2023 NBA Draft

Looking back at 7 legendary NBA Draft prospects

From Wilt Chamberlain to Patrick Ewing to LeBron James, here are some of the most anticipated prospects in NBA history.

LeBron James is introduced before a high school game with St. Vincent-St. Mary.

Enough already with the sliced bread. Judging from the highlights and the rave reviews already about this elongated young Frenchman, Victor Wembanyama is the best and biggest thing since innovations more along the lines of the incandescent bulb, indoor plumbing and the TV remote.

Wembayama, 19, is the 7-foot-4 center with a point guard handle and All-Star-caliber shooting skills playing out this season with Metropolitans 92 of the LNB Pro A. He’s been a FIBA sensation since he was 15 and has been on scouts’ radars for several years already. More than Anthony Davis, more than Zion Williamson to name just a couple, it is Wembanyama who widely is considered to be the best — and most hyped — prospect to hit the league since LeBron James in 2003.

Arguments over stuff like that are the fun part of sports — everybody’s right, nobody’s wrong — but one thing is certain: Other talented young players have been hyped as much or more than Wembanyama as they prepped for and arrived on the NBA scene.

Here in chronological order are some legendary NBA stars previously labeled generational or even millennial:

Wilt Chamberlain, 1959

Prior to his rookie season in 1959, Wilt Chamberlain sat down to discuss his expectations for his NBA career.

When Chamberlain was just a freshman at Kansas, ineligible still for the varsity and just 19 years old, a 1955 Sporting News article wrote of him: “The greatest basketball player in the game today, greater than Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit and Neil Johnston of the pros and Bill Russell and Robin Freeman of the collegians! Greater, perhaps, than any player who ever lived; so good, in fact, that the rules are certain to be rewritten to curb this fabulous performer.”

Chamberlain was that good, dripping potential from his 7-foot-1 height. They did rewrite a rule for him, further widening the lane in an attempt to limit his dominance. Sixty or more colleges had recruited him out of Philadelphia’s Overbrook High, and when he got tired of defensive tactics deployed against him while at Kansas, Chamberlain skipped his senior year to sign with the Harlem Globetrotters. Drafted by the Warriors a year later as a “territorial” pick, Chamberlain exploded onto the scene with the best rookie season ever: 37.6 ppg, 27.0 rpg, 46.4 mpg. No wonder the league finally named its Rookie of the Year trophy after him.

Chamberlain owned the NBA’s all-time scoring mark by the end of his seventh season, surpassing Hall of Famer Bob Pettit (20,880), and eventually topped Pettit’s total by more than 50%, his 31,419 setting the standard until the next hot prospect on this list broke it.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1969

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor, celebrates UCLA’s 1969 national championship with his father.

His name was Lew Alcindor when he was leading Power Memorial Academy to a 79-2 record and three New York Catholic championships. Same as it was when more than 60 colleges tried to out-woo UCLA for the 7-foot-2 center’s services and when he led the Bruins to three consecutive NCAA titles (though coach John Wooden always called him “Lewis.”)

There was no debate over his status as the consensus No. 1 pick for the 1969 NBA Draft. The only uncertainty was which team would land him. Per the rules at that time, the teams at the bottom of their respective conferences flipped a coin to determine who would pick first. The Phoenix Suns called heads, the coin came up tails and that particular chapter of NBA history veered down the Milwaukee Bucks’ path. The Suns wound up selecting Neal Walk, a journeyman center who lasted less than eight full seasons in the league. The Bucks got Abdul-Jabbar (he converted to Islam and changed his name in 1971), an NBA championship in only their third season and a second Finals trip with him in 1973-74.

If anything, the hype fell short of his career achievements. Abdul-Jabbar played until he was 41 years old. He won five more championships with the Lakers, became known as “The Captain” of their famous “Showtime” teams in the 1980s, and was named to 19 All-Star teams and 15 All-NBA berths. His signature sky hook became arguably the most lethal shot in league history, and his points total of 38,387 stood as the NBA record until yet another hot prospect on this list finally, this season, exceeded it.

Ralph Sampson, 1983

Ralph Sampson is defended by Patrick Ewing during a Virginia-Georgetown game in 1982.

Every year, college fans and NBA teams speculated as to whether Sampson, an improbable 7-foot-4 with extraordinary shooting skills, would leave the University of Virginia to begin his professional career. And every year, until he ran out of eligibility, Sampson would stay. The college/pro dynamic was different then. Sampson developed with Virginia, only whetting the appetites of NBA general managers further.

The Houston Rockets were smitten with Sampson’s can’t-miss potential. The Rockets already were challenged by the reluctant trade of Hall of Famer Moses Malone in September 1982, so the opportunity to land his replacement nine months later was intoxicating. The team plunged from 46 victories in 1981-82 to just 14 to own the West’s basement. Then the Indiana Pacers called heads and the silver dollar came up tails.

Sampson won the Rookie of the Year award and got his wish to play forward when Houston landed Hakeem Olajuwon as the No. 1 pick a year later. Over his first three seasons, Sampson averaged 20.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg and 2.0 bpg, and he was an All-Star four-straight seasons. “The Twin Towers” got Houston to the 1986 Finals, but injuries began to shred Sampson’s career. He played more than 48 games only once in his final six seasons and, over the last five, averaged 7.9 points and 5.8 rebounds in 21.3 minutes.

Patrick Ewing, 1985

Patrick Ewing during a game with Georgetown in 1984.

Talent procurement in the NBA pivoted the year Ewing came out of Georgetown. No more coin flips — Houston’s doggedness plus luck in landing the No. 1 overall pick in consecutive years to grab Sampson and Olajuwon led to the creation of the first Draft lottery. In 1984-85, the race to the bottom was on, with six teams losing 50 or more games that season.

