Finding the next NBA superstar is no stroll in the park. It takes countless hours of film scouring, one-on-one conversations with coaches and prospects, and a well-trained eye for the all-important “eye test.” Some prospects are obvious slam dunks – others are less-probable fade-away jumpers draped in defenders as the shot clock expires. Yet, there are off-the-radar prospects that resemble those downright impossible shots, those full court heaves beating the halftime buzzer by fractions of a second (taken by anybody other than Steph Curry, of course).
The NBA draft features the highest risk-reward, feast-or-famine sweepstakes of all professional sports drafts. Finding the next LeBron James, Anthony Davis, or Kevin Durant usually requires a top three draft pick. But, sneaking away with the next Draymond Green, Kawhi Leonard, or Isaiah Thomas requires taking a leap of faith on a guy based only on the inclination that he just feels right.
We don’t have to move very far back in time to relive some of the biggest draft success and tragedy stories of all time. It will outright shock you that for some of these players, coming off the draft board was the only highlight of their short-live careers, while others are some of the most respectable players of the modern day after being the last kid chosen for the playground pickup game.
Some guys can’t handle the spotlight. Other guys embrace the David and Goliath role.
So, strap in for this walk down memory lane. It’s time to celebrate the 16 biggest busts and longshot breakout NBA stars of the modern era. Many of these names you will recognize, others will leave you saying, “Who?”
- Bust: Jimmer Fredette
Let us begin with one of the biggest wasted talents every to step foot on the hardwood floors. James “Jimmer” Fredette was supposed to be the next best thing for the Sacramento Kings (after being initially drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks and subsequently traded to the Kings) when he was picked 10th overall in 2011. After a collegiate season for the ages—in which he averaged 28.9 points per game, 3.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and just north of 1 steal—Fredette was ready to take the NBA by storm.
The NBA, however, scoffed in his face.
After leaving BYU with a slew of offensive records – most points scored in a game (52) and most three-point buckets made in school history (296) to name a few – Fredette was branded an offensive juggernaut with a smooth jumper before he even saw any professional action.
But the cliff was just up ahead. Fredette would finish his rookie campaign with 7.6 points per outing (career high) and only seven starts. The Kings swiftly bought out his contract, and Fredette ended up playing for four teams over five seasons. He would never start another game in the NBA for the rest of his short-lived career and left it all behind with an abysmal 6.0 career points per game average.
So why the fall from stardom? Well, as one NBA assistant who worked with Fredette disclosed, “Jimmer thinks everybody is stupid. He thinks everybody needs to come and just turn over their offense and let him shoot it anytime he wants.”
- Breakout: Jimmy Butler
A lofty 20 draft picks after Jimmer Fredette, Jimmy Butler’s name was called. The 2011 draft class was relatively stacked with players who have gone on to be stars in the NBA today. Butler ranks right up there with the best of them.
Chosen for his defensive prowess put on full display at Marquette University, Butler was a natural fit for a rebuilding, Tom Thibodeau-led Chicago Bulls team. Nobody guessed at that time that Butler would blossom into a full-blown offensive stud who can create his own shot at will and averaged 23.9 points per game over an entire season. Butler would go from a bench-riding bum to a household name in six seasons. His average points per game would increase every season.
By 2014, Butler had truly arrived.
Just to play “what if?” – the three picks before him were JaJuan Johnson (Nets), Norris Cole (Bulls), and Corey Joseph (Spurs). None of these three players can hold a candle to what Butler brings to the table.
Butler is as hard-working, determined, gritty, and superb as they come. The Minnesota Timberwolves are going to love having their new king at the helm.
- Bust: Michael Beasley
The 2008 NBA draft was all about one player: Derrick Rose. But the guy drafted right after him? Many people forget who he was.
Yup, that’s right. The same guy who was an absolute stud in his one-and-done year with Kansas. The same guy who came into the league and averaged 13.9 points per game as a 20-year-old rookie.
But did he really live up to the hype that was expected of him? Not one bit.
Over the course of his lackluster career, Beasley has produced relatively decent numbers, but has bounced around from team to team. Now, he sits with the New York Knicks and claims to be among the top dogs in the game. “As far as talent-wise, I match up with Kevin Durant, LeBron, I match up with the best guys in the world,” Beasley boasted in an interview with Bleacher Report recently.
