One of the key components of running a successful sports franchise is restocking your roster with draft picks. Rookies enter every professional league each year through the draft. In general, teams with the worst records from the previous season get the highest draft slots, so they get first pick at all of the talented players entering the league. It’s not hard to draft an obvious superstar like a LeBron James or Cam Newton, though.
What is hard, and what can often separate the great teams from the rest of the bunch, is drafting superstar players with late picks, meaning that every other team has had a chance and passed them over.
Being drafted late could also serve as motivation for some athletes, who see their late selection as a challenge to improve their skills, concentration, or conditioning. The ones who accept the challenge often out-work their counterparts, and make it to the big leagues on blood and sweat, not just talent.
The players on this list were lightly regarded, passed over, and unheralded as they entered their respective leagues. Since being drafted, however, they have all attained the rank of superstar, and have made many teams regret their draft day decisions.
20. Manu Ginobili – 57th Overall Pick, 1999 NBA Draft
Emanuel (Manu) Ginobili was already a 23-year-old veteran entering his fourth season in the Italian League in 1999 when he was selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the 57th pick in the 1999 NBA Draft. There were only 58 picks made that year!
Ginobili did not join the Spurs until 2002, and by that year’s playoffs, was a key part of the Spurs rotation. Since then, Ginobili has proven himself a reliable scorer and bench player, and fits in with the Spurs offensive philosophy as an unselfish player who plays smart basketball. Winning four championships with the Spurs, Ginobili was one of the league’s toughest shooting guards for most of his career. For his career, Manu is averaging 14 points, 4 assists and 4 rebounds per game. The Spurs front office knew what they were doing when they selected Ginobili, and he has gone on to prove their faith in him correct.
19. Tony Parker – 28th Overall Pick, 2001 NBA Draft
The son of an American professional basketball player, Parker was born in Belgium and raised in France. He grew up playing soccer more than basketball, but hit a growth spurt in high school and grew fond of his father’s sport after watching Michael Jordan play in Chicago.
Parker took an untraditional route to the NBA; he did not attend an NCAA school, rather he began playing professionally in Paris at the age of 19. After two seasons with Paris Basket, he declared for the 2001 NBA Draft.
Of course, the Spurs took notice of the young Frenchman, and selected him at the end of the first round, after nearly every other NBA team had a chance to select him. Parker rewarded the Spurs by taking the starting point guard role from Antonio Daniels in his rookie season. He has not ceded the spot since then, earning six All-Star game appearances, four NBA titles, and in 2007, was the Finals MVP. With career averages of 17 points, 6 assists and 3 rebounds, Parker has been on of the most consistent point guards of the 2000s.
18. Jorge Posada – 24th Round Pick, 1990 MLB Draft
Posada was initially a short stop when the Yankees selected him in 1990, but found his path to the majors too congested. After all, Derek Jeter entered the Yankees minor league system in 1992. So Posada switched positions to become a catcher, and was able to reach the majors after 5 seasons.
Posada was a central figure for the Yankees dynasty of the late 90s and early 2000s, and served as an excellent defensive catcher, who could also hit better than most of his positional counterparts. In total, Posada would win four World Series, be named to the All-Star team five times, and win the Silver Slugger Award for his position five times. On August 22, 2015, the Yankees retired Posada’s number 20, putting a fine end to his career.
17. Andy Pettitte – 22nd Round Pick, 1990 MLB Draft
With a fastball that topped out at about 90 miles per hour, Pettitte was hardly seen as a top prospect when the Yankees selected him in 1990. They paid $80,000 to sign him in 1991, and he began his run through the Yankees’ minor league system.
By 1995, Pettitte had figured out how to change speeds, locate his pitches with precision, and strike batters out. He had good stats at every level, and became an ace for the late 90s Yankees teams that won four World Series titles. Pettitte was a 3-time All-Star and totalled 256 wins in his career, along with a 3.85 ERA and nearly 2,500 strikeouts. Not bad for someone who had to wait 21 rounds before being selected.
