Ranking the Top Five Worst NBA Draft Picks of All Time
Ranking the Top Five Worst NBA Draft Picks of All Time
Not long ago, we looked at some of the amazing starts for some of the 2021-2022 rookie class. There are, to this point, a number of outstanding performances by the rookie cohort. Number one overall pick Cade Cunningham, coming back from injury, has yet to join that group, but every indication is he will round into form soon.
He has a long way to go before we can label him or anyone in this draft class as a bust. But history shows teams have certainly been wrong before, even with “sure things” on the board with the first or second overall pick.
Who are the five worst draft picks in modern history? These names represent some of the biggest swings and misses among professional NBA scouting. I tend to skew this list more modern, given the advancements in scouting tools, data, travel opportunities, and analysis. Sixty years ago, teams may not have even seen their draft picks in play in person.
In the modern age, there really is no excuse to miss this badly. But sadly, teams do miss all the time. So here are the five biggest mistakes from the last 30 years.
5. Greg Oden (Drafted 1st overall by Portland in 2007)
Technically, Greg Oden had a seven-year NBA career. The problem was four of those years he missed entirely due to injury, including his rookie season. That sums up Oden in a nutshell.
Oden started to flash a little bit in his third NBA season when he averaged 11 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks in just 24 minutes per game. But he was injured after 21 games and wouldn’t play again for three and a half seasons. He attempted a 23-game comeback in 2013, but after injuring himself again, he finally hung it up.
There were already injury concerns with Oden in college, but the Blakers (similar to Sam Bowie in 1984) couldn’t pass on the allure of a stud big man. What makes it more painful is Kevin Durant was taken right after Oden and is playing at an MVP level 15 years later.
4. Kwame Brown (Drafted 1st overall by Washington in 2001)
The adopted son of Michael Jordan, apparently. Rumors out of Washington in 2001 were that Jordan was enamored with Brown’s game despite him being a tall, lanky high-schooler out of Georgia.
We should have known something was up when his rookie campaign ended with Brown averaging 4.5 points and 3.5 rebounds in only 14 minutes per game. He simply was not ready for the NBA at that age, and his performance eventually helped lead to the one-year-out-of-high-school rule that is still in effect today.
Brown managed to hang around for parts of 13 NBA seasons, including winning a championship with the Lakers. But after peaking at 74 games played and 30 minutes per game in 2003-2004, he would never play more than 66 games or average more than 27 minutes in a season again.
Brown never averaged over eight points per game once in his career and never had more than seven rebounds per game over the course of a season. Perhaps Exhibit A in the proof that the production doesn’t always match the hype.
3. Anthony Bennett (Drafted 1st overall by Cleveland in 2013)
I remember watching this draft on ESPN, and when the announcement was made that Bennet was selected first overall, no one could believe it. There was an overwhelming sense of shock from the crowd, the analysts, and (I think) the other players in the green room.
Bennett had been an excellent forward at UNLV, but the prevailing wisdom was that Victor Oladipo, Nerlens Noel, and Otto Porter were all better prospects. So they were, it turns out, but that doesn’t begin to make up for the fact that Cleveland (and others) passed on Giannis Antetokounmpo, CJ McCollum, Dennis Schroeder, Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams, and a host of other more tenured players.
By my count, 22 players from the first round of 2013 are still in the NBA, which is an absurdly high number. Unfortunately, the Cavs, with the first pick, couldn’t hit on one of those. Instead, they were stuck with a player who was traded the very next year and lasted less than four years in the NBA.
2. Michael Olowakandi (Drafted 1st overall by Los Angeles Clippers in 1998)
It’s not so much that The Kandi Man was downright awful in his nine-year NBA tenure. He had one or two decent seasons, including averaging 12.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks in 2002-2003. It’s that there was so much All-Star talent taken after him that Olowakandi looks like the biggest bust of all time comparatively.
Just in the next ten picks after the Clippers selected the University of the Pacific center, Mike Bibby, Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Jason Williams, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, and Bonzie Wells were taken. Any one of those players could have helped to turn the Clippers franchise around, but instead, it continued a 20-year run of ineptitude.
Of the first 12 draft picks in 1998, only Robert “Tractor” Traylor played fewer games and minutes than Olowakandi.
1. Darko Milicic (Drafted 2nd overall by Detroit in 2003)
There is an excellent quote by Goethe that goes like this: “Tell me with whom you associate, and I will tell you who you are.”
Well, I’m here to tell you that that quote is dead wrong when it comes to Darko Milicic. The Detroit Pistons did not have a shot at Lebron James after he went number one to Cleveland in 2003. But immediately after Darko was picked, three future Hall of Famers went off the board in Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade.
Several other 10+ year NBA veterans would soon follow Kirk Hinrich, Chris Kaman, Nick Collison, David West, Dahntay Jones, Boris Diaw, Kendrick Perkins, and Leandro Barbosa. Any one of these players would have been light years better than Darko, who did play parts of nine seasons but was a complete bust statistically.
His career highs in each stat category were 8.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.8 blocks, 51% shooting. Of course, none of those came in the same season, and his rookie campaign was a bomb with 1.4 points and 1.3 rebounds per game.
Darko’s name is next to some of the most elite players of this past generation, but Detroit decided to gamble on the upside. And they lost big.
Proudest husband and dad you will ever find. When I'm not with my wife and two kids I split my time working in higher ed, grinding DFS and season-long, collecting silver age comics, studying behavioral economics, and drinking coffee. I once played Pat Connaughton in an actual NBA DFS lineup for money. Astros, Rockets, and Texans for life.