The 2023 NBA Draft is shaping up to be one of the rare instances in which there are multiple prizes.
In fact, experts are saying that this draft class may even have four or five players that could help transform a franchise. However, there is an absolute consensus that Victor Wenbanyama and Scoot Henderson should go first and second in the draft, respectively.
While Wenbanyama appears to be a generational talent and is the most hyped prospect since LeBron James, Henderson would be the top pick in almost any other year, so whatever team ends up in the second spot will have a hell of a consolation prize.
Still, that team should be wary. Rarely do the top two picks end up being the two best players in that class.
In fact, it has not happened more than five times since 1960. Five times in sixty years.
That year, two of the best players in league history, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, went first and second. Looking at the top two picks since then, an argument could be made that the number two pick is cursed.
The curse began the year immediately after the Big O and the Logo.
In 1961, the Chicago Packers did their part, choosing future Hall of Famer Walt Bellamy with the first pick. Unfortunately, as would happen so many times over the next half-century, the New York Knicks did not make the right move, choosing Tom Stith second overall. Bellamy was the only all-time great taken that year, but there were three All-Stars that were chosen after Stith (Tom Meschery; Don Kojis; and Bill Bridges).
Conversely, there were five future Hall of Famers in the 1962 draft. Were the first two selections part of the five? Sort of. Back then, “a team could forfeit its first-round draft pick, then select any player from within a 50-mile radius of its home arena as their territorial pick.” Both the Detroit Pistons and Cincinnati Royals took advantage of this rule and selected Dave DeBusschere and Jerry Lucas, respectively, both of whom are enshrined in Springfield, Massachusetts.
So do they count? It doesn’t matter, because the best player in the draft, and one of the best players in NBA history, John Havlicek, was taken seventh by the Boston Celtics. Havlicek won eight rings, was a Finals MVP, and 13-time All-Star, but was the ninth player claimed that year, so 1962 is out. (For the record, neither of the official top two picks, Bill McGill and Paul Hogue ever made an All-Star team.)
The streak was almost broken in 1966. All-time great Dave Bing went #2, but the fourth pick, super famous Lou Hudson was a six-time All-Star and even made an All-NBA Second Team as opposed to top choice Cazzie Russell, who only made a single All-Star team, but benefited from being on a championship team in New York.
The script flipped the following year as the Baltimore Bullets nailed the second pick, choosing Earl Monroe (a/k/a Jesus of North Philadelphia). His rival and future backcourtmate, Walt Fraizer, was also drafted in ’67, but he went fifth to the Knicks. Unfortunately, this was the rare year where the second pick hit bigger than the first. The top choice that year was Jimmy Walker, a very good player that made two All-Star teams, but whose career did not match Monroe’s or Frazier’s. This draft is full of intrigue as it featured two players that would become legendary coaches that did not get along (Pat Riley at #7 and Phil Jackson at #17) and Walker may be best known as the absentee father to Jalen Rose.
Following two years of the best players going after number one, it was undeniable that the two best players were the top two selections in 1968. Elvin Hayes was a twelve-time All-Star who still sits 11th all-time in scoring in NBA history. Meanwhile, Wes Unseld made five All-Star teams and won the league MVP in his second season. He finished his career with more rebounds than Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Dikembe Mutombo, Dennis Rodman, and Patrick Ewing. Hayes was traded to the Washington Bullets in 1972, where he teamed up with Unseld and the two led the Bullets to three Finals appearances and a championship in 1978. How often have the top two picks in the same draft played together?
In hindsight, it’s clear that the ‘60s were the best decade for second picks.
The following decade started strong. The 1970 NBA Draft was stacked, with six of the first 19 players ultimately making the Hall of Fame. The top pick, Bob Lanier, made eight All-Star teams and is a fine number one selection. Rudy Tomjanovich went second and while he’s also in the Hall, that’s more owing to his coaching record, as his career was never the same following the punch he suffered from Kermit Washington. Pete Maravich was selected third, and while he was revolutionary, he also did not have the same career as the man drafted fourth. Dave Cowens won two championships, was the league MVP in 1973, and was selected as an All-Star eight times. Calvin Murphy and Nate Archibald were also chosen, both of whom turned out to also have better careers than Tomjanovich.
