The Best and Worst NBA Draft Picks of the Past 25 Years

Today I’d like to look at the best and worst NBA lottery draft picks over the past 25 years. One way to determine whether a certain draft pick was good or bad is to compare a player to other players taken in the same spot in other years. For example, after we have determined the average value of a player taken 5th, we can quantify how smart/lucky the Heat were when they took Dwyane Wade 5th in the 2003 draft.

If you’ve been following the most recent posts, you’ll know that I have gathered data on every lottery pick for the past 25 years. For this post, I will exclusively be looking at Win Shares/48 (WS/48) because this is a statistic that shows the overall value of a player while also taking out the effect of playing more minutes/having a longer career. My method was simple; I figured out the average value and the standard deviation of a player taken at each spot in the draft. From there, I determined which players were the farthest from the average on both ends of the spectrum. I also used the normal distribution function to determine each player’s percentile. For example, a player in the 95th percentile is better than 95% of the players taken at that spot in the draft.

Let’s start with the best 10 picks.

Year Pick Number Name WS/48 Std Dev Above Mean Percentile

2005

4

Chris Paul

0.245

2.962394

99.85%

1996

13

Kobe Bryant

0.182

2.411945

99.21%

2007

8

Brandan Wright

0.172

2.325108

99.00%

2007

2

Kevin Durant

0.203

2.196431

98.60%

1998

9

Dirk Nowitzki

0.209

2.179154

98.53%

2006

6

Brandon Roy

0.155

1.931395

97.33%

2009

7

Stephen Curry

0.146

1.884431

97.02%

2003

5

Dwyane Wade

0.193

1.845714

96.75%

2003

1

Lebron James

0.243

1.773717

96.19%

2008

5

Kevin Love

0.189

1.769223

96.16%

Let’s briefly talk about each pick.

1. It turns out that Chris Paul is really good at basketball. He has yet to win an MVP in his 10-year NBA career, but his all-around game has propelled him to several top five finishes. Getting him at any spot in the draft would have been a good value. Getting him fourth was a steal (which is ironic because Paul has led the league in steals five times).

2. One of the all-time Lakers greats, and he was drafted 13th. Incredible. Just more proof that the Lakers seem to get all the breaks.

3. Ugh. Brandan Wright ending up 3rd makes the whole list seem a little less valid. But Wright is a pretty good player on a per-minute basis, and I chose to use a statistic that relies on per-minute production. Let’s just move on.

4. Even as the second pick, Kevin Durant was a great value. Including this year, he has lead the league in scoring four of his seven years in the league. And he’s still only 25. You can’t help but be excited about Durant’s future.

5. Like Kobe, Dirk Nowitzki is a league MVP and an NBA champion that was picked outside of the top five. They are the only such players in the past 25 years.

6. Multiple knee injuries prematurely ended Roy’s career, but when he was healthy, he was one of the best 10-20 players in the league. Considering how surprisingly awful the 6th pick usually turns out (see my “Is Tanking Worth It?” post), getting Roy at 6th was a great bargain.

7. Looking back, it’s hard to understand why Curry was the 3rd point guard taken in the draft that year. Besides being one of the best shooters in the NBA, Curry is currently 3rd in assists per game this season and he is a surprisingly good rebounder for his size.

8. Ever since he led the Heat to the championship in his third season, Wade has been one of the most feared & respected players in the game.

9. Love Lebron or hate him, you have to recognize that Lebron is one of the greatest to ever play the game. Even amidst his #1 pick peers, Lebron stands far above the crowd.

10. For some inexplicable reason, Kevin Love wasn’t a full-time starter until his 3rd season in the NBA. Ever since his coaches wised up, he’s established himself as one of the best players in today’s NBA. Just like Durant, Love is only 25 and his best is likely still ahead of him. (As an aside, if you were hoping to someday be an NBA superstar, you should have been born in September 1988 and your parents should have named you Kevin. Hindsight is 20/20, I guess.)

Now, let’s get to the fun stuff. Here are the worst 10 picks of the past 25 years. (Note that I excluded all players taken in the past four years because I’m sure that many of these players will improve their numbers as their careers progress. Why four years instead of three or five? Because four felt right and because this is my blog.)

