The Best Player From Every NBA Draft Since 1976
Drafting is a fickle business. There are so many swings and misses, and looking back over the years, there are a lot of names that go unnoticed. But with NBA careers averaging just 4.8 years, it’s no surprise that GMs whiff on picks all the time. But as we noticed in the article, not even sure thing number one picks end up being the best player. It may be pick 15, or pick 60.
Notice the trends early on in this article. The Celtics and Lakers both nail many of the best players without getting the number one pick. Through masterful trades, or risky picks–or, in the case of Magic Johnson, having the number one pick–Boston and LA built their dynasties through shrewd drafting and trading decisions. Very little Free Agent moves built those franchises.
Unfortunately, the Golden State Warriors in the late 80s and 90s got the best player numerous times. But for whatever reason traded away, or couldn’t hold onto these players, creating years of losing. That only changed when they drafted players like Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Steph Curry, and kept them.
Nearly every NBA Draft class will have some great talents, or even Hall of Famers. But there are exceptions such as the 2000 draft class with no particular standout. Today, we look at the best player from every NBA draft since the ABA merger in 1976.
Buyer beware when drafting.
41. 1976: ROBERT PARISH
Honorary mentions go to both Denver Nugget’s great Alex English, and Jazz scoring legend Adrian Dantley. With English lead the league in points per game on year, and averaged 25.9 ppg with the Nuggets; while Dantley won the scoring title twice with the Jazz (30.7 ppg in 80-81, and 30.6 in 83-84); neither player won as much as Parish, who has gone down as one of the 10 best centers of all time.
Picked Number Eight overall, Parish came from Centenary College of Louisiana and was drafted by the Golden State Warriors, just two seasons after the Warriors won a championship. By his third season, Parish started the trend of scoring in the high teens, and rebounding around 10 per game. Before the 1980 draft, Celtics Legend Red Auerbach orchestrated a trade: the trade included Boston’s pick (number one overall, Joe Barry Carroll) and the 13th pick (Rickey Brown) for the 3rd pick (Kevin McHale) and Robert Parish. That year the Celtics won the championship, starting a decade of dominance, along with the Los Angeles Lakers, that brought basketball back into the height of popularity.
40. 1977: WALTER DAVIS
Walter Davis, and Bernard King—picked five and seven respectively—are the only two in the whole draft to crack into 19000 career points. While an honorable mention goes to Cedric Maxwell, who was a key role player with the Celtics, winning two championships with them in the 80s, both Davis and King had much better career numbers.
Bernard King had the best single regular season in 84-85 with the New York Knicks, winning the scoring title with 32.9 ppg. King also has a higher ppg average over his career with 22.5. However, Davis stayed with Phoenix over 11 seasons, and had more playoff success—10 seasons in the playoffs vs. King’s 5. Davis also played a couple seasons more than King, giving Davis the best player of the draft for his longevity and playoff success.
39. 1978: LARRY BIRD
However, Bird was drafted sixth in the 78 draft. The reason? Teams knew he’d defer to the next season so he could finish college. GMs didn’t want to “waste” their pick on a player who wouldn’t join them for a whole year. You know who didn’t care? Red Auerbach. Auerbach selected Bird, and Bird didn’t play until the 79-80 season. What did Larry Bird do upon joining the Celtics? Average 21.3 ppg, 10.4 TRB, and 4.5 AST. He won Rookie of the Year, though that was a well contested race (more on that later).
Bird had a great career, but it was sadly hindered by a back injury in the late 80s. The injury was so painful on Bird that he admitted that if Len Bias had lived, he would have retired then and there.
38. 1979: MAGIC JOHNSON
1979, one of the rare occasions when the number one pick was the best pick in the draft. While Larry Bird should’ve been a no brainer, Magic Johnson was a no-brainer. Having beat Larry Bird’s Indiana State in the original March Madness, Johnson strolled into the NBA draft knowing he was going number one. Revolutionizing the point guard position, and challenging perception that point guards were short (Magic was somewhere between 6’7” and 6’9”), Johnson was the catalyst for the Los Angeles Lakers 80s dynasty.
Johnson’s rookie season he scored 18.0/7.7/7.3). He lost to Bird for rookie of the year. Johnson found out about Bird winning just before playing game 6 of the NBA Finals. NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had dominated the series, was injured and the Lakers were expected to lose before heading home to LA for game 7. Instead, Magic played all by one minute with these stats: 42 points, 15 rebounds, and seven assists, going perfect from the free throw line. He played all five positions in one of the greatest finals performances ever.
That was just his first season. Magic went on to win five NBA Championships, was a 12-time All Star, and a three time MVP. Pretty good player from the ’79 draft.
37. 1980: KEVIN MCHALE
As discussed, the Celtics traded their rights to the number one pick in a draft that got them the number three pick. Even while trading down the Celtics got the better player. Though Joe Barry Carroll, from Purdue University, didn’t have a bad career. He was the Rookie of the Year, beating out Kevin McHale. He scored 18.9 ppg along with 9.3 rebounds his rookie season. By his third season he was averaging above 20 ppg, but he left to play in Italy during the 84-85 season, and then his stats plummeted after being traded from Golden State to Houston.
McHale, instead, was the definition of success and dependability. Averaging 17.9 ppg and 7.3 rebounds at the Power Forward position over his career (all seasons with Boston), McHale was slotted between starting forward and sixth man. He was a seven-time All Star, three-time champion, and a two-time sixth man of the year award.
