Coolbaugh: Best and worst NBA top picks

With the 2010 NBA Draft approaching, that brought up the question: Who are the best and worst first overall picks in NBA history?

By Gethin Coolbaugh

With the NBA Draft looming less than two weeks away, it’s time to put on our draft hats, schedule draft day parties and start mulling through mock drafts.

What? There’s still basketball being played. You’re kidding me.

Yes, I know that the NBA Finals are still being played, but I can’t help but look ahead to one of the NBA’s most exciting days.

The 2010 NBA Draft, which will be held on Thursday, June 24th at the WaMu Theater inside Madison Square Garden, represents a fresh start for every team.

With the prior season all but a memory, every team is back on the same page with hopes of building for the future and competing for the NBA title.

The hopes and dreams of a select few of the world elite prospects are given the chance of a lifetime to show their stuff at the highest level.

Some fall flat on their face, but others step up and exceed expectation. With that in mind, here are the five best and the worst of the NBA’s first overall draft picks.


Kareem Abdul Jabbar was the greatest first overall pick in NBA history for two reasons: his durability and his unforgetable impact on both the Bucks and Lakers.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar was the greatest first overall pick in NBA history for two reasons: his durability and his unforgettable impact on both the Bucks and Lakers.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Milwaukee Bucks If you’re looking for one reason to justify that Kareem was the greatest first-round picks of all time, just look at it from a general manager’s perspective. Aside from talent, what is the one of the most important aspects to consider when drafting a rookie? Durability. And Abdul-Jabbar is the definition of durability. Drafted at the age of 22 in 1969, Kareem would play for an unprecedented 20 seasons with just two teams. And here’s what puts him ahead of the pack: he won with both. One of the greatest factors in considering who’s who in terms of top draft picks is their value to their team. For instance, I wouldn’t put Shaquille O’Neal on this list because he didn’t make a big impact on the Orlando Magic. But Abdul-Jabbar impacted both teams that he played on and could be considered the greatest player in both the history of the Bucks and Lakers. Kareem won his first championship with the Bucks in 1971 and went on to win five more with the Lakers (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988). He played with Milwaukee for six years before joining the Lakers for the remainder of his career (14 years!). A six-time MVP, 19-time All-Star, and two-time Finals MVP, Kareem dominated every minute he was on the court. For career totals, you will find few superior to Kareem. In 20 seasons, he totaled 38,387 points, 17,440 rebounds, 3,189 blocks and 5,660 assists. Kareem played a surreal 57,446 minutes in 1,560 games, 625 of which he started. Need another impressive stat? He had a lifetime field goal percentage of 55.9%. There is so much more that could be said about Kareem, but I might crash the computer if I tried to write it all. If you need anymore proof, check out his career statistics and honors on BasketballReference.com.

If Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the best top pick, then Earvin "Magic" Johnson is unquestionably number two. Johnson's impact on the Lakers, and the game of basketball, is one that will never be forgotten.

Earvin “Magic” Johnson - L.A. Lakers As far as value in a first overall pick, you won’t find anyone outside of Kareem more worthy than Magic (not even James Worthy!). Drafted in 1979 at the age of 21 out of Michigan State, Johnson was unquestionably one of the greatest number-one pick of all-time. In 33,245 minutes spread throughout 906 games, he scored 17,707 points and amassed 10,141 assists, 1,724 steals, 6,559 rebounds and had a career field goal percentage of 52%. He won five NBA championship titles with the Lakers in his 13-year career. During that time frame, he won the league’s Most Valuable Player award three times (1986-87, 1988-89, 1989-90), the Finals MVP award three times and was a 12-time All-Star and won the All-Star game MVP award twice. Johnson is widely considered the greatest Lakers who ever lived (not by me, that honor goes to Kareem!), and is heralded by some as the greatest player of all time. While one could write a novel about all of Johnson’s accomplishments, and many have, I’ll finish with this. If Johnson isn’t the best player in NBA history, you better not have him outside of your top five.

Saying that Magic was a good first pick would be a severe understatement.

Spurs forward Tim DUncan (left) and center David Robinson were as good as any championship duo that ever played the game.

Spurs forward Tim Duncan (left) and center David Robinson were as good as any championship duo that ever played the game.

