Sam Smith's List of the NBA's Top Value Picks of All Time
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So who’s the greatest draft pick ever?
No, I’m not talking Michael, Magic, Kareem or even Wilt. Those were easy to make—though maybe not in Portland’s case regarding Jordan.
In truth, Cleveland didn’t make a great pick when they took LeBron James No. 1 in 2003 and the same goes for Orlando when they snagged Shaq No. 1 in 1992. If you follow basketball, and I assume you do since you’re reading this story, I’m sure both of us would’ve taken every one of those guys when our turn came to pick.
This, of course, is very subjective, but for me the greatest Draft picks are the ones no one saw coming—savvy selections that took moxie to make.
Nobody with any credibility could claim you didn’t have a good Draft if you were able to pick Jordan, Magic, Kareem or Wilt. What I’m talking about is Utah getting Karl Malone at No. 13.
Malone’s a guy who is going to the Hall of Fame this summer whom a dozen teams decided wasn’t worth the effort. Some might believe the Jazz just got lucky, but their getting Malone proves they knew how to scout. The best part of the NBA Draft is seeing if some team can unearth a future star that’s fallen through the cracks. The one guy few, if any, thought would ever be good.
Basically, for this exercise I’ve eliminated almost all high first-round and/or lottery picks. However, in previous eras you have to remember there were fewer teams in the league, so I had to include a couple, though with one exception, all second-round guys, meaning every team ignored them at least once.
It’s hardly a scientific examination, but what list is?
Here’s who I think are the best Draft picks of all time.
1. Kobe Bryant, No. 13 in 1996
Before he retires, Kobe Bryant will be considered one of the 10 greatest players ever. When he first arrived, it was the early days of the NBA’s “preps-to-pros” era. Not wanting to play for a bad team, Bryant and his representatives were able to scare off the Nets, who almost took him at No. 8. But after Charlotte selected him at 13, he forced a trade by threatening to not ever to sign with the Hornets. That’s when Lakers boss, Jerry West, rode to the rescue, offering Charlotte veteran center Vlade Divac in return for the precocious high schooler.
After 12 All-Star games and now five NBA Championships, Kobe’s still the King of LA, whereas Divac fled Charlotte after two years, jumping to Sacramento as a free agent in 1999. He then retired in 2004, ironically as a teammate of Bryant’s on the Lakers.
2. Larry Bird, No. 6 in 1978
I know, this is a bit high for my firmly established my parameters, but come on! Five teams passed on one of the top five players ever because he was going back to college. Back in 1978, league rules allowed teams to pick players whose high school class graduated four years earlier, even if those players were still in college. Bird briefly attended Indiana as a freshman but didn’t play for Bobby Knight. Instead he transferred to Indiana State, and thus, after sitting out a year due to NCAA rules, had an extra season of eligibility. Red Auerbach recognized what few others did, and jumped at the chance to grab Bird for the Celtics a year early.
3. Karl Malone, No. 13 in 1985
The 1985 NBA Draft is the all-time favorite for conspiracy enthusiasts. Remember the frozen envelope? How the lottery supposedly was rigged so New York could get the first pick and take Patrick Ewing? Well, besides Ewing, it just so happens that there were a lot of great players swimming in the pool that year (Chris Mullin, Joe Dumars, Bill Wennington … what?) including Karl Malone, whom the Bulls passed on order to take Keith Lee at No. 11 and immediately traded to Cleveland for No. 9 pick, Charles Oakley. Malone ended up as the best player in that Draft. In fact, he proved all doubters wrong by being the best power forward the NBA has ever seen.
4. Dennis Johnson, No. 29 in 1976
The Seattle Supersonics used its late 1976 second-round pick on a guard out of Pepperdine, Dennis Johnson. Affectionately known as DJ, Johnson went on to become one of the league’s top defenders and clutch playoff players. Larry Bird always says he was the best teammate he ever played with and the best pressure player the league has ever seen. Johnson was a Finals MVP and All Star for three different franchises and is posthumously going into the Hall of Fame later this summer.
5. Willis Reed, No. 10 in 1964
“The Captain,” otherwise known as Willis Reed, was New York’s second- round pick in 1964 after the Knicks, who owned the No. 1 overall selection that year, took Jim “Bad News” Barnes first. Barnes’s stay in Gotham was brief, as he ended up being a journeyman, even playing with the Bulls over parts of two seasons (1967-68 and ’68-69). But Reed was something special, as he eventually made it to the Hall of Fame. As a rookie, he played alongside another Hall of Famer, Walt Bellamy, as part of the original double center big man setup. Reed later became the Knicks’ top pivot after Bellamy was traded to Detroit for another future Hall of Famer, Dave DeBusschere.
