The WOATs: The 5 All-Time Worst #1 Picks of the NBA Draft Lottery Era

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By Justin Rivers – Summer Staff Writer

Is there no larger golden ticket in the National Basketball Association than possessing the top pick in the draft? In the same way that winning the actual lottery has life-changing capability, winning the NBA Draft Lottery has franchise-altering potential. In theory, it is the most sure-fire way to catapult a moribund franchise out of the lottery (i.e. the bottom 14 teams in the league) and onto the fast track to contention.

When the Orlando Magic snagged Shaquille O’Neal, a backboard-obliterating center out of LSU, with the top pick in the 1992 NBA Draft, they were coming off of a putrid 21-61 season. Dreams sure do come true in Orlando, because, while leading the Magic to a 41-41 record the following season, the 7-foot-1 O’Neal averaged 23.4 points, 13.9 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks per game, started in the All-Star Game, and was awarded Rookie of the Year honors. His selection correlated with a 20-win improvement. However, there isn’t always a franchise-altering, transcendent talent at the top of the draft that merits selection without hesitancy. It is in these situations, where the draft class itself may not be as robust, that all-time draft blunders occur, and who doesn’t like a good blunder?

As such, I present another WOAT ranking. This time, I rank the five all-time worst number one overall picks since the first NBA Draft Lottery in 1985. Regarding my methodology, unlike my previous WOAT ranking, “The WOATs: The 5 All-Time Worst Franchises in Basketball,” I expanded the number of categories used, and I utilized only categories in which all players registered. Albeit accounting for accolades would have certainly helped distinguish the GOATs from the WOATs, I did not include accolades in my analysis. This way, I better isolated and compared players across years and eras, as well as had categories into which all players fit. As a result, a player was not unfairly ranked higher than another due to his having won a championship, whether it had been as a key contributor or not, like Glenn Robinson on the ’04-05 San Antonio Spurs. This method also prevented a player from having a higher ranking, because he had more years to accumulate accolades. I surveyed all number one overall picks since the inaugural NBA Draft Lottery, except for Zion Williamson. It would not have been fair to include Zion, because he has yet to complete a full season. Understanding that some of these players’ careers are ongoing, I took their career averages leading up to the suspension of the NBA season in mid-March, assuming there will not be much future variance in these averages. (But, as their careers progress – especially the younger players like Ben Simmons, Deandre Ayton, Karl-Anthony Towns,  etc. – their career averages are subject to change, since they have yet to reach their respective primes.) I then analyzed their careers based on the following eight advanced statistical categories: Career Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Career Win Shares Per Season (WS/Season), Career Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (WS/48), Career Box Plus/Minus (BPM), Career Value Over Replacement Player Per Season (VORP/Season), Career Wins Over Replacement Player (WARP/Season), Career Usage Percentage (Usg%), and Career True Shooting Percentage (TS%). Their definitions can be found in the methodology section towards the bottom of this post.Once these were compiled, each player was given a z-score in each category, because simply ranking them would not account for how dominant or how abysmal one player is in a given category. Therefore, by using z-scores, the data captures how far above or how far below a player is from the overall average of all 34 number one overall picks that were observed. After summing each player’s z-scores, each player was then ranked accordingly. This ranking is illustrated in the following graph:

The five players that ranked the worst constitute the following ranking. Below, you will find each player’s statistical value in the aforementioned eight categories, as well as how they ranked amongst the other 34 number one picks in parentheses. PHEW! Now that you know the method to my madness, let’s see who makes this version of the WOAT list!

