Like father, like son.
Thompson has become the perfect modern shooting guard, with a shot to die for and terrific defense running off screens all game as one half of the Splash Brothers. He has become an absolutely vital cog in the Golden State Warriors machine.
Notable Achievement: 3x champion, 2x All NBA, 5x All Star, 1x All Defense
Jimmy Butler: 2011, Round 1, Pick #30
Jimmy Butler was just a guy at Marquette, a hard worker who left everything on the court and worked his way into the last pick of the first round in 2011.
Butler kept on working and became the NBA’s Most Improved Player a few years later, adding an impressive array of scoring and handling abilities to his already outstanding defense.
Now Butler is one of the game’s leading players and a marquee free agent this summer.
Notable Achievement: 2x All NBA, 4x All Star, 4x All Defense, 2015 Most Improved Player
Isaiah Thomas: 2011, Round 2, Pick #60
It’s easy to forget about Isaiah Thomas, but it was just two seasons ago when IT put up 29 points a game for the Celtics and led them on an emotional playoff run.
Thomas is just 5’9″ and nearly went undrafted out of Washington, snagged with the final pick and bouncing around several NBA teams before exploding for the Celtics as the heart and soul of the team.
He’s never been healthy again since that postseason run, but we’d be crazy to count a guy out the way he’s consistently proven his naysayers wrong.
Notable Achievement: 1x All NBA, 2x All Star
Paul George: 2010, Round 1, Pick #10
Are you noticing how many of these players ended up winning the Most Improved Player award? Paul George was not particularly well known out of Fresno State, but America got to know him in a hurry after repeated playoff runs with the Pacers against LeBron James and the Heat.
Now PG is in Oklahoma City and has progressed even further, a finalist in this year’s MVP race and a worthy member of this year’s All Defense team. He’s now one of the league’s best two way players.
Notable Achievement: 5x All NBA, 6x All Star, 4x All Defense, 2013 Most Improved Player
Rajon Rondo: 2006, Round 1, Pick #21
Rajon Rondo is “that guy” now, the veteran bouncing from team to team and never really staying healthy, but we forget too easily just how great a player Playoff Rondo is.
At one point, Rondo was just the odd fitting fifth starter for a loaded veteran Boston Celtics team, but Rondo more than proved he belonged with KG, Pierce, and Ray with his tenacious defense and outstanding passing.
That’s all certainly far more than anyone ever saw from Rondo at Kentucky.
Notable Achievement: 1x champion, 1x All NBA, 4x All Star, 4x All Defense, 3x assists champ
Kyle Lowry: 2006, Round 1, Pick #24
Don’t look now, but yes, that’s a third Raptors starter on the list. Masai Ujiri has really built something special in Toronto.
Lowry didn’t come with much pedigree out of Villanova, and he struggled to make a consistent impact for the Grizzlies and Rockets before finally landing in The North and turning into an All Star late in his 20s in a rare late breakout.
Lowry is more than the numbers, constantly taking charges and grabbing 50–50 balls, doing the little things that make him one of the game’s great point guards.
Notable Achievement: 1x All NBA, 5x All Star
Paul Millsap: 2006, Round 2, Pick #47
You’d think we’d give a little extra attention to Louisiana Tech power forwards after what Karl Malone and P.J. Brown did in the NBA, but no one thought much of Paul Millsap despite his outstanding rebounding numbers.
Millsap became one of the league’s most underrated players for the Jazz before moving on to the Hawks and then the Nuggets, a hard working defender that does a bit of everything to help his team win.
Notable Achievement: 4x All Star, 1x All Defense
Danny Granger: 2005, Round 1, Pick #17
If the Pacers draft a rangy wing in the middle of the first round, we really ought to start paying attention — see also Kawhi Leonard and Paul George above.
Danny Granger was so unheralded he began his college career in Bradley before transferring to New Mexico, a rare four year college starter before heading pro.
Granger went on to become an All Star and Most Improved Player for Indiana before injuries derailed his career.
Notable Achievement: 1x All Star, 2009 Most Improved Player
Zach Randolph: 2001, Round 1, Pick #19
The pride of Marion, Indiana, Zach Randolph was plenty heralded out of high school as the #1 player in the RSCI rankings, but not many expected much in the NBA from the misshapen dude with a seeming two inch vertical.
Again, perhaps we should pay attention when Tom Izzo’s big men perform for Michigan State, no matter their shape or size.
Z-Bo would go on to become a 20–10 machine in the NBA, dominating the boards providing plenty of grit ‘n’ grind for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Notable Achievement: 1x All NBA, 2x All Star, 2004 Most Improved Player