16. Jose Bautista – 20th Round Pick, 2000 MLB Draft
The Toronto Blue Jays right fielder made headlines with his game five bat flip against the Texas Rangers in the 2015 American League Division Series. To understand the bat flip, you have to understand Bautista’s path to that moment.
Taken in the 20th round in 2000, Bautista spent 3 years in the Pirates’ minor league system before being selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the Rule 5 Draft. From Baltimore, Bautista bounced around to Kansas City, Tampa Bay, the New York Mets, before returning to Pittsburgh. Mostly a utility player, Bautista struggled to make a name for himself until he was traded to the Blue Jays in 2008. From there, Bautista worked his way into the starting lineup at right field. Bautista grew as a hitter, developing a powerful swing and keen eye for the strike zone.
From the 2010 – 2015 seasons, Bautista hit 227 home runs, good for an average of almost 38 per season. Bautista has also appeared in 6 All-Star games, and won 2 Hank Aaron Awards and 3 Silver Slugger Awards. While it may not have been the Blue Jays who scouted Bautista originally, their scouting and patience has paid massive dividends, as Bautista has become perhaps baseball’s most prolific power hitter of the 2010s.
15. Terrell Davis – 196th Overall Pick, 1995 NFL Draft
Davis began his NCAA football career at Long Beach State University, a small school in California more well known for its basketball program than football. When Long Beach State closed its football program in 1991, Davis transferred to Georgia, where he impressed in his two seasons as the starter.
Drafted in the sixth round by the Broncos, under new head coach Mike Shanahan. Entering the preseason as the sixth running back on the roster, Davis rocketed up the depth chart with an impressive preseason, and by Week 1, was the Broncos’ starting running back. With veteran quarterback John Elway and a strong passing game, Davis was the key piece to drive the Broncos to two consecutive Super Bowl victories.
In a career sadly cut short with injuries, Davis managed 7,607 rushing yards and 60 touchdowns over a total of roughly 5 full seasons. The Broncos could not have predicted that Davis would miss a large chunk of his career with injuries, but when healthy, he was one of the league’s most exciting and devastating running backs, who could have continued towards a Hall of Fame career.
14. Steve Smith – 74th Overall Pick, 2001 NFL Draft
Diminutive by NFL standards, Smith has made a reputation as a tough-as-nails receiver who plays through injuries, goes across the middle, and backs down from nobody. Smith started his college career at Santa Monica college, lining up alongside fellow future NFL star Chad Johnson. Smith later transferred to Utah, where he shone as a deep threat and special teams specialist.
The Carolina Panthers made Smith the 74th overall pick in 2001, and he became one of the league’s most exciting kick and punt returners. Soon thereafter, Smith earned a starting wide receiver position, and despite several altercations with teammates, began to turn heads with his athleticism and sure hands.
Smith’s best season came in 2005, where he won the NFL’s Receiving Triple Crown, the award given to a player who leads the league in all of the following; receptions, reception yards, and reception touchdowns. Smith was only the third player in history to accomplish this feat.
He is currently the Panthers’ franchise leader in virtually every receiving category, and still plays at a high level for the Baltimore Ravens. The definition of small but mighty, Smith has enjoyed proving his naysayers wrong and making every team that passed him by regret that decision.
13. Shannon Sharpe – 192nd Overall Pick, 1990 NFL Draft
Sharpe excelled at track and field and football at Savannah State College, before being selected in the seventh round by the Denver Broncos. Originally thought of as too big and slow to be a wide receiver, Sharpe revolutionized the tight end position with his size, catching ability, and agility. He was one of the first of the new generation of tight ends, and the pioneer for current stars like Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce.
Sharpe reached his prime in his fourth season with the Broncos, when he reached 995 yards and 9 touchdowns. For the next six seasons, Sharpe was arguably the league’s most proficient tight end, and helped the Broncos capture two straight Super Bowls, as well as one later on with the Baltimore Ravens.
