The destiny of NBA franchises rise and fall according to how they handle the delicate process that is the draft. All it takes is one crucial selection and a team can go from a bottom of the barrel team to a perennial playoff contender. If you are a bad team, you get the honor of selecting in the upper tier of the draft, called the lottery. This can almost guarantee you a player than can become an immediate contributor to your squad, but even non-lottery picks have churned out hall of fame seasons and championship banners. A large amount of time is dedicated to researching players that have nothing to do with playing the game of basketball. Scouts look at personality, temperament, family background, and fit with their team when considering a young twenty-something year old.
That’s why it is such a gut punch when a high-valued draft pick turns out to be a bust. A miscalculated draft pick can set a franchise back decades, not to mention it can cost executives and coaches their jobs. Some missteps stand out more than others, but there are many examples of picks gone wrong over the years. 2017 marks the 70th anniversary of the first NBA draft, so what better opportunity to look back at the 15 worst picks of all time?
15 Sebastian Telfair
There was a trend in the mid-1990s through 2000s of highly skilled basketball players skipping college and heading directly into the NBA. We all know the success stories of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and LeBron James, but there was a plethora of players who failed at the transition. We’ll even get to a few of them on this list. But first, let’s begin with New York’s own, Sebastian Telfair.
Telfair is the cousin of former NBA player Stephon Marbury. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Telfair became a playground legend and one of the most overly-hyped high school recruits in the nation. Deciding to skip college, Telfair entered his name into the NBA Draft of 2004. He was selected 13th overall by the Portland Trail Blazers. The 6-foot guard would end up bouncing around the league, playing for a total of eight teams. Telfair will go down in the record books as being a part of the trade that brought Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Boston Celtics. Garnett would go on to help bring Boston an NBA championship.
14 Adam Morrison
Adam Morrison made a name for himself at Gonzaga University with some impressive showings in the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga wasn’t known for producing many NBA superstars. Hall of Famer John Stockton is Gonzaga’s most recognizable alum. That didn’t stop Morrison from becoming a National Player of the Year.
His NBA career, unfortunately, didn’t match his time at Gonzaga. Michael Jordan, who has always been infatuated with players who performed well in college, selected Morrison with the number three pick of the 2006 NBA draft for the Charlotte Bobcats. Morrison suffered a severe injury to his left knee and missed the entire 2007-2008 NBA season.
Morrison’s remaining time in the NBA involved being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers and Washington Wizards. Even after attempting a comeback in 2012, Morrison could live up to the high expectations.
13 Darius Miles
Remember those high school players I mentioned earlier? We have another entry from Darius Miles, the third overall pick of the Los Angeles Clippers in the 2000 NBA draft. At the time, Miles was the highest player to be selected straight out of high school. Being selected that high comes with a lot of expectations of 20 point games and multiple All-Star selections. Miles struggled to score over double-digits in a game and was never an All-Star.
One thing Miles is remembered for is his synchronized hand gestures with teammate and best friend, Quentin Richardson. The two would form their hands into a fist and bop themselves over the head as a greeting or a form of “congrats” for a good play. Miles was a part of some successful Clippers teams that almost made the playoffs. But close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
12 Jay Williams
The former Duke University standout had one of the most promising careers of anybody on our list. Jay Williams helped Duke win the 2001 NCAA National Championship and was Player of the Year in 2002. There was no doubt that Williams would be a dominant force in the NBA. The Chicago Bulls had faith in Williams by selecting him second overall in the 2002 NBA draft. The sky was the limit for how his NBA career could go, until Williams decided to ride his motorcycle without a helmet and crashed.
This accident ended up derailing his promising NBA career. Williams was never the same player he was before his injuries, and the Bulls eventually waived him. It came out that Williams violated the terms of his contract by riding a motorcycle, which made things uneasy between him and the Bulls.
Williams has rebounded by becoming a very successful college basketball analysis for ESPN.
11 Robert Traylor
Robert “Tractor” Traylor has the misfortune for being traded for future NBA Hall of Famer and NBA champion Dirk Nowitzki. The Dallas Mavericks chose Traylor sixth overall in the 1998 NBA draft, then traded his rights to the Milwaukee Bucks for Nowitzki. Traylor was in one of the deepest NBA drafts of all time. Other players selected include Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, and Kevin Garnett. All multiple All-Stars, but Traylor never reached those heights.
Traylor got the nickname “Tractor” for being a rather large 6 ft 9in power forward/center. Hence, he looked the size of a tractor, plus his last name fit the description. He was never a flashy player but managed to stay in the league for seven seasons.
After his playing days were over, Traylor was found dead in Puerto Rico of an apparent heart attack in 2011.
10 Jon Koncak
The Atlanta Hawks selected Jon Koncak with the 5th pick in the 1985 NBA draft. I’m sure the Hawks had dreams of the 7-foot center blocking shots and grabbing rebounds for many years, while helping lead the team deep into the playoffs. If Koncak actually managed to do half of these things, he could have turned into a decent, if not spectacular, player. Instead, the Hawks missed out on the likes of Hall of Famers Joe Dumars, Karl Malone, and Chris Mullin. Talk about a pick that hurts in hindsight.
Koncak spent the majority of his career on the bench but still managed to get a $13 million dollar contract out of the Hawks. This doesn’t seem like a large sum nowadays, but back in the 80s this was a huge chunk of money. This helped Koncak get the nickname, “Jon Contract.”
9 Nikoloz Tskitishvili
After Dirk Nowitzki took the league by storm, NBA teams became obsessed with finding the next foreign superstar. There was a stretch where teams drafted international players even if there were no scouting reports for them. And the taller the player, the better. These factors contributed to the Denver Nuggets drafting Nikoloz Tskitishvili with the fifth pick of the 2002 NBA draft.
