Drafting in the NBA is mostly about securing the right pick by losing and getting lucky in the lottery. That’s not what we’re measuring here. Once the draft order is set, here are the most significant selections – for better or worse –of the last decade:
10. Jayson Tatum, No. 3 pick in 2017 (Celtics)
Boston correctly identified Tatum as the best prospect in the draft and even traded down from No. 1 to get him. Tatum’s growth has been uneven, but he’s a highly skilled wing with shooting touch and defensive tools. Here’s betting he becomes a star.
9. Markelle Fultz, No. 1 pick in 2017 (76ers)
The draft system makes busts tend to be less significant. Drafting an underwhelming player positions a team to draft high again. See 2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett, arguably the worst No. 1 pick of all time. The Cavaliers just got another No. 1 pick the following year. But the 76ers were already rising with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons when they traded up to get Fultz, cashing in on the assets Sam Hinkie accumulated through The Process. Fultz’s jumper looks broken, and Philadelphia sold low to trade him to the Magic. The 76ers are now too good to get another opportunity to draft anywhere near this high in this era.
8. Klay Thompson, No. 11 pick in 2011 (Warriors)
Younger players like Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Pascal Siakam could eventually pass Thompson. Luka Doncic could play well enough to make the Kings drafting Marvin Bagley III ahead of him a larger error than Golden State’s gain with Thompson. But we’ll go with the safe pick. Thompson was a star on a dynasty. That’s a high bar to clear.
7. Paul George, No. 10 pick in 2010 (Pacers)
George presented great value in the late lottery. He quickly became the best player on a championship contender. Then, when he was ready to leave Indiana, the Pacers dealt him to usher in their next era with Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.
6. Nikola Jokic, No. 41 pick in 2014 (Nuggets)
The Nuggets didn’t need long to realize they should build around a second-rounder with unremarkable athleticism and an atypical skill set. Jokic might be the best passing center of all-time, and he has become more aggressive with his own scoring. Denver is still rising. We’ll see how far Jokic leads this team.
5. Damian Lillard, No. 6 pick in 2012 (Trail Blazers)
Portland got this pick by trading Gerald Wallace to the Nets earlier in the year – a deal that nearly made the biggest-trades-of-the-decade list. But picking the right player in the draft was too key to the transaction, which is why it appears here. Lillard was an unconventional lottery pick – an upperclassman from Weber State. But he has blossomed into a franchise player
4. Luka Doncic, No. 3 pick in 2018 (Mavericks via Hawks)
Only two players have made an All-NBA team by their age-20 season – LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Doncic is on track to become the third. With the No. 5 pick, the Mavericks were in no position to get Doncic. But they leveraged the Kings’ curious decision to draft Bagley, the Hawks’ interest in Trae Young and traded up to get the budding superstar.
3. Draymond Green, No. 35 pick in 2012 (Warriors)
Green wasn’t a superstar. That was Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Green wasn’t even as traditionally talented as Klay Thompson. But Green’s basketball intelligence, defensive versatility and passing ability unlocked Golden State’s dynasty. His effectiveness, at 6-foot-7, defending opposing centers while forcing those bigs out of the paint on the other end ignited the small-ball revolution. Not bad for a second-rounder.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, No. 15 in 2013 (Bucks)
Milwaukee was largely irrelevant – a small-market team that hadn’t won a playoff series in more than a decade and had advanced past the first round only once in more than two decades. A non-lottery pick from Greece’s second division, Antetokounmpo has blossomed into a Most Valuable Player. He could even win the award multiple times with the Bucks. Milwaukee has won only two playoff series with Antetokounmpo, but there’s time for more postseason damage. If Antetokounmpo signs a super-max contract, the Bucks could contend for years. If he doesn’t, they’ll have an opportunity to get a massive return via trade.
1. Kawhi Leonard, No. 15 pick in 2011 (Spurs via Pacers)
San Antonio and Indiana reportedly agreed in principle before the draft to trade George Hill for the No. 15 pick, contingent on who was available. It’s difficult to believe the Spurs were always intent on Leonard, considering he was widely expected to go higher. But San Antonio got a superstar and extended ITS dynasty. Leonard is the only player drafted this decade who led his team to a championship.