Sadly, that’s as good as it would get for the rest of the decade. The ‘70s were a disaster in terms of the draft, particularly the number two pick. In 1973, the top pick was Doug Collins and the second pick was Jim Brewer (not the guy from SNL). That year’s lone Hall of Fame rep was George McGinnis, who was drafted 22nd.
In 1976, the top choice was John Lucas and the next pick was Scott May. After them came all-time greats like Adrian Dantley (sixth); Robert Parish (eighth); Alex English (23rd); and Dennis Johnson (29th).
The decade ended with another misfire with the second pick. In 1979, Earvin “Magic” Johnson was the consensus top choice and the L.A. Lakers snatched him up. With the next pick, the Chicago Bulls selected David Greenwood. He played 12 years in the NBA, but he never made an All-Star team and was selected ahead of Bill Cartwright, Sidney Moncrief, and Jim Paxson. Bill Laimbeer, who was taken with the 65th pick, that year, made four All-Star teams and also managed to get everyone in the NBA to hate him.
In 1981, the best player was taken second overall. Isiah Thomas was incredible and had an amazing career, one that I think is now underrated. The top choice that year was Mark Aguirre. Aguirre won two championships with Thomas and the Pistons and made three All-Star teams. I was ready to include 1981 in the rare years of the top two picks being the top two players, but I realized that Aguirre never made an All-NBA team while two other players drafted that year did – Buck Williams and Tom Chambers. Both made 2nd Team All-NBA (Chambers did it twice). Mark Aquirre was a great scorer, but couldn’t do much else. If you were re-drafting in 1981 and Isiah was off the board, would you take Aguiree over Williams, Chambers, Rolando Blackman, Larry Nance, or Danny Ainge? I don’t think so.
1981 does not make the cut.
Of course, no mention of number two picks in the NBA Draft would be complete without Sam Bowie. Had the Portland Trailblazers not have been so enamored with Bowie’s size (or so committed to the shooting guard they drafted the year before by name of Clyde Drexler), they could have taken Michael Jordan with the second pick and made 1984 one of the exceptions in this example – and built an immediate superteam in the process. They could have taken Charles Barkley (who went fifth) or John Stockon (16th).
This occurrence of the players taken third, fourth, or fifth outperforming the second pick would repeat itself famously at least once in each of the next three decades.
The 1986 draft may be one of the most unique – or at least unorthodox. The teams picking first and second both acquired their pick via trade, including the team that steamrolled through the league to the title – the Celtics – getting to choose second. While three selections from ’86 would eventually make the Hall of Fame, none of them were chosen in the top 20.
The enduring legacy of that draft is drugs, most especially the overdose death of Len Bias. The explosive Bias, a player that some said was “a little bit ahead of Jordan,” was tabbed as the leader of Boston’s future going into the back-half of the decade, died two days after the draft, but several other top choices would also be severely affected by drug use, including Chris Washburn (3rd), William Bedford (6th), and Roy Tarpley (7th).
While overall number one Brad Daugherty had a fine career – he was a five-time All-Star – he did not have the impact of Dennis Rodman, who was chosen 27th, or international stars Arvydas Sabonis (24th) and Dražen Petrović (60th).
While ‘86 is known for the impact drugs had, 1989 may own the distinction for featuring the worst top two picks ever. In 1986, Louisville freshman Pervis Ellison scored 25 points in the National Championship game, defeating Duke, who had their own freshman named Danny Ferry (who had four points in that game). Three years later, Ellison and Ferry went one and two in the draft to the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Clippers. Neither ever made an All-Star team (although Ellison did win the Most Improved Player Award in 1992), while numerous players taken later that year had a much greater impact, including Hall of Famers Tim Hardaway (14th), Vlade Divac (26th), and Dino Rađa (40th), as well as Sean Elliott (third), Glen Rice (fourth), and Shawn Kemp (17th).
