The worst No. 1 NBA draft picks of all time

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Ryan Murphy

November 16th, 2020

There are few things more prized in the NBA than a No. 1 draft pick. If used wisely, it can set up a franchise for multiple championship runs and a decade (or more) of dominance. Just ask the San Antonio Spurs, who made 22 consecutive trips to the playoffs and won five titles after selecting Tim Duncan in 1997.

Conversely, some teams never recover from selecting the wrong player at the top of the draft. Their poor choices send them spiraling into a deep abyss of lengthy losing streaks, half-empty arenas, and pink slips a-plenty.

Join us now as we turn the spotlight on the worst No. 1 NBA draft picks of all time

10. Michael Olowokandi - Los Angeles Clippers (1998)

Imagine being in a position to add Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, or Antawn Jamison to your franchise. And then imagine thumbing your nose at all of them to choose a lumbering, disinterested center from the Big West Conference instead. That’s precisely what the Clippers did in 1998 when they made 7'0" center Michael Olowokandi the top pick in the draft. "Kandi Man" lasted just five seasons in L.A., before spending the remainder of his lackluster career clogging up the lane in Minnesota and Boston.

Who they should have picked: Dirk Nowitzki. "Dirty" is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer who made the Western Conference All-Star Team 14 times during his 21 seasons in Dallas.

9. Markelle Fultz - Philadelphia 76ers (2017)

Markelle Fultz still has time to turn around his career, but the early results have been less than encouraging. The highly-touted combo guard appeared in just 33 games combined during his first two seasons as the 76ers attempted to help him fix a shot that had more moving pieces than a Rube Goldberg invention. Fultz is playing with considerably more confidence now, but he remains a liability on offense due to his laughable lack of range.

Who they should have picked: Jayson Tatum. The Celtics forward averaged 26.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game in the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals and is well on his way to becoming a superstar.

8. Jim Barnes - New York Knicks (1964)

The future appeared bright for Jim "Bad News" Barnes after he averaged 15.5 points and 9.7 rebounds per game during his rookie season with the Knicks. Unfortunately everything went downhill from there. Numerous knee and Achilles injuries sidelined his once promising career and he spent more time in the trainer’s room than on the court over the next eight seasons. Had he remained healthy he could have been an All-Star, but his bad luck kept him from ever fulfilling his potential.

Who they should have picked: Jerry Sloan. It’s hard to believe, but Sloan slipped all the way to the third round, where the future Hall of Famer was selected by the Baltimore Bullets. He was later named to the NBA All-Defensive Team six times before enjoying an exceptional 23-year run as head coach of the Utah Jazz.

7. Fred Hetzel - San Francisco Warriors (1965)

The 1965 NBA Draft produced four Hall of Famers and an additional six All-Stars. Fred Herzel was not among them. In fact, the Davidson standout played on five different teams over six seasons and retired in 1971 after averaging a career-low 4.8 points per game for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Who they should have picked: The Warriors were smart enough to snag Rick Barry with the second pick in the 1965 Draft, but they should have chosen Billy Cunningham over Hetzel. The long-limbed North Carolina alum became a five-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA Team honoree.

6. Dick Ricketts - Milwaukee Hawks (1955)

Let’s be perfectly honest: "Dick Ricketts" sounds like something you might catch on a trip to Vegas. In this case, it was something the Milwaukee Hawks caught when they selected the Duquesne star first overall in the 1955 NBA Draft. The 6'7" Ricketts played reasonably well during his first three years in the league, but his first love was always baseball, and he bolted the NBA for the major leagues in 1959.

Who they should have picked: Jack Twyman. Unlike Ricketts, Twyman actually stuck with basketball and was pretty darn good at it. The sweet-shooting small forward became a six-time All-Star and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983.

5. Kwame Brown - Washington Wizards (2001)

Anyone who saw The Last Dance knows that Michael Jordan was not the most nurturing of teammates. Although his abrasive approach lit a fire under some players, it positively crushed the spirit of Kwame Brown, whom Jordan nabbed out of high school when he was the Wizards’ president of basketball operations. Jordan’s constant bullying filled Brown with crippling self-doubt and robbed him of his love of the game.

Who they should have picked: Pau Gasol. It seems obvious in retrospect, but the Wizards clearly should have taken the two-time Spanish League Champion and Spanish League Finals MVP rather than the pimply kid who couldn’t lead his high school team to the state finals.

4. Bill McGill - Chicago Zephyrs (1962)

It’s easy to understand why Chicago made Bill "The Hill" McGill the No. 1 pick in the 1962 NBA Draft. After all, the springy 6’9” center averaged 38.8 points per game during his senior season at the University of Utah and was a basketball pioneer who was responsible for inventing the jump hook.

Unfortunately Hill’s game didn’t translate to the NBA, and the former All-American was out of the league by 1964 after playing for five different teams. Hill remained active in the NABL and ABA for five more years, but barely made enough to make ends meet, and ended up on the streets after his career came to a premature end.

Who they should have picked: John Havlicek. Hondo was an exceptionally gifted wing with an unstoppable motor. The Ohio State grad made 13 All-Star teams and was an integral part of eight NBA Championship squads.

3. LaRue Martin - Portland Trail Blazers (1972)

The Portland Trail Blazers could have added Bob McAdoo or Julius Erving to their roster in the spring of 1972. Instead they chose LaRue Martin, a player so fundamentally flawed he made just 41% of his field goals despite living on the low block. The Loyola product lasted just four seasons in the NBA and retired from professional basketball at age 26.

Who they should have picked: Julius Erving. A 16-time All-Star, four-time MVP, and unanimous Hall of Fame selection, Dr. J was so transcendently good that he paved the way for the ABA-NBA merger. Without Erving, the Nets, Spurs, Pacers, and Nuggets may still be playing in the bush leagues.

2. Anthony Bennett - Cleveland Cavaliers (2013)

There was no consensus No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. At the time, Giannis Antetokounmpo was just a skinny kid from Greece with a name no one could pronounce, Victor Oladipo was ineffective off the dribble, and Rudy Gobert was rawer than a plate of sashimi. So, in the absence of a sure thing, the Cavs tried to fill a need by claiming Bennett instead.

It proved to be a disastrous decision, as the undersized pivot averaged just 4.2 points in his rookie season and was shipped to Minnesota the following year. Bennett made just four starts over the next three seasons and has been out of the Association since 2017.

Who they should have picked: Giannis Antetokounmpo. Hindsight is always 20/20, but the Cavs could have had a frontcourt featuring "The Greek Freak" and LeBron James had they played their cards right.

1. Mark Workman - Milwaukee Hawks (1952)

Mark Workman was inducted into the West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame in 1994, but it’s unlikely he would even be allowed to step foot into the Basketball Hall of Fame after his disastrous NBA career. The 6’9” bruiser was traded midway through his rookie season and played just 79 games before being drummed out of the league.

Who they should have picked: Clyde Lovellette. "Boom Boom" was a four-time All-Star and three-time NBA champ who averaged 20 points or more six times during his 11-year career.

Dishonorable mention: Joe Barry Carroll, Andrea Bargnani, Greg Oden