On Thursday night representatives from the NBA’s 30 franchises and 13 of the world’s top basketball prospects will gather in New York City for the 2013 NBA Draft. In basketball, more so than any other major team sport, a single draft pick can completely change the fortunes and identity of a franchise. Top NBA draft picks have been known to turn perennial lottery teams into perennial contenders in just a few years.
For this reason, the first overall selection in the NBA Draft is the most coveted draft pick in sports. The Draft Lottery, the event that determines which under-performing team from the previous season will win the right to pick first, is televised during primetime. Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, and his sharply dressed entourage, erupted into a raucous celebration last month when the Cavs won the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft.
Time will tell if the player Gilbert and the Cavs select on Thursday—whether Nerlens Noel, Alex Len, Ben McLemore, or someone else—was worth all the fuss. Sometimes the team with the first selection ends up with Joe Smith or Michael Olowokandi or Andrea Bargnani (who, really, should be better than he has been). But on plenty of other occasions the top pick in the NBA Draft has had a lasting impact, both on the team that drafted him and on the league in general. Here are—with apologies to honorable mentions David Thompson, James Worthy, and Allen Iverson, all of whom just missed the cut—the twelve greatest number one picks in the history of the NBA Draft.
1958: Elgin Baylor, Minneapolis Lakers
- 10-time All-NBA (10 First Teams)
- 11-time All-Star
Elgin Baylor was the first all-time great to be selected with the first pick in the NBA Draft. The most celebrated top overall pick up to that point was probably Ray Felix of the Bullets and Knicks who thrice averaged a double-double but made only one All-Star appearance.
Baylor was an obvious choice for Minneapolis in 1958. The Washington D.C. high school legend had found his way to the other Washington, where he led the Seattle University Chieftans to a Final Four upset of top-ranked Kansas State and a spot in the 1958 NCAA championship game, where they lost to Kentucky. Baylor averaged 33 points and 19 boards during his final season in Seattle.
Unfortunately for Baylor, his tenure with the Lakers, who moved to Los Angeles in 1960, coincided with a rare title drought for the franchise. The team won its last title in Minneapolis in 1954, a few years before Baylor arrived, and its first in Los Angeles in 1972, a year after Baylor retired. During Baylor’s 13 seasons with the team, the Lakers advanced to the NBA Finals eight times but never won. Seven of those eight trips ended with a loss to the Celtics.
Baylor was a fixture on the All-NBA First Team throughout his career and consistently ranked among the league leaders in points and assists. It’s too bad he’ll forever be stuck on that list of all-time greats without a ring.
1960: Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati Royals
- NBA Champion (1971)
- NBA MVP (1964)
- 11-time All-NBA (nine First Teams)
- 12-time All-Star
After leading Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis to an Indiana state basketball championship (making Attucks the first all-black team to win a state basketball crown), Oscar Robertson set all sorts of NCAA records at the University of Cincinnati. He left Cincinnati in 1960 as a three-time national player of the year and the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer.
Prior to 1966, NBA teams could relinquish their first round draft pick and, before the draft, select a player located within 50 miles of the team’s home arena. In 1960 the Cincinnati Royals used a “territorial pick” to select Robertson, who had played his college ball in the Queen City. But the Royals also happened to have the top draft pick that season (by virtue of their 19-56 record), so the Big O would have been picked first regardless.
If fantasy basketball had been a thing in the 1960s, Oscar would have been a fantasy owner’s dream. For his career he averaged 25.7 points, 9.5 assists, and 7.5 rebounds. He averaged a triple-double during the 1961-62 season and remains the only NBA player ever to accomplish such a feat (and he nearly did it three other times).
Robertson was named the league MVP in 1964, but his Royals never advanced to the NBA Finals (being in a division with the Celtics and Wilt’s Sixers had something to do with that). He eventually won a championship with Lew Alcindor and the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971.
