Ranking the 10 best No. 1 draft picks in NBA history originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
Some of the greatest careers in NBA history began with eight words:
“With the first pick in the NBA draft …”
In 75 years of the NBA draft, 19 players who were taken with the No. 1 pick are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. An additional 29 players made either an All-Star Game or an All-NBA team.
Both of those numbers will grow in the coming years. Among the 15 active players who were No. 1 picks, two made the NBA 75th Anniversary team already and will be joined by some of their current counterparts in Springfield, Mass., someday. Others are just getting started in their pro careers.
If all 75 No. 1 picks were put into a new draft based on their NBA résumés, which one would be first off the board? Here’s a ranking of the 10 best top selections in league history.
In partnership with NBC Sports Philadelphia
10. Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks, 1985
Frozen envelope or not, Patrick Ewing was a tremendous pick for the New York Knicks.
The Georgetown center was far and away the top prize heading into the 1985 draft lottery before he eventually landed with the Knicks. Once in the Big Apple, Ewing kickstarted a Hall of Fame career by winning the 1985-86 NBA Rookie of the Year Award.
Over his 17-year career, Ewing amassed 11 All-Star, seven All-NBA and three NBA All-Defensive Team selections.
9. Elgin Baylor, Minneapolis Lakers, 1958
Elgin Baylor wasted little time building a Hall of Fame career after being drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers in 1958.
He averaged 24.9 points, 15.0 assists and 4.1 assists in his first NBA season, earning the 1958-59 Rookie of the Year Award. He was also named an All-Star, kicking off a stretch of 11 All-Star selections in his first 12 seasons. Over the same stretch, he was a 10-time All-NBA selection.
To this day, Baylor remains one of the top first picks in NBA history, as well as one of the best players to finish their playing careers without a championship.
8. David Robinson, San Antonio Spurs, 1987
Coming in at No. 8 is the Admiral.
David Robinson was one of two key No. 1 picks the San Antonio Spurs made to change the course of the franchise (we’ll get to the other one in a bit). After spending two years in the U.S. Navy, Robinson debuted for the Spurs in 1989 and won Rookie of the Year.
That was just the beginning of accolades for Robinson. The center earned 10 All-Star selections, 10 All-NBA selections, eight NBA All-Defensive Team selections, a Defensive Player of the Year Award, an MVP Award and a (controversial) scoring title to go along with two NBA championships.
7. Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati Royals, 1960
The Big O did it all.
In his first NBA season with the Cincinnati Royals, Oscar Robertson averaged 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.7 assists per game. He upped the ante in Year 2 and made history, averaging a triple-double with 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game. He went on to average 30-plus points and 10-plus assists six times from 1961-62 to 1966-67.
With 12 All-Star selections, 11 All-NBA selections, an MVP, a scoring title, a Rookie of the Year Award and an NBA title on his career résumé, Robertson became one of the first great point guards in league history.
6. Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets, 1984
It’s one thing to be taken before Michael Jordan in the NBA draft. It’s another thing to look back on it and still consider it a worthwhile selection.
That’s something the Houston Rockets can be proud of. In 1984, they drafted Hakeem Olajuwon, then Akeem Olajuwon, out of the University of Houston and landed a franchise cornerstone. The team reached the Finals in the center’s second NBA season and won back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995.
Olajuwon, unsurprisingly, played a major part in that. The Dream won Finals MVP for both championships, adding to a list of accomplishments that features 12 All-Star selections, 12 All-NBA selections, nine NBA All-Defensive Team selections, two NBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards and the 1993-94 MVP Award.
5. Shaquille O’Neal, Orlando Magic, 1992
Between his stature, personality, play style, accomplishments and nicknames, everything about Shaq was BIG.
After a monstrous career at LSU, Shaquille O’Neal was drafted first overall by the Orlando Magic in 1992. He won NBA Rookie of the Year after averaging 23.4 points and 13.9 boards per game and helped Orlando reach the NBA Finals in just his third season. He headed to Los Angeles in 1996 and proceeded to win three titles with the Lakers before earning a fourth with the Miami Heat in 2006.
In all, O’Neal was a 15-time All-Star, 14-time All-NBA selection, three-time All-Defensive Team selection, three-time Finals MVP and a two-time scoring champion across 19 NBA seasons.
4. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs, 1997
“Draft Tim Duncan. After that, stay alive.”
That was the response from Gregg Popovich, the winningest coach in NBA history, when asked about his key to success. And he’s not wrong.
The Spurs had never won a championship until Duncan arrived. The organization proceeded to win the 1999 NBA Finals in Duncan’s second season and added four more throughout his 19-year career.
Along with the five titles, Duncan’s accolades include 15 All-Star selections, 15 All-NBA selections, 15 NBA All-Defensive Team selections (most in NBA history), two NBA MVPs, three NBA Finals MVPs and 1997-98 NBA Rookie of the Year.
3. Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers, 1979
The selection of Magic Johnson in the 1979 draft led to the birth of the Showtime Lakers.
Johnson and Co. won five NBA titles from 1980 to 1988, beginning with his rookie season. In those 1980 Finals, Johnson famously took over as center in Game 6 against the Philadelphia 76ers and led the way with 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists.
Johnson’s career catalog includes 12 All-Star selections, 10 All-NBA selections, three MVPs, three Finals MVPs and four assist titles. His 11.2 assists per game remain the most in NBA history, continuing his legacy as one of the greatest offensive talents the game has ever seen.
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee Bucks, 1969
Despite coming in at No. 2 on this list, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is No. 1 in a number of prominent NBA categories.
The Bucks and Lakers center holds the record for most All-Star selections (19) and NBA MVP Awards (six). Other accolades include 11 All-Defensive selections, six NBA titles, two Finals MVPs and the 1969-70 NBA Rookie of the Year Award.
Abdul-Jabbar is also the NBA’s all-time leading scorer … for now …
1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2003
No. 1 is a just place for The King, both in the NBA draft and in this list.
LeBron James’ name is all across the league’s history books. He won championships with three different organizations: the Heat, Cavaliers and Lakers. When it comes to individual accolades, he is an 18-time All-Star, 18-time All-NBA selection, six-time All-Defensive Team selection, four-time NBA MVP, four-time NBA Finals MVP and 2003-04 NBA Rookie of the Year.
And he’s still going. James has a chance to pass Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record in his 20th NBA season. He currently trails Abdul-Jabbar by 1,325 points and should be able to surpass that total during the 2022-23 season.
One last thing worth mentioning with James is how he got to the NBA in the first place. He is the only player on this list who entered the NBA straight out of high school, heading to the Cavs when he was just 18 years old.
Honorable mentions: Elvin Hayes (1968), Bill Walton (1974), James Worthy (1982), Ralph Sampson (1983), Chris Webber (1993), Allen Iverson (1996), Yao Ming (2002), Dwight Howard (2004), Kyrie Irving (2011), Anthony Davis (2012)