Be it an inexact science or a parlor game, nothing requires the benefit of time like evaluating a particular Draft and grading the true winners of the NBA’s biggest roll of the dice.
Everyone declares the process a success on Draft night. Teams swear they bagged the player they coveted and see nothing but a bright future ahead.
But we all know that’s just posturing.
No one knows for sure, not even when the players carry a “can’t-miss” label, if things will turn out as well as the projections suggest.
There are simply too many variables involved to know immediately. Is that transcendent, once-in-a-generation talent the genuine item? Does said player have the work ethic and drive to push himself to become his best?
Again, no one is sure right away. So time and distance from any given Draft, are necessary for proper evaluation.
With the 2022 Draft just days away, we look back at the annual selections from 2000-20 and identify the greatest players in each instance:
2020 – LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (No. 3 overall)
The case for Ball: Only a right wrist fracture that cost Ball 21 games slowed his roll toward Rookie of the Year honors. Then-Hornets coach James Borrego repeatedly called Ball “the engine” of Charlotte’s attack, and it showed as the team played faster, scored more fast-break points and packed an element of surprise thanks to his vision and passing that wasn’t there when he wasn’t on the floor. At 15.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 6.1 apg and 1.6 spg, Ball became only the 12th rookie to at least 15 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 1.5 steals.
Other contenders: Anthony Edwards (No. 1, Minnesota), Tyrese Haliburton (No. 12, Sacramento), Cole Anthony (No. 15, Orlando), Desmond Bane (No. 30, Boston).
2019 — Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies (No. 2 overall)
The case for Morant: A runaway Kia Rookie of the Year award winner, Morant led the Grizzlies in scoring (17.8) and assists (7.3) while playing beyond his years for a team that was far more competitive than most imagined they’d be in his first year. Pelicans phenom Zion Williamson is sure to challenge Morant for this spot in the future, but it’s Morant’s spot right now.
Other contenders: Zion Williamson (No. 1, New Orleans), Tyler Herro (No. 13, Miami), Brandon Clarke (No. 21, Memphis)
2018 — Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (No. 3 overall)
The case for Doncic: The Mavericks’ wunderkind followed up a sensational Kia Rookie of the Year season with a legitimate Kia MVP-caliber effort in his second season. His size, scoring ability and walking triple-double status has elevated him to the elite level in just 139 career games (regular season and playoffs).
Other contenders: Trae Young (No. 5, Atlanta), Jaren Jackson Jr. (No. 4, Memphis), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (No. 11, LA Clippers)
2017 — Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (No. 3 overall)
The case for Tatum: Danny Ainge had it right all along. Tatum was his man in a strange 2017 draft that didn’t provide a consensus top pick going into the process. Tatum’s an elite scorer and perimeter player whose size and versatility make him an impossible cover when he’s in rhythm. He’s also shown himself to be a prime-time player in the postseason, when the pressure ramps up to its highest level.
Other contenders: De’Aaron Fox (No. 5, Sacramento), Donovan Mitchell (No. 13, Utah), Bam Adebayo (No. 14, Miami)
2016 — Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (No. 1 overall)
The case for Simmons: For all of the bellyaching about his shooting deficiencies, Simmons remains one of the most unique physical specimens in the league. An All-NBA performer and a Kia Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Simmons has yet to unlock his full scoring talents.
Other contenders: Brandon Ingram (No. 2, LA Lakers), Jaylen Brown (No. 3, Boston) Jamal Murray (No. 7, Denver), Pascal Siakam (No. 27, Toronto)
2015 — Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns (No. 13 overall)
The case for Booker: Traditionalists will argue for a different former Kentucky star (Karl-Anthony Towns) for the top spot. But it’s hard to dismiss the all-around talent Booker has developed into thus far. Already an elite scorer, Booker’s polished his playmaking and defense and is honing his leadership skills under the tutelage of Suns coach Monty Williams.
Other contenders: Karl-Anthony Towns (No. 1, Minnesota), D’Angelo Russell (No. 2, LA Lakers), Kristaps Porzingis (No. 4, New York)
2014 — Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (No. 41 overall)
The case for Jokic: The Nuggets’ ability to identify and develop talent shines through in Jokic, who has transformed himself from an intriguing project into arguably the best big man in basketball. He’s an impossible cover for fellow centers because his point guard skill set and deft shooting stroke from all levels. His work in the Orlando bubble showed that he’s more than capable of elevating his game to that next level, as well. It’s rare for any organization to find its franchise player with the 41st pick in the Draft.