Not since 1968 had the two best players gone one and two in the draft.
So did it finally happen in 1990? I would argue yes.
The greatest player drafted in ’90 was the second choice. Gary Payton was a nine-time All-Star and nine-time All-NBA selection [two First Teams; five Second Teams; two Third Teams]. “The Glove” was also named to a record-tying nine-time All-Defensive First Teams, culminating with the Defensive Player of the Year in 1996. He also holds Seattle SuperSonics franchise record in points, assists, and steals.
So what about the top choice? The New Jersey Nets took super talented and super frustrating Derrick Coleman out of Syracuse. Likely the most naturally gifted power forward the NBA had ever seen up to that point, Coleman became known more for his numerous arrests and never reaching his potential than for revolutionizing the league. Sports Illustrated did not miss a chance to criticize him, one profile even proclaiming, “Coleman could have been the best power forward ever; instead he played just well enough to ensure his next paycheck.”
Despite all that, an argument could be made that Coleman still turned out to be the second best player taken in the ’90 Draft. He was a one-time All-Star and two-time NBA Third Team member, finishing with career averages of 16.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.3 blocks per game.
The only other possibility as the second-best player from that draft did not play an NBA game until 1993. With the second pick in the second round (29th overall), the Chicago Bulls selected Croatian Toni Kukoč. Considered the best player in the world outside the U.S. for several years, Kukoč was been dubbed the “Magic Johnson of Europe.” Bulls GM Jerry Krause was enamored with Kukoč and believed he would surpass Scottie Pippen and even Michael Jordan as the best player on the team.
That never happened, but he did play alongside Jordan and Pippen, winning three championships and being awarded the Sixth Man of the Year in 1996. Although he was a wonderful passer and a very versatile player, NBA Kukoč never came close to the level of Euro Kukoč, ending a fifteen-year NBA career with averages of 11.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists. Yes, Kukoč is in the Hall of Fame, but that’s due to his international play. Neither became what they were expected to become, but I would posit that Derrick Coleman had the better NBA career.
While it is arguable that the top two picks became the two best players in 1990, but it is undeniable that was the case in 1992. Finally, after twenty-four years, the indisputable two best players from a draft class were the first two selected.
1992 was the quintessential example of how this is supposed to work (and the exception that proves the rule). The two players from the draft to be inducted into the Hall of Fame went first and second. Any semi-knowledgeable fan could look at the list of players chosen and pick out the two that had the best career.
The first absolute no-brainer in at least a decade (he jokingly mouthed “Who, me?” when his name was announced as the first pick by the Orlando Magic), Shaquille O’Neal was a dominant force, who won four championships, three Finals MVPs, a league MVP, and was a fifteen-time All-Star and eight-time All-NBA First Team selection. He is in the discussion of greatest centers ever, and he would have accomplished even more if he were obsessive about the game.
In nearly any other year, Alonzo Mourning would have been the top pick, but he went second behind Shaq. A seven-time All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, he made one All-NBA First Team (over Shaq) and one Second Team. He was consistently one of the best centers in the league and the two had a heated rivalry until they teamed up and won a title together with the Miami Heat in 2006.
While both Christian Laettner (drafted third) and Tom Gugliotta (sixth) each made an All-Star team, the third-best player in the draft, and the only one aside from Shaq and ‘Zo to make an All-NBA team was Latrell Sprewell. Taken with the 24th selection, Spree was a four-time All-Star and was named to the All-NBA First Team in 1994. For a time, Spree was great, but he’s still a notch below Mourning (who is a notch below O’Neal).
After getting it arguably right in ‘90 and absolutely right in ‘92, were teams turning things around and actually nailing the second choice?
Not hardly. Not if the Philadelphia 76ers had anything to say about it.
Sitting with the second choice, the Sixers could have any player they wanted. Chris Webber, the top choice by Orlando, was flipped to Golden State for the third pick, Anfernee Hardaway, and three future first-round picks. They surely could have swung a similar deal. Or, they could’ve stayed put, allowed the Magic and Warriors to make their trade, and taken Kentucky stud Jamal Mashburn, who went fourth, or Vin Baker, who went eighth. Allan Houston (11th) or Sam Cassell (24th) or even Nick Van Exel (37th) would have been a successful choice.
