It’s the moment when kids who have honed their skills on the basketball court throughout their high school and college years get to play with the big boys. Yes, draft day remains one of the most exciting, entertaining and eventful parts of the NBA season. But, of course, nothing is guaranteed – even when a team clinches the first overall pick.
After all, for every player who goes on to repay the faith invested in them by a major franchise, there’s another who causes nothing but pain by hopelessly failing to live up to their early potential. And the 1990s drafts certainly contained both canny and ultimately disappointing signs. On the upside, take Dirk Nowitzki, for example; selected ninth overall by the Dallas Mavericks in 1998, the 13-time All-Star has certainly earned his place in NBA history.
Paul Pierce was drafted by the Boston Celtics, also in 1998, and The Truth has certainly prevailed since. But, of course, as many fans will know, there are a whole lot of busts for every Pierce or Nowitzki. Here’s a look at 15 ’90s top-ten draftees who each never quite achieved lasting success on the court.
15. Shawn Bradley (1993, second overall pick)
One-time Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year Shawn Bradley had been a star player at Brigham Young University. But he struggled to make the transition to the NBA after signing up with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1993. The 7’6” center was in fact routinely dunked on during his disappointing two-year stint with the 76ers – before being offloaded to the New Jersey Nets in 1995. Following his retirement in 2005, Bradley then worked with an academy dealing with at-risk children back in Utah; he also ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the state’s House of Representatives in 2010.
14. Michael Olowokandi (1998, first overall pick)
Michael Olowokandi was something of a late bloomer, having only taken up organized basketball at 18. Despite this, though, the 7’0” player was taken as a first overall pick by the Los Angeles Clippers from the University of Pacific. And, ultimately, the gamble didn’t pay off. Olowokandi averaged just 8.3 per-game points over the next decade, during which he also spent time with the Boston Celtics and the Minnesota Timberwolves. The former center has since kept a low profile following his retirement in 2007.
13. Bo Kimble (1990, eighth overall pick)
Bo Kimble first made a name for himself playing alongside the late Hank Gathers for Loyola Marymount University in the late 1980s. In 1990 he was even the leading U.S. college scorer, racking up an average of 35.3 points a game. But the shooting guard apparently failed to adapt after being selected eighth overall by the Los Angeles Clippers in 1990. And following a disappointing per-game average of 5.6 points, he was traded to the New York Knicks after just two seasons. Kimble then only had nine games for the Knicks, as it happens, before retiring from the NBA. He now devotes much of his time to his Forty-Four For Life Foundation, which aims to help reduce heart disease.
12. Bryant Reeves (1995, sixth overall pick)
Having impressed as a center at Oklahoma State University, Bryant Reeves was likely expected to excel after he was drafted by the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995. And the man nicknamed “Big Country” did indeed live up to his promise during his first three seasons with the franchise. Injury would ultimately put paid to his NBA career, however, and in 2002 he announced his retirement. Reeves subsequently retreated from the spotlight altogether.
11. Raef LaFrentz (1998, third overall pick)
Raef LaFrentz was – not once but twice – a first-team All-American while playing for the University of Kansas. The Denver Nuggets may have thought it a no-brainer, then, to take him in the 1998 draft. However, after just 12 games in the NBA, the center ripped an anterior cruciate ligament and so was ruled out for the remainder of his rookie season. And while LaFrentz did bounce back from injury to post reasonable numbers over the next decade – both as a center and as a power forward – those stats may not have been enough to justify him having originally been picked third overall. He now, by the way, works on the farm that he owns in Iowa.
10. Ed O’Bannon (1995, ninth overall pick)
Ed O’Bannon helped UCLA win its first national trophy in two decades during his college basketball days. The New Jersey Nets appeared to have chosen wisely, then, when they selected him as ninth overall pick in 1995. But while O’Bannon’s thin frame may not have been a hindrance at college level, it seemed to make a difference in the NBA – and his knee injury didn’t help matters either. The power forward was therefore traded to the Dallas Mavericks after just one full season. He subsequently retired from the NBA in 1997 and, following spells with other teams both at home and overseas, is now a sales and marketing man at the Findley Toyota dealership in Henderson, Nevada.
9. Jonathan Bender (1995, fifth overall pick)
A relatively slim physique put paid to the once-promising Jonathan Bender’s NBA career. The power forward was drafted by the Indiana Pacers in 1999 after having scored an impressive 31 points in that year’s McDonald’s All-American Boys Game. But perhaps due to his lack of bulk, he picked up several injuries and as a result ended up sitting out most of two seasons with the Pacers. Since then, following his retirement from the NBA, Bender has drawn on his talents on the court to pursue a career in coaching.
8. Billy Owens (1991, third overall pick)
Billy Owens was hailed as one of 1988’s best prep players; he was also crowned Big East Player of the Year in his junior season for Syracuse University. Big things were therefore expected when he signed for the Sacramento Kings as third overall pick in 1991. But Owens failed to justify his early hype and was soon traded for Mitch Richmond of the Golden State Warriors. In fact, the fourth overall pick from the 1991 draft, Dikembe Mutombo, ended up playing twice the number of regular-season games as Owens during his NBA career. Owens is currently an assistant coach at Rutgers University–Camden.
