Top 10 NBA Draft Picks of All Time

NBA Draft

The NBA is made up of some of the world’s best athletes, with 60 players selected each year. Most of those players will enter the league with minimal expectations, but some will enter with the weight of the franchise upon their shoulders. Continue reading to learn about ten of the most highly-anticipated draft prospects of all time, regardless of whether they lived up to the hype.


Who are the best NBA draft prospects of all time?

  1. LeBron James
  2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  3. Tim Duncan
  4. Hakeem Olajuwon
  5. Shaquille O’Neal
  6. Kevin Durant
  7. Patrick Ewing
  8. Allen Iverson
  9. Dwight Howard
  10. Greg Oden

1. LeBron James

  • 4x Ohio Mr. Basketball in high school
  • 3x USA Today First Team All-American in high school (First Sophomore ever selected)
  • In his senior year, he won MVP of the McDonald’s, Roundball, and Capital Classic All-American games
  • 2003 Naismith Prep Player of the Year (First Junior to ever win the award)

Perhaps no athlete in history has faced the amount of hype that LeBron James has during his life and basketball career. Dubbed “The Chosen One” by Sports Illustrated back in 2002 when he graced the cover at the age of just 17, James has somehow managed to outperform all expectations time after time. Born in Akron, Ohio, he played at St. Vincent - St. Mary, a school not typically known for its basketball prowess. With LeBron on the team, some of the school’s games were now being played in front of packed gyms and being televised on ESPN or other pay-per-view sites. 

In his senior season, LeBron would average 31.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game, including a 50-point game against Mentor that would see James shoot 11/17 from three-point range while grabbing nine rebounds. His dominance was so clear that he was taken with the first overall pick in the NBA Draft, directly out of high school, in a draft class that is widely regarded as one of the best ever. The 2003 NBA Draft featured several other NBA Hall of Famers, including Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony. During his career, fans have seen him play for three franchises, win four NBA titles, four MVPs, four Finals MVPs, and make All-NBA teams at the age of 37. LeBron has continued to defy expectations and re-write what’s possible on a basketball court, challenging Michael Jordan for the title of greatest of all time.

2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

  • 3x NCAA National Champion
  • Won 71 consecutive games at Power Memorial High School
  • Averaged 30 points and 20 rebounds on over 70% shooting in his senior year of high school while playing about 16 minutes per game due to a team-imposed minutes restriction
  • 3x NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Lew Alcindor as he was formerly known, was one of the NBA’s most anticipated prospects ever, a feat that became more impressive when the media coverage and communication capabilities of that time are considered. In high school, Abdul-Jabbar helped lead his team to 71 consecutive victories, and he averaged over 30 points and 20 rebounds during his senior year, despite the team playing him only about half of the game. Due to NCAA rules, first-year students could not play in the regular games, but Kareem would not have to wait that long to prove he belonged. During an intra-squad scrimmage that saw the incoming freshman, including Abdul-Jabbar, face off against the returning players that won the last two national championships, Kareem would drop 31 points and 21 rebounds to help the freshman defeat the veterans. 

At UCLA, Kareem would play in 43 games before eventually losing his first game to second-ranked Houston. He would finish his time at UCLA with three National Championships, a record of 88-2, and averages of 26.4 points and 15.5 rebounds per game on 63.9% shooting. After being drafted first overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1969 NBA draft, his success would continue in the NBA. He went on to win six NBA titles, six MVPs, make the Hall of Fame, and become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

3. Tim Duncan

  • 87 career double-doubles in 128 games at Wake Forest (10 in 11 NCAA Tournament Games)
  • 1997 consensus NCAA National Player of the Year
  • 2x consensus First Team All-American
  • 1,570 NCAA rebounds and 87 NCAA double-doubles (Both 2nd Most All-Time)

Tim Duncan had an unusual path to being an NBA player, so ranking him as one of the NBA’s best draft prospects ever is often shocking. Growing up in the U.S. Virgin Islands meant that swimming was Duncan’s sport of choice, not basketball. However, a hurricane destroyed the pool where Duncan trained, forcing him to shift his focus to basketball during high school. People hardly expected him to play when he arrived at Wake Forest University due to his inexperience and lack of refinement. 

Duncan proved the naysayers wrong as he became a starter and earned ACC All-Freshman team honors en route to elevating his game even further. Well-known for his consistency, technique, and unshakeable demeanor, Duncan recorded 87 double-doubles, the second-most all-time, in only 128 games. This meant he recorded a double-double in over 67% of his career games. The San Antonio Spurs selected Duncan with the first pick in the 1997 NBA draft, and “The Big Fundamental” won five NBA titles, three Finals MVPs, two MVPs, and made 15 All-NBA teams and 15 All-Defensive teams before eventually retiring.