But putting all this outlandish talk aside, the story of Michael Beasley really needs to go no further than those drafted around him. Rose was the obvious pick at one, then came Beasley. As for who followed him, none other than some scrubs named O.J. Mayo, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Love.
Do I need to keep going? Danilo Gallinari, Eric Gordon, and Brook Lopez. Need I say more?
- Breakout: Tony Parker
Before the 2001 season, the San Antonio Spurs were already a great team. After they selected Tony Parker with the 28th overall pick, the franchise really took off.
Parker wasn’t exactly a heralded prospect coming up to the big leagues. He probably wasn’t on many team’s big boards at all. But as for late first-round draft steals, he’s as good as they come.
Let the stats speak for themselves. Parker has flourished in 16 years (going on 17), all with the Spurs. He has been the unquestioned leader of the team, averaging over 10 points per game and 4-plus assists every season other than his rookie campaign, all while being surrounded by the likes of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. He’s a five-time All-Star and a four-time champion. In 2007, he won the NBA Finals MVP.
All that from a French kid nobody ever heard of. Not bad, right? Parker is a prime example of a player making the most of his opportunity when the expectations were beneath the floor.
- Bust: Anthony Bennett
“With the first pick in the 2013 NBA draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers select…Anthony Bennett.” Who?
That was the reaction of just about everybody after Bennett was taken at the top spot. He was never supposed to go that high. Some NBA executives have even come forward and said that they had him ninth on their big board.
In hindsight, even ninth would be too high.
In full disclosure, the 2013 draft class was one of the worst in the modern era. Not too many players lived up to expectations. But at the very least, everyone picked in the top 10 have gone on to maintain serviceable roles with their respective teams.
Everyone, that is, except for Bennett.
While second overall pick Victor Oladipo is set to enjoy moderate success in Indiana and third pick Otto Porter has carved out an irreplaceable role in Washington, Bennett is hoping to make use of his fifth chance (count ‘em) with the lowly Phoenix Suns.
Some may say it’s still too early to rule Bennett a bust, but would 4.4 career average points per season change your mind? That’s what I thought.
- Breakout: Rajon Rondo
There are quite a few notable names to come out of the 2006 NBA draft class. LaMarcus Aldridge went second overall, Rudy Gay was taken eighth, and J.J. Reddick was snagged 11th. But among the notable names to have since won a championship? The 21st pick Rajon Rondo stands alone.
There are a lot of negatives to be hung up on when it comes to Rondo. He doesn’t seem to be a team player. He’s a cancer in the locker room. He butts heads with his coaches. However, putting his ego aside, Rondo has truly been a star in this league.
The accolades are enormous: four-time NBA All-Defensive team, leader in steals in 2009-2010, and leader in assists from 2011-2013 and 2015-2016. Not to mention, he is regarded as a key cog in the 2008 Boston Celtics championship machine that featured three future Hall of Famers in Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen. Rondo has one of the sickest highlight reels of all-time, and his signature fake behind-the-back pass to get the defender to bite on his way to an uncontested layup won’t soon be forgotten.
Despite having fallen off in recent years, Rondo still left his mark in last season’s playoffs. The Chicago Bulls looked like they were going to pull off a monster upset as the eighth seed with Rondo at the helm against his former team – the Boston Celtics. But an unfortunate injury to his thumb all but derailed any chances at that. Boston went on to win four straight games and the series.
Say what you will about Rondo, but there is no denying that he’s been a star in this league for quite some time.
- Bust: Adam Morrison
In the same season that Rondo came into the league, one of the biggest busts of all time was taken with the third overall pick.
Adam Morrison, the 6-foot-8 stud out of Gonzaga University, was supposed to be the next best thing since sliced bread. Instead, what the Charlotte Bobcats got was soured milk.
Morrison was considered one of the top college basketball players of his generation. By the time he was playing for the Bobcats, he was given the nickname “The White Mamba” by his teammates. Considering who goes by “The Black Mamba,” there’s quite a bit of hype to live up to.
But live up to the hype he did not. Morrison had a decent rookie season, finishing on the 2007 NBA All-Rookie Second Team. A knee injury had him shipped out of Charlotte to even brighter lights in Los Angeles playing for the Lakers, but was promptly cut after two short years. The White Mamba’s career lasted all of four years.
- Breakout: Kawhi Leonard
Yet another notable name came out of the 2011 NBA draft. Kawhi Leonard was selected 15th overall by the Indiana Pacers (and then immediately traded to the San Antonio Spurs) as a longshot to be a superstar. If you were to tell me that Leonard would be considered arguably the best two-way player in the game today, I would have laughed in your face.