Year Pick Number Name WS/48 Std Dev Below Mean Percentile

1999

12

Aleksander Radojevic

-0.13

3.579223

0.02%

2002

5

Nikoloz Tskitishvili

-0.039

2.59073

0.48%

1993

7

Bobby Hurley

-0.014

2.554747

0.53%

2009

11

Terrence Williams

-0.004

2.30127

1.07%

2005

11

Fran Vasquez

0

2.195006

1.41%

2006

3

Adam Morrison

-0.021

2.189511

1.43%

2009

6

Jonny Flynn

-0.015

1.925723

2.71%

2004

8

Rafael Araujo

-0.013

1.868973

3.08%

1999

14

WillIam Avery

-0.034

1.84439

3.26%

1998

1

Michael Olowokandi

0.009

1.815437

3.47%

1. Never heard of Aleksander Radojevic? You’re probably not alone. In his brief NBA career, he had nearly as many turnovers + personal fouls (57) as points + rebounds (62). Even as a 12th pick, those are atrocious numbers. His WS/48 are more than 3.5 standard deviations below the average 12th pick, meaning that his WS/48 were only better than .02% (1 in 5,000) of all players picked 12th! According to Wikipedia, he couldn’t even find success in his stints in the European leagues. On the bright side, he earned nearly $5 million during his NBA career. Also, at 7 foot 3, he’s probably never had to ask a store associate for help reaching the top shelf . So don’t feel too bad for Radojevic.

2. Please allow me a personal aside. As John Stockton and Karl Malone neared the ends of their Hall of Fame careers in the summer of 2002, I decided to switch my loyalty from the Jazz to my hometown Nuggets. After acquiring a new fan, the Nuggets’ next order of business was to select Nikoloz Tskitishvili 5th overall in the 2002 draft. I was hoping that the 18-year old, 7 foot forward would become the next Dirk Nowitzki after he had a few years to develop. Needless to say, that didn’t work out. As a rookie, he only averaged 3.9 PPG with a 29% shooting percentage even though he started about a fifth of the Nuggets’ games that year. My younger brother and I quickly assigned him the clever nickname “Stink-ishvili.” A top 5 pick shouldn’t have negative win shares every year of his career. The Nuggets would have been better off if they had told the NBA “we’re actually not going to use our 5th pick this year.”

3. Bobby Hurley, the two-time All-American from Duke, could never translate his skills to the professional level. He contributed negative Win Shares in four of his five years in the NBA. He was one of the most disliked players in college, so I’m sure that many people were happy to see him struggle.

4. Terrence Williams is surely the only guy on this list who has recorded a triple-double in the NBA. Williams is no longer in the NBA, but just 5 weeks ago, he set the Los Angeles D-Fenders (D-league) single game scoring record. I wonder if Jack Nicholson was courtside.

5. Fran Vasquez had indicated a desire to play in the NBA, but after being drafted 11th by the Magic, Vasquez decided to keep playing basketball in Spain. If only Stinkishvili had taken the Fran Vasquez route.

6. Adam Morrison was another college star that didn’t pan out in the NBA. Fans who were hoping that tube socks and mustaches would be the next NBA fad are sorely disappointed.

7. Flynn was ok as a rookie, but he never really seemed to recover from a hip surgery that took place the summer after his rookie year.

8. This one hurts a little bit because Rafael Araujo is from BYU, my alma mater. As much as I’d like to think otherwise, Araujo was an unequivocal bust.

9. We don’t expect a lot from a 14th pick, but the 2.7 points per game that Avery averaged over his career is a disappointment.

10. Olowokandi is often listed as the biggest bust of the past several decades because such lists tend to focus on #1 overall picks. The Candy Man’s career was no doubt a disappointment, but his solid defense earned him a roster spot in the NBA for a decade (not to mention $37 million in career earnings. If that’s what it looks like to be the biggest bust of the past 25 years, count me in!). I hope that this post has convinced you that there have been many players who were more disappointing than Olowokandi.

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