Who is the most important player ever to be drafted No. 1? Is it Kareem? Magic? Hakeem, Shaq or A.I.? How about at No. 2? Dave Bing? Earl Monroe or Isiah Thomas? What about No. 13 (Karl Malone or Kobe Bryant)? Or 30 (Gilbert Arenas)?
Since the NBA moved away from the territorial draft beginning in 1966, there have been a lot of hits (Tiny Archibald, John Stockton, Dirk Nowitzki) and misses (Kent Benson, Steve Stipanovich, Harold Miner) with first-round selections.
In the last 40 years, the league has grown from a mom-and-pop operation to a global entity and the draft has reflected that enormous growth. In 1966, there were only 10 picks in the first round, today we have 30. In ranking the best first-round selections of all time, the first pick of the second round in 1966 would be equivalent to 11th overall today.
So without furher ado, here are the top NBA Draft picks of all time, one through 30.
1. Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers, 1996
Relax. I know, the guy in the cubicle next to you knows and even your grandmother is aware of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s accomplishments (six titles, six MVPs) ….And of course there are fellow No. 1’s Magic, Hakeem, Shaq and Duncan who merit ridiculous consideration --but what gives A.I. the edge here is the fact that he wasn’t a no brainer No. 1 pick ..Days leading up to the draft there was growing sentiment that may be Stephon Marbury was the best all-around point guard in the draft and some even had Marcus Camby out of UMass as the deserved No. 1 ….Eleven years later, I’m not sure how many people thought that the shortest No. 1 overall pick in NBA history would win an NBA MVP, four NBA scoring titles tying Ice Man Gervin while trailing MJ’s 10 and Wilt’s 7 and carry a team to the Finals (2001) … The Sixers could have gone in a few different directions but showed courage by taking what many considered was a way undersized shooting guard at No. 1, a move that reaped huge dividends for a decade plus ….
Draft Fact: 173 All-Star Selections, 7 Hall of Famers for the No. 1 overall pick
2. Isiah Thomas, Detroit Pistons, 1981
A no brainer as the top No. 2 pick? Not when you consider the other No. 2’s ---Dave Bing (’66) Earl Monroe, (’67), Wes Unseld (’68) and Bob McAdoo, (’72) …. Yet at 6-1, no one was physically or mentally tougher than Isiah who was also one of the quickest players in NBA history …in an era of multi talented big men (see Magic, Bird) a 6-1 point guard led the Pistons to three Finals appearances and two titles and retired as one of only four players in NBA history to record 9,000 assists ….
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 77; HOF = 5
3. Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls, 1984
Greatest player ever? Hard to argue ….where was his weakness?? ….six time NBA champion, six time MVP (and should have been more – Karl Malone in ’97?) ….only scoring champion to ever win NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors … (I love Kobe but until he does that, then bring on the comparisons, please) …Jordan would win hands down even if this pick was loaded with Hall of Famers but it isn’t (only Pete Maravich, Kevin McHale and Dominique).…Shockingly, this spot is loaded with Huh? Picks – Richard Washington, Benoit Benjamin, Chris Washburn, Dennis Hopson, DeRon Williams and not surprisingly very good players ---Marques Johnson, Buck Williams (’82 Rookie of the Year, 16,784 points, 13,017 rebounds), Sean Elliott, Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony ...
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 69; HOF = 3 (Note: Will be 4 with MJ)
4. Dave Cowens, Boston Celtics, 1970
Closest call of the early going here but Cowens gets the nod over Dikembe Mutombo and it’s not only because he is the ONLY Hall of Famer in this group….Listed at a generous 6-9, Cowens was considered too short to play center especially in the era of Kareem, Wilt and Nate Thurmond. Yet Cowen’s perimeter skills more than made up for what he gave up in the paint, forcing big men to come to him ….He and John Havlicek led the new era Celtics to two titles in three years …
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 39; HOF = 1
5. Charles Barkley, Philadelphia 76ers, 1984
Check out this starting five of No. 5’s --- Guards – Clyde Frazier, Dwyane Wade, forwards – Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen and throw KG in the middle ....Off the bench, how about a little Vinsanity?….Barkley gets the nod and it’s not solely because he is the only regular season MVP winner but at 6-6, he dominated players a half foot taller than him and he is one of only four players in NBA history to have compiled 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists joining Kareem, Wilt, Karl Malone ….