The reason was obvious: Ewing. Remember, the old models still applied, so Ewing brought four years of college experience (during which he led Georgetown to three Final Fours and the 1984 national championship). Center still was the essential position, even more so with Abdul-Jabbar, Malone, Olajuwon, Sampson and Boston’s Kevin McHale, Larry Bird and Robert Parish among those ruling NBA frontcourts. And Ewing was a tenacious worker, sweat was his calling card, with a low-post game, a mid-range jumper and a defensive intensity to make life tough on the league’s giants. He already had earned more national acclaim in college than most NBA All-Stars achieve as pros.

Led by new commissioner David Stern, the Board of Governors pre-empted another coin flip by instituting the lottery. The inaugural version was as simple as it could get: the league’s seven worst teams in a hopper, each with a 14.3% chance of getting the top pick. Including the New York Knicks, the NBA’s biggest market and one of its neediest teams for talent and star power.

Shown on live TV, Stern reached into a big, transparent drum housing large blank envelopes that inside carried the logos of each of the seven teams. It wasn’t until the envelope was opened that the Knicks learned they had won the rights to Ewing’s services.

Ewing joined the Knicks, earned Rookie of the Year honors and the first of 11 All-Star selections. Neither he nor New York won a ring on his watch, but they did get to the NBA Finals in 1994 and to the postseason 13 times. Ewing finished his career as one of the best seven or eight centers of all-time and went into the Hall of Fame in 2008.

Shaquille O’Neal, 1992

Shaquille O’Neal during a game with LSU in 1992.

Unlike Wembanyama, O’Neal physically didn’t only have height (7-foot-1) when he hit the NBA — he had width, weighing close to 300 pounds after dominating individually at LSU. He had been a two-time SEC player of the year, two-time All-American and the NCAA’s player of the year. In his final season, he became only the third 7-footer to lead the NCAA in both blocks and rebounding (joining Artis Gilmore and Hakeem Olajuwon).

The 1992 talent pool was top-heavy and big, including O’Neal, Georgetown’s intense Alonzo Mourning and Duke’s accomplished Christian Laettner. Those three went in order, 1, 2, 3, with all touching All-Star status in the NBA and the first two making it to the Hall of Fame. O’Neal was on another plane, though, with a Rookie of the Year start (23.4 ppg, 13.9 rpg) for Orlando and 14 All-NBA selections in 19 seasons.

He got the Magic to their first Finals in 1995, won three rings with the Lakers from 2001-03 and added one more with Miami in 2006. He was honored as an NBA Top 50 selection in 1997 after playing only four full seasons and he loves being referred to (often by himself) as the “most dominant” player in NBA history.

All the accolades and comparisons O’Neal heard in the hype of his potential made him tap the brakes when asked about Wembanyama. “He’s not the future Shaq but he can definitely be the first Victor,” O’Neal said. “He’s a great player and he should want to make a name for himself, he should not want to be like anyone else.”

Yao Ming, 2002

The Rockets selected Yao Ming with the No. 1 pick in the 2002 NBA Draft.

Most of the players on this list generated their hype domestically. They grew up in the U.S., attended high school and college at American institutions and were sized up for their basketball futures in the NBA. Then there was Yao, as big globally as he was physically (7-foot-6, 310 pounds).

Before the native of Shanghai, China, played his first game for the Houston Rockets, he opened up the NBA to the world with the anticipation of his spot in the 2002 draft. He already had developed and dominated back home, flexing obvious potential in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. He averaged 32.4 ppg and 4.8 bpg as a pro in China in 2001-02.

Heading toward the Draft, scouts considered him quite polished, with good hands and a nice scoring touch. He was huge, of course, but viewed as a plodder who could have trouble as smaller, strong foes exploited his higher center of gravity. ESPN’s Draft Tracker summarized: “The buzz is too high on Yao for him to drop out of the top two.” Then again, NBA pundit Bill Simmons wrote: “Years from now, we will remember ‘Yao Ming over Jay Williams’ the same way we remember ‘Bowie over Jordan’, ‘Traylor for Nowitzki’, ‘Carroll for McHale and Parish’, ‘Aguirre over Thomas’ and every other great draft day blunder in NBA history. I’m not just predicting it, I’m guaranteeing it.”

Well, no. Yao’s undoing came not from limited talent or an inability to acclimate to NBA play. His career was less than it might have been due to foot and leg injuries. He barely lasted eight seasons, missing 175 games and the 2009-10 campaign entirely. China’s Yao mania got him onto All-Star teams, eight in all, but he also was named All-NBA five times. And he, too, made it all the way to Springfield with a 2016 Hall induction.

LeBron James, 2003

LeBron James dunks during a game with St. Vincent-St. Mary in 2002.

Leave it to James to be the only non-big man on this list of the most hyped NBA prospects ever. His claims to early fame and scrutiny came from his status as a prodigy (attracting unprecedented attention while still a student at St. Vincent-St. Mary High in Akron, Ohio) as well as his pro-ready physical build. A muscular 6-foot-8, James arrived better suited to the rigors of NBA play than most veterans on their way out.

Before his junior year in high school was over, James had been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. ESPN televised several of his high school games. He was dubbed “The Chosen One” and touted as the likely heir to Michael Jordan as the NBA’s next great player, landing a $90 million sneaker contract before he appeared in an NBA game.

“I can’t imagine how different my life would be with social media,” James said last fall. “I’m happy I didn’t have social media. I’m happy I was from a small town. … It just kept me in the bunker and kept me locked in with the task at hand.”

Living up to every expectation tossed his way, though, makes James a model for Wembanyama and all who have followed or will follow. Greg Oden, Derrick Rose, Davis, Ben Simmons and Williamson all got plenty of hype, though none approaching James’ or Wembanyama’s.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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