Like it or not, professional sports is a very “what have you done for me lately?” type of business. Even though in leagues like the National Basketball Association (NBA), players are drafted even though they’re months – if not years – away from being able to purchase an “adult” beverage, we still expect them to enter a league of adults and contribute at a high level right away.
To that end, this list comprises those guys who were some of the most touted members of their respective draft classes over the last few years, but have failed to make the transition to becoming a professional, or live up to the hype that surrounded their draft status.
The rap on Jahlil Okafor coming out of Duke University was that while he was a polished scoring savant around the hoop, for someone with his size (6’11 and 275lbs) and athleticism, he was breathtakingly clueless when it came to playing defense.
After being drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers with the 3rd overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, Okafor saw his minutes per game go from 30 to 22.7 to 12.6 in his first three years in the league, and the 76ers eventually traded him to Brooklyn less than three years after taking him. Ironically, the two players taken before and after Okafor — D’Angelo Russell and Kristaps Porzingis — have been selected as All-Stars, while Okafor hasn’t been anything close to one.
Mario Hezonja was one of those prospects who was “all bark, and no bite.” The swagger-filled Croatian chose the number 23 when he was selected by the Orlando Magic, in homage to the great Michael Jordan. But that was about the only thing that Hezonja and Jordan would ever have in common.
Despite averaging upwards of 22 minutes per game in his third season in the NBA, Hezonja average below double-digit scoring for the entirety of his NBA career. At the end of the 2017-2018 season the Magic let Hezonja walk, as they were no longer interested in his services. Drafting a swingman like Devin Booker or even Trey Lyles would’ve looked a lot smarter here.
Cameron Payne is quickly becoming one of those guys whom you only hear about when he’s thrown into a deal as “filler” for a trade between NBA teams.
The first round pick in the 2015 NBA Draft out of Murray State University has already had two different stints in the NBA Development League, sent down by two different teams (the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls).
Outside of having entertaining handshakes with former teammate Russell Westbrook, Payne is nothing more than the guy the Thunder selected instead of someone like Terry Rozier or even Josh Richardson.
A five-star recruit that played at the University of Arizona, Stanley Johnson shut down workouts leading up to the 2015 NBA Draft because he really wanted the Detroit Pistons to draft him.
Unfortunately for Detroit, Johnson got his wish. In three seasons in Detroit, Johnson never cracked even nine points per game scoring, and has a career average of less than 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.
Meanwhile, it was the University of Kentucky’s Devin Booker who turned out to be the explosive wing player who’s made a name for himself at the next level, despite being taken after Johnson.
The guy with the ferocious-sounding name turned out to be the Cowardly Lion-sort in the NBA. Dragan Bender was a 7’1 Croatian big man whom some thought would turn into an Uber-athletic big man, ala Kristaps Porzingis. Instead, all they got was a guy who personified the stereotype of European players being “soft.”
The 2016 draft wasn’t exactly a star-studded one, but the Suns have to be kicking themselves at some level for drafting Bender ahead of someone like Jamal Murray, who was taken three picks later in the same draft.
Calling the 2016 NBA Draft “disastrous” doesn’t feel like it fully encapsulates just how bad it was for the Phoenix Suns. After trading up to the #8 pick in the draft, and having taken Dragan Bender just four picks prior, the Suns doubled-down on terrible picks and took a high-risk, high-reward player in Marquese Chriss from the University of Washington.
And in return, the Suns got all of the risk and none of the reward, as Chriss has not only struggled mightily, but somehow gotten even worse over the course of his NBA career. During his second (and final) season in Phoenix, he put up a paltry 7.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, in 21.2 minutes on average. Even though he needed a few years to break out, taking Domantas Sabonis here would’ve been the much smarter selection.
Sacramento traded back from the #10 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, and took Justin Jackson from the National Champion Tarheels of the University of North Carolina with one of the two first round picks they acquired. A three-year starter at UNC, Jackson was supposed to come to Sacramento and add intangibles and a winning mentality to the perennially hapless Kings.
But even after taking Jackson, the Kings are still looking for upgrades at the wing, especially considering the wiry Jackson got pushed around quite a bit in his rookie season, averaging less than seven points per game (despite averaging more than 22 minutes per game).
Less than 40 games over the course of an NBA career that lasted less than four seasons is the exact opposite of what you want from a player selected among the NBA Draft lottery. But despite the fact that most teams saw Georgios Papagiannis as a mid-to-late 2nd round developmental prospect, the Sacramento Kings acquired the rights to Papagiannis the night of the 2016 NBA Draft, after he was selected by the Phoenix Suns.
But after three seasons in Sacramento, which included several assignments with the Reno Bighorns of the NBA Development League, Sacramento waived him. By the summer of 2018, Papagiannis inked a deal to go back to Greece to resume his basketball career. If the Kings really wanted to reach on a prospect, why didn’t they swing on guys like Malcolm Brodgon or Caris LeVert, or even Pascal Siakam (all of whom were taken later in the 2016 NBA Draft) if they really wanted a big man?
Through his first two seasons in the NBA, the only thing the Detroit Pistons could count on from Luke Kennard is him getting injured and missing prolonged periods of time. Since being drafted in 2017, Kennard has started in onl7 18 games, and missing 27 games over the last two years due to injury.