5. Pervis Ellison (1989 to 2001)

Source: Fox Sports

Career PER: 5.2 (34th)

Career WS/Season: 1.982 (29th)

Career WS/48: 0.09 (27th)

Career BPM: – 0.5 (27th)

Career VORP/Season: 0.4 (26th)

Career WARP/Season: 1.08 (26th)

Career Usg%: 18% (32nd)

Career TS%: 0.546% (19th)

In a draft that featured Glen Rice, Tim Hardaway Sr., B.J. Armstrong, and Sean Kemp, the Sacramento Kings opted to select Pervis Ellison, a 6-foot-9, 210-pound big man, with the first overall pick in the 1989 NBA Draft. After a lackluster 27-55 season, the NBA Lottery gods blessed the Kings with the top pick, and, in the subsequent season, they managed to lose even more games. With Ellison on the roster, they lost four more games. In his rookie season – and lone season with the Kings, he averaged a whopping 8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, shooting 44% from the field. The Kings traded him the following season. To his credit, he had two outlier seasons with the Washington Bullets from 1991-1993, during which he averaged 20 points and 11.2 rebounds per game and then 17.4 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. Throughout these two seasons, his Usg% was slightly north of 20% for the first and only time in his career. During this period of time, he also won the 1991-92 NBA’s Most Improved Player award. “Out of Service Pervis,” as he was appropriately nicknamed, never played a full season in his career – playing only 34 games his rookie season – and played more than 70 games once. During his 11-season career in the league, he averaged 9.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. With a below average PER, WS/48, and Usg%. His BPM was more akin to a bench player. In the end, he certainly disappointed as a top draft selection. 

4. Markelle Fultz (2017 to Present)

Source: Washington Post

Career PER: 13.5 (30th)

Career WS/Season: 1.067 (32nd)

Career WS/48: 0.062 (30th)

Career BPM: – 2 (31st)

Career VORP/Season: 0 (31st)

Career WARP/Season: 0 (31st)

Career Usg%: 20.7% (25th)

Career TS%: 0.499% (32nd)

As the number one overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Markelle Futlz, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound guard, has been quite the disappointment in his short career. While he has time to hopefully improve, he has been abysmal thus far. His draft class featured All-Stars Jayson Tatum, Donovan Michell, and Bam Adebayo and serviceable, starting-calibre, up-and-coming players such as Dillon Brooks, De’Aaron Fox, Kyle Kuzma, and Jarrett Allen. Selected by the Philadelphia 76ers, he was supposed to be the last piece to the “Trust the Process” movement and form a Big Three with fellow top picks Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Instead, when his squad and the Celtics (who in 2017 swapped picks with the 76ers and selected Jayson Tatum with the 3rd-pick) met up in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2018, Tatum averaged 23.6 points per game on 53% shooting and 37.8 minutes per game. On the other hand, Fultz averaged 0 points and 0 minutes per game, because he was designated DNP (DNP = did not play – coach’s decision) by Brett Brown. He simply was not good enough to sniff the court.

At best, his career BPM of -2 makes him a bench player. He has a below league-average PER and WS/48. Moreover, his VORP/Season and WARP/Season values of 0 illustrate that he literally adds no additional value to his team over a replacement player. He was traded to the Orlando Magic after two failures for seasons in the City of Brotherly Love, during which he started 15 of the 33 games he played in and averaged 7.7 points and 3.4 assists per game. For the record, there are 82 games in an NBA season. So, he only played in 33 of a possible 164 games, about 20%. His lone season thus far in Orlando has looked more promising, as he was averaging 12.1 points and 5.4 assists per game and had played in 64 games before the suspension of the season. Therefore, he might escape this list by the end of his career, but time will tell, and I am not sure I would bet on it.

3. Kwame Brown (2001 to 2013)

Source: Washington Post

Career PER: 12.5 (31st)

Career WS/Season: 1.733 (31st)

Career WS/48: 0.074 (29th)

Career BPM: – 2.4 (32nd)

Career VORP/Season: – 0.108 (32nd)

Career WARP/Season: – 1.3 (32nd)

Career Usg%: 15.8% (34th)

Career TS%: 0.523 (25th)