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 74; HOF = 2
6. Larry Bird, Boston Celtics, 1978
Another Red stroke of genius ….Auerbach used the Celtics’ No. 6 pick in the 1978 Draft on the Indiana State forward who was eligible for the draft. Instead, Bird opted to play his senior season but proved to be worth the wait even though the C’s suffered their worst losing season in 30 years as a result….Bird led the Celtics to three titles and five Finals appearances in ’80s, became only the third player in NBA history to win three NBA MVP awards in a row joining Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain …Bird is the lone Hall of Famer from this group ..the other notable No. 6 is Adrian Dantley, who should be in the Hall of Fame …
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 27; HOF = 1
7. Bernard King, New York Knicks, 1977
The first selection not to have any Hall of Famers represented, which is flat out wrong considering there are two worthy candidates in Bernard King and Chris Mullin ….Who’s the best at No. 7? It’s a close call between these two but the nod goes to BK primarily because he produced some of the most amazing playoff moments in NBA history (see Show at the Joe: Isiah vs. BK in ’84 playoffs) …Also, Bernard scored more points (19,655) than Mullie (17,911) in 112 less games …..Other notable No. 7’s include Kevin Johnson, Richard Hamilton, Luol Deng and a 6-4 guard out of the University of Kentucky, Pat Riley (’67, San Diego Rockets) ….
Draft Fact: All-Stars Selections = 20; HOF = 0
8. Robert Parish, Golden State Warriors, 1976
Robert Parish by default and that’s no knock on The Chief (and the lone HOFer in this group) but who else will give the Shreveport, La., native a run for the No. 8 honor? Ron Harper (maybe if he didn’t get hurt early in his career)? Jack Sikma? Yes, an all-time great All-Star center but not nearly as accomplished as Parish ..Detlef Schrempf? Great role player (two time NBA Sixth Man of the Year winner) but notice the word “role” ….This spot has certainly produced its share of underwhelmers ----Tom Riker, Freeman Williams, Olden Polynice, Bo Kimble, Mark Macon, Shawn Respert … you get the idea ..There is hope: Rudy Guy showed promise in his rookie season so you never know ….
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 33; HOF = 1
9. Dirk Nowitzki, Milwaukee Bucks, 1998
The only NBA MVP (and the greatest European player ever?) in this group easily earns the honor for greatest No. 9 selection all time although the last 10 years has seen its share of All-Stars – Tracy McGrady (’97), Shawn Marion (’99) and Amare Stoudemire (’02) ….Notables at this spot include Celtic great Jo Jo White, Reggie Theus (’78), Rolando Blackman (’81), Dale Ellis (’83), Charles Oakley (’85) while also boasting its share of do-overs ---Larry Demic, Ed O’Bannon, Rodney White, Michael Sweetney …
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 35; HOF = 0
10. Paul Westphal, Boston Celtics, 1972
This comes down to the simple question: who’s a better player: Paul Westphal or Paul Pierce? I’m going with Westphal for now and may change my mind based on what Pierce does the remainder of his career …Westphal was a better shooter from the field (50 vs. 44) and (barely) from the line (82 vs. .79) although not as prolific as a scorer (12,809 vs. 15,375 and counting) as Pierce but Westphal was a member of nine playoff teams and did the “Sunderella Suns” to the 1976 Finals, so that’s counts for something and there you have the difference ….Other notables (and there aren’t too many) include Jeff Malone, Horace Grant, Joe Johnson, Caron Butler
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 19; HOF = 0
11. Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers, 1987
Robert Horry may have seven rings but everyone is taking a backseat to Reggie Miller and his 25,279 career points (14th all time) …Miller Time in Indy lasted for 18 seasons (still hard to believe Pacer fans booed this selection when the team didn’t nab Hoosier favorite Steve Alford) …Notables out of this spot include Jamaal Wilkes, Fat Lever, Derek Harper and was the pick of future GMs in Ernie Grunfeld and Kiki Vandeweghe ……Kevin Willis was selected in 1984 and he’s still playing ….this is also the spot where Fran Vazquez was taken in 2005. Haven’t seen him? Neither have the Magic …
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 20; HOF = 0
12. Kelly Tripucka, Detroit Pistons, 1981