While Kennard averages shooting over 43% from three, what good does that do when he’s attempted only three 3-point shots per game for his career? He’s little more than a bench player for a team that’s going to be picking in the NBA Draft lottery yet again. Oh, and in case you forgot: Donovan Mitchell was taken one pick after Kennard.
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. To add insult to injury: Boston further fleeced Philadelphia in the deal for this pick, walking out of the same draft with star-in-the-making Jayson Tatum.
Jonathan Simmons was longer than a pile of yardsticks tied together, so combine that with his athleticism, and you’ll see why Orlando selected him with the 6th overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. But all that length and athleticism doesn’t mean a hill of beans if he can’t actually get on the court.
There were literally two signature moments of Isaac’s rookie season: being ruled out with a right ankle sprain, and then being sent down to the G-League in February (a humiliating sequence of events for a top lottery pick). To this day, Orlando still isn’t anywhere near 100% sure in what they have in Simmons.
The New York Knicks really thought they stuck it to the Dallas Mavericks, as the two teams both greatly coveted point guard Frank Ntilikina from Strasbourg Illkirch-Graffenstaden Basket in France. Instead, Ntilikina’s woefully underdeveloped offensive game has become evident, in the form of his below-37% shooting as a rookie.
Even if you put aside the fact that the Knicks passed on Donovan Mitchell to take Ntilikina, if you wanted to look at it from just a point guard perspective, even taking someone like Derrick White or even Frank Mason III would’ve probably been better choices than .Ntilikina
How highly did the Miami Heat think of swingman Justise Winslow from Duke University? They reportedly turned down a package comprising SIX draft picks, including four first round picks, from the Boston Celtics, and were thrilled to draft Winslow instead.
But after the Heat thought they got the steal of the draft in Winslow, he’s developed at a slower-than-molasses pace, when he’s not spending time away from the court due to injury. In three seasons in Miami, Winslow has averaged under 11 points per game, despite averaging almost 35 minutes of playing time per game in his second season.
Life after LeBron James (part 2) looks like it has the Cleveland Cavaliers speeding right towards the top of the NBA Draft lottery yet again.
It’s rather ironic as well, considering that after the Cavaliers had a chance to draft a player like Collin Sexton, who was seen as a fearless dynamo coming out of the University of Alabama, Cleveland’s irrational owner Dan Gilbert thought the team could still contend for the playoffs.
Instead, the Cavaliers are floundering, and left to wonder whether they might’ve been better off in selecting another point guard — like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — over Sexton.
There are times that Mohamed Bamba looks like the product of a basketball player laboratory, but there are even more times where Bamba looks like a baby deer who has no idea how to gracefully — if not properly — use his absurdly long limbs. Everyone knew that Bamba was going to be something of a project for the team that drafted him, and everyone knew that he had an inconsistent motor that coaches would need to keep revving up.
But averaging barely over 6 points per game and right at 5 rebounds per game wasn’t supposed to be the upside for someone with his length and skillset. Add in the stress fracture in his leg for a guy that size, and you have legitimate cause for concern.
Dennis Smith Jr.
A 6-2 bulldog who could jump out of the gym, blow by defenders, and play like a one-man offensive dynamo, Dennis Smith Jr. from North Carolina State seemend like a tantalizing prospect. That is, of course, until you realized that he was one of those guys who coasted by on his god-given athletic gifts, and left major questions about his attitude, focus, and work ethic at every stop he made.
But that didn’t stop the Dallas Mavericks from drafting Smith in the 2017 NBA Draft, and then trading him away less than two years later, probably realizing his destiny is something close to “Steve Francis 2.0.” The fact that Donovan Mitchell was taken four picks after Smith really has to sting; imagine pairing Mitchell with Luka Dončić? Smith Jr. has since been traded to the New York Knicks right before the trade deadline.
Michael Jordan is unquestionably the greatest basketball player of all time, but let it never be forgotten that , as owner of the Charlotte Hornets, he passed on an offer that would’ve given him four first round picks, in order to select Frank Kaminsky from the University of Wisconsin.
Since being taken with the 9th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, Kaminsky has started a grand total of 23 games in three seasons; that’s barely a quarter of one NBA season. Despite drafting Kaminsky, Charlotte felt there was enough of a need at center to even try renting Dwight Howard for a year; that was another move that ended in disaster.
To borrow a line from the movie “Mean Girls” Thon Maker is the “fetch” of NBA prospects — people need to stop trying to make it happen. Once upon a time, Maker was supposed to be a freak show prospect with unlimited upside. That upside tantalized the Milwaukee Bucks to pick Maker with the 10th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.
But seasons later, Maker still runs around the court like he has no idea what he’s doing. Coupled with the controversy around the idea that he’s actually much older than his birth certificate would indicate, and it’s not going so well for Maker to date.
For much of the 2014-2015 NBA season, people thought that the worst teams in the league would “tank” to put themselves in better position to draft point guard Emmanuel Mudiay. But his erratic skillset and lack of overall focus, which scared off teams in the 2015 NBA Draft, began to further manifest when he arrived in the NBA.
He had an unspectacular career in Denver as a member of the Nuggets, before being traded to the New York Knicks. As the saying goes: hindsight is 20/20, but Denver could’ve really benefited from a young point guard like Terry Rozier, instead of what they got (or didn’t get) from Mudiay.