Sharpe made it to eight Pro Bowls in his career, and was named to the All-1990s NFL team. Over his entire career, Sharpe earned 10,060 yards and 62 touchdowns, and was named to the NFL Hall of Fame in 2011. Not bad returns from the last round of the draft.
12. Pavel Bure – 113th Overall Pick, 1989 NHL Draft
The Russian Rocket was a controversial pick by the Vancouver Canucks in 1989, as many NHL teams believed he was ineligible for the draft due to his young age and lack of games played. The Canucks, meanwhile, had scouted deeply and discovered that Bure had in fact met the minimum requirements for games played, with some undocumented exhibition and international games. Signing Bure became a large hassle, as his Soviet team demanded $250,000 for the rights to negotiate with their teenage sensation. The Canucks paid up, and soon after brought Bure and his family to North America.
When he finally did make his Canucks debut, in November 1991, Bure was a superstar. He scored 60 goals in 2 consecutive seasons for the Vancouver club, as well appearing in seven All-Star games, and was a major force in the Canucks’ run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1993-94, scoring 16 goals and 15 assists in 30 games that postseason. In 2012, Bure was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame for his contributions to the sport in Vancouver, as well as with the Florida Panthers, where he was a goal-scoring machine in his later playing days.
11. Henrik Lundqvist – 205th Overall Pick, 2000 NHL Draft
Predicting the future success of goaltenders in the NHL might as well be rolling a 20-sided die. Some goalies enter the league as stars only to flame out, while others enter as backups before finding the magic that makes them stars. One example of the latter is New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who was selected 205th overall in 2000.
Since he was only 18 years old when drafted, the Rangers allowed Lundqvist to stay in his native Sweden, playing for Frolunda, before finally bringing him across the ocean to join their club in 2005. As a 23-year-old rookie, Lundqvist immediately emerged as a top-notch goalie talent, earning 30 wins in his first season as the Rangers backstop. He has not stopped impressing, collecting three All-Star game appearances, one Vezina Trophy win, and a 2.26 career goals against average. There are likely more than a few teams that would love to have Lundqvist in net for them every night, but all missed out on the opportunity.
10. Pavel Datsyuk – 171st Overall Pick, 1998 NHL Draft
The story goes that one of the scouts for the Detroit Red Wings was in Russia to scout defenceman Dmitri Kalinin, when he noticed a “little guy on the other team.” That little guy turned out to be center Datsyuk, who was always considered too small to play in the NHL, despite his obvious talents. No other NHL scout had even seen Datsyuk play, and fate helped play a hand when a St. Louis Blues scout was set to take in a Datsyuk game in Russia before his flight was cancelled due to a snowstorm.
The Red Wings selected Datsyuk with the 171st overall pick in the 1998 Draft, and they let him develop in Russia for four more seasons before bringing him to the Motor City in 2002 and kickstarting his very impressive career, which includes four All-Star game appearances, four Lady Byng Awards, and three Selke Awards, and two Stanley Cup Championships.
9. Henrik Zetterberg – 210th Overall Pick, 1999 NHL Draft
The parallels between Zetterberg and Datsyuk are uncanny; both were unheralded, “little” guys playing in European Leagues. Both were scouted almost by accident. As with Datsyuk, Detroit’s scouts were only in Sweden to get a report on Mattias Weinhandl, when they noticed Zetterberg. In 1999, they could afford to wait until the 210th pick before selecting the Swedish winger, and let him stay in Sweden a few years before moving him to Detroit in 2002.
Once in Detroit, Zetterberg teamed with Datsyuk and a player still to come on this list, Brett Hull, to form the “Two Kids and an Old Goat Line,” which helped the Red Wings capture the 2002 Stanley Cup.
Like Datsyuk, Zetterberg has captured two Stanley Cups, to go along with two All-Star games, one Conn Smythe Award, and a King Clancy trophy.
