There’s no such thing as a guarantee in the NBA draft.
Team executives crunch numbers, evaluate potential and ultimately sometimes rely on gut instincts in hopes of landing a future franchise player, but it’s still just a game of chance. Teams with coveted lottery picks try to avoid the fated “bust,” when a high draft pick fizzles out and falls short of expectations.
The 2022 draft will put those strategies to the test, with multiple players in the mix to be the first off the board. Taking a walk down memory lane can reveal some of the biggest draft busts and what teams could look for to avoid that same fate.
There are countless lottery picks who never materialized but for the purpose of this list, we’re going to stick to players taken within the top-5. Here are the 10 biggest NBA draft busts:
Greg Oden - No. 1 pick, 2007 NBA Draft
By beating out the Seattle SuperSonics for the No. 1 overall pick, the Portland Trail Blazers lost out in the long run.
Entering the 2007 draft, the No. 1 pick was essentially a coin toss between two freshmen -- polar opposites in style and ultimately experiencing very different fates at the professional level. In one corner was Greg Oden, an all-powerful center out of Ohio State who Steve Kerr once described as a “once-in-a-decade type player.” In the other corner was a guy by the name of Kevin Durant.
Oden’s career was sadly marked by countless injuries, missing four whole seasons, including his rookie year, and undergoing a total of seven knee surgeries in as many years in the league. Taking a look at some of the players taken right after Oden, many of which have enjoyed sustained success, only adds salt to the wounds of Blazers fans everywhere.
Oden spent a season playing in the Chinese Basketball Association before returning to Ohio State to finish his degree, but the basketball world will probably always wonder what could’ve been had Greg Oden’s knees not given out.
Notable players taken after Oden: Kevin Durant (No. 2), Al Horford (No. 3), Mike Conley Jr. (No. 4), Marc Gasol (No. 48)
Anthony Bennett - No. 1 pick, 2013 NBA Draft
Oden seemed destined to occupy the spot of biggest bust among top draft picks in recent history until the Cleveland Cavaliers came by to select Anthony Bennett out of UNLV with their No. 1 overall pick.
Not unlike Oden, Bennett was physically a force of nature at the collegiate level -- checking in at 6-foot-8, 240 pounds. Ranked as the No. 7 recruit in the class of 2012, the Canadian averaged 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds in his one season with the Runnin’ Rebels. Still, the Cavs’ decision to select Bennett was considered a gamble at best, shocking the entire league, Bennett included. The Cavs kept Bennett for a year before trading him to the Minnesota Timberwolves and making room for LeBron James to return to Ohio.
In four seasons with four different teams, Bennett made four starts and averaged 4.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 0.5 assists per game before eventually being waived by the Brooklyn Nets midway through the 2016-2017 season. He’s spent time in the G League and overseas in the six years since, undergoing knee surgery and struggling to find his rhythm with a team. As of February, he was playing with the Kaohsiung Steelers in Taiwan.
Of course, the Cavs aren’t the only team to misjudge the seemingly weak 2013 draft class. Thirteen other teams passed up on a lanky 18 year old from Greece who would go on to become a six-time All-Star and league MVP.
Notable players taken after Bennett: Victor Oladipo (No. 2), CJ McCollum (No. 10), Steven Adams (No. 12), Giannis Antetokoumpo (No. 15), Rudy Gobert (No. 27)
Hasheem Thabeet - No. 2 pick, 2009 NBA Draft
Originally from Tanzania, Thabeet spent three years under Jim Calhoun at UConn. A 7-foot-3 center, he averaged 10.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.2 blocks in his career with the Huskies, leading them to a Final Four in 2009.
The Memphis Grizzlies took Thabeet with the No. 2 overall pick, but he spent his rookie season oscillating between the Grizzlies and their D-League affiliate, the Dakota Wizards. He bounced around the league for the next four years, averaging 2.2 points in 224 appearances before eventually fizzling out after the 2013-14 season.
Most recently, he was reported to be playing in the Taiwanese league before being cut near the end of 2021.
Notable players taken after Thabeet: James Harden (No. 3), Stephen Curry (No. 7), DeMar DeRozan (No. 9), Jrue Holiday (No. 17)
Kwame Brown - No. 1 pick, 2001 NBA Draft
To borrow a line from T.S. Eliot, Brown entered the NBA with a bang, but left with a whisper.
In his first season as president of basketball operations with the Washington Wizards, Michael Jordan opted for a flashy pick -- 19-year-old Kwame Brown out of Georgia. This marked the first time in NBA history that the top overall pick was used on someone entering the league directly out of high school.
After a slow start to his career, Brown posted his most productive season three years after entering the league -- averaging 10.9 points and 7.4 rebounds. The Wizards’ front office reportedly offered him a 5-year, $30 million contract, which he turned down and was ultimately traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. In Los Angeles, Brown continued to be a solid role player but was plagued by the growing sentiment that he was a draft bust. From 2008 to 2013, his production took a major hit as he bounced from five different teams before eventually retiring after a one-year stint with the Philadelphia 76ers.
NBA executives proved undeterred by Brown’s underwhelming career when drafting directly out of high school. In the four years that followed before the NBA implemented the one-and-done rule, two of the No. 1 overall picks went to players coming directly out of high school -- LeBron James (2003 NBA Draft) and Dwight Howard (2004 NBA Draft).
Notable players taken after Brown: Pau Gasol (No. 3), Joe Johnson (No. 10), Tony Parker (No. 28)
Jay Williams - No. 2 pick, 2002 NBA Draft
Let me be clear about something -- bust is a harsh and probably unfair characterization of Jay Williams’ career.
Taken 2nd overall, behind only Yao Ming, Williams provided a quality rookie season for the Chicago Bulls, averaging 9.5 points and 4.7 assists. His career was tragically cut short, however, when he was involved in a serious motorcycle accident during the offseason, resulting in serious injuries, including a fractured pelvis and three torn ligaments in his knee, effectively ending his basketball career. Riding a motorcycle was technically in violation of his contract with the Bulls, but Chicago still paid him $3 million to help fund his rehabilitation efforts.
Williams eventually parlayed his experience into a successful career as an analyst and commentator with ESPN, first primarily covering college basketball before more recently being moved to the NBA, but his playing career will forever be marked by what-ifs.
Notable players taken after Williams: Amar’e Stoudemire (No. 9), Caron Butler (No. 10), Carlos Boozer (No. 35)
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist - No. 2 pick, 2012 NBA Draft
The NBA buzz surrounding Michael Kidd-Gilchrist began well before the 2012 draft. Playing alongside Kyrie Irving at basketball powerhouse St. Patrick High School, Kidd-Gilchrist was one of the top players in the class of 2011 and seemed poised to make a jump to the NBA after a quick pit stop at Kentucky.
Under John Calipari, Kidd-Gilchrist averaged 11.9 points and 7.4 rebounds en route to a national championship. He and teammate Anthony Davis later made history as the only teammates to be drafted 1-2.
He posted respectable numbers with the Bobcats, averaging 8.6 points and 5.5 rebounds, but never quite lived up to the expectations placed on him as an amateur and was definitely surpassed by players far down the draft.
He finished the 2019-20 season in Dallas but has yet to sign with a team since.
Notable players taken after Kidd-Gilchrist: Bradley Beal (No. 3), Damian Lillard (No. 6), Draymond Green (No. 35), Khris Middleton (No. 39)
Darko Milicic - No. 2 pick, 2003 NBA Draft
You could make a case that the top of the 2003 Draft class was the best ever, but they don’t have Darko Milicic to thank for that honor.
The first-round pick landed in the Detroit Pistons’ lap via a trade from the then-Vancouver Grizzlies six years prior. A team relocation and several personnel changes later, that pick suddenly lost most of its protections. However, the ping pong balls went the Pistons’ way and they ended up with the No. 2 pick despite making the Eastern Conference Finals that season. Meanwhile, NBA Commissioner David Stern put his thumb on the scale, granting eligibility to the 17-year-old Milicic by changing the age-minimum rule to allow players turning 18 within the calendar year to declare for the draft.
Despite winning an NBA Championship in his first season with Detroit, Milicic struggled to find his rhythm with the Pistons and never earned substantial playing time. He managed to stay in the league for 12 seasons, but never met expectations of his loaded draft class led by the No. 1 overall pick, LeBron James.
After retiring from basketball in 2013, Milicic elected to pursue a kickboxing career before returning to Serbia with his family and working as a farmer.
Notable players taken after Milicic: Carmelo Anthony (No. 3), Chris Bosh (No. 4), Dwyane Wade (No. 5), Kyle Korver (No. 51)
Derrick Williams - No. 2 pick, 2011 NBA Draft
Williams is an unlikely addition to this list. Coming off two dominant years at Arizona, the Timberwolves selected Williams with the No. 2 pick. He made an immediate impact, averaging 8.8 and 12.0 points in his first two seasons and being named to the Rising Stars game during his rookie campaign.
He continued to bounce around the league, serving primarily as a role player, but saw a decrease in production and minutes as time went on. By 2018, he was playing abroad and has been there ever since.
Notable players taken after Williams: Kemba Walker (No. 9), Klay Thompson (No. 11), Kawhi Leonard (No. 15), Jimmy Butler (No. 30), Isaiah Thomas (No. 60)
Michael Olowokandi - No. 1 pick, 1998 NBA Draft
The Kandi Man belongs with Eddie the Eagle and Eric the Eel as athletes who made an unlikely ascend to the highest level of sports.
Born in Nigeria and raised in London, Olowokandi first picked up basketball at the age of 18. Checking in at 7-foot-1 and boasting a 7-foot-6 wingspan, he eventually made his way to California where he spent three years playing at the University of Pacific.
Believed to have incredible untapped potential, Olowokandi quickly emerged as a front runner to go as the No. 1 overall pick, and the Los Angeles Clippers took the gamble. In five seasons in Los Angeles, Olowokandi remained a starter but struggled to produce and was hampered by knee injuries.
He had two more stops in Minnesota and Boston before ending his career after a decade in the league. He averaged 8.3 points and 6.8 rebounds in 500 appearances.
Notable players taken after Olowokandi: Vince Carter (No. 5), Dirk Nowitzki (No. 9), Paul Pierce (No. 10), Brad Miller (undrafted)
LaRue Martin - No. 1 pick, 1972 NBA Draft
Martin entered the league off a prolific college career at Loyola Chicago, averaging a double-double of 18.2 points and 15.9 rebounds.
In four seasons with the Trail Blazers, Martin averaged 5.3 points and 4.6 rebounds. He went on to have a successful corporate career, served on several community boards and continues to play an active role in the NBA.
Notable picks taken after Martin: Bob McAdoo (No. 2), Julius Erving (No. 12)