Not all #1 overall picks in the NBA Draft are created equal; if you want proof of that, ask the Cleveland Cavaliers. As the only team with three #1 overall selections since 2000, the Cavaliers used those picks on guys who would end up becoming one of the greatest players in NBA history (LeBron James), a perennial All-Star with one of the most unique offensive skill sets in the NBA, and a guy who’s among the biggest “busts” in NBA Draft history (Anthony Bennett).
Given that, we tried our best to eliminate the idea of hindsight, and rank the last 19 players to be taken #1 overall in the NBA Draft since the year 2000, and to make this list a nice, round “20 players, we added in a certain phenom who’s a virtual lock to be taken with the top pick in 2019. Our criteria had three parts: 1) demonstrating a set of coveted NBA skills; 2) the players’ overall physical and basketball talents as viewed when he was coming out; and 3) how much better of a prospect than the guy who was acknowledged as the #2 prospect in their class.
With that in mind, here’s how we rank the 19 players taken with the top pick in their respective NBA Drafts, and where Zion Williamson would fit among that group, in order from worst to first:
20. Anthony Bennett (2013):
This one might seem obvious if only viewed through the prism of revisionist history, because you could have a rousing debate as to whether Anthony Bennett wasn’t just the worst #1 overall pick since the turn of the century, but one of the worst in the history of the NBA Draft itself. Teams loved the fact that Bennett had a big, strong body at 6’7 and 240lbs, with the ability to out-muscle smaller defenders and “out-quick” larger defenders.
But there were a lot of NBA teams who didn’t even have Bennett ranked among their top five prospects in a rather weak 2013 NBA Draft class, and believe that Bennett was much more of a product of being the #1 pick by process of elimination, since most teams has significant questions about every other player taken among the top picks in that draft.
19. Kenyon Martin (2000):
In what turned out to be a rather brutal 2000 NBA Draft, Kenyon Martin was the consensus top player among a group of talented but questionable prospects. Martin stood 6’9 with a sculpted 230lb-frame, but was much more of a high-energy defender who could pull down rebounds with the best of them and block shots at the peak of their trajectory. But as far as an offensive game, Martin was still scratching the surface of understanding how to use his strength and athletic ability to abuse guys down in the paint, and his ability to shoot the ball from anywhere outside the paint was easily his biggest weakness.
And, of course, that’s not even mentioning the gruesome leg injury he suffered less than four months before the NBA Draft, which ended up sapping away much of the athletic gifts that made him a coveted prospect.
18. Andrea Bargnani (2006):
Just moments after the Toronto Raptors selected the Italian-born Andrea Bargnani with the #1 overall pick of the 2006 NBA Draft, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas offered a rather harrowing assessment of Bargnani’s game: “he does not rebound, he does not post up, he is not physical; he needs to work on his body.”
In other words, Bargnani was a personification of what terrified so many NBA executives from taking players from Europe: he flashed the skill to be a difference-maker when playing on the perimeter, but his overall lack of physicality, and the fact that he was still so young (20 years old) and raw when drafted, made him a rather high-risk roll of the dice.
17. Kwame Brown (2001):
Kwame Brown is as good an example of what a risk it was for NBA teams to draft talented but immature players straight out of high school. At the time, teams fell in love with the physical abilities Brown flashed as a high school senior in southeast Georgia, and scouts recounted how the 6’11 Brown could handle the ball like a guard and shoot the ball reliably out as far as 17 feet from the rim.
But Brown was also an example of teams loving how well the proverbial car could perform, without checking what’s underneath the proverbial hood. In other words, they failed to see that Brown was still a very immature kid who would end up struggling to face the transition of playing against teenagers to playing against grown men.
16. Andrew Bogut (2005):
Leading up to the NBA Draft, NBA teams talked themselves into Andrew Bogut because he met the requisite “never pass on a talented big man” maxim, and because they were intrigued by his textbook fundamentals (honed by playing with the Australian National Team), huge wingspan, and ability to shoot and handle the ball.
But despite standing a legit seven feet tall, Bogut’s ability to rebound was a big question mark, and whether he could really become a guy who could change the fortune of a woebegone team was an even bigger question. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that Bogut was in the same draft class as Chris Paul and Deron Williams, both of whom were considered to be the type of point guards who only come around once or twice in a decade.
15. Yao Ming (2002):
It’s not that Yao Ming was a novelty. But the fact that you had a kid who stood a legitimate 7-foot-6, was trained to be a professional basketball player since he was 13 years old, played at a “professional” level overseas as a teenager (averaging almost 40 points per game in his final season in China), and showed the ability to hit shots as far out as behind the three-point line was literally unprecedented.
The obvious questions about whether Yao would able to handle the physical rigors of the NBA, and how long his 7’6 body would hold up amidst the nightly punishment he’d put on his lower body were there, but the intrigue of “how high is Yao’s ceiling” all had teams lining up to take him over Jay Williams of Duke University, the reigning two-time college basketball player of the year.