1968: Elvin Hayes, San Diego Rockets
- NBA Champion (1978)
- Six-time All-NBA (three First Teams)
- Two-time All-Defense
- 12-time All-Star
The legend of Elvin Hayes, known to history as The Big E, began at the Houston Astrodome on January 20, 1968. Hayes’s Houston Cougars faced All-American Lew Alcindor and the defending national champion UCLA Bruins in front of crowd of more than 50,000 and a national television audience of millions. The contest between No. 1 UCLA and No. 2 Houston (both of whom were undefeated) was billed as “The Game of the Century” and was the first regular season college basketball game televised nationally. (It was syndicated through the TVS Television Network.)
Hayes scored 37 points and pulled down 15 rebounds, while holding Alcindor in check, in Houston’s two-point victory over UCLA. The Bruins would get their revenge, beating Hayes’s Cougars in the Final Four, but The Big E won national player of the year honors in 1968, averaging an incredible 36.8 points per game, and was the top pick in the 1968 NBA Draft.
The young San Diego Rockets franchise selected Hayes. While he averaged better that 25 points and 14 rebounds per game in each of his four seasons with the Rockets, the team never had a winning record. The Rockets traded Hayes in 1972 after their first season in Houston.
Hayes ended up with the Baltimore (and later Washington) Bullets, where he played alongside Hall of Famer Wes Unseld. With Hayes and Unseld the Bullets were consistently one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. The team won the 1978 NBA Championship and returned to the Finals in 1979.
Hayes went back to Houston and played three more seasons (one with Moses Malone and one with Ralph Sampson) before retiring in 1984. Hayes is 10th all-time in career points and sixth in career rebounds.
1969: Lew Alcindor, Milwaukee Bucks
- Six-time NBA Champion (1971, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987-1988)
- Six-time NBA MVP (1971, 1972, 1974, 1976-1977, 1980)
- Two-time Finals MVP (1971, 1985)
- 15-times All-NBA (10 First Teams)
- 11-times All-Defense (Five First Teams)
- 19-time All-Star
Ferdinand Lewis “Lew” Alcindor, Jr., spent the 1960s establishing himself as a New York high school basketball legend and perhaps the greatest college basketball player in the history of the game. The 7-foot-2 center led UCLA to NCAA titles in all three of his collegiate seasons and remains the only player to be named the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player three times. Alcindor was a three-time First Team All-American and two-time NCAA Player of the Year.
When Alcindor came into the league with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969, he was a ready-made superstar, a player capable of leading the NBA into the post-Russell, post-Wilt era. He made his presence known early, winning the first of his six MVP awards and leading the Bucks to an NBA title in 1971, his second season in the league.
Alcindor adopted his Muslim name, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the day after his Milwaukee Bucks won the 1971 NBA title. He was arguably the Association’s best player throughout the 1970s but didn’t win another title until he teamed up with rookie Magic Johnson and won a title with the Lakers in 1980. Kareem and Magic would win four more titles together in Los Angeles. Along the way Abdul-Jabbar surpassed Wilt Chamberlain to become the NBA’s all-time scoring leader. Karl Malone is the only player to come within 6,000 points of Kareem’s total of 38,387.
While Kareem was, at times, the best player in the world, his longevity is even more impressive than his greatness at his peak. He was MVP of the NBA Finals in 1971 and again, 14 years later, in 1985. He appeared in his first All-Star Game in 1970 and his last in 1989. (Granted, he didn’t really earn that last All-Star appearance. Kareem, who had announced that he’d be retiring at the end of the season, was selected to replace an injured Magic Johnson despite career lows in all major statistical categories.) He averaged better than 20 points per game for 17 consecutive seasons and better than 10 rebounds per game for 12.
Kareem matched or exceeded the expectations placed on him when the Bucks drafted him out of UCLA and is no worse than the third best player in NBA history.