Let me offer my condolences in advance to the Philadelphia 76ers (and NBA.com colleague Maurice Brooks) ….No one wants this pick. Trust me -- Craig Raymond (‘67), Terry Furlow (’76), Alec Kessler (’90), Harold Miner (’92), Cherokee Parks (’95), Alek Radojevic (’99) ….Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and Julius Erving on the same team? That was the intent when the Bucks selected Erving in ’72 only to watch him jump to the Atlanta Hawks instead, a move that was negated courtesy of a court order forcing his return to the ABA’s Virginia Squires … Kelly Tripucka and his 12,142 points reigns as the most important pick ….Notables include Brian Winters (’74), Cedric Maxwell (’77) and Jim Paxson (’79) …
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 18; HOF = 1* (Erving)
13. Karl Malone, Utah Jazz, 1985
The greatest power forward of all time and the greatest No. 13 selection of all time ….No doubt, we will revisit this list in a few years based on what Kobe does, who by the way remains the greatest player in NBA history to never have won an NBA MVP ….Malone, the No. 2 scorer of all time, has only his former teammate to worry about in possibly dethroning him because it certainly isn’t going to be Bob Bigelow (’75), Dudley Bradley (’79), Danny Schayes (’81), Joe Wolf (’87), Terry Dehere (’93) or Keon Clark (’98) ….Notables include (and it’s not many), Sleepy Floyd (’82) and Corey Maggette (’99)
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections =24; HOF =0 (note: Mailman and Kobe are locks)
14. Clyde Drexler, Portland Trail Blazers, 1983
You must be pretty good when the Blazers pass on the golden opportunity to draft Michael Jordan …Drexler, one of the best passers in NBA history from the big guard position, glided to 22,195 points and was one of only three players in league history to top 20,000 points, 6,000 rebounds and 3,000 assists …Who are other strong candidates at the 14 spot – Maurice Lucas (’74 drafted by the Bulls but played in the ABA before joining Portland), Tim Hardaway (’89), Dan Majerle (’88), Peja Stojakovic (’96) and Michael Cage (’84) …
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 25; HOF = 1
15. Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns, 1996
Did anyone ever think that when the Suns drafted little known Stevie Nash that he would later win back-to-back NBA MVPs and finish runner-up for a third? Had he won No. 3, he would have joined Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird, who by the way finished runner-up in the MVP race twice following his three consecutive wins …Clearly the Class of No. 15, no one selected in this spot is even worthy of being mentioned with this future Hall of Famer
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 7; HOF = 0 (note: Nash is a lock)
16. John Stockton, Utah Jazz, 1984
Similar to Nash (or is it the other way around?), no one could have predicted that John Stockton out of tiny Gonzaga would become the NBA’s all-time assists and steals king … Two future Hall of Famers chosen at point with the No. 15 and 16 picks (listen up Detroit and Washington) …..Who else was selected in this spot that has made some noise in the NBA? Ron Artest (’99) and that’s about it ….
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 15; HOF = 0 (note: John Stockton is a no brainer)
17. Shawn Kemp, Seattle SuperSonics, 1989
Shawn Kemp, Jermaine O’Neal, Josh Smith …notice a pattern, here? This spot has a penchant for being home to high school players ….While O’Neal’s career is far from over, the nod is going to the Reign Man, who played a key role in leading the Sonics to the Finals, was a six-time All-Star (five with Sonics, one with Cavs) and threw down the most thunderous dunks this side of Dominique Wilkins ….Not to be overlooked is Larry Drew (’80) and a forward out of North Dakota named Phil Jackson (’67)
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 16; HOF = 0
18. Joe Dumars, Detroit Pistons, 1985
Was it any coincidence that after the Pistons drafted Joe D. out of McNeese State that they would go on to make three Finals appearances in the next six years? Dumars was one of the key cogs in the Pistons machine that went on to win back-to-back titles while the Shreveport, La., native won Finals MVP honors in '89 ...A leader by example, Dumars was a standout defender who took the lead in defending Michael Jordan in Detroit's vaulted Jordan Rules....According to MJ, no one gave him more fits on the defensive end than Joe D ....the ultimate sportsman, the NBA named its sportsmanship award after Dumars ... Mark Action Jackson won NBA Rookie of the Year honors in 1989-90 and retired as the No. 2 all-time leader in assists behind John Stockton. That’s right, he’s ahead of Magic, Oscar and Isiah …Not bad for the 18th overall pick …This pick is definintely representin’ with Calvin Murphy (’70) joining Dumars as the only Hall of Famers in this group and let's not forget about Ricky Pierce (’82) and his 14,467 points …