Tskitishvili stood 7-feet tall and was part of a champion team over in Italy. His accomplishments overseas far outweighed his success in the United States, which were few and far between. He hardly saw the court, averaging under four points in 143 total games. When you’re picking in the lottery of the draft, and in the fifth spot, this is not what you want out of a player.
8 Shawn Bradley
Shawn Bradley is one of the tallest players in NBA history, standing at 7 ft 6 in tall. This automatically made him a shot-blocking presence at Brigham Young University and caught the eye of the Philadelphia 76ers. With all his talent, one thing Bradley had going against him was his slim build. The 76ers selected Bradley with the second pick, behind Chris Webber and ahead of Anfernee Penny Hardaway. Being sandwiched between two once-in-a-lifetime talents was a lot of pressure, and executives and fans expected a lot from Bradley.
For the 76ers credit, they tried to nurture Bradley by bringing in Hall of Fame big man Moses Malone to mentor him. Bradley had a long career that included being posterized by some of the best dunkers in the NBA. Give Bradley credit for jumping in dunker’s way and not being afraid of getting dunked on.
7 Darko Milicic
Speaking of being sandwiched between great players, we welcome Detroit Piston’s Darko Milicic. He follows the familiar pattern of a tall foreign player taken way too early. Maybe we should nickname this the “Dirk Effect.” The 2003 NBA draft had players such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh. And somehow, the Pistons still took Milicic second.
Seeing the players drafted around you making All-Star teams and being loved by their fans can be a lot of pressure. It’s safe to say Milicic crumbled under the pressure of living up to his draft class. Sometimes a change of scenery is necessary for both the player and the team. The Pistons traded Milicic to the Orlando Magic in 2006, but he never became more than a bench player at most.
6 Michael Olowokandi
The “Kandi Man” came out of nowhere to be drafted with the first overall pick in the 1998 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Clippers. From here on out, the remaining players on the list will be former first picks. When I say Michael Olowokandi came out of nowhere, that’s exactly how it went down. No one had Olowokandi as the first selection in mock drafts. All that was reported was the Clippers liked his height/size and saw him as a project that could be molded into a dominant player.
It didn’t help that the season Olowokandi was drafted was also when NBA players were in a lockout. We’ve already run down the many players who the Clippers could have had in the 1998 season, but it is another example of how brutal a misstep at the number one slot can be.
5 Anthony Bennett
Another first round pick that no one predicted beforehand was UNLV’s Anthony Bennett. After the LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers, many wondered how the franchise would recover. The first part of the rebuilding process was selecting Kyrie Irving with the first overall pick in the 2011 draft. Then, in 2013, the ping pong balls fell the Cavaliers way again. But who would they take number one?
In what turned out to not be a very deep draft, the Cavaliers stunned the basketball world by taking Bennett with the first pick. He never stood out at UNLV, but the Cavaliers felt comfortable enough taking him instead of another small guard, Victor Oladipo. There were concerns Oladipo and Irving were similar players, so the Cavaliers wanted a big man, and Nerlens Noel was coming off an injury. Bennett never lived up to the top pick and was soon gone from the Cavaliers roster.
4 Kwame Brown
Kwame Brown is another cautionary tale of a high school player who should have spent some time in college refining his skills. Brown dominated as a high school player in Georgia, and McDonald’s All-American in 2001. When it came down for the Washington Wizards to make their choice with the number one pick, they made Brown the first ever high school player taken at that spot. At least the Wizards can say they made history, but I’m sure they wished Brown hadn’t turned into a total flameout.
Brown wilted under the pressure of going number one and from Wizards Director of Basketball Operations breathing down his neck. Jordan had unrealistic expectations of players, wanting them to put in as much effort as he did back in the day. It is possible Brown could have succeeded in the NBA if he was simply drafted lower in the lottery.
3 Pervis Ellison
We’re getting to the tragic portion of our list. Pervis Ellison was an outstanding player for the Louisville Cardinals, helping to lead the team a national championship during his freshman season. The Sacramento Kings must have felt they had a safe choice in Ellison when they took him first overall in the NBA draft. After having the nickname “Never Nervous Pervis,” Ellison gained a new nickname in the NBA: “Out of Service Pervis.” He missed 48 of 82 games his rookie season, prompting the Kings to trade him after only one year. The injury bug followed Ellison the rest of his career. Another sad tale of great potential squashed by injuries.
2 Greg Oden
There was a hot debate during the 2007 draft on which player the Portland Trail Blazers would take with the first overall pick. Would it be Ohio State Buckeye Greg Oden or University of Texas Longhorn Kevin Durant? Both were dynamic players in college, and it was a matter of taking a big man (Oden) or versatile wing player (Durant). The Trail Blazers went with the big man with shoddy legs, which left the Seattle Supersonics to take Durant. Guess which team wish they had a mulligan?
Oden would miss his entire rookie season after microfracture surgery on his right knee. During his first full season, he would injury his left knee and miss the remainder of the season. Oden would eventually have microfracture surgery on the left knee. Usually one of these procedures would make it difficult for a player to have a prosperous career. Add in a second surgery and it was a wrap for Oden.
1 Sam Bowie
Sam Bowie’s career almost mirrors Greg Oden’s. Both were big men taken by the Portland Trail Blazers when in hindsight, the team should have taken a once in a lifetime talent instead. Just like Oden, Bowie suffered numerous injuries that kept him off the floor. The player selected after Bowie just happened to be Hall of Famer Michael Jordan. The Trail Blazers’ thought process in taking Bowie was they already had a dynamic shooting guard in Clyde Drexler. It’s not their fault that Bowie’s body betrayed him. As Jordan’s career took off, Bowie went down in the history books as the NBA’s worst pick ever.