14. Greg Oden (2007):
From the moment he headed to Columbus to serve his required year before he could officially declare for the NBA Draft, everyone had Greg Oden pegged as the #1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. Even with a somewhat questionable offensive game, and even after missing the entirety of his one year at Ohio State University due to injury, NBA-types simply couldn’t get over Oden’s “grown man” body — standing 7’0 and 250lbs — at only 18 years old, leading the majority of the league to stand by the conventional NBA wisdom of “you can’t pass on a gifted big man.”
But there were a few intrepid NBA teams who did question said conventional wisdom, especially after more than one team being floored by the combination of size and basketball skills possessed by the next best player in the 2007 draft class (Kevin Durant).
13. DeAndre Ayton (2018):
In a “boom” scenario, NBA scouts believed DeAndre Ayton could be mentioned in the same breath as Karl-Anthony Towns and/or an in-his-prime Demarcus Cousins: a big man who was born to play the game of basketball, but shows a complete aversion to the concept of playing defense. Whether Ayton transcends, or simply lives up to that reputation still remains to be seen.
The biggest reason why Ayton doesn’t rank higher on this list is the fact that a large contingent of teams would’ve very likely taken Luka Dončić over Ayton if they had the top pick in the draft, and that one of the biggest reasons why Ayton ended up going #1 overall was Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver’s connection to the University of Arizona, where Ayton spent his requisite one year of college.
12. Derrick Rose (2008):
Scouting services referred to Derrick Rose’s package of overall athletic abilities as “extraordinary” and “breath-taking,” acknowledging that if he cleaned up what they saw as wonky mechanics on his jump shot, he would develop into one of the most unguardable point guards in the NBA.
Many of the things we remember about Derrick Rose during his heyday on the Chicago Bulls — the blinding speed in which he attacked the basket, the variety of ways he could finish around the basket, and the balance in which he could either create for his teammates or take over the game himself — were evident during his one year at the University of Memphis.
That’s what led Rose to overtake the previously more-heralded Michael Beasley as the top prospect in the 2008 NBA Draft, even if it was still somewhat rare for a team to take a 6’3 point guard with the top pick.
11. Kyrie Irving (2011):
The stories about Kyrie Irving’s fearlessness, rare set of offensive basketball skills, and overall “alpha dog” demeanor began to permeate even when while Irving was sitting on the sidelines. There was an “X-factor” to Irving’s game that was greater than the individual sum of things like his innate feel for the game of basketball, ability to finish around the hoop in a profound number of ways, his body control when breaking down a defense, and ability to be a one-man offensive dynamo.
The problem was, he didn’t really get to showcase any of those during his injury-curtailed season in Krzyzewski-ville, which led reliable scouting services to rank Irving as being in a tier just below guys like Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Derrick Rose.
10. Karl-Anthony Towns (2015):
For much of the spring of 2015, people considered Jahlil Okafor to be the top prospect in the forthcoming draft. But as teams started to poke and prod both Okafor and Towns in the pre-draft process, and after the concerns about Okafor’s total aversion and cluelessness in regards to defense began to grow louder, Towns leapfrogged Towns as the top big man and overall prospect in the draft class.
Plus, teams who took a closer look at Towns’ tape became increasingly intrigued by the shooting form, touch, and feel he showed offensively, combined with a steadily-growing basketball IQ. But to reiterate, while we can look back and see it as a stupid conversation, teams in the spring of 2015 debated whether to take the “more ready to play” Okafor versus the “bigger upside” Towns.
9. Dwight Howard (2004):
Even before he developed a body befitting of one of the Gods on Mount Olympus, Dwight Howard as a physical beast down low in the paint with the projected ability to finish around the rim with a variety of moves using both hands, but also with a startling ability to shoot from a bit further out or capably pass the ball out to shooters. Teams openly threw around the “Kevin Garnett” comparison for Howard, while acknowledging he should be even bigger and stronger than the wiry Garnett.
Still, there were plenty of teams who wondered whether the Orlando Magic, who had the #1 overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft, were better off taking a “proven commodity” in Emeka Okafor, especially considering the concerns about how much Howard really wanted to become a dominant player were there from day one.
8. John Wall (2010):
Two years after the latter entered the NBA, scouting types saw the University of Kentucky’s John Wall as a slightly bigger version of Derrick Rose — an electrifying point guard who could blow past defenders in less than the blink of an eye, and just needs to add a jump shot before he could wreck the league. If he maximized the potential he demonstrated when taking the Wildcats to Elite Eight of the 2010 NCAA Tournament, Wall could have become a bigger Rajon Rondo with a little bit of Russell Westbrook spliced in to his point guard DNA.
The only questions teams had was his ability to develop a reliable outside jump shot and his penchant for taking possessions off on defense, which seemingly followed him to the NBA. But very few NBA teams in the position of the Washington Wizards, who had the #1 overall pick in 2010, would’ve given much thought to taking someone like Evan Turner, the college basketball player of the year, over Wall.
