History's 5 best at the 1st pick

Sam counts down to the draft lottery and looks back at the best to ever play at the 1st pick
Magic Johnson #32 of the Los Angeles Lakers battles for a rebound against Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls in the 1991 NBA Finals played at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later


Winning the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft usually means excitement, and often a star. It's supposed to be this year with the widespread consensus that it will be Duke's Zion Williamson. Success never is fully guaranteed, though anticipation can be. There have been years when there wasn't as much excitement, like when No. 1 overall picks were Pervis Ellison, Kent Benson, Joe Smith, Kwame Brown, Andrea Bargnani, Anthony Bennett and Markelle Fultz. Here's a look at the best No. 1 overall picks, all of whom turned franchises into title contenders if not champions.


Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers, 1979. Considered by many the greatest point guard in NBA history and one of the game's great winners. The Lakers were awarded the draft pick from an old rule of compensation for free agent signings. Johnson went on to bring the Lakers a title as a rookie in subbing for star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and scoring 42 points in the deciding game. He is a Hall of Famer and five-time champion, three-time league MVP who was 10 times all-NBA. He was four-time assists leader and two-time steals leader and a three-time Finals MVP even playing with Kareem.

Magic Johnson #32 of the Los Angeles Lakers posts up against Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls during the 1990 NBA Finals played at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California.


LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2003. He may someday pass Johnson, but wasn't the leader and pressure performer as quickly as Johnson. Though many regard James already as one of the top five players in NBA history. He's just come off a remarkable run of playing in eight consecutive NBA Finals with three titles. He's regarded as the game's best player in the post-Jordan generation. He's been a league MVP four times, 15 times an All-Star and five times all-defense first team. He's led the league in scoring and was Finals MVP in his three wins.

LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers dunks the ball during the game against the Sacramento Kings on March 24, 2019 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California.


Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs, 1997. The quiet, fundamentally sound assassin was all-NBA 15 times and all-defensive team 15 times. He led the Spurs to five titles and was league MVP twice with an understated manner and game that made him arguably the best power forward in NBA history.

Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs goes to the basket against Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat during Game One of the 2014 NBA Finals at the AT&T Center on June 5, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas.


Shaquille O'Neal, Orlando Magic, 1992. Perhaps he gets to No. 3, though the tie gets broken for best ever at his position. Though it's always difficult to deny Shaq a four-time champion and three-time Finals MVP who was just one time league MVP because he'd often use the regular season as a warmup for the playoffs. When hardly anyone ever was better. He was all-NBA 14 times and all-defense three times, twice a league scoring champion. Perhaps most remarkable was many believed if he played as seriously as players like Johnson he may have been the best ever.

Shaquille O'Neal #32 of the Orlando Magic grabs a rebound against Hakeem Olajuwon #34 of the Houston Rockets in Game Four of the 1995 NBA Finals played June 14, 1995 at the Summit in Houston, Texas. The Rockets won 113-101.


Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets, 1984. The Hall of Famer was one of the most athletic and clever big man with unusually remarkable footwork and shooting abilities. He was a league MVP and led a generally undermanned Rockets team to a pair of NBA titles. He was twice Defensive Player of the Year, 12 times all-NBA and nine times an all-defensive team player. He led the NBA in rebounding twice and blocks three times.

Hakeem Olajuwon #34 of the Houston Rockets posts up against Anthony Mason #14 of the New York Knicks during Game One of the NBA Finals played on June 8, 1994 at The Summit in Houston, Texas.

The No. 1 pick in the early years of the NBA produced players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (nee Lew Alcindor), Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor and Elvin Hayes. In recent seasons, teams have been building with the likes of DeAndre Ayton, Ben Simmons and Karl-Anthony Towns. The Bulls did in 2008 until Derrick Rose was injured. Other exceptional No. 1 overall picks have included David Robinson, Anthony Davis, Allen Iverson, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Glenn Robinson, Kyrie Irving, Ralph Sampson, James Worthy, Mark Aguirre, Elton Brand and Yao Ming. There were so called territorial picks into the 1960s when teams in a geographical area were allowed to select a so called home player to boost attendance. They were technically not numbered picks and included Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry Lucas, Bill Bradley, Guy Rodgers, Tom Heinsohn and Dave DeBusschere.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.


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