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 10; HOF = 2
19. Tiny Archibald, Cincinnati Royals, 1970
Who was the GM that made this gem of a pick? And give him a healthy raise for this all time steal. The GM was Joe Axelson of the Cincinnati Royals who nabbed Tiny. In only his third season, Archibald became the only player in NBA history to win a scoring and assists title in the same season (no one has done it since) and later played a key role on the Celtics ’81 title team. In 1996, Archibald was selected as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History ….Quality picks at this spot include Bill Melchionni ('66), who played in only two NBA seasons before helping the Nets win ABA titles in the '70s, John Paxson (’83), Rod Strickland (’88) and Zach Randolph (’02)
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 8; HOF = 1
20. Gus Williams, Golden State Warriors, 1975
Arguably, one of the most underrated guards of all time …Had only the Warriors added one more year to their contract offer (three instead of two) then the Wizard would have stayed in the Bay Area, instead he signed with the Sonics after dazzling Northern Californians in his first two seasons …the playmaker extraordinaire led the Sonics 1978-79 championship run, averaging 19.2 points per game ….A two-time All-Star, Williams was ahead of his time when it came to playmaking skills at the point ….Also, joining the Underrated parade includes Larry Nance (’81) and Paul Pressey (’82) ….Although he only played 150 games in the NBA and 50 in the ABA and starred in Italy, it’s worth noting Suns head coach Mike D’Antoni is a No. 20 alum (’73).
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 5; HOF = 0
21. Michael Finley, Phoenix Suns, 1995
Slim pickings at this spot …..Rex Morgan (’70), Dallas Comegys (’87), Dickey Simpkins, Joseph Forte (’01) are merely some of the players who prove that…but the nod goes to Michael Finley, a two-time All-Star and now NBA champ followed by Boris Diaw, who hopefully will bounce back after a somewhat subpar season …Other notables include Jayson Williams (’90) and Ricky Davis (’97)
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 6; HOF = 0
22. Norm Nixon, Los Angeles Lakers, 1977
Another close call – Norm Nixon or Reggie Lewis? Difficult and not really fair to compare considering Nixon played 10 seasons (12,065 points and 6,386 assists), while Lewis only six (7,902 points) before his unexpected death …..Nixon, a two-time All-Star, played a key role on the Lakers ’80 championship team before taking his game cross town three seasons later to the Clippers ….Other notables include George McGinnis, drafted by the Sixers in ’73 even though he was playing for the ABA’s Indiana Pacers. McGinnis would eventually join the Sixers two seasons later …Scott Skiles, the single game assist king was taken by the Bucks in ‘86
Draft Fact: All-Star selections = 6; HOF = 0
23. Alex English, Milwaukee Bucks, 1976
Did you even know that English played with the Bucks and the Pacers before joining the Nuggets? And that no other player scored more points in the ' 80s (not Bird, Magic or Julius) than English’s 19,682? English ranks 11th all time in scoring with 25,613, 7,658 points more than runner up World B. Free, who was selected in ’75 …Other notables include the NBA’s iron man, A.C. Green (’85), Tayshaun Prince (’03) and Brian Taylor, a key player on the Nets’ ABA title teams
Draft Fact: All-Star selections = 10; HOF = 1
24. Arvydas Sabonis, Portland Trail Blazers, 1986
Terry Porter and Arvydas Sabonis, not bad for No. 24 overall picks by the Blazers in back-to-back years (’85 and ’86) ….Porter spent 17 seasons in the NBA, including 10 with the Blazers in which he played a key role on two Portland Finals appearances ….Although drafted by Portland in 1986, Sabonis continued to play in Europe, finally joining the Blazers in ’95 at the age of 31 …Sabonis averaged 14.5 in his first season in the NBA and although he wasn’t considered in his prime when he arrived in the U.S., he still flashed enough all-around skill to show why he was one of the greatest European players ever ….Other notables: Rick Fox (’91), Latrell Sprewell (’92), Sam Cassell (’93) and Andre Kirilenko (’99)