8. Karl Malone – 13th Overall Pick, 1985 NBA Draft
It seems crazy that this is a late pick, but for a career as unbelievable as Malone‘s, it really is. Consider that five teams selected power forwards, and another five selected centers, before the Utah Jazz even had a chance. While some of those choices panned out fairly well (Patrick Ewing, Detlef Schrempf, Charles Oakley), others were head scratchers that I’m sure their teams would wish to take back (Wayman Tisdale, Kenny Green, Ed Pinckney).
As for Malone, well he managed 25 points per game and 10 rebounds per game throughout his career, while being one of the most consistently healthy and strong forwards of his era. Consider that he only missed more than two games in a season twice in his entire 19-year career, the Jazz got a lot more than most teams expect with the 13th overall selection.
7. George Gervin – 40th Overall Pick, 1974 NBA Draft
This one is a little weird, since Gervin never actually played a game for the Phoenix Suns, who drafted him with the 40th pick in the 1974 NBA draft. Gervin at the time was owned by the Virginia Squires of the now-defunct American Basketball Association, and elected to stay with the Virginia team rather than move to Phoenix. When the Squires, as well as the ABA itself, began to run into serious financial trouble later that same year, Gervin was sold to the ABA’s San Antonio Spurs for a sum of $228,000. The Spurs then joined the NBA in 1976, and Gervin went on to become one of the most explosive scorers in NBA history.
He was a nine-time NBA All-Star and four-time scoring champion. Gervin averaged 25 points per game over his career, with higher averages in the stronger NBA than in his younger days in the ABA. Nevertheless, Gervin should have attracted more attention than he did in the 1974 draft, and Phoenix could have landed a legendary scorer for a bargain price.
6. Brett Hull – 117th Overall Pick, 1984 NHL Draft
The son of NHL legend Bobby Hull, Brett was viewed as too much of a party animal, and too out of shape for the rigours of the NHL. Playing in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League in 1983-84, Hull scored 105 goals and 188 total points in just 56 games. The Calgary Flames decided that was worth any potential conditioning issues, and grabbed Hull with the 117th pick.
He did not stay with the team very long, however, and was soon traded to the St. Louis Blues, where Hull had his best seasons, scoring 527 goals in 11 seasons. He was also a major contributor to two Stanley Cup Championship teams, the 1998-99 Dallas Stars, and the 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings. Hull was an 8-time All Star, and won the 1990-91 Hart trophy as the Most Valuable Player in the NHL, at a time when legends Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky were in their primes. Though Calgary didn’t enjoy the full benefits of Hull’s career, they certainly had an eye for a bargain pick.
5. Joe Montana – 82nd Overall Pick, 1979 NFL Draft
The fourth quarterback taken in the 1979 draft turned into one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the league. Montana was scouted, but given average ratings, after his senior year at Notre Dame, and was surpassed on draft boards by fellow quarterbacks Jack Thompson, Steve Fuller, and Phil Simms. When the San Francisco 49ers third round pick came up, they jumped all over Montana, and he would go on to lead the 49ers to four Super Bowl victories, earning MVP honours in three of those games. An eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time Offensive Player of the Year, Montana was the league’s star quarterback of the 1980s.
He remained one of the league’s best even into the early 90s, but the 1992 emergence of Steve Young led to Montana being traded to Kansas City, where he played well for two seasons before retiring in 1995. Landing a generational star like Montana in the third round was a huge score for the 49ers, and might be one of the NFL’s best late-round picks of all time.
4. Mike Piazza – 1,390th Overall Pick, 1988 MLB Draft
Yes, you read that number right. One thousand, three hundred ninetieth overall, Piazza was a first-baseman at Miami-Dade Community College, and the son of wealthy businessman Vince Piazza. The Piazza family was also close with Los Angeles Dodgers’ manager Tommy Lasorda, and as a favour to the elder Piazza, Lasorda selected Mike in the 62nd round of the MLB draft. Lasorda told Mike that the path to the majors would be easier as a catcher rather than at first base, so Piazza began to learn the position in the minor leagues.
