Every year when the NBA Draft rolls around, the big sexy picks get all the attention. Who are the future superstars? Who’s going to be number one? Will that player pan out, or will he be a bust?
However, picking the player everyone says is the best is easy. If you really want to judge the quality of a franchise, see which teams regularly pull off the biggest NBA Draft steals, finding diamonds in the rough. The Spurs haven’t had a lottery pick since 1997, when they selected Tim Duncan first overall. However, they built a dynasty around Duncan by taking gifted players that other teams overlooked later in the draft.
Today we’re going to take a look at the biggest NBA Draft steals of all time. However, before we get started, we need to lay out the ground rules.
First, in order to be considered a steal, a player needs to have been selected no earlier than the 15th pick. Yes, I know two teams passed on Jordan, the greatest player of all time, before the Bulls took him with the no. 3 pick in the 1984 draft. That doesn’t make Jordan a “steal.” That makes the first two teams stupid. (Although the Rockets took Hakeem Olajuwan first overall, which wasn’t exactly a bad move.) Of course, there is one exception to this rule, which I think you’ll agree is warranted.
Second, in order to be considered one of the biggest steals of all time, a player has to have been in the league for at least seven seasons. Any less than that is insufficient to judge their place in NBA history. That means we have to exclude current players like Draymond Green (two years) and Serge Ibaka (six years), who certainly were steals at no. 35 and no. 24 respectively.
Third, statistically speaking, we’re generally looking for players who averaged an 18+ player efficiency rating (PER) for their careers, or .150 win shares per 48 minutes (WS/48), or made All-NBA first team multiple times, or won MVP awards, or made the Hall of Fame, or some combination of the above.
After weeding out candidates based on those criteria, that left us with about 17 players who could rightfully be considered the biggest NBA Draft steals of all time.
Ready to see who they are?
No. 15 / Phoenix Suns / 1996
Career Stats: 14.3 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 8.5 APG, 20.0 PER, .164 WS/48
2004-07: 17.7 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 11.2 APG, 23.0 PER, .214 WS/48
Former Suns and Lakers point guard Steve Nash wasn't exactly overlooked in the '96 draft. But if you thought a guy was going to be a 5x assists champ, an 8x All-Star, and a 2x NBA MVP, you'd probably take him with a top three pick, no?
Nash, by the way, is the lowest pick ever to win the MVP. There are two no. 13 picks who won it, but we'll get to them shortly.
17. Steve Nash
No. 24 / Portland Trail Blazers / 1985
Career Stats: 12.2 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 5.6 APG, 17.2 PER, .150 WS/48
1990-93: 17.8 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 6.3 APG, 18.8 PER, .187 WS/48
Longtime Blazer Terry Porter only made two All-Star Games in his day. However, his career stats are as good if not better than some Hall of Famers (like Joe Dumars), and at his peak he was easily one of the NBA's best point guards.
16. Terry Porter
No. 16 / Utah Jazz / 1984
Career Stats: 13.1 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 10.5 APG, 21.8 PER, .208 WS/48
1987-90: 16.3 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 14.0 APG, 23.3 PER, .237 WS/48
John Stockton has 3,700 more total assists than any other player in basketball history, and he's second in APG only to Magic Johnson. No wonder this former no. 16 pick (the greatest Gonzaga Bull Dog of all time) is in the Hall of Fame.
15. John Stockton
Karl Malone: No. 13 / Utah Jazz / 1985
Career Stats: 25.0 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 3.6 APG, 23.9 PER, .205 WS/48
1996-99: 26.4 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 4.2 APG, 27.8 PER .261 WS/48
Kobe Bryant: No. 13 / Los Angeles Lakers / 1996
Career Stats: 25.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.8 APG, 23.2 PER, .178 WS/48
2005-08: 31.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 5.1 APG, 26.1 PER, .211 WS/48
These two guys famously came to hate each other when they were teammates after Malone "allegedly" hit on Kobe's wife. Ironically, though, they share the distinction of being the second-lowest draft pick to win an NBA MVP award. (Malone won twice, Kobe once.)