Instead, Philly opted for a 7-foot-6, thin-framed Mormon who had spent the previous two years in Australia as a full-time missionary for the Church of Latter-day Saints. It was not a good choice. While Shawn Bradley played for 12 years and amassed 2,119 blocked shots (17th all-time), he did not have the physique or the skillset worthy of the second pick. Seven players from the 1993 NBA Draft made at least one All-Star team and five made at least one All-NBA Team. Bradley made neither.
The streak continued in 1994, though barely. Like in ’90, the best player taken went second when the Dallas Mavericks selected Jason Kidd. It was the third pick, not the first, that yielded the other Hall of Famer, as Grant Hill went to Detroit at #3. Kidd is one of the greatest point guards in history – ten-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA First Team – and Hill, although injuries curtailed his career, still made seven All-Star teams, an All-NBA First Team, and four Second Teams.
So what about the first pick? Glenn Robinson was taken first by Milwaukee and while he had a fine career and made two All-Star teams, he did not have the success or impact of Kidd or Hill. He didn’t even make an All-NBA team, while two players taken after him – Juwan Howard (5th) and Eddie Jones (10th) – did.
Over the next three years, veteran college players would be taken either first or second over raw, high school prospects, and in each case the high schoolers blew away the experienced players and became all-timers.
In 1995, Joe Smith went first and Kevin Garnett was picked fifth. In 1996, Marcus Camby was taken second (behind Allen Iverson) while Kobe Bryant was selected 13th. In 1997, following Tim Duncan, Keith Van Horn was the second pick in the draft. Seven picks later, at number nine, the Toronto Raptors chose Tracy McGrady.
If the drafts from ’95 through ’97 are marked by high schoolers going too late, 1998 and 1999 can each each be remembered for all-time international greats going too low. In ’98, Dirk Nowitzki went ninth (and Paul Pierce tenth), as opposed to the top three of Michael Olowokandi, Mike Bibby, and Raef LaFrentz, none of whom made a single All-Star or All-NBA team.
In ’99, the top three was better with Elton Brand, Steve Francis, and Baron Davis – all of whom had decent to strong careers – but that draft’s best player was selected with the second-to-last pick (57th) when San Antonio took Manu Ginóbili.
While the ’90s started out strong in terms of the top two picks, it fizzled out by the end as year after year players that should have gone at the top of the draft had to wait behind older players that, for the most part, could not handle the NBA game.
The new decade did not begin any better.
The best player from the 2000 draft was drafted 43rd (Michael Redd). In 2001, it was Pau Gasol, who went third. The best player in ’02, Yao Ming, did go first, but ninth choice Amar’e Stoudemire had a better career than anyone else, including number two pick Jay Williams, who never played after his rookie season after a motorcycle accident.
Like in 1984 and 1993, the 2003 NBA Draft featured a strong top of the class that was derailed by the second choice. Darko Miličić joined Sam Bowie and Shawn Bradley as number two picks with careers that paled in comparison to several of those chosen behind them.
After Bowie came Jordan, Sam Perkins, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton. The choice of Bradley was followed by Anfernee Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn, Vin Baker, and Sam Cassell. Miličić went second behind LeBron James, but ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade.
It appeared that 2007 would be one of those cases like 1960 and 1992 where the top two picks turned out to have the two best careers, but Portland’s bad injury luck with big men struck again that year. Much like how 2023 is shaping up, ’07 was a season-long conversation about the top two players coming into the draft. However, unlike Wenbanyama and Scoot, there was not a clear-cut favorite from the start.
Greg Oden was a dominant inside player at Ohio State, leading them to the championship game, while Kevin Durant was a dominant scorer for Texas. There were some that thought Durant should be the top choice, but most pundits believed Oden’s size was the differentiating factor. (No attribute has come close to ruining as many drafts as the maxim, “You can’t teach size.”) So Oden became the first pick and while he clearly had the talent and skill to be great, maybe even transcendent, his body betrayed him and he battled injuries for the entirety of his shortened career. Meanwhile, Durant went on to become one of the greatest players in history, with a league MVP, two rings, two Finals MVPs, and twelve All-Star appearances.
