NBA teams have increasingly adopted the mantra of “tanking,” as made famous by “The Process” used by former Philadelphia 76ers General Manager Sam Hinkie, with the belief that the best possible pick will yield the best possible player. While that’s often the case in drafts that feature someone like a LeBron James or Anthony Davis, there are far more instances where the best player in the draft emerges a few picks after the top overall selections are made.
Or, in the case of this list, you’ll find some of the best players in the draft class being taken WAY after the first handful of picks in each draft class. To elaborate on that point, here’s our list of the 20 biggest NBA Draft steals since the turn of the century:
Michael Redd (2000)
After averaging more than 17.5 points per game in each of this three seasons as a member of the Ohio State Buckeyes, and leading his school to the Final Four as a sophomore, NBA scouts somehow (inexplicably) thought a 6’6 swingman like Michael Redd still wasn’t worth taking among the first 42 picks of what turned out to be a miserable 2000 NBA Draft.
But after a career that spanned more than a decade, and included an All-Star game appearance, an All-NBA Third Team selection, and a Gold Medal in the 2008 Olympic Games, Redd might just go down as the best player from the entire draft class.
Gilbert Arenas (2001)
Gilbert Arenas played for two seasons under Lute Olson at the University of Arizona, being named to the Pac-10 All-Freshman team and then First-team All-Pac 10 in his two seasons of college hoops. After his second season in Tucson, in which the Wildcats advanced all the way to the 2001 NCAA Tournament Finals, Arenas declared for the NBA Draft. In what was a shock to many observers, Arenas fell to the early second round of the 2001 NBA Draft, being selected 31st overall.
After being drafted by the Golden State Warriors, Arenas wore the number “0” as retribution to detractors who said he would never play in the NBA (or would play zero minutes in his NBA career). Though his NBA career would end in a rather bumpy manner, Arenas was a three-time All-Star and three-time All-NBA selection, becoming one of the more exciting guards in the NBA while with the Washington Wizards.
Tony Parker (2001)
The last pick of the first round of the 2001 NBA Draft, a young Tony Parker started turning heads as a member of Paris Basket Racing, which prompted something of a recruiting battle from colleges who wanted him to come stateside.
Parker chose to remain in France, and the San Antonio Spurs were able to steal him and plug them into their hallowed player development program.
Parker would go on to become a member of four different Spurs’ teams that won NBA Championships, and was named the NBA Finals MVP in 2007.
Carlos Boozer (2002)
A first-team All-ACC selection and third-team All-American selection in 2002, Carlos Boozer helped the Duke University Blue Devils win the 2001 National Championship.
But whether scouts thought Boozer had limited upside, or that he was something of a “tweener” at 6’9 and 258lbs, Boozer fell to the second round of the 2002 NBA Draft, being taken 35th overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Boozer enjoyed a good-to-very-good career in the NBA, spanning 14 seasons with three different teams, highlighted by two All-Star game selections in 2007 and 2008.
Danny Granger (2005)
After hearing completely forgettable names like Ike Diogu, Antoine Wright, and Joey Graham being called among the first 16 picks of the 2005 NBA Draft, the Indiana Pacers pounced on Danny Granger, a do-it-all small forward from the University of New Mexico, who was the only player in the NCAA to average at least 18.8 points and 8.9 rebounds per game in 2004-2005.
While Granger played 11 seasons in the NBA for three different teams, most people are familiar with him being one of the more underrated players in the NBA while with the Indiana Pacers.
Paul Millsap (2006)
For better or for worse, NBA scouts are far more enamored with the player you become, versus the player you show you are. That’s why guys like Paul Millsap end up falling to midway into the second round of the NBA Draft, as was the case in 2006.
Not only was Millsap taken after a slew of guys you’ve never heard of, but two players who never played a minute of real NBA basketball were taken before Millsap.
Millsap was a solid player for the Utah Jazz (who drafted him originally), but his career really took off after he joined Atlanta in 2013; he made the All-Star team in each of his four seasons there.
Goran Dragic (2008)
Even in a time when NBA teams spent loads of money looking for basketball talent playing in Europe, guys like Goran Dragic somehow still fell through the cracks.
Despite leading Slovenian club Union Olimpija to the Slovenian league championship in his first season after joining the team, Dragic wasn’t selected in the 2008 NBA Draft until the 45th overall selection.
Today, his career includes an All-Star selection and an All-NBA Third Team selection.
Serge Ibaka (2008)
20 selections after drafting a fearlessly and relentlessly energetic Tasmanian Devil of a point guard named Russell Westbrook, the Seattle SuperSonics used the second of their two first round picks acquired from the Phoenix Suns (in a prior trade for forward Kurt Thomas) to selecting a fast-rising Congolese forward named Serge Ibaka, who was turning all sorts of heads while playing professional hoops in France.
When the franchise moved to Oklahoma City, the team valued Ibaka so much that they actually slotted money to extend his contract, as opposed to that of James Harden.
Stephen Curry (2009)
Talk about Stephen Curry’s drop to the 7th overall selection in the 2009 NBA Draft, and you’ll elicit a variety of different emotions from fans of teams picking among the top eight picks. Memphis Grizzlies fans will want to vomit, as they recall their team taking Hasheem Thabeet (a legendary NBA Draft bust). Timberwolves fans will want to hurl themselves off a building, recalling how then General Manager David Kahn selected Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn over Curry.