7. Ben Simmons (2016):
The Magic Johnson comparisons weren’t unique to just Ben Simmons’ breakout season in 2017-2018. When he held his own in one-on-one battles against Anthony Davis and James Harden at Nike Academy workouts before even stepping foot in college, and with teams seeing him as a guy whose entire life revolved around basketball, teams saw a teenager who stood 6’10 and 240lbs, with once-in-a-decade passing ability, and immediately believed he was worth taking if his ceiling was even in the same neighborhood as an Earvin Johnson.
Sure, there was a contingent of people who were spooked by Simmons’ near-broken shooting mechanics, and began toying with the idea of taking Brandon Ingram over Simmons, that idea never really gained much traction.
6. Blake Griffin (2009):
Even in one of the two most talent-laden NBA Drafts of this century, which ended up yielding Stephen Curry, James Harden, and DeMar DeRozan in the top 10 picks, Blake Griffin was the unchallenged #1 prospect heading into the 2009 NBA Draft.
The best way to describe how NBA teams saw Griffin after his two years at the University of Oklahoma (the latter in which he won the Naismith college player of the year award) was a high-motor, high-character, rim-rocking freak of nature athlete who was like a hybrid of a brahma bull and a kangaroo, with a gallon of Red Bull intravenously dripped into his system.
5. Markelle Fultz (2017):
Don’t let hindsight fool you on this one. In the weeks and months leading up to the 2017 NBA Draft, you couldn’t find anyone who thought Markelle Fultz was not only both the best player in the draft, but a guaranteed star in the making. The idea of a team taking someone like Lonzo Ball (the #2 overall pick) or even Jayson Tatum (the #3 overall pick) was almost unfathomable at the time, even as he did little more than earn style points while his University of Washington team endured a miserable season during Fultz’ one year of college hoops.
While people will tell you that Boston Celtics’ General Manager Danny Ainge saw something about Fultz that made him trade out of the #1 overall pick, that’s probably true to a large extent, but Ainge probably also saw an opportunity to select another player whom the Celtics loved (Tatum) while further stocking his war chest of assets.
4. Andrew Wiggins (2014):
As much as any year in recent memory, the 2013-2014 season was one of the most blatant instances of NBA teams trying to tank the entire year to put themselves in position to draft one particular player in the upcoming NBA Draft — the University of Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins was so highly thought of that when LeBron James returned to Cleveland, and forced the franchise to trade away the #1 overall pick in the draft to the Minnesota Timberwolves in order to acquire Kevin Love, many wondered if that was a mistake, with Wiggins’ potentially becoming a better running-mate for James than Love.
Wiggins combination of athletic abilities, lateral quickness, and overall basketball skills had some calling him anything from “a better Vince Carter” to “a next-generation version of Scottie Pippen,” but the question of whether he had the heart and “fire” to truly maximize his combination of gifts was very prevalent from day one.
3. Zion Williamson (2019):
In all honesty, how in the hell are we supposed to describe Zion Williamson? Is he the result of Blake Griffin’s DNA surgically placed into the body of an All-Pro NFL defensive end? Or the basketball gods being bored and concocting random basketball evolution experiments like “what if we made a hybrid of Larry Johnson and Dominque Wilkins?”
Or how about the reincarnation of Charles Barkley, except put into a top secret military chamber and enhanced with super soldier serum? Regardless of how you see him, in an NBA era dominated by guys so unique that we’ve dubbed them as “unicorns,” it’s fair to say we’ve never seen an overall package of physical abilities, talent, and skills like the one demonstrated by Williamson.
2. Anthony Davis (2012):
A 6’10 big man with the fluidity and agility of a guard, but with the wingspan of a condor (7’6) allowing him to absolutely suffocate anyone he guarded and protect the rim (almost 5 blocks per game in college) as well as anyone we had seen in years, Anthony Davis was the no-brainer, don’t-even-think-twice consensus top prospect in the 2012 NBA Draft.
The only two questions about him was whether he would continue to build on his offensive game (which he did) and put some bulk and muscle on his frame (a little more debatable), but if they were answered sufficiently, he was easily a franchise-changing talent with all the talents in the world to be a perennial All-Star.
1. LeBron James (2003):
Even in an era of when we’re way too quick to anoint young athletes long before they’ve actually accomplished anything, LeBron James’ nickname of “The Chosen One” seemed extremely fitting at the time. Teams genuinely believed that his ceiling was almost immeasurable, given his combination of the court vision of an elite point guard, the athleticism of a top-tier NBA forward, the leaping ability and in-air theatricality of a young Julius Erving.
He revolutionized the concept of “basketball hype” before the age of social media, having his high school games broadcast on national television, and signing 8-figure deals with the world’s most famous clothing apparel company before he ever played a minute of professional basketball.