4. Hakeem Olajuwon

  • 1983 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player
  • 1984 consensus First Team All-American
  • Over the course of his college career, he averaged 13.3 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.5 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game

Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon is one of the most highly-touted NBA prospects ever, and unlike many of the others, it was more about his potential than his current accolades. Olajuwon grew up in Nigeria, playing handball and soccer before discovering basketball at the age of 15. He would make a name for himself on the international stage at just 17, leading to him receiving offers from schools like Houston and St. John’s. At Houston, Olajuwon trained with then-Houston Rockets Center and NBA legend Moses Malone. He would go to two National Championships and an additional Final Four with the Cougars before forgoing his senior season and entering the NBA draft. 

The Houston Rockets selected Olajuwon with the first pick in the 1984 NBA Draft. His all-around tools and potential lead many to view him as a more valuable draft pick than Michael Jordan, who was selected third in the same draft. The Dream would live up to the expectations set before him, as he retired with two NBA Titles, two Finals MVPs, one MVP, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, 12 All-NBA selections, and nine All-Defensive selections. This included a season that saw him win the NBA Finals, Finals MVP, MVP, and DPOY; a feat only accomplished one other time.

5. Shaquille O’Neal

  • 1991 NCAA National Player of the Year
  • 2x SEC Player of the Year
  • 2x consensus All-American
  • Averaged 31 points and 22 rebounds as a senior in high school

Shaquille O’Neal is widely regarded as one of the most dominant NBA players ever, so it should come as no surprise that he was highly regarded before he ever even played in the NBA. The 7’1” center weighed about 265 pounds during his time at LSU, making him a physical marvel. O’Neal played for Robert G. Cole High School in San Antonio, Texas, where he averaged 31 points, 22 rebounds, and 6 assists per game his senior year. During one game in his senior season, Shaq would score 26 points, grab 36 rebounds, and record 26 blocks en route to a 36-0 season. After high school, Shaq played his college basketball at Louisiana State University. At LSU, O’Neal would make up one-half of the unit dubbed the “Twin Towers” with Stanley Roberts, and be named NCAA National Player of the Year, SEC Player of the Year twice, First Team All-SEC, and First Team All-American. Following his successful college career, Shaquille O’Neal was selected by the Orlando Magic with the first overall pick in the 1992 NBA draft, leading to an extremely successful NBA career as well.

6. Kevin Durant

  • BIG12 Scoring Champion (28.9 points per game)
  • BIG12 Player of the Year
  • 1x consensus First Team All-American
  • 2007 consensus National Player of the Year (First Freshman to ever win any national POY)

For Kevin Durant as a prospect, the conversation only ever revolved around one question: would he be strong enough to hold up in the NBA? Nobody ever doubted whether he had the skills to make it in the NBA, but whether he had the physical strength. At 6’9” and 215 pounds, Durant was a part of a new generation of tall and lanky players that could operate like a forward in the paint while still handling the ball like a guard outside the three-point line

Durant played for Oak Hill for the first three years of high school, and he averaged 22 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists per game before transferring to the number one ranked Montrose Christian. Following graduation, Durant played college basketball at the University of Texas at Austin, where he would only spend one season before making the jump to the NBA. At Texas, he had one of the greatest seasons ever by a freshman. He became the first freshman to win a national Player of the Year award while also being a consensus First Team All-American, BIG12 Player of the Year, and NCAA National Freshman of the Year. Durant was drafted second overall in 2007, just behind Greg Oden, but Durant’s NBA career panned out much better. In the NBA, Kevin Durant has earned four NBA scoring titles, two NBA Championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, one regular season MVP, and he has plenty of time to add to his resume.

7. Patrick Ewing

  • 3x NCAA consensus All-American
  • 3x NCAA All-Tournament Team
  • 1984-85 AP Player of the Year
  • 1984-85 NCAA Naismith Award Winner
  • 4x All-Big East
  • 4x Big East Defensive Player of the Year

Patrick Ewing is one of the most highly sought-after prospects in the history of the NBA, mostly in part due to his dominant career at Georgetown. In fact, Ewing was so highly desired by NBA teams that several people believed in a conspiracy theory that the NBA Commissioner David Stern fixed the draft lottery in order to send one of the league’s best talents to the basketball mecca that is New York. Ewing was so dominant at Georgetown that it was considered nearly guaranteed for him to be successful at the NBA level.

Georgetown made it to three National Championships during Ewing’s time with the team, largely due to his averages of 15.3 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.4 blocks, and 1.2 steals per game. Ewing’s best season would come in 1984-85, when he was named Naismith Player of the Year, AP Player of the Year, NABC Player of the Year, Big East Player of the Year, Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Big East Tournament MVP, First Team consensus All-American, First Team All-Big East, First Team All-Big East Tournament, and to the NCAA All-Tournament team, while also winning the Rupp Trophy. The Knicks selected Ewing with the first pick in the 1985 NBA draft. During his 17-year NBA career, Ewing made seven All-NBA teams, 11 All-Star teams, three All-Defensive teams, and won Rookie of the Year.

