Get the top pick in the NBA draft and you get the top player, right? Sure, when LeBron James, Magic Johnson, or Shaquille O’Neal are waiting. But, more often than not, it isn’t that easy. Using our NBA Draft Data Tool, you can find how many times the No. 1 pick in the draft wound up being the best player in the class.
(For an explanation of the methodology and what win shares, expected win shares, and percentage of expected win shares are — and why we’re only studying the first 54 picks — read the first entry in this series.)
When Is the Best Player Selected?
Only eight times in the last 40 years of the draft has the best player in a class, by total win shares, been selected No. 1 overall: Johnson, 1979; David Robinson, 1987; O’Neal, 1992; Tim Duncan, 1997; James, 2003; Dwight Howard, 2004; Anthony Davis, 2012; and Karl-Anthony Towns, 2015. That means the top player in the draft has come from the top spot only 20 percent of the time. It sounds bad, but it’s the best percentage of any slot.
The next best? No. 3, the spot the 76ers have this year, has produced the best player in the class six times in the last 40 years.
The worst No. 1 pick ever (outside of the zero next to Ben Simmons’ name) is a two-man race between Michael Olowokandi and Anthony Bennett. Olowokandi earned just 2.5 percent of his expected value after the Clippers selected him No. 1 overall in 1998. Bennett, the Cavs’ No. 1 pick in 2013, has returned just 1.9 percent. Now with the Nets, his fourth team in four years, Bennett is still active — in the loosest sense of the word — so he has a chance to improve his performance. You can reproduce this list in the tool above by filtering out all but the No. 1 picks and ordering them based on percentage of expected win-shares.
If you find any other interesting trends or tidbits in the draft data tool, let us know in the comments below or on social media. We’ll have another draft data bit on Friday.