Now, it’s Leonard who’s doing the laughing.
After being picked right after both Morris twins (Markieff and Marcus), Leonard experienced some growing pains with the Spurs. But there was little doubt that after seeing him through a full season, he had the talent to hang with the best forwards in the league.
Leonard’s big chance to establish himself as a premier player came in the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami Heat. Leonard went mano y mano with the best player in the world and came out with the Finals MVP. Yeah, it was safe to say that Leonard had arrived.
This past season, Leonard was a finalist for the regular season MVP and likely would have won if not for otherworldly performances from Russell Westbrook and James Harden. At the rate he is playing, it’s only a matter of time before he takes home the hardware.
- Bust: Jay Williams
Jay Williams was not supposed to be a bust. The kid from Duke University was pegged to be a great guard in the NBA.
But an untimely motorcycle accident jerked those plans out of motion.
With the second overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft, the Chicago Bulls selected Williams. He was second only to the great Yao Ming.
For most of his rookie season, he was a starter for the Bulls. Williams was relatively inconsistent, but showed flashes of what could be. His best career game featured a triple-double against the New Jersey Nets.
But after the fateful accident in June of 2003, Williams career would be forever gone. Nowadays, he’s known as “J-Will,” a popular ESPN college and high school basketball commentator.
Williams’ story is simply one of what could have been.
- Breakout: Jeremy Lin
Only a handful of players exist who have made their mark in the NBA after not being drafted. Among the notables of this generation broke onto the scene in 2012: Jeremy Lin.
“Linsanity” was a global icon out of nowhere with the New York Knicks. Lin received no athletic scholarships to play college ball. Coming into the league undrafted in 2010 out of Harvard University, Lin eventually wound up carrying the Knicks to seven consecutive victories two years later. He was the first player in the long, illustrious NBA history to notch at least 20 points and seven assists in each of his first five starts.
The breakout performance earned him a fresh start, three-year contract with the Houston Rockets in 2012. Since then, he has bounced around and enjoyed average success in Los Angeles, Charlotte, and Brooklyn.
This coming season, the upstart Brooklyn Nets will be led by the now grizzled vet Jeremy Lin – the man who was finally given a shot and made the absolute most of it.
- Bust: Greg Oden
At 7-foot, 275-pounds, and a surefire stud with the basketball in his hands, Greg Oden was a lock to be a perennial superstar in the NBA and a franchise cornerstone. He was selected first overall by the Portland Trail Blazers in 2007.
That was perhaps the most notable night of his NBA career.
How Oden went from being the believed next best big man drafted since Shaquille O’Neal to being the self-proclaimed biggest bust in NBA history is a marvel in and of itself. Oden fell victim to chronic health issues, alcohol abuse, and domestic violence. His fall from grace was not pretty.
For many years, Oden tried to work his way back into the folds of the NBA. After sitting out from 2010 to 2013, he gave it one last go-around with the Miami Heat. Averaging 9.2 minutes in 23 appearances that season, his 2.9 points per game was a clear sign that the NBA had passed him by.
“I’m still trying to figure out my life,” said Oden recently.
- Breakout: Draymond Green
Looking back now, the 2012 NBA draft was significantly top-heavy. Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Bradley Beal rounded out the top three picks. Sprinkle in 31 decent players and forgotten collegiate stars (Festus Ezeli, Miles Plumlee, Jared Sullinger, Austin Rivers, and Tyler Zeller, to name a few), and you finally arrive at the 35th pick: Draymond Green.
Love him or hate him, there is no denying that Green is an all-out beast. As polarizing of a player and person as he is, Green is a critical component of the stacked Golden State Warriors and has been since 2014. He managed 11.7 points per game and 8.2 rebounds in the 2013-2014 season, and only got better as a scorer and defender as the seasons went on. Now, he is defending a two-season streak of All-Star appearances and a prized 2017 Defensive Player of the Year award.
Let us also not forget that Green holds his own on a team with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant. Two seasons ago, the Warriors lost in the NBA finals, and to this day many people believe that had Green not gotten suspended, history would have been rewritten.
Me-against-the-world mentality and edgy antics aside, Green is a force to be reckoned with in the NBA today.