In 1993, Piazza earned rookie of the year honours in the National League, as the league’s premier hitting catcher. Throughout the 90s, Piazza was a consistent MVP candidate, losing to Ken Caminiti in 1996 and Larry Walker in 1997. Piazza appeared in 12 All-Star games and won 10 Silver Slugger awards. His selection, which may have started as a favour to his family, ended up being an incredibly smart investment by the Dodgers.
3. Albert Pujols – 402nd Overall Pick, 1999 MLB Draft
Pujols caused so much controversy among baseball scouts that one even quit his job over him. Fernando Arango, a scout for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (now the Rays) quit when his team decided not to select Pujols. The Cardinals were the ones that benefitted, and at the 402nd spot, selected Pujols, the third-baseman from the Dominican Republic.
All Pujols did from there was make it to 10 All-Star games, win 2 World Series titles, 3 National League MVP awards, one NL batting title, and numerous Silver Slugger awards. As of the end of the 2015 season, Pujols has hit 555 home runs, has amassed 2,642 hits and 1,683 RBI. From the year 2000 onwards, Pujols has been the game’s most consistent, feared hitter. Pujols is a lock to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame after his career, but has no plans on slowing down. His 2015 season was one of his best ever. No doubt that Fernando Arango’s former employers are kicking themselves for not listening to him way back in 1999. Albert Pujols is the greatest late pick in MLB history.
2. Kobe Bryant – 13th Overall Pick, 1996 NBA Draft
The 1996 NBA draft boasted several impressive collegiate guards, including Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Stephon Marbury, and Steve Nash. It also featured a lesser-known high school guard, the son of a former professional. That was 17-year-old Kobe Bryant, who was selected by the Charlotte Hornets before being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for Vlade Divac.
It is perhaps understandable that teams would be leery of drafting a high-schooler with such a high pick. Usually high school players entering the draft are seven-feet tall and muscle bound. Kobe was 6-foot-6 inches tall and skinny, but quick and fearless.
The Lakers had given Kobe a work out session prior to the draft and liked what they saw, but without a high pick, had to convince the Hornets to take Divac the night before the draft, only telling them to select Bryant five minutes before the Hornets were on the clock. Most executives were surprised to see Bryant selected so early, and many had no plans to take him in the first round at all. The Lakers, however, had the last laugh.
Kobe is probably playing his final NBA season, and his career accomplishments are numerous; 5 NBA Championships, 17 All-Star appearances, 1 NBA MVP award, two NBA Finals MVP awards, 11 All-NBA First Team selections, 2 NBA scoring titles. In short, while there may have been a slight risk in selecting Kobe that early, the payoff was well worth the risk. Kobe is basketball’s best draft selection of all time.
1. Tom Brady – 199th Overall Pick, 2000 NFL Draft
Tom Brady was a starter in his junior and senior years (1998-99) at Michigan University, but did not enter the NFL Draft with much acclaim. The Patriots had Drew Bledsoe firmly entrenched as their starting quarterback, but were looking to add some depth with an eye to the future with their 6th round pick. Choosing between Brady and Louisiana Tech’s Tim Rattay, the Patriots selected Brady.
The rest is history. Brady worked his way into the backup spot by the end of his first season. In the second week of his second season, Bledsoe was knocked out of the game on a hit, and Brady entered. He maintained the starting quarterback position for the remainder of the regular season, and in the offseason, Bledsoe was traded to Buffalo and Brady was named the starter. The rest, as the old saying goes, is history.
To quickly summarize Brady’s achievements; 4 Super Bowl victories, 3 Super Bowl MVP awards, 2 NFL MVP Regular Season Awards, and 10 Pro Bowl appearances. He will surely make it into the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton. In short, Brady may wind up being the greatest late pick of all time.