0 of 11
Mark Duncan/Associated Press
Unearthing the most unfortunate high-end NBA draft selections of the past 20 years isn’t a sunny proposition. After all, these missed targets toppled careers, both on the floor and in front offices. Sometimes, even the franchises themselves became dramatically altered for years.
While some busts failed to live up to expectations, many of the players mentioned struggled due to lingering or significant injuries that torpedoed their primes.
What might have been had these ill-fated prospects avoided such misfortunes? How might the affected franchises have fared, and how may it have changed the league?
What-ifs aside, here are the biggest draft busts of the past 20 years.
1 of 11
PAUL SANCYA/Associated Press
Darko Milicic (No. 2 overall in 2003) and Derrick Williams (No. 2 overall in 2011)
If you erase draft status from the equation, our two honorable mentions might elicit some praise.
The two woefully failed to live up to the draft-day billing but still managed to combine for 17 years of service, over 6,500 points and more than 3,500 rebounds. The Memphis Grizzlies even signed Milicic to a three-year, $21 million contract as a free agent in 2007.
The more important reason each is associated with the dreaded “bust” label is the list of sure-to-be Hall of Famers selected after them.
Milicic was directly followed by Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. The 2011 first round featured All-Stars Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Nikola Vucevic and Jimmy Butler taken after Williams.
Imagine if the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons had one of Melo, Bosh or Wade as their sixth man. Imagine if Kevin Love had been paired with any of Kemba, Klay or Kawhi instead of Williams.
While neither flamed out as spectacularly as some to follow, the nature of these missed selections greatly impacted the franchises that selected them for years.
2 of 11
BRIAN KERSEY/Associated Press
Drafted: No. 4 overall in 2000
The Chicago Bulls selection earned his draft status partly due to his connection to head coach Tim Floyd, who had previously recruited the 6’9″ power forward to Iowa State, where he served as head coach before assuming Phil Jackson’s vacated position before the lockout-