And New York Knicks’ fans would be absolutely despondent, as the team was praying Curry would fall to them at #8 overall. As we all know, the two-time MVP has become the centerpiece of the juggernaut that is the Golden State Warriors, and is almost certainly one of the greatest shooters in NBA history.
Paul George (2010)
What do Evan Turner, Wesley Johnson, Ekpe Udoh, and Al-Farouq Aminu have in common?
All four guys were taken among the top eight picks of the 2010 NBA Draft, ahead of a scintillating small forward by the name of Paul George from Fresno State University.
After the Indiana Pacers drafted him, George blossomed into one of the best all-around wing players in the NBA, and the leader of Pacers’ teams that would routinely battle LeBron James’ Miami Heat teams in the early 2010’s.
Klay Thompson (2011)
If you’re a hard-core NBA fan, the fact that there were three personnel executives in the NBA who decided that it would be a better idea to select guys like Jan Vesely, Bismack Biyombo, and Jimmer Fredette over the sharpshooting Klay Thompson from Washington State has to leave you shaking your head.
After the Golden State Warriors drafted Thompson and paired him with Stephen Curry, the duo became known as “The Splash Brothers,” thanks to their sniper-like ability to nail shots from deep.
Kawhi Leonard (2011)
There’s a reason why many NBA fans will say that, like the New England Patriots of the NFL, the San Antonio Spurs are playing chess while the rest of the NBA is playing checkers.
After watching forward Kawhi Leonard, a second-team All-American in 2011, fall to the 15th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, San Antonio engineered a trade with the Indiana Pacers for the rights to Leonard.
After something of a slow start in San Antonio, Leonard went on to dominate LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals, and become perhaps the best on-ball defender the NBA has ever seen since Scottie Pippen.
Jimmy Butler (2011)
A tough, embattled youngster that grew up in one of the toughest situations possible, former Marquette University head coach Buzz Williams helped mold Jimmy Butler into a two-time All-Big East honorable mention.
The Chicago Bulls managed to snag Butler with the very last pick of the first round of the 2011 NBA Draft, watching future afterthoughts like Nolan Smith and JaJuan Johnson be selected ahead of Butler.
Though he was overshadowed by Derrick Rose for the early part of his NBA career, Butler would go on to become one of the best – and toughest – two-way wing players in today’s NBA.
Isaiah Thomas (2011)
On one hand, it’s sort of easy to see why Isaiah Thomas fell to the “Mr. Irrelevant” pick of the 2011 NBA Draft. After all, how often will a guy who stands 5’9 succeed in the NBA?
But Thomas, the 60th and final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, selected behind six guys who never played a minute in the NBA, would go on to not only become an NBA All-Star, but even challenge for the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
Thomas would go from Sacramento to Phoenix to Boston to Cleveland to Denver, over the course of his career, but everyone remembers him for what he did in the 2016-2017 NBA season and ensuing playoffs.
Draymond Green (2012)
If you ever have a conversation about the 2012 NBA Draft with Draymond Green, he will quickly (and loudly) remind you that 34 players were selected ahead of him.
While four of those guys turned out to be All-Stars (and one of them — Anthony Davis — turned out to be an unquestioned superstar), you can legitimately say that Green became one of two or three best players in that entire draft, along with Davis and maybe Damian Lillard.
While Curry and Thompson might be the engine that makes the Warriors’ juggernaut go, Green has become the heart and the backbone of those teams.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (2013)
While you can’t really fault the 14 other teams for passing on a mysterious Greek prospect named Giannis Antetokounmpo, whom very few people knew anything about, the fact that he fell to the 15th overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft just seems more ridiculous by the day.
After former head coach Jason Kidd toyed with the idea of making Antetokounmpo a point guard, he inadvertently unleashed a 6’11 basketball hydra who can do almost everything (except shoot 3-pointers) at a scary level, making him the guy to carry the torch for the NBA as LeBron James’ career comes closer to an end.
Rudy Gobert (2013)
You could easily make the argument that there aren’t four better centers in the NBA right now than Rudy Gobert.
But in the 2013 NBA Draft, four different centers — Alex Len, Nerlens Noel, Gorgui Dieng, and Mason Plumlee — were selected ahead of shot-swatting Frenchman who set NBA Draft Combine records for wingspan (7 feet 8½ inches) and standing reach (9 feet 7 inches).
Whether you know him as “The Stifle Tower” or “The French Rejection,” Gobert has emerged as perhaps the preeminent rim protector and/or shot blocker in the NBA right now.
Nikola Jokic (2014)
Admittedly, Serbian center Nikola Jokić doesn’t always physically look the part of a 7-foot basketball savant. But as the saying goes: that’s why you should never judge a book by its cover. That must be what NBA teams did, though, as Jokic fell to the 41st overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, despite being one of the best basketball players in the basketball-crazy Balkan region. But as the Denver Nuggets began to play Jokić more and more, they realized they have the most gifted passing big man since perhaps Arvydas Sabonis.