Ranking The Top Five Best NBA Draft Picks of All Time

NBA analyst Ryan Kirksey breaks down the best draft picks in the history of the NBA. These five players stand out as the ones that NBA franchises were lucky to grab.
Ryan Kirksey |
Thu, November 18, 3:05 PM EST | 4 min read
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Ranking The Top Five Best NBA Draft Picks of All Time

Last week we spent time evaluating the worst draft picks in modern NBA history. These were the players that general managers did not have to list on their resumes and should be rightly chastised for selecting.

However, NBA history is also littered with selections well outside the top-ten picks that ended up as elite performers and Hall-of-Fame caliber players. So who were some of these picks? That’s the question we will answer today.

None of these picks was made inside the top ten, and only one would be considered a “lottery” pick. However, looking back at the last 50 years, many players could make a case for this list (Tony Parker, Dennis Rodman, Bill Laimbeer, Clyde Drexler, etc.). But these five players combine the perfect mix of longevity, performance, and team success that enable them to be the best ever.

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Top Five Draft Picks of All Time

5. Steve Nash (15th pick in 1996)

Drafted in the best NBA Draft of all time by the Phoenix Suns, Nash’s career came full circle when he joined the Suns, won two MVP awards, and led them to the Western Conference Finals.

The 1996 draft was famously loaded with multiple future All-Stars and Hall of Famers. Still, one of the best point guards of all time ended up dropping all the way to the middle of the first round on concerns about his size and ability to defend bigger guards at the next level.

You can’t be blamed when you realize that Nash was taken behind Hall of Famer Allen Iverson, defensive expert Marcus Camby and one of the five best shooters of all time in Ray Allen. Even after two seasons, the Suns didn’t realize what they had in Nash, shipping him off to Dallas for Pat Garrity, Bubba Wells, and a pick. That pick would later become Shawn “The Matrix” Marion, and once Phoenix brought Nash back six years later, that combination would revolutionize basketball.

4. John Stockton (16th pick in 1984)

I’ll see your Steve Nash with the 15th pick and raise you a John Stockton one pick later at number 16. The 1984 might have the most top-heavy talent of all time. You start with Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Stockton, and then it quickly becomes a whole list of career role players.

But the Jazz were able to secure the best pure point guard of his time after the likes of Melvin Turpin, Lancaster Gordon, Leon Wood, Tim McCormick, and Jay Humphries were taken. The Jazz would add Karl Malone one year later, and the rest is history.

Stockton was a ten-time All-Star, led the league in assists nine times, was on the All-NBA defensive team five times, and took his team to two Finals. Stockton is the all-time leader in assists, more than 3,700 ahead of second place. Similarly, he is first all-time in steals, almost 600 more than second.

I’m sure even in their wildest dreams; the Jazz did not envision they would get their point guard for the next 19 years, who would play at least 78 games in 17 of those seasons.

3. Manu Ginobili (57th pick in 1999)

Some consider Ginobili the best draft pick of all time, considering he was taken with the next to last pick in the 1999 draft, and he would go on to help San Antonio to four NBA championships. However, people often forget he did not even play in the NBA for his first three professional seasons, joining the Spurs in 2002.

Even in that first NBA season, he averaged just 7.6 points in less than 21 minutes per game and was not a major contributor to the team.

But by the time 2004 rolled around, the Spurs had an every-game starter who would average 16 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 3.9 assists in that All-Star season. Ginobili would shift to a sixth-man role five years later and would continue to be a significant part of Spurs’ championship and playoff teams until 2018. Not bad for a kid drafted at 22 who no one had dreamed would even be a regular piece of the rotation.

Ginobili would make All-Star teams and win Sixth Man of the Year awards, but it would be his propensity to make big shots in the biggest games that would make him a darling to Spurs fans forever. No player taken as late as Ginobili can claim as much success in the NBA.

2. George Gervin (40th pick in 1974)

The argument for who was a better draft pick for the Spurs (Ginobili at 57 or Gervin at 40) is a fascinating one. The argument could be made that without Ginobili, the Spurs don’t win all those titles. But with David Robinson, Tim Duncan, and Tony Parker, the likelihood is that they still get a couple. On the other hand, Gervin was the far superior individual player and has all the accolades but never won a title despite playing in 84 career playoff games.

Those accolades certainly piled up for Gervin in a hurry throughout his ABA and NBA career. He is a twelve-time All-Star, four-time scoring champion, seven-time All-NBA selection, and a no-brainer Hall of Fame pick. And while he was known primarily for his prolific scoring, he did finish in the top 20 in steals four times, blocks three times, and rebounds three times.

Add in the fact that the Iceman is the coolest nickname in NBA history, and you have the silver medalist for best draft pick ever out of the 40th spot.

1. Kobe Bryant (13th pick in 1996)

As mentioned above, the 1996 NBA Draft was absolutely stacked with talent. I mean, Allen Iverson is an upper-echelon Hall-of-Famer, and he was probably just the third-best player in the draft. But with that being said, it looks absolutely silly now to go back and see who was drafted ahead of Kobe Bryant.

The Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Camby, and Allen picks were defensible, along with a few others. But what about Lorenzen Wright, Kerry Kittles, Samaki Walker, Erick Dampier, Todd Fuller, and Vitaly Potapenko?

Think about is the Clippers had drafted Kobe instead of Lorenzen Wright. That could have changed the whole trajectory of the franchise. Or what about Dallas pairing Bryant with Dirk Nowitzki two years later instead of Samaki Walker?

We don’t need to regurgitate Bryant’s stats. He is the fourth-leading scorer all-time (third-leading when he retired), led the Lakers to five NBA titles, and was an 18-time All-Star. To put that in context, the entire 1997 Draft had 26 total All-Star appearances. Unless he was up against Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft, Kobe should have been the first pick in any year.

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