David Robinson/Tim Duncan - San Antonio Spurs I can think of few better duos than the Admiral and The Big Fundamental. Robinson and Duncan are as fine a pair as they come. Robinson, drafted number one overall at the age of 24 in 1987 out of the United States Naval Academy, played 14 NBA seasons all with the Spurs. In 987 games and 34,271 minutes, Robinson totaled 20,790 points, 10,497 rebounds and 2,954 blocks. For a big man, Robinson was a decent free throw shooter, making 7,365-of-14,221 shots from the charity stride. Robinson was a two-time champion, a one-time MVP and was honored as the NBA’s rookie of the year in 1989-90 and the Defensive Player of the Year in 1991-92. As for Duncan, who was drafted first overall at age of 21 in 1997 out of Wake Forest University, has had an equally great career. In his rookie season in ‘97, Duncan started all 82 games and averaged 21.1 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks, earning him the NBA’s Rookie of the Year Award. Through 13 seasons, Duncan has 20,641 points, 11,335 rebounds, 2,235 blocks and a lifetime field goal percentage of 50.8%. He was the Finals MVP in 1999 and again in 2002-03 and 2004-05. In addition, he is a two-time NBA MVP wand was the MVP of the 1999-00 All-Star game. Together, Robinson and Duncan were a force that could not be stopped. The only duo that rivaled them in that period was that of Shaq and Kobe Bryant. But even they weren’t as forceful in the paint. Any team would kill to have players like Robinson and Duncan roaming underneath the basket. Sadly, a pair like that only comes around once in a lifetime.

Although New York center Patrick Ewing never won an NBA title, he helped transform the Knicks into one of the league's premier franchises.

Patrick Ewing - New York Knicks To this day, when someone mentions Knicks basketball, the first name that pops into my mind is legendary center Patrick Ewing. And it should be that way for every NBA fan. After he was drafted at age 23 in 1985 out of Georgetown university, Ewing quickly became a household name in the Big Apple and the basketball universe. He won the Rookie of the Year award in 1985-86, averaging 20.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 50 games. By the time he retired in the 2001-02 as a member of the Orlando Magic, Ewing had amassed 24,815 points, 11,607 rebounds, 2,894 blocks and a career field goal percentage of 50.4%. While Ewing never won the Knicks an NBA title, he turned them into one of the league’s most respected franchise. Even though New York has had its struggles this past decade, the Big Apple is still considered the Mecca of basketball, and this is due in part to Ewing’s career achievements. Ewing was an 11-time All-Star and was named to the All-NBA first team once, the second team six times and was named to the All-Defensive second team three times. If New York is able to lure in several high-profile free agents, such as LeBron James, Dwayne Wade or Chris Bosh, Knicks fans can thank Ewing for turning the Big Apple into a desirable basketball destination.

Cleveland forward LeBron James will go down as the greatest Cavalier in franchise history, whether he signs with the team or not.

LeBron James - Cleveland Cavaliers Not only does LeBron make the cut for consideration of the league’s best modern-day player, but he also makes the list of the best first overall picks of all time. James burst into the public eye when he was still in high school, and he already had people hailing him as possibly the best player of all time. His first few seasons in the league did not disappoint, as King james brought home honor after honor. James was the Rookie of the Year in 2003-2004 when he was selected first overall out of St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School in Akron, Ohio. In his rookie campaign, James averaged 20.9 points, 5.9 assists and 5.5 rebounds in 79 games at the age of 19. His scoring only went up, as he has averaged the following points scored ever since: 27.2 ,31.4, 27.3, 30.0, 28.4 and 29.7. In 2005-06 and 2997-08, James was the MVP of the All-Star game. In total, LeBron has been selected to six All-Star games. He has elevated his game the past two seasons, and the league has taken notice, awarding James the NBA MVP award each of the past two seasons. As far as championships go, LeBron’s count sits at zero. He came close in the 2006-07season when James took the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals but lost to the San Antonio Spurs. James has taken the Cavaliers to the playoffs every season since the ‘06-’07 campaign, and has had lengthy runs every year. All the nay-sayers will say that, since LeBron hasn’t won a ring, he can’t be considered one of the best top picks. But again, I bring up the topic of impact. And there has been no one in franchise history that has had a bigger impact than James. Rest assured, James will eventually win a ring with the Cavaliers or another team. But even if his first ring doesn’t come as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the state of Ohio will never forget what James meant to that team of the city of Cleveland.

With the five best picks laid out for all to see, I’ll be bringing you the five worst first overall draft picks of all time in the second installment of this story.

For now, enjoy the NBA Finals everyone.

Gethin Coolbaugh is the Associate Editor of Boston Sports U18. He can be reached at 774-279-1995 or at [email protected] You can also visit Gethin Coolbaugh’s official website and follow Gethin Coolbaugh on Twitter.

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