While the 2001 NBA Draft class is not memorable as far as being filled with superstar talent, the Washington Wizards certainly could have done better than Kwame Brown. You would have thought that the GOAT, “His Airness,” and then Wizards’ President of Basketball Operations, Michael Jordan, had enough basketball acumen to have selected a better player and see that Brown, a 6-foot-11, 270-pound center out of high school, would be a bust. In fact, he is notoriously known as one of the most notable draft busts in NBA history. In his 4-season career with the Wizards he only averaged a subpar 7.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. His career totals reflect a below average PER and WS/48. Plus, his BPM of -2.4 made him an end of the bench player. According to his VORP/Season and WARP/Season values, he added negative value above a replacement level player. For reference, notable players from the ’01 NBA Draft include Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Tyson Chandler, Richard Jefferson, and Joe Johnson. Michael Jordan had his choice of those players, yet he opted for Kwame (freakin’) Brown. Yes, Kwame (stinkin’) Brown!

2. Anthony Bennett (2013 to 2017)

Source: Bleacher Report

Career PER: 10.2 (33rd)

Career WS/Season: 0.125 (34th)

Career WS/48:  0.013 (33rd)

Career BPM: – 4.8 (34th)

Career VORP/Season: – 0.325 (33rd)

Career WARP/Season: – 0.878 (33rd)

Career Usg%: 19% (30th)

Career TS%: 0.457 (33rd)

In 2013, while Cleveland Cavaliers fans were still recovering from “The Decision,” and had just watched their native son, LeBron James, win back-to-back NBA Championships in Miami, the franchise won the NBA Lottery for the second time in three years. Having picked Kyrie Irving with the top pick in 2011, the Cavs grabbed Anthony Bennett with the top pick in 2013 – ahead of current stars Victor Oladipo, Rudy Gobert, and soon-to-be back-to-back MVP Giannis Antekokounmpo. 

What the Cavs got in Bennett was a risky 6-foot-8, 240-pound one-and-done product out of UNLV, who averaged 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game in his lone collegiate season. In his only season in Cleveland, he did not start a single game and averaged 4.2 points and 3 rebounds per game. These averages did not go up either after the Cavs managed to bamboozle the worst franchise in basketball, the Minnesota Timberwolves, into taking him and another subpar top pick in Andrew Wiggins for All-Star forward Kevin Love. During his short 4-season NBA career that spanned four teams and flamed out pathetically in the G-League, he played in only 151 games, posted a below average PER, and was the sole proprietor of a laughable WS/48 of 0.013 (Don’t forget that the league average is 0.100). Amongst all the number one overall picks since 1985, he has posted the worst BPM with an abysmal – 4.8, putting him well below the threshold for an end of the bench player. If he is not the WOAT, then whoever is must have been really really bad.

1. Michael Olowokandi (1998  to 2007)

Source: Getty Images

Career PER: 10.7 (32nd)

Career WS/Season: 0.278 (33rd)

Career WS/48: 0.009 (34th)

Career BPM: – 4.6 (33rd)

Career VORP/Season: – 0.944 (34th)

Career WARP/Season: – 2.55 (34th)

Career Usg%: 18.8 (31st)

Career TS%: 0.457 (33rd)

Of course one of the franchises that made my previous WOAT ranking, picked one of the all-time worst number one overall picks. In fact, they selected the WOAT! Back in 1998, the lottery ping pong balls fell in favor of the Los Angeles Clippers. With the top pick in the ’98 NBA Draft, instead of selecting future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, or Dirk Nowitzki, the Clippers selected the Nigerian-born big man Michael Olowokandi with the top pick out of the University of the Pacific. Going into the draft, Olowokandi was coming off of a double-double 22.2 points and 11.2 rebounds per game campaign in his last collegiate season; however, he never reproduced that level of production in the league, and frankly he didn’t muster up that level of production in his other collegiate seasons.

As a rookie, he played in only 45 games, averaged 8.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, and showhow managed to make the All-Rookie 2nd Team. Over the course of his 9-season career, he only averaged double-digit points twice and never averaged double-digit rebounds. Compared to the other 34 number one overall picks, he posted the worst career VORP/Season, WARP/Season, and WS/48. He posted the second to worst WS/Season, BPM, and TS%. His career averages of 8.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game were beyond a far cry from what was expected from the 7-foot center. His advanced metrics illustrate the manner in which he is truly and undoubtedly the WOAT. 