Draft Fact: All-Star selections = 10; HOF = 0
25. Mark Price, Dallas Mavericks, 1986
One of the most consistent shooters to ever play the game, Mark Price is the NBA’s all-time leader in free throw percentage (90.4) …..Price played nine seasons in Cleveland, earning his place as the greatest point guard in franchise history …..A four time NBA All-Star and two-time All-Star long distance shootout winner, Price became only one of three players (Larry Bird, Reggie Miller) to shoot at least 40 percent from three-point range, at least 50 percent from the field and at least 90 percent from the free throw line when it accomplished this in '88-89 (Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki have done it since)….Other notables include Jeff Ruland (’80), John Drew (’74) and Bobby Gross (’75)
Draft Fact: All-Star Selections = 11; HOF = 0
26. Vlade Divac, Los Angeles Lakers, 1989
Vlade who? That was the immediate reaction by most U.S.fans who had never heard of the Yugoslavia center when the Lakers made the pick. Credit Lakers’ GM Jerry West with yet another draft day steal of a player who would enjoy a 16-year NBA career with the Lakers, Hornets and Kings. Divac scored close to 14,000 points in his NBA career, was a key member of the ’91 Lakers Finals team and served as an ambassador for other European players making the transition to the NBA. The other player who merits recognition is Kevin Martin (’04), who was edged out by Monta Ellis for Most Improved Player honors in ’06-07.
Draft Fact: All-Star selections = 1; HOF =0
27. Dennis Rodman, Detroit Pistons, 1986
Seven rebounding titles, two NBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards and five NBA championships is quite an impressive résumé, especially for a No. 27 pick. This little known player out of Southeastern Oklahoma State made a name for himself on the Detroit Pistons Bad Boys teams of the ’80s and achieved rock star celebrity status with the Bulls in the ’90s ……Rodman’s 11,954 rebounds is 5,838 better than Elden Campbell, also selected No. 26 (’90).
Draft Fact: All-Star selections = 3; HOF = 0
28. Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs, 2001
Think the Jazz aren’t kicking themselves for passing on Parker since they needed a point guard and selected the wrong one (Raul Lopez) four spots earlier? In fairness, more than 20 teams goofed in overlooking Parker in '01…Several months after being selected at age 19, Parker found himself as the Spurs starting point guard and by the age of 25 already has three NBA titles and one Finals MVP trophy to his credit…Two years later, the Spurs struck paydirt once again with No. 28 by drafting Leandro Barbosa, but ended up dealing him on draft day to the Suns for a future first round pick for the purpose of clearing cap room in the team’s pursuit of Jason Kidd, who was a free agent that summer ….Think the Spurs aren't kicking themselves now when they see the Brazilian Blur in Phoenix?
Draft Fact: All-Star selections = 5; HOF = 0
29. Toni Kukoc, Chicago Bulls 1990
Though it would be three years after the Bulls drafted Toni Kukoc that he would make his debut, his impact on the team grew each year and resulted in playing a key role on the team’s championship three-peat of the late ’90s, including earning the NBA’s Sixth Man Award honors in the team’s record breaking 72-10 season in 1995-96 ….Other notables at No. 29 include John Long (’78), Eddie Johnson (’81), P.J. Brown (’92) and Josh Howard (’03) who earned his first All-Star appearance in ’06-07.
Draft Fact: All-Star appearances = 10; HOF = 0
30. Gilbert Arenas, Golden State Warriors, 2001
In this day and age of advanced scouting and information overload, players still manage to fall through the cracks. See Gilbert Arenas, who played at a big-time college program at the University of Arizona, making his omission even more shocking …This three-time All-Star blossomed into one of the league’s premier scorers and entertainers in D.C. after playing his first two seasons with the Warriors …. The No. 30 spot is a great place to acquire good team players, which we have seen in the Cavaliers selection of Anderson Varejao (’04) and the Knicks in David Lee (’05) …And how about Spencer Haywood who was selected with this pick by the Buffalo Braves in ’71 even though he already played a season with the Seattle SuperSonics …By the way, Spencer’s rookie season in the ABA in ’69-70 was ridiculous -- 30 ppg and 19.5 boards …
Draft Fact: All-Star selections = 7; HOF = 0