7. Sharone Wright (1994, sixth overall pick)
The Philadelphia 76ers could have picked Eddie Jones, Jalen Rose or Brian Grant ahead of Sharone Wright in the 1994 draft. And the team appeared to rue their decision, too, as they went on to trade Wright to the Toronto Raptors in 1996. Worse still, Wright’s NBA career was over the following year after a car accident in which he suffered various broken bones, although he did continue to play ball abroad for another decade. Wright now works with CoachUp in South Carolina.
6. Doug Smith (1991, sixth overall pick)
Doug Smith’s name may not ring a bell these days, but he was once tipped for great things following an impressive four-year spell at the University of Missouri. As a result, the Dallas Mavericks selected him as sixth overall in the 1991 draft. But the step up from college basketball to the NBA appeared to be too much for the power forward, who netted an average of only eight points per game during five unremarkable seasons with the franchise. Smith went on to play for the likes of the Oklahoma City Cavalry, the Quad City Thunder and the Great Lakes Storm.
5. Bobby Hurley (1993, seventh overall pick)
Bobby Hurley won two NCAA Championship titles with the Blue Devils during his four-year spell at Duke University in the early 1990s. And the point guard may have been expected to replicate his college form when he was drafted seventh overall by the Sacramento Kings in 1993. However, Hurley had a patchy start to his rookie season and, following a serious car accident that nearly proved fatal, struggled to regain any kind of form. He’s since served as head coach at both the University at Buffalo and Arizona State.
4. Joe Smith (1995, first overall pick)
Joe Smith spent 16 seasons playing in the NBA – and did so for a total of 12 teams, including the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Chicago Bulls. Yet while the power forward made an impact on the Golden State Warriors after being drafted, he never really impressed enough to justify the fact that he’d been picked first overall. Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse all ended up posting far better stats, for example, despite having been selected behind Smith in 1995. Smith now works in Atlanta with CoachUp.
3. Robert Traylor (1998, sixth overall pick)
Robert Traylor certainly had a busy draft day in 1998. Why? Well, he was initially selected by the Dallas Mavericks – before immediately being traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for Dirk Nowitzki and Pat Garrity. The Mavericks’ choice proved to be a savvy one, too, as Traylor failed to make anywhere near the same impression as Nowitzki did during the former’s relatively nondescript career. And any chance of a comeback was sadly curtailed in 2011 when Traylor died of a sudden heart attack at the age of just 34.
2. Larry Hughes (1998, eighth overall pick)
The Philadelphia 76ers may also have been regretting their decision to pass on Dirk Nowitzki in 1998. Instead, they chose Larry Hughes in that year’s draft. To begin with, though, Hughes probably looked surefire on the back of his successful spell at Saint Louis University, during which he’d been named USBWA National Freshman of the Year. Yet while Nowitzki went on to achieve greatness, Hughes was traded to the Golden State Warriors after just two years. Following his retirement, Hughes set up an eponymous basketball academy.
1. Mark Macon (1991, eighth overall pick)
Mark Macon was honored with the Hal Schram Mr. Basketball award during high school, and he continued to deliver while playing for Temple University. But he struggled to maintain his form subsequent to signing for the Denver Nuggets in the 1991 NBA draft. Macon was traded to the Detroit Pistons after just two years, in fact, and ended up missing two entire seasons in the late 1990s. The former shooting guard was then later appointed as interim head coach at Binghamton University, although he was let go from the post in 2012 following a string of poor performances by the Bearcats.
Of course, draft-day busts have continued well beyond the ’90s. Anthony Bennett, signed by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2013, is regarded by some as the worst first overall pick ever, with the power forward having turned in below-par performances during his mere 151 games in the NBA. And then there’s Hasheem Thabeet, who was drafted second overall by the Memphis Grizzlies in 2009 but who finished his career with a disappointing points-per-game average of 2.2.
Other flops from the ’00s and beyond include Nikoloz Tskitishvili, who was opted for fifth overall by the Denver Nuggets in 2002 but saw very little court time during his three seasons with the team. Another European, Jan Veselý, also struggled – after being drafted sixth overall in 2011 by the Washington Wizards; and he ultimately left the NBA altogether in 2014. Their careers are proof, then – if any were needed – that even sensible scouting doesn’t guarantee success.
But Eddie Griffin represents perhaps the NBA’s most tragic draft-bust story since the turn of the century. At first, the rising star looked to be an excellent prospect thanks to a stunning freshman year with the Seton Hall Pirates. After being traded to the Houston Rockets in 2001, though, his game failed to inspire and his discipline slipped. Throughout his career, Griffin also struggled with an alcohol-abuse problem. And soon after his later-career team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, had let him go in 2007, his life ultimately ended at 25 in a drunk-driving accident.