36. 1981: ISIAH THOMAS
With honorable mentions to four-time All Star—including an All Star MVP—Tom Chambers, and one-time All Star and two-time NBA Champion (and incredible GM) Danny Ainge, the ’81 draft came down to the top two picks.
Drafted with the first pick in the draft, Mark Aguirre was selected by the Dallas Mavericks. He was a three-time All Star (scoring above 25 points those three seasons). He averaged 24.6 ppg with Dallas before being traded to Detroit, where he won two championships and was second fiddle to our top player.
Isiah Thomas was the second pick in the draft. From Indiana University, Thomas probably should have gone first. As a twelve-time All Star, a five-time All-NBA, Finals MVP in 89-90, and a two-time champion, Thomas had a decorated NBA career. Never able to conquer Magic or Bird at their peak, Thomas’s two NBA Championships came at the perfect time. Bird and Magic were in decline, and Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin hadn’t reached full potential yet.
Don’t be deceived, Thomas was still a legend without those two titles. A scoring and assist machine, Thomas led the league in assists in 84-85 with 13.9, and scored in the high teens often. Thomas was the catalyst for Detroit’s two titles, which is why we (as in the committee of one) put him a peg higher than Aguirre.
35. 1982: DOMINIQUE WILKINS
Another two-horse race, the ’82 draft proved to be much more exciting than the ’77 draft. The number one pick that year was none other than James Worthy, three-time champion and seven-time All Star with the Los Angeles Lakers.
See the trend? Celtics and Lakers getting a lot of best players since ’76. No wonder they had dynasties.
But while James Worthy had a great career, he was Robin to Magic’s Batman, and couldn’t supply the scoring demand the Lakers needed when Magic left the team in the early ‘90s. Instead, the best player is Dominique Wilkins, one of the all-time best scorers in NBA history. While Worthy contributed in an irreplaceable way to the Lakers, the Atlanta Hawks were relevant because of Wilkins.
Wilkins averaged 26.4 ppg with Atlanta, and 24.8 for his career. He won the scoring title in 85-86 with 30.3 ppg, and scored over 25 ppg 10 times in his illustrious playing days. He’s 15th currently on the all-time scoring list with 26668 points.
34. 1983: CLYDE DREXLER
The 1983 draft was mainly a dud. Ralph Sampson, who was drafted by Houston with the number one overall pick, looked promising at the beginning. Sampson won Rookie of the Year, averaging 21.0 ppg, and 11.1 rebounds. But after a surge in his second season, his stats dipped and he was traded to Golden State, where he averaged 9.3 ppg.
Player turned coach and three-time champ Byron Scott was drafted at number four. Long term vet and one time 27.5 ppg player, Dale Ellis was picked at number nine by the Mavericks. But then there was Hall of Fame player Clyde Drexler at number 14. Coming from the University of Houston (where Drexler also went to high school), Drexler was picked by the Portland Trailblazers.
With Portland, Drexler averaged 20.8 ppg. He eventually left Portland to join the reigning champions, the Houston Rockets. They repeated and Drexler won his one and only NBA Championship with his hometown team. Drexler was a 10-time All Star and five-time All-NBA player.
33. 1984: MICHAEL JORDAN
But along with the all-time greats in Stockton, Barkley and Olajuwon, there were bad picks two. In one of the biggest head scratches of drafting history, the Portland Trailblazers chose Sam Bowie from the University of Kentucky, ahead of University of North Carolina standout, Michael Jordan.
Jordon, the Charlotte Hornets owner, and first NBA player to NBA owner ever, is widely regarded as the Greatest of All Time, in basketball. Jordan had an eclectic career, playing 13 seasons with the Bulls—missing one and a half to go and play baseball—and two with the Washington Wizards, where he was also the GM.
Jordan’s rookie season he averaged 28.5 ppg, 6.5 trb, and 5.9 assists. He won the scoring title 10 times, averaged 30.1 ppg for his career—an all-time record, and was a five-time MVP. Jordan threepeated twice for a total of six NBA titles. He was a six-time finals MVP, along with Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the year, 14 All Star appearances, nine-time All-Defense, and a three-time All Star MVP. The Goat.
32. 1985: KARL MALONE
Karl Malone was picked 13th overall. He was a 2-time MVP during the Jordan era, a 14-time All Star, two-time All Star MVP, 14-time All-NBA, and a rock offensively. Playing along with all-time assist leader, John Stockton, Malone averaged 25.4 ppg with Utah for 18 seasons. 18 seasons!!! He spent one year, losing in the finals with the imploding Shaq and Kobe Lakers to round out 19 season. Oh, and Malone is second all-time in scoring with 36928 points.
31. 1986: DENNIS RODMAN
Fun fact, Steph Curry’s dad, Dell Curry was selected 15th overall by Utah.
The best player though, as noted earlier, came in the second round. A man by the name of Dennis Rodman, of Southeastern Oklahoma State University, was selected by the Detroit Pistons. Rodman was never a scorer, but he became one of the best, if not the best rebounder of all-time. Rodman won the rebounding “title” seven years in a row—18.7, 18.3, 17.3, 16.8, 14.9, 16.1, 15.0 rebounds per game, respectively. He won five championships, two with Detroit and the second threepeat with Jordan’s Bulls.