6. John Stockton, No. 16 in 1984
Many regard the 1984 Draft as the greatest, with Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and John Stockton, four Hall of Famers chosen in the top 16. Stockton, of course, was the greatest assist man of all time, leading the league in dimes for nine straight seasons. But those other guys were all picked in the top five. Landing Stockton with the 16th overall selection and adding Karl Malone a year later at No. 13 goes to show you just how great the Jazz scouting department was back then. Of course the same could’ve been said of the Bulls had Chicago taken Malone with its pick (No. 11 in ‘85) to go along with Jordan (No. 3 in ’84). Oh well!
7. Alex English, No. 23 in 1976
In what has to be the greatest second round ever, Hall of Famer Alex English landed in Milwaukee as the 23rd overall pick, five spots ahead of another future Hall of Famer, Dennis Johnson. Both the Bucks and Indiana Pacers gave up on English fairly quickly. But his career took off after Indiana dealt him to Denver for George McGinnis in 1980. English went on to lead the league in scoring in 1982-83 (28.4 ppg) and averaged at least 25 points for eight straight seasons while with the Nuggets.
8. Joe Dumars, No. 18 in 1985
One of the top combo guards of his era, Joe Dumars was a consistent all-around player throughout a 14-year career. At first “Joe D” was thought to be a sixth man, at best. However he ended up being a six-time All Star, whom Michael Jordan often credited as the toughest defender he ever played against. He was a key starter on two Pistons title teams and was named the MVP of the 1989 NBA Finals. He was welcomed into the Hall of Fame in 2006. Not too bad for a kid out of McNeese State (LA).
9. Nate “Tiny” Archibald, No. 19 in 1970
Hall of Famer Nate “Tiny” Archibald was the second pick in the second-round in 1970, right after Calvin Murphy, who could have also made this list as he’s in the Hall of Fame, too. But Tiny was really something extraordinary. He was a wayward New York City kid who started in community college and ended up at the University of Texas at El Paso. He burst onto the NBA scene in a major way his third year, and is the only player ever to lead the league in both scoring and assists in the same season (34 points and 11.4 assists in 1972-73). At the end of his career, he battled through a couple of serious knee injuries and became the starting point guard on the 1981 World Champion Boston Celtics.
10. Dennis Rodman, No. 27 in 1986
Dennis Rodman came just two picks after another Draft day steal, Mark Price. Rodman was more of a role player over his career, coming off the bench for the Pistons during Detroit’s title runs of 1989 and 1990. But, in total, he was a five-time NBA Champion, including winning three with the Bulls in the late 1990s. He led the league in rebounding for seven consecutive seasons.
My first choice is Chet “the Jet” Walker, No. 14 in 1962. Back then, No. 14 was the middle of the second-round. Syracuse had taken Len Chappell with its first-round pick, but was able to grab Chet with its second. The old Chicago Zephyrs had the No. 1 overall pick that year, and they took Bill “the Hill” McGill.
Walker went on to play alongside Wilt Chamberlain on what many consider the greatest NBA team ever, the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers. His trade to the Bulls in 1969 for my favorite named Chicago player, Shaler Halimon, turned the Bulls into one of the league’s top teams in the early 1970’s. In total, Chet made seven All-Star teams, and he retired after the 1974-75 season at the age of 34, even though he averaged 19.2 points that year.
Among others who deserve mentioning is Hall of Famer Jack Twyman, who was a second-round pick in 1955. Twyman once averaged more than 30 points a night (31.2 ppg in 1959-60). Mark Price (No. 25) should also be on this list as a 1986 second-rounder. Chicago native Maurice Cheeks (No. 38) also makes the cut, as he was buried deep into the second-round back in 1978. And don’t forget a couple of other quality Chicago kids, Westinghouse’s Eddie Johnson (No. 29), a second-rounder in 1981, and LaGrange’s Jeff Hornacek, taken 46th overall by Phoenix in 1986.
And finally, in today’s NBA, there are some terrific second-round players, such as Carlos Boozer (No. 34 in ’02), Gilbert Arenas (No. 30 in ’01), Michael Redd (No. 43 in ’00), Paul Millsap (No. 47 in ’06), Mo Williams (No. 47 in ’03), Marc Gasol (No. 48 in ’07), Carl Landry (No. 31 in ’07), Rashard Lewis (No. 32 in ’98), Monta Ellis (No. 40 in ’05), Manu Ginobili (No. 57 IN ’99) and two low first-round picks, Tony Parker (No. 28 in ’01) and Gerald Wallace (No. 25 in ’01), who deserve a nod.