Ultimately, I'd say Malone was the better player, as he contributed about the same points with twice the rebounds. However, Kobe won five rings and Malone won zero. So, take that for what it's worth.
14. Tie: Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant
No. 25 / Dallas Mavericks / 1986
Career Stats: 15.2 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 6.7 APG, 19.6 PER, .158 WS/48
1991-94: 17.6 PPG, 2.7 APG, 7.7 RPG, 22.5 PER, .201 WS/48
Mark Price was overshadowed in his day by John Stockton and Magic Johnson, but make no mistake, he was one of the NBA's better point guards. In fact, in 1988-9, Price became just the second player ever to shoot at least 50% from the field, 40% from three-point range, and 90% from the free throw line. And the Cavs got him in a draft day trade after the Mavs selected him 25th overall.
13. Mark Price
No. 28 / San Antonio Spurs / 2001
Career Stats: 16.9 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 5.9 APG, 18.9 PER, .147 WS/48
2010-13: 18.6 PPG, 3.0, RPG, 7.2 APG, 21.7 PER, .179 WS/48
I mentioned the Spurs in the introduction. Picks like this are why. They selected French point guard Tony Parker with the third-last pick of the first round in 2001. With him they've won four championships, including 2007 when Parker was named NBA Finals MVP.
(In case you were wondering, Kawhi Leonard, no. 15 overall pick in 2011 and 2014 NBA Finals MVP, didn't make the list because he's only been in the year four years.)
12. Tony Parker
No. 23 / Milwaukee Bucks / 1976
Career Stats: 21.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.6 APG, 19.9 PER, .127 WS/48
1983-86: 28.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.4 APG, 21.8 PER, .146 WS/48
Alex English had nine straight 24 PPG seasons, was n 8x All-Star, and has been inducted in the James Naismith Hall of Fame. His win shares per 48 are on the low side for a superstar (league average is .100), but for my money, the small forward is still one of if not the most underrated players in NBA history.
11. Alex English
No. 27 / Detroit Pistons / 1986
Career Stats: 7.3 PPG, 13.1 RPG, 1.8 APG, 14.6 PER, .150 WS/48
1989-92: 8.9 PPG, 13.6 RPG, 1.4 APS, 15.6 PER, .174 WS/48
Dennis Rodman didn't score, and he didn't set up other guys to score. However, he was the greatest rebounder of the modern era, with seven rebounding titles, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, and five championship rings—two with the Pistons, and three with the Bulls.
10. Dennis Rodman
No. 46 / Phoenix Suns / 1986
Career Stats: 14.5 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 4.9 APG, 17.7 PER, .154 WS/48
1990-93: 18.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 5.7 APG, 18.3 PER, .153 WS/48
Jeff Hornacek was never a superstar. However, he was traded for one. After leading the Suns with 20.1 PPG in 1991-92, he and two other players were traded to Philly for the Round Mound of Rebound, Charles Barkley. Seeing as how the Suns got Hornacek with the 46th pick in the '86 draft, I'd say he was a pretty big steal.
9. Jeff Hornacek
No. 43 / Milwaukee Bucks / 2000
Career Stats: 19.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.1 APG, 19.5 PER, .134 WS/48
2004-07: 24.8 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.5 APG, 19.9 PER, .142 WS/48
The 2000s were a crazy time, what with Shaq and Kobe, and Lebron, and the Celtics superteam, and the Spurs dynasty, but damn Michael Redd deserved more love than he got. Look at that three-year peak from 2004-07. Those are Hall of Fame numbers, and the Bucks got him midway through the second round.