1974: Bill Walton, Portland Trailblazers
- Two-time NBA Champion (1977, 1986)
- NBA MVP (1978)
- NBA Finals MVP (1977)
- Two-time All-NBA (one First Team)
- Two-time All-Defense (two First Teams)
- Two-time All-Star
If you just glance as Bill Walton’s career statistics, you might not understand how such a player ever ended up in the Basketball Hall of Fame. His career scoring average was a pedestrian 13.3 points per game and he only played 10 seasons, nine of which were shortened by injury. He’s also nowhere to be found on rankings of all-time statistical leaders.
So why is Bill Walton in the Hall of Fame? First, the Basketball Hall of Fame celebrates accomplishments at all levels of the game, and Walton was a top-five all-time college player (and in the conversation with Alcindor as the best ever). Second, at his best in the NBA, Walton was as good as, and possibly better than, anyone else in the league.
At UCLA, Walton was a two-time NCAA champion and three-time National Player of the Year. Portland took him with the top pick in 1974 draft. Walton’s first few seasons with the Blazers went about as well as Greg Oden’s. He was a solid player when he was on the floor, but he had trouble staying healthy.
In the 1976-77 season Walton fought off injuries long enough to play 65 games, lead the league in rebounds and blocks per game, and lead his Portland Trailblazers to the NBA title. He continued to put up impressive numbers the following season, while establishing himself as the league’s top defender. Walton played just 58 games in 1977-78, and only two playoff games, but he was so good in those 58 games that the basketball media named him MVP anyway.
Walton sat out the 1978-79 in protest, upset with the Blazers’ poor handling of player injuries. After a few decent, yet injury-plagued, seasons with the Clippers, the big red head landed with the 1985-86 Celtics—one of the best teams in league history. In 1985-86 Walton played the first full-season of his career, serving as a key bench player for the NBA champion Celtics.
1979: Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers
- Five-time NBA Champion (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987-1988)
- Three-time NBA MVP (1987, 1989-1990)
- Three-time NBA Finals MVP (1980, 1982, 1987)
- 10-time All-NBA (Nine First Teams)
- 12-time All-Star
In 1979 Earvin “Magic” Johnson led his Michigan State Spartans to an NCAA title over Player of the Year Larry Bird and top-ranked Indiana State. The Celtics had secured Bird’s draft rights in 1978, leaving Johnson as the consensus top pick in 1979.
When the Lakers traded Gail Goodrich to the New Orleans Jazz in 1976 they acquired the Jazz’s top pick in the 1979 draft, a pick that ended up being the first overall selection. The Lakers added Magic to a squad that already had five-time MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and All-Star Jamaal Wilkes. The Lakers won the title the following season—thanks in part to Johnson going for 42 points, 15 rebounds, and seven assists in Kareem’s absence in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals—then won an additional four championships during Magic’s time in Los Angeles.
Johnson is one of only two players in league history to win three regular season and three NBA Finals MVP awards (Michael Jordan is the other). For his career, Johnson averaged more than 11 assists per game, a number that has never been matched.
1984: Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets
- Two-time NBA Champion (1994-1995)
- NBA MVP (1994)
- Two-time NBA Finals MVP (1994-1995)
- Two-time Defensive Player of the Year (1993-1994)
- 12-time All-NBA (six First Teams)
- Nine-time All-Defense (five First Teams)
- 12-time All-Star
No NBA draft class is as accomplished or celebrated as the 1984 class. Michael Jordan, the greatest player in NBA history, went third, John Stockton, the all-time leader in assists and steals, went 16th and Charles Barkley, a league MVP and Hall of Famer and the NBA’s best television analyst, went fifth.
But none of these all-time greats ever had a chance to be the first player taken in the 1984 draft. That honor had been reserved for a seven-foot center from the University of Houston.
Hakeem Olajuwon was a member of Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma fraternity. Under legendary coach Guy Lewis, Olajuwon and great teammates such as Clyde Drexler and Michael Young took the Houston Cougars to three consecutive Final Fours.
Olajuwon got to stay in Houston after leaving college. The Houston Rockets selected him with the first overall pick and paired Olajuwon (who would change the spelling of his name from “Akeem” to “Hakeem” for religious reasons) with 7-foot-4 reigning rookie of the year Ralph Sampson, whom the Rockets had taken with the first pick in the previous draft. The “Twin Towers” led Houston to the 1986 NBA Finals, where they lost in six games to the Celtics.