Other contenders: Joel Embiid (No. 3, Philadelphia), Zach LaVine (No. 13, Minnesota), Jusuf Nurkic (No. 16, Denver)
2013 — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (No. 15 overall)
The case for Antetokounmpo: The two-time and reigning Kia MVP and Kia Defensive Player of the Year had no real competition for the top spot. “The Greek Freak” is in a category of his own among his Draft class, which includes two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. The scariest part for the rest of the league is rooted in what Antetokounmpo can do in the future.
Other contenders: CJ McCollum (No. 10, Portland), Steven Adams (No. 12, Oklahoma City), Rudy Gobert (No. 27, Denver)
2012 — Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans (No. 1 overall)
The case for Davis: He has always been the most talented player in his class. But for so long he lacked the accomplishments to go along with it. Now that he’s got a championship (aided, of course, by his partnership with James), his assault truly begins. Davis has a chance to go down as one of the greatest power forwards the game has seen.
Other contenders: Bradley Beal (No 3, Washington), Damian Lillard (No.5, Portland), Draymond Green (No. 35, Golden State)
2011 — Kawhi Leonard, Indiana Pacers (No. 15 overall)
The case for Leonard: A two-time champion and two-time Finals MVP, Leonard also owns two Kia Defensive Player of the Year trophies as well. Sure, his takeover of the league with the LA Clippers hit a roadblock in the Orlando bubble. But the fact is Leonard has exceeded even the loftiest of expectations anyone had for him when he began his career as a defensive stopper and role player in San Antonio alongside Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Other contenders: Kyrie Irving (No. 1, Cleveland), Klay Thompson (No. 11, Golden State), Jimmy Butler (No. 30, Chicago)
2010 — Paul George, Indiana Pacers (No. 10 overall)
The case for George: A budding star before a catastrophic lower leg injury while playing for the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team in August of 2014, George returned even better after that injury to become one of the league’s elite two-way players. A consistent All-Star, All-NBA All-Defensive team performer, George has done it with different franchises (Indiana, Oklahoma City and now, the Clippers). He’s surged to the head of his class in the past four seasons.
Other contenders: John Wall (No.1, Washington), DeMarcus Cousins (No. 5, Sacramento), Gordon Hayward (No. 9, Utah)
2009 — Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (No. 7 overall)
The case for Curry: The two-time Kia MVP and newly minted Finals MVP and four-time NBA champion is already widely regarded as the best shooter the league has seen and one half of the best shooting backcourt (along with fellow “Splash Brother” Klay Thompson) in the history of the game. All the pundits who didn’t think he could play point guard at the NBA level didn’t realize that he’d redefine the position and change the game with his ability to stretch the floor in ways no shooter before him could.
Other contenders: Blake Griffin (No. 1, LA Clippers), James Harden, (No. 3 Oklahoma City), Jrue Holiday (No. 19, Philadelphia)
2008 — Russell Westbrook, Seattle SuperSonics (No. 4 overall)
The case for Westbrook: As controversial a pick as there is on this list, it’s hard to argue when you examine Westbrook’s career accomplishments and impact. His trophy case is overflowing — Kia MVP in 2017, nine-time All-Star, two-time All-Star Game MVP, two-time gold medalist (2010 World Championship and 2013 Olympics) and two-time scoring champ and two-time assist leader. And don’t forget about him averaging a triple-double for three straight seasons.
Other contenders: Derrick Rose (No. 1 overall), Kevin Love (No. 5, Minnesota), Serge Ibaka (No. 24, Seattle)
2007 — Kevin Durant, Seattle SuperSonics (No. 2 overall)
The case for Durant: One of the game’s greatest scorers, Durant is a two-time champion and two-time Finals MVP working on leading his third team, the Brooklyn Nets, to the Finals (having already done so in Oklahoma City and Golden State). The 2014 Kia MVP owns four scoring titles, two Olympic gold medals (2012 and 2016) and a World Championship gold (2010). Durant outplayed James in the Finals in back-to-back years, solidifying his status as one of his generation’s truly transcendent talents.
Other contenders: Al Horford (No. 3, Atlanta), Mike Conley (No.4, Memphis), Joakim Noah (No. 9, Chicago), Marc Gasol (No. 48, LA Lakers)
2006 — Kyle Lowry, Memphis Grizzlies (No. 24 overall)
The case for Lowry: Three or four years into his career, Lowry wouldn’t have made this list. So give credit to the late-bloomer, if you will. It took Lowry a while to find his niche, stints in Memphis and Houston didn’t yield the sort of results that would suggest he’d become a franchise icon in Toronto. But Lowry’s career picked up north of the border, where he’s earned six All-Star bids, won a championship (2019) Olympic gold (2016) and cemented his legacy as one of the most tenacious players of his era.
