0 of 9
Harry How/Getty Images
Few things fill an NBA franchise and its fans with as much hope as landing the No. 1 draft pick.
Every year, the league’s cellar-dwellers look toward the lottery with anticipation. And on several occasions over the last two decades, the anticipation gave way to wins.
But to rank every No. 1 pick since 2000, we’ll need more than anecdotal evidence. Instead, let’s lay out a mostly objective formula to put all 20 top selections in order.
Alan Sepinwall, the chief TV critic for Rolling Stone magazine (and long-suffering New York Knicks fan), joins The Full 48 with Howard Beck to offer suggestions for binge-watching during the NBA shutdown, how binge-watching has changed television and the long-awaited return of the NBA.
1 of 9
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
Let’s start with the catch-all metrics that we’ll use in this exercise. Box plus/minus, win shares per 48 minutes and player efficiency rating are all tracked back to well before 2000. Each endeavors to put a player’s overall contributions into one number, but they emphasize different things. We’ll throw all three into the stew.
Next, we’ll add usage percentage as a way to reward the No. 1 picks who had the greatest responsibility in the league.
For all of the above, we’ll use both regular-season and playoff numbers.
From there, championship points and MVP shares come into the picture. Championship points are simply the total number of teams bested in a title-winning season. So, for example, Andrew Bogut gets 29 points for his 2014-15 championship since his team was better than the other 29 in the league.
And finally, a fan vote was conducted to give the project a little subjective flavor.
Now, put all that together and you have 11 different categories in which to rank these 20 players. If you sort all 20 by the average of their ranks in those categories, with a little extra weight given to the fan vote, the overall order shakes out as follows.
But first, just a few more notes.
It’s important to remember that some of the younger players here still have plenty of time to rise. Cumulative variants of those catch-alls mentioned above were left out specifically to help the newcomers, but some of them were dinged by placeholders to account for a lack of playoff numbers.
Deandre Ayton may be in a certain spot now, but he’s almost certain to climb the ranks over the next couple of years.
2 of 9
Kathy Willens/Associated Press
20. Anthony Bennett, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2013
The two most obvious placements here are first and last. We don’t need to give away No. 1 yet (though again, you probably already know), but Anthony Bennett at No. 20 is no shock.
Even at the time, few could wrap their heads around what the Cleveland Cavaliers were doing.
“I’m just as surprised as everyone else,” Bennett said shortly after hearing his name called first in 2013. “I didn’t really have any idea who’s going No. 1 or who was going No. 2. I heard everything was up for grabs.”
Bennett was in the NBA for four seasons. He played 151 games and averaged 12.6 minutes and 4.4 points. His 0.5 career win shares are about what Rudy Gobert, taken 27th that year, gets every three games over the last four seasons.
19. Kwame Brown, Washington Wizards, 2001
Kwame Brown had significantly more staying power than Bennett (who, to his credit, has had some solid G League numbers of late), playing 12 NBA seasons and averaging double figures in his third campaign.
But he only had two years in which his BPM was better than replacement level (minus-2.0) and didn’t register a single above-average (0.0) season during his career.
Over his 12 seasons, he averaged 6.6 points and 5.5 rebounds in 22.1 minutes per game while posting a minus-1.0 relative true shooting percentage (player’s true shooting percentage minus the league average of the time) and a minus-1.4 net rating swing (meaning his teams’ net points per 100 possessions was 1.4 points worse when he played).
18. Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers, 2017
Markelle Fultz, of course, is one of those players who could certainly climb several spots over the next few years. It looks like he finally found a solid role for himself with the Orlando Magic, but his first few seasons were among the most bizarre in league history for a No. 1 pick.
There simply isn’t enough space here to decipher the mystery surrounding his shoulder, headspace and everything else that happened when he was with the Philadelphia 76ers, but plenty of outlets have attempted to lay out the timeline.
In short, on the rare occasions he actually did play in Philly (where he only appeared in 33 games), he was not good. He had a well-below-replacement-level BPM there, and he shot just 41.4 percent from the field and 26.7 percent from three.
But again, things are looking up in Orlando. He still wasn’t terribly efficient, but over 64 games in 2019-20, he’s averaged 12.1 points and 5.2 assists.