The Rockets didn’t return to the Finals until Olajuwon’s MVP season in 1994. Houston beat the Knicks in seven games to capture the franchise’s first title. They won a second championship in 1995. Olajuwon was named Finals MVP both times.
Olajuwon was great on both ends of the floor, taking home Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1993 and 1994. He will forever have a job as the person whom offensively challenged big men visit during the offseason in hopes of improving their low post game.
1985: Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks
- Seven-time All-NBA (one First Team)
- Three-time All-Defense
- 11-time All-Star
Patrick Ewing was such a sure thing heading into the 1985 NBA Draft that conspiracy theorists are convinced that the league engaged in some shenanigans to make sure that Ewing ended up with the struggling Knicks in the league’s biggest market.
Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas had played in the NCAA championship game in three of Ewing’s four collegiate seasons, winning the title in 1984. The seven-footer from Jamaica was the league’s rookie of the year in 1986 and was an All-Star in his first season.
By the end of the 1980s Ewing and the Knicks had become a perennial playoff team. By the middle of the 1990s they’d become a perennial contender, advancing to the NBA Finals in 1994 and 1999 and the Eastern Conference finals in 1993 and 2000.
Ewing averaged better than 20 points and 10 rebounds for nine consecutive seasons, and at his best he was among the league’s top defenders. Ewing might not have lived up to the considerable expectations placed on him when he was drafted. But he was a great player and has nothing to apologize for.
1987: David Robinson, San Antonio Spurs
- Two-time NBA Champion (1999, 2003)
- NBA MVP (1995)
- Defensive Player of the Year (1992)
- 10-time All-NBA (four First Teams)
- Eight-time All-Defense (four First Teams)
- Scoring champion (1994)
There was never any doubt about who would go first in the 1987 NBA Draft, even though every NBA team knew that consensus top pick David Robinson still had an active duty obligation with the United States Navy. When the Naval Academy graduate was ready to begin his NBA career in 1989 he had the option of re-entering the draft. But Robinson signed with the San Antonio Spurs, the team that had selected him with the top overall pick two years earlier. The player known affectionately as “The Admiral” would spend his entire 14-year Hall of Fame career in the home of the Alamo.
In the six seasons before Robinson arrived in San Antonio, the Spurs had failed to finish higher than seventh in the Western Conference. Thanks in large part to Robinson, and fellow rookie Sean Elliot, San Antonio finished second in 1989-90, with a 56-26 record. The Spurs would post a winning record and earn a playoff berth in 13 of Robinson’s 14 seasons in San Antonio. The one exception was the 1996-97 season, in which the Admiral played only six games due to injury. The Spurs’ poor performance that season won them the opportunity to draft Tim Duncan (see below). With Duncan, Robinson’s Spurs won two NBA titles.
Robinson was a force on both ends of the floor and is one of only two players (the other being Michael Jordan) to win both a scoring title and a Defensive Player of the Year award. The scoring title was a bit dubious. Robinson knew that he needed exactly 71 points on the final game of the 1993-94 season to pass Shaquille O’Neal, and his teammates fed him the ball on just about every possession to make sure he got to 71.
A Most Valuable Player Award, a Defensive Player of the Year Award, a scoring title, two championships, and a bunch of All-Star and All-NBA appearances. I’d say Robinson was worth the two-year wait.
1992: Shaquille O’Neal, Orlando Magic
- Four-time NBA Champion (2000-2002, 2006)
- NBA MVP (2000)
- Three-time NBA Finals MVP (2000-2002)
- 14-time All-NBA (eight First Teams)
- Three-time All-Defense
- 15-time All-Star
Shaquille O’Neal didn’t get to be the collegiate representative on the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team.” That honor went to Christian Laettner. But there was no doubt that LSU’s 7-1 center was the best prospect in the 1992 draft class.