- Bust: Darko Milicic
It was practically a foregone conclusion heading into the 2003 NBA draft that the next perennial powerhouse player, the future face of basketball, and the best thing since Michael Jordan was going to be taken first overall: LeBron James. But most people cannot remember who was taken directly after LeBron.
That’s because he didn’t last very long. Darko Milicic was a 7-footer hailing from Serbia in a loaded draft class. The Detroit Pistons took a chance on him over much safer options.
Boy, were they wrong.
Milicic did manage to hang around the league for 12 seasons, but his pitiful 6.0 points per game and 4.2 boards per game would be better suited for an 8th grade gym class.
To make matters worse, every team drafting within the top five that season scored bigtime. After Milicic was taken by the Pistons, the Denver Nuggets went on to take Carmelo Anthony, the Toronto Raptors snagged Chris Bosh, and the Miami Heat scored Dwayne Wade.
To think that any one of these players could have ended up in Detroit, but the Pistons got stuck with the 7-foot mishap, is a true tragedy. May the basketball gods have pity on Detroit.
- Breakout: Giannis Antetokounmpo
As aforementioned, the 2013 draft class wasn’t exactly the most stocked with future stars of the game. But easily the best thing to come from this forgettable class is far from forgettable.
Enter… “The Greek Freak.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo (say that five times fast) was the first international player taken off the board by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 15th overall pick. Projected to be a raw talent in need of serious coaching, the Greek Freak was already showing signs of being an elite, unguardable force by his sophomore campaign.
By the 2016-2017 season, nobody in their right mind was sleeping on him.
Antetokounmpo earned himself a starting spot on the Eastern All-Star team, and for good reason. He finished the season averaging 22.9 points per game, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.9 blocks. The man showed that he can do it all, and established himself as one of the most dominant two-way players in the league. Antetokounmpo possesses the rare tandem of extremely long extremities and freakish athleticism. It’s no wonder the Bucks have all but moved past Jabari Parker as their franchise player to make room for their 6-foot-11 international beau.
People love having the discussion of who will be the next LeBron James once he retires. Ladies and gentlemen, this is your guy.
- Bust: Kwame Brown
Behold, the biggest NBA bust of the 21st century.
Kwame Brown was all the hype of the 2001 NBA draft class. He was the first player ever drafted straight out of high school. He was rated the best high school player in the world, ahead of notable standouts Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler. The 6-foot-11 blue chip prospect cleaned up 1,235 rebounds and blocked 605 shots for his high school team. Those numbers are pretty incredible.
The NBA wasn’t nearly as kind to him.
Once Brown started playing with guys his own size, his lack of experience caught up with him. His best season in the NBA netted him an underwhelming 10.9 points per game and 7.4 rebounds. Those numbers aren’t horrific, but not even close to what is expected of a first overall pick.
Brown would end up bouncing around to seven teams over a 13-year career. Perhaps the only notable thing to come of his career is that he set the trend for teams to draft a high school star with the first overall pick. Two seasons later, a young man named LeBron James was pulled into the big league right from his childhood home in Cleveland, Ohio. The rest is history.
- Breakout: Isaiah Thomas
Isaiah Thomas may not be the biggest, strongest, quickest, or toughest player to guard in the NBA.
But one thing NBA fans, players, coaches, and executives alike have learned in recent years about the man named after a former NBA great is that you cannot measure his heart.
Thomas was not supposed to be a notable name in the league. In fact, he wasn’t even supposed to make the final roster for the 2011 Sacramento Kings. He was the very last draft pick (60th overall). But all he needed was one shot, and he got it.
His rookie season, he averaged 25.5 minutes per game and 11.5 points. Not too shabby, considering the three guys picked right before him have yet to step foot on a regular season NBA court and play meaningful minutes.
Fast-forward five seasons, and Thomas became the belle of the ball in Boston.
How the 5-foot-9 guard managed back-to-back All-Star seasons in Beantown is remarkable. How he managed to drop 28.9 points per game last season simply doesn’t make sense. How me became the unquestioned leader of the team cannot be traced.
What’s the icing on the cake? Thomas was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers this past offseason for the man picked first overall in the very same draft, 59 spots ahead of him: Kyrie Irving.
It looks like the “Pick Me Last Again” banners will be torn down in the TD Garden and put up in the Quicken Loans Arena this winter. Now with a chance to play with the best player on the planet, Thomas will likely be a prominent factor of a championship team for seasons to come.