8. Micahel Redd
No. 47 / Utah Jazz / 2006Career Stats: 13.5 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 3.1 APG, 19.1 PER, .154 WS/48
2010-13: 16.1 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.5 APG, 20.4 PER, .157 WS/48
Paul Millsap has gone from a relatively unknown power forward out of Louisiana Tech, to a two-time All-Star, to being one of the top unrestricted free agents of the 2015 NBA offseason. Not bad for a mid-second round pick.
7. Paul Millsap
No. 30 / New York Knicks / 2002Career Stats: 14.7 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 2.3 APG, 19.2 PER, .147 WS/48
2009-12: 18.9 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 3.3 APG, 19.8 PER, .144 WS/48
David Lee is certainly not what you would call a defensive specialist, which is why he found himself coming off the bench for the Warriors during their championship run. But he's had a fantastic career thus far and he'd be starting on 20 other teams in the league.
6. David Lee
No. 48 / Los Angeles Lakers / 2007Career Stats: 14.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 3.0 APG, __ PER, ___ WS/48
2012-15: 15.5 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 3.8 APG, 20.0 PER, .176 WS/48
The Lakers took Gasol with the 48th overall pick in 2007, then traded him to the Grizzlies in 2008...for his brother, Pau. (Yes, that's the only time brothers have ever been traded for each other.)
The deal was a win-win. In Pau Gasol the Lakers got an established veteran star who helped them win two championships. In Marc Gasol the Grizzlies got a young defensive specialist who's blossomed into one of the best centers in the league, with two All-Star selections, one All-NBA First Team selection, and the 2013 Defensive Players of the Year award on his résuemé.
5. Marc Gasol
No. 35 / Cleveland Cavaliers / 2002
Career Stats: 16.2 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 2.2 APG, 19.5 PER, .143 WS/48
2005-08: 20.2 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 2.9 APG, 22.7 PER, .176 WS/48
You cannot judge Boozer by his last few years with the Lakers and Bulls. You have to look at his years with the Jazz, when he was established himself as one of the most valuable power forwards in the game. What GM wouldn't be over the moon with 20 points, 10 rebounds, and a 22.7 player efficiency rating per game from a 35th pick?
4. Carlos Boozer
No. 31 / Golden State Warriors / 2001
Career Stats: 20.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 5.3 APG, 19.6 PER, .127 WS/48
2004-07: 27.8 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 5.7 APG, 23.0 PER, .180 WS/48
Agent Zero certainly gave the Wizards a few headaches, what with all the gun violations. But there was a brief time when he was on the short list of best point guards in the NBA. So all things considered, the Wizards were probably glad the Warriors selected him with the no. 31 pick in the 2001 draft.
3. Gilbert Arenas
No. 40 / San Antonio Spurs / 1974
Career Stats: 25.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.6 APG, 21.4 PER, .157 WS/48
1976-79: 26.6 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 3.1 APG, 23.1 PER, .193 WS/48
George Gervin didn't get to the NBA via the NBA Draft. The 3x scoring champ, 9x All-Star, and Hall of Famer got to the NBA via the ABA, when his team, the Spurs, joined the league via the 1976 merger.
However, The Iceman was drafted by an NBA team. The Phoenix Suns took him 40th overall in the 1974 draft, but he opted to remain with the Spurs.
2. George Gervin
No. 57 / San Antonio Spurs / 1999
Career Stats: 14.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 4.0 APG, 21.1 PER, .202 WS/48
2004-07: 15.9 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 3.7 APG, 22.9 PER, .240 WS/48
Surprised to see Manu Ginobili take the top spot? Yeah, so was I. But when you look at what this former no. 57 pick has accomplished in the NBA, there can be no doubt. Ginobili's 21.1 career player efficiency rating and .202 win shares per 48? Those are superstar rates. It just so happens that they were put up by a guy who comes off the bench because that's how Spurs coach Gregg Popovich liked to use him. His numbers as a starter—including those from the 2004-05 season—are just as good.
Oh, and the championships...Manu has four of those.
He's definitely the biggest NBA Draft steal of all time in my book.