Other contenders: LaMarcus Aldridge (No. 2, Portland), Brandon Roy (No. 6, Portland), Rajon Rondo (No. 21)
2005 — Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets (No. 4 overall)
The case for Paul: A sure-fire Hall of Famer and one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Paul has earned every bit of his reputation as the feistiest and most competitive players of his or any generation. A 12-time All-Star and 11-time All-NBA pick, Paul has also been on the All-Defensive Team nine times. He won All-Star Game MVP honors in 2013, led the league in steals six times and in assists five times. Toss in gold medals in the Olympics in 2008 and 2012, and Paul’s legacy is already secure.
Other contenders: Deron Williams (No. 3, Utah), Danny Granger (No. 17, Indiana), David Lee (No. 30, New York)
2004 — Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic (No. 1 overall)
The case for Howard: He spent the first half of his career battling for the title of the best big man in basketball. And if you only use his accomplishments from his rookie season through the 2013-14 season, he’d still be the easy choice for the best player in his Draft class. His eight All-Star nods, eight All-NBA selections, three Kia Defensive Player of the Year awards, five All-Defensive Team selections, five rebounding titles and 2008 Olympic gold medal locked him into Hall of Fame status. The championship he won with the Lakers in 2020 is just icing on the cake.
Other contenders: Luol Deng (No. 7, Chicago), Andre Iguodala (No. 9, Philadelphia), Tony Allen (No. 25, Boston)
2003 — LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers (No. 1 overall)
The case for James: A four-time champion, four-time Finals MVP and four-time Kia MVP, LeBron has always been ahead of the pack in his Draft class. In fact, he’s been on chase for something much bigger throughout his 19 seasons in the league. His challenge for the greatest player of all time (yeah, it’s the dreaded G.O.A.T. debate) has never been stronger than it is now, in the aftermath of his fourth title run with the Lakers. LeBron is the undisputed greatest player of the past 20 Drafts and firmly entrenched in the conversation with Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the greatest to ever do it.
Other contenders: Carmelo Anthony (No. 3, Denver), Chris Bosh (No.4, Toronto), Dwyane Wade (No. 5, Miami)
2002 — Yao Ming, Houston Rockets (No. 1 overall)
The case for Yao: Yao gets the nod here in perhaps the tightest race for the top spot in any of the past 20 drafts. He was a true game-changer who expanded the league’s global reach in ways that only a transcendent big man could have at that time, including posing the only true physical challenge to Shaq. Yao gets the slight edge on Amar’e Stoudemire, whose ability to elevate over anyone around the rim during his healthy prime allowed him to challenge the likes of Duncan in the playoffs.
Other contenders: Amar’e Stoudemire (No. 9, Phoenix), Caron Butler (No. 10, Miami), Tayshaun Prince (No. 23, Detroit)
2001 — Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs (No. 28 overall)
The case for Parker: Parker’s Finals MVP (2007) and four championships with the Spurs make it tough to rank anyone ahead of him, even with another multiple-time champion and fellow international star like Pau Gasol in the mix. Parker was a mainstay for a Spurs dynasty and easily one of the most underrated players in the league throughout his tenure in San Antonio. A six-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA pick, Parker’s No. 9 is already retired in San Antonio and his Hall of Fame credentials are secured.
Other contenders: Pau Gasol (No. 3, Memphis), Joe Johnson (No. 10, Boston), Zach Randolph (No. 19, Portland), Gilbert Arenas (No. 31, Golden State)
2000 — Kenyon Martin, New Jersey Nets (No. 1 overall)
The case for Martin: Mike Miller won Rookie of the Year in 2000 and Jamal Crawford has lasted longer than anyone else in that turn of the century class, but Martin was the best all around player. A stalwart on New Jersey Nets teams that made back-to-back Finals appearances, Martin was also the defensive backbone on a Denver team that fell to the Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers in the 2009 Western Conference finals. An All-Star in 2004, Martin averaged 12.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks in his 15 NBA seasons with the Nets, Nuggets, Clippers, Knicks and Bucks.
Other contenders: Jamal Crawford (No. 8, Chicago), Mike Miller (No. 5, Orlando), Hedo Turkoglu (No. 16, Sacramento)