While Durant bucked the second pick trend for a year, it returned with a vengeance over the next five years. In every year from 2008 through 2012, the first pick became an All-NBA player while the second pick did virtually nothing in the NBA.
- 2008: Derrick Rose/Michael Beasley
- 2009: Blake Griffin/Hasheem Thabeet
- 2010: John Wall/Evan Turner
- 2011: Kyrie Irving/Derrick Williams
- 2012: Anthony Davis/Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
In several of those years, a future Hall of Famer went later than those whiffs on number two – Russell Westbrook was picked 4th in ’08; in 2009, James Harden went 3rd and Stephen Curry went 7th; Damian Lillard went 6th in 2012.
The next two years saw the drafting of three all-time international players, only one of them in the top three. In 2013, Anthony Bennett, the worst top choice in history, went fourteen spots before Giannis Antetokounmpo. The following year, Joel Embiid went third and Nikola Jokić went 41st.
The drafts since then are still so recent that their final outcome has not been fully determined, but we can project out a bit.
The book on 2016 has yet to be completed. The #1 pick, Ben Simmons, made three All-Star teams, an All-NBA Third Team, and All-Defensive Team twice, but he’s also had mental health problems and sat out a season.
The only other player to make an All-NBA team thus far is Pascal Siakam, who was drafted with the 27th pick, and made All-NBA Second Team in 2020, All-NBA Third Team in 2022, and was awarded the Most Improved Player in 2019. He was also an All-Star in 2020.
Four other players from that class have also been named to at least one All-Star team – Brandon Ingram (2nd); Jaylen Brown (3rd); Domantas Sabonis (11th); Dejounte Murray (29th). This draft also boasts the rare occurrence of having two players win Rookie of the Year in two different seasons. Since Simmons sat out his entire first season, Malcolm Brogdon won the award in 2017 and Simmons won it a year later, even though he had been drafted the year prior (which irked Donovan Mitchell).
As of this moment, the player with the best career is Siakam, but Simmons, Ingram, and maybe even Brown, can change that before their careers are over. 2016 is still to be determined.
It’s not too early for the following two years. In both 2017 and 2018, the best player went third – Jayson Tatum in ’17 and Luka Dončić in ’18.
How about 2019? Zion Williamson went first and Ja Morant was picked second. They both made an All-Star team, as did fifth pick Darius Garland, but Morant is the only one to make an All-NBA team thus far. It’s fairly obvious that if Zion can stay healthy, he’ll be one of the two best players from this draft. That’s a monster if, but let’s give Ja and Zion the benefit of the doubt. If they turn out to be the best from their class, it will have been the first time in twenty-seven years – way back to Shaq and ‘Zo in 1992 – that it’s happened.
It’s too early for the rest. From the 2020 NBA Draft, LaMelo Ball (#3) is the only one that has made an All-Star team but Anthony Edwards appears to be the real deal, and who knows what James Wiseman will become. 2021 was loaded. Scotty Barnes, the fourth pick, won Rookie of the Year, but the top three of Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, and Evan Mobley could all be studs, not to mention the eighth pick, Franz Wagner. The Class of 2022 hasn’t even played a real game yet.
So, in sixty years, there have been five times when the top two picks in the NBA Draft turned out to have the two best NBA careers:
- 1960: Oscar Robertson and Jerry West
- 1968: Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld
- 1990: Derrick Coleman and Gary Payton
- 1992: Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning
- 2019 (projected): Zion Williamson and Ja Morant
Perhaps 2023 will be another exception and both Victor Wenbanyama and Scoot Henderson will become worthy of all the hype and attention (and tanking).
If six decades of NBA history is any indication, however, at least one of them will not.
Christopher Pierznik is an NBA savant and the worst-selling author of nine books. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Connect on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.