The Orlando Magic selected O’Neal with the first overall pick in 1992. Behind Shaq and point guard Penny Hardaway (whom the Magic traded for on draft night in 1993) the young Magic franchise became a contender, advancing to the NBA Finals in 1995 and the Eastern Conference finals 1996. O’Neal signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996, the same year that the Lakers acquired high school phenom Kobe Bryant. After coach Phil Jackson arrived in Los Angeles in 1999, the Shaq-Kobe Lakers won three consecutive titles. O’Neal became only the second player (after Michael Jordan) to win three consecutive NBA Finals MVP awards.
The Lakers traded Shaq to Miami in 2004, and he won a fourth ring in 2006 (thanks in large part to Dwyane Wade). He retired in 2011 after 19 NBA seasons and ranks eighth all-time in career points, 15th in career rebounds, second in career field-goal percentage, and third in player efficiency rating.
1997: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
- Four-time NBA Champion (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007)
- Two-time NBA MVP (2002, 2003)
- Three-time NBA Finals MVP (1999, 2003, 2005)
- 14-time All-NBA (10 First Teams)
- 14-time All-Defense (8 First Teams)
- 14-time All-Star
Tim Duncan could have been the top pick in the 1996 draft, but he decided to finish his degree and collegiate eligibility at Wake Forest. His draft
stock didn’t suffer as a result. Duncan was the consensus college player of the year in 1997 and NBA teams tanked their seasons in hopes of drafting him with the first overall pick.
The privilege of drafting Duncan went to the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs had been one of the Western Conference’s better teams throughout the 1990s but fell apart (or tanked) during the 1996-97 season when star center David Robinson returned from a back injury in December only to break his foot after six games.
Duncan and Robinson brought the Spurs their first NBA Championship in 1999. San Antonio began the new millennium by picking up international prospects Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili late in the draft. With Parker and Ginobili, Duncan led the Spurs to titles in 2003, 2005, and 2007, and to the NBA Finals in 2013.
Duncan is arguably the greatest power forward ever to play the game (though the question of whether he is a power forward, a center, or some combination of the two is an open one). His game doesn’t really have a weakness – other than free throw shooting, but he has improved that significantly – and he is without question one of the 10 best players in the history of the game.
2003: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
- Two-time NBA champion (2012-2013)
- Four-time NBA MVP (2009-2010, 2012-2013)
- Two-time NBA Finals MVP (2012-2013)
- Nine-time All-NBA (seven First Teams)
- Five-time All-Defense (five First Teams)
- Nine-time All-Star
While ESPN tried half-heartedly to create a “LeBron or Melo?” narrative in the days leading up to the 2003 draft, even casual fans had known for two years that the teenage prodigy from Akron, Ohio would be the top pick as soon as he finished high school.
Though millions of fans in Cleveland and elsewhere in the country have not forgiven LeBron James for the way that he left northern Ohio in 2010, the pride of Akron (with apologies to Devo) took the Cavaliers franchise to places it had never been before. During LeBron’s tenure in Cleveland, only two other Cavs players made an All-Star team (Žydrūnas Ilgauskas in 2005 and Mo Williams in 2009) and none made an All-NBA Team. Despite a dearth of talent, James’s Cleveland teams posted two 60-win seasons and made a trip to the 2007 Finals.
Since signing with Miami, he has been the best (and, at times, the only reliable) player on a team that has made three straight trips to the NBA Finals, winning twice. At the age of 28 James has already been named the MVP four times and the NBA Finals MVP twice. He has been selected to the All-NBA First Team seven times in his 10 seasons and the All-Defensive First Team five times.
He already has more than 21,000 career points, and more than 5,000 career assists and rebounds. His career player efficiency rating is second only to Michael Jordan’s (and not by much), he can play four positions and guard all five, he is one of the best passers and best defenders in the league and he has consistently improved as a shooter and a decision-maker throughout his career.
We can talk later about where James ranks among the all-time greats, but he’s the best player in the world right now, and he’s a pleasure to watch.