8. Allen Iverson

  • 2x Big East Defensive Player of the Year
  • 1996 consensus First Team All-American
  • 2x First Team All Big East Tournament
  • Led NCAA in points and steals in 1995-96

With one of the most tumultuous journeys to the NBA, Allen Iverson’s career almost ended before it ever began. Due to an unfortunate incident that occurred at a bowling alley, Iverson was charged and faced 15 years in prison while he was still in high school. Luckily, John Thompson was so intrigued by Iverson’s talent that he brought him to Georgetown following his release from prison after only four months. 

At Georgetown, Iverson produced in almost every conceivable way on the court, winning second Team All-Big East, Big East All-Freshman, Big East Defensive Player of the Year, and Big East Rookie of the Year while leading the Hoyas in points and steals in just his first season. It was during his sophomore season that he cemented himself as one of the best players in the country, leading the whole NCAA in both points and steals on his way to being named a consensus All-American and First Team All-Big East, among several other accolades. In the NBA, Iverson made 11 All-Star teams, seven All-NBA teams, won the 2000-01 regular season MVP, and led the NBA in steals three times and points four times after the Philadelphia 76ers selected him with the first pick in the 1996 NBA draft.

9. Dwight Howard

  • 2x high school National Player of the Year
  • Averaged 25 points, 18 rebounds, and 8 blocks per game in his senior year of high school
  • 2004 McDonald’s All-American Game Co-MVP

Dwight Howard is one of the best NBA draft prospects of all time due to his outlandish strength, agility, and vertical. Howard also possessed great defensive instincts and technical skills that allowed him to be so dominant at such a young age. Selected with the first overall pick in the 2004 NBA draft by the Orlando Magic, Dwight Howard was one of the most anticipated NBA prospects of all time following his senior season of high school, where he nearly averaged a triple-double, recording 25 points, 18 rebounds, and 8 blocks per game. He was the captain of his Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, a school that played an impressive national circuit. He led his high school team to a 31-2 record and the state championship. Howard recorded a triple-double in that state championship game, posting 26 points, 23 rebounds, and 10 blocks. Over the course of his successful NBA career, Howard has won three Defensive Player of the Year Awards and an NBA title while making five All-Defensive teams, eight All-NBA teams, and eight All-Star teams.

10. Greg Oden

  • 2x Gatorade National Player of the Year
  • 2006 Indiana’s Mr. Basketball
  • 2x Parade High School Player of the Year
  • NABC Defensive Player of the Year

Greg Oden is known as one of the biggest busts in the history of the NBA draft, but that’s only due to his reputation as a prospect and the expectations people had for him. His career would ultimately be derailed by injuries. The 7-foot, 270-pound center absolutely dominated his high school opponents in Indiana, where he played for Lawrence North High School and ended his career with averages of 17 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game. He also helped his team maintain a 103-7 record on their way to three consecutive state titles. Oden’s time at Ohio State was brief but eventful. He was named to the First Team All-BIG10, BIG10 Defensive Player of the Year, BIG10 Rookie of the Year, BIG10 Tournament MVP, NABC Defensive Player of the Year, and a Wooden Award Finalist. Following college, he was drafted first overall by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2007 NBA draft. Although, he would never live up to the hype in the NBA, as injuries ended his career after just 105 games across three different seasons, missing four other full seasons due to knee injuries before retiring.

Honorable Mentions

Include a bulleted list of at least 20 other players that didn’t make the top 10 list above, put in alphabetical order.

FAQ

Who is the best NBA draft pick of all time?

The best NBA draft pick of all time is LeBron James. A number of factors determine the success of draft picks, but no player has faced greater expectations than LeBron James, who has firmly cemented himself as one of the NBA’s best players ever. James was so dominant that ESPN televised some of his high school games, while others were broadcast or streamed in a pay-per-view format. There are very few basketball players in history that would have drawn a paid, online audience to watch a high school basketball game. Sports Illustrated would name him “The Chosen One” while he was still in high school, and LeBron has somehow exceeded each and every one of the expectations that people had for him.

Who is the lowest drafted NBA Hall of Famer?

The lowest drafted NBA Hall of Famer in history is Dan Issel of the Detroit Pistons. Issel was selected with the 122nd pick in the 1970 NBA draft, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990. Ben Wallace is also a member of the Hall of Fame, but due to the fact that he was undrafted, Issel is the member to be selected with the lowest pick. Not far behind Issel is Artis Gilmore of the Chicago Bulls, who was selected with the 117th pick in the 1991 NBA draft.