17. Andrea Bargnani, Toronto Raptors, 2006
Andrea Bargnani is one of two players in NBA history who were taken No. 1 overall without any high school or college experience in the United States.
And while it kind of worked for a couple of years—Bargnani averaged 10.8 points, shot 35.9 percent from three and had a positive net rating swing in those first two seasons—he quickly became a plus-minus nightmare.
As it currently stands, the No. 1 pick from 2006 ranks 17th in that class in career wins over replacement player.
16. Greg Oden, Portland Trail Blazers, 2007
Not including cumulative numbers like wins over replacement player and win shares was a boon for Greg Oden, who only managed 105 career games in the NBA.
Injuries, of course, were a problem for Oden, who simply couldn’t stay healthy once he joined the league. And that’s even sadder when you look back on the glimpses he provided in his first two campaigns.
In 2008-09 and 2009-10, Oden played 1,816 minutes, had a plus-6.9 relative true shooting percentage and averaged 9.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 22.1 minutes per game.
Dwight Howard was the only player in the league who matched Oden’s per-75-possession averages of 17.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks over that span.
3 of 9
NBA Photos/Getty Images
15. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns, 2018
One more reminder: Ayton has only been in the league for two years, and one solid playoff performance would likely vault him several spots up this list.
But a lack of postseason experience and a somewhat surprising 14th-place finish in the fan vote helped relegate him to No. 15 for now.
In terms of what he’s done in two regular seasons, though, there’s a chance Ayton is underrated.
He has the unfortunate distinction of being the top pick in Luka Doncic’s draft, but Ayton’s career per-75-possession averages of 19.4 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.3 blocks were only matched by four other players through their age-21 seasons: DeMarcus Cousins, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal and Karl-Anthony Towns.
14. Andrew Wiggins, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2014 (traded to Minnesota Timberwolves)
Andrew Wiggins has piled up plenty of basic numbers over the course of his six NBA seasons. In fact, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Tracy McGrady are the only players in league history to total as many points, rebounds, assists and steals through their age-24 seasons.
But Wiggins is the only member of that group with a below-average BPM during the relevant time period, and that may not be particularly surprising given his volume of shots and a minus-2.9 relative true shooting percentage.
It’s possible that Wiggins was simply miscast as a No. 1 option. It will be fascinating to see how he meshes with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. But for now, the numbers on the record aren’t as pretty as they may appear on the surface.
13. Kenyon Martin, New Jersey Nets, 2000
Kenyon Martin may not have reached superstar status at any point, but 15 seasons and a double-digit scoring average undoubtedly qualifies as a successful NBA career.
The one-time All-Star was a key cog for two New Jersey Nets squads that made the Finals and a perennial playoff contender in Denver.
12. Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee Bucks, 2005
Andrew Bogut essentially had two NBA careers: one before the gruesome arm injury and one after.
Over a five-season stretch from 2006-07 to 2010-11, Bogut averaged 13.6 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.8 blocks. He even made an All-NBA team in 2009-10.
Then, the injury happened and set him on a different course. And fortunately, it led him to the Golden State Warriors superteam led by Stephen Curry.
in 2014-15, Bogut had a plus-9.6 net rating swing and helped Golden State secure its first ring of the Splash Brothers era. His ability to act as an offensive hub around which Curry and Klay Thompson could cut was part of what made that offense so dynamic.
11. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans, 2019
The same caveat that applied to Fultz and Ayton works here. Zion Williamson can make up plenty of ground over the next few years, especially if he makes a few playoff runs.
And honestly, the fact that he’s already 11th despite that disadvantage is impressive.
As a rookie, almost everything that made Zion a phenom at Duke has seemed to translate to the NBA. His second jump might already be unrivaled. His end-to-end speed is alarming for a player his size (6’6″, 285 lbs). His vertical explosiveness doesn’t seem possible. And perhaps most importantly, he has a feel for the game that most don’t develop until well into their careers.
4 of 9
Jason DeCrow/Associated Press
10. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers, 2016
Another player who has risen up this list quickly, Ben Simmons has just three NBA seasons under his belt. And despite almost constant noise regarding his unwillingness to shoot threes, he’s already one of the NBA’s most versatile players.
Oscar Robertson is the only player in league history to total at least as many points (3,518) rebounds (1,779) and assists (1,713) as Simmons through his first three seasons. And since the 6’10” point guard entered the NBA, only 11 players have more wins over replacement player.
Of course, it’d be nice if Simmons eventually developed into an average shooter, but his overall production is already elite without that.
9. John Wall, Washington Wizards, 2010
John Wall is in the midst of a devastating spate of injuries, but he was one of the game’s most dominant point men before that.
From 2013-14 to 2016-17, Wall averaged 20.0 points, 9.9 assists and 1.9 steals per game. In that stretch, the Wizards were plus-3.1 points per 100 possessions with Wall on the floor and minus-5.2 with him off.
But he’s only managed 73 appearances since the start of the 2017-18 campaign and has yet to play at all this season. Here’s hoping he can manage a comeback similar to the next guard on this list.
8. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls, 2008
The youngest MVP in league history, Derrick Rose seems to have finally made it back from a yearslong battle with injuries.
He’s 17th in the NBA in offensive box plus/minus this season, and his pace- and playing-time-adjusted numbers don’t look too far off from those compiled during his MVP campaign:
- 2019-20 Rose: 25.7 points, 7.9 assists, 1.3 threes, 1.1 steals per 75 possessions, minus-0.9 relative true shooting percentage
- 2010-11 Rose: 26.7 points, 8.2 assists, 1.7 threes, 1.1 steals per 75 possessions, plus-0.9 relative true shooting percentage
For years, it looked like Rose might be the only MVP in league history to not make the Hall of Fame. And while his current Hall of Fame probability sits at just 11.9 percent, it now appears there is at least an opportunity to add to his resume.
7. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves, 2015
Karl-Anthony Towns is on track to be one of the best offensive players of all time. His 4.8 offensive box plus/minus is tied with Anthony Davis for 13th in NBA history. And among the 69 players with career scoring averages over 20 points per game, Towns’ true shooting percentage (62.2) trails only Stephen Curry’s (62.3).
He’s also had an overwhelmingly positive on-floor impact on the Minnesota Timberwolves over the course of his career. They’re plus-0.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and minus-5.0 with him off.
If he can develop into a reliable defensive anchor, he’ll have an argument for top-center-in-the-league status.
6. Yao Ming, Houston Rockets, 2002
Yao Ming only played in eight NBA seasons, and injuries plagued him for much of his career. But when he was healthy, he was a force for the Houston Rockets.
For his career, Yao averaged 19.0 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 32.5 minutes per game with a plus-6.1 relative true shooting percentage.
The Rockets were plus-4.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and plus-1.1 with him off.
5 of 9
Steve Freeman/Getty Images
For nearly a decade with the team that selected him first overall in 2004, Dwight Howard was one of the game’s most dominant big men.
From 2004-05 to 2011-12, he averaged 18.4 points, 13.0 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.0 steals per game. In that same stretch, he had a plus-6.3 relative true shooting percentage, a plus-6.1 net rating swing and a BPM that was tied for 22nd in the NBA (sixth among big men).
In 2010-11, his second-to-last season with Orlando, he finished second in MVP voting.
“Howard is the centerpiece for everything Orlando does on both ends, and he remains unmatched in his ability to both protect the rim and rush out to disrupt pick-and-rolls,” Zach Lowe wrote for Sports Illustrated at the time (h/t Evan Dunlap of Orlando Pinstriped Post). “His traditional stats are as good as ever, and he ranks fourth in the league in player efficiency rating.”
That ability to protect the paint helped Howard earn his third consecutive Defensive Player of the Year trophy that season, and his impact on both ends of the floor made the Magic a real title contender.
He’s become a journeyman through the second half of his career, and that seems to have colored the opinion of some toward him. But at his peak, Howard was a double-double machine and a nearly perfect big around whom then-Orlando head coach Stan Van Gundy could deploy his revolutionary spaced offense.
6 of 9
Jason DeCrow/Associated Press
Over the 10 seasons leading up to Blake Griffin’s 2010-11 debut for the Los Angeles Clippers, the franchise was dead last in the NBA in winning percentage. Over the course of his seven full seasons there, they were fifth, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat.
And it’s tough to avoid Griffin’s contributions when trying to explain that turnaround.
From 2010-11 to 2016-17, the Clippers were plus-6.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and minus-2.1 with him off. And in just seven-and-a-half seasons, he rose all the way to second on the franchise leaderboard in points, third in rebounds and fifth in assists.
For his entire career, Griffin’s averages of 21.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists are borderline unprecedented. Larry Bird and Wilt Chamberlain are the only players in league history to match or exceed all three of those marks.
And in recent years, he’s evolved into a legitimate three-point threat. In 2018-19, he tied for 13th in total three-point attempts, and his 36.2 percent conversion rate from outside topped the league average.
Like several others on this list, Griffin’s career is now marred by injuries. But he’s already done enough to build up to a 54.8 percent Hall of Fame probability. In his prime, he was one of the game’s most potent combinations of athleticism and playmaking.
7 of 9
Julio Cortez/Associated Press
Another player who has recently been plagued by injuries, Kyrie Irving is one of the game’s most dangerous offensive players when healthy.
He’s posted a 3.0-plus offensive box plus/minus in every season he’s played. Vince Carter and Magic Johnson are the only other players in league history to do so in each of their first nine seasons.
And Kyrie’s 25.3 points per 75 possessions for his career rank 13th all-time.
But all those numbers fail to capture what it’s like to watch Kyrie cook. Few are as skilled with the ball or have as extensive a repertoire of moves and shots. Given enough time, Irving can get by just about anyone, and he’s one of the rare players left who still scores from all three levels.
For his career, nearly half of his shots have come from the mid-range, and he’s still managed to post a plus-2.6 relative true shooting percentage.
But his most famous shot, of course, was a side-stepping three that secured the 2016 NBA Finals for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
With time winding down in Game 7 of that series, Kyrie waited for a switch that put Stephen Curry on him outside the three-point line. He wasted little time getting to the shot that put Cleveland up for good after that.
It was one of the most striking examples of his ability to get a good look whenever he needs one.
8 of 9
Mel Evans/Associated Press
“[Anthony] Davis has taken the guesswork out of the top of the 2012 NBA draft,” Jonathan Givony wrote for DraftExpress in 2012. “While he surely has plenty of things to work on, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be anything less than a huge success in the NBA.”
That was a common refrain from analysts and scouts on Davis back then. His box plus/minus from his freshman campaign at Kentucky is the second-highest on record (trailing only Zion Williamson’s), and all those things he needed to work on were pretty much rectified by his second NBA season.
Now eight seasons in, his career averages of 24.0 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game leap off the screen. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elvin Hayes, Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson are the only players in league history to match or exceed those marks through their first eight years.
Davis is among the most skilled big men the game has ever seen. He has a classical post game, a reliable jumper, a budding three-point shot, a nose for shot-blocking and rebounds and physical tools that belie his 6’10”, 253-pound frame.
And now that he’s paired with a legitimate GOAT candidate on the Los Angeles Lakers, there’s a solid chance he’ll add a championship to his resume. Once (or if) that happens, he’ll undoubtedly be one of the best No. 1 picks of all time.
9 of 9
TONY DEJAK/Associated Press
No surprise here. LeBron James isn’t just the best No. 1 pick since 2000; he’d have a real case for GOAT status if he retired tomorrow.
He’s already first all-time in career wins over replacement player (regular season and playoffs), second in BPM (behind Michael Jordan), third in points, eighth in assists, 13th in steals, 14th in threes and 18th in defensive rebounds.
And everywhere he’s gone, he’s had a massive impact.
His net-rating swing has been over 10.0 in 10 of his 17 seasons. Over the course of his career, his teams are plus-7.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and minus-4.1 with him off.
And that impact has translated into scores of accolades. On top of 16 All-Star appearances, 15 All-NBA selections, four MVPs and three Finals MVPs, LeBron is likely to pass MJ for first place in career MVP shares whenever awards for 2019-20 are voted on.
Breaking his production down to a game-by-game level offers perhaps the most striking example of LeBron’s dominance and longevity.
Over the course of his career, in both the regular season and playoffs, LeBron has 924 games with at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists. Oscar Robertson’s 607 such games rank second, and the distance between those two is about the same as the distance between Robertson and 19th-place Dwyane Wade.
Long and involved formula or not, LeBron was the obvious answer at the top of this list.
All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball Reference.