Methodology:

Here are the eight categories I used for this installment of The WOATs:

  1. Career Player Efficiency Rating (PER): A measure, developed by ESPN.com columnist John Hollinger, representing the sum of all of a player’s negative on-court accomplishments, like missed shots, turnovers, and personal fouls, subtracted from the sum of their positive on-court accomplishments, such as field goals, free throws, 3-pointers, assists, rebounds, blocks, and steals, translated into a per-minute rating of a player’s performance. The league average PER is 15; however, it is an imperfect stat, because it undervalues defensive contributions due to the simple fact that there aren’t as many raw defensive statistics as there are offensive statistics. Blocks and steals are it. 
  1. Career Win Shares Per Season (WS/Season): On its own, Win Shares is an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a single player. My use of Win Shares Per Season is thus a per season average of the amount of wins contributed by a player.
  1. Career Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (WS/48): An estimate of the number of wins that a player contributes per 48 minutes. The league average in WS/48 is 0.100. For reference, the all-time leader in this metric is Michael Jordan (0.2505).
  1. Career Box Plus/Minus (BPM): An estimate of the points per 100 possessions contributed by a player above a league-average player in the box score. For reference, Basketball Reference breaks down BPM as the following:
  • +10 = an all-time season 
  • +8 = MVP season
  • +6 = an all-nba season
  • +4 = all-star consideration
  • +2 = a good starter
  • 0 = a decent starter or solid 6th man
  • -2 = bench player or “replacement level” 
  • < -2 = end of the bench player 
  1. Career Value Over Replacement Player Per Season (VORP/Season): A box score estimates of the points per a team’s 100 possessions that a player contributed above a replacement-level player (-2.0), assuming the player was on an average team over an 82-game season. By dividing this value by the amount of seasons a player played, I got an average per season estimate of their VORP. 
  1. Career Wins Above Replacement Player Per Season (WARP/Season): A box estimate that takes a player’s VORP and multiplies it by 2.7 to convert it into a measure of how many additional wins a player contributed to his team above a replacement-level player, translated to an average team with four other average players over an 82-game season.  By dividing this value by the amount of seasons a player played, I got an average per season estimate of their WARP. 
  1. Career Usage Percentage (Usg%): A calculation of the percentage of a team’s plays that a player was involved in while on the court, provided that the play ended in one of the following three results: a field-goal attempt, a free-throw attempt, or a turnover by said player. An average player’s Usg% is about 20%. The all-time leader in career Usg% is Michael Jordan (33.26%). The single-season record for Usg% is 41.65% by Russell Westbrook during his MVP season in 2016-17.
  1. Career True Shooting Percentage (TS%): A measure of a player’s shooting efficiency that takes into consideration field goals, 3-point field goals, and free throws. A 0.500 TS% is considered about average, while anything above 0.600 TS% is considered exceptional and elite. For reference, Steph Curry, an elite scorer and 3-point marksman with a career Usg% of 27.9%, is currently ranked 4th all-time in TS% with a TS% of .6231. The current all-time career leader in this metric, DeAndre Jordan, a rebounding center who could not shoot a 3-pointer or free throw to save his life, has a career TS% of .6391; however, he has a below average career Usg% of 14.1%. Therefore, this metric cannot be looked at in isolation.

Complete Ranking:

In case you missed it, here is how all 34 of the number one overall picks since 1985 stacked up in the ranking. One represents the best player – which I am sure you can guess – and 34 represents the worst. Boy, adding accolades would have shook up the top of this ranking. Check out where all-time greats such as LeBron James and Tim Duncan landed, as well as where all-time bust Greg Oden ranked (You know, the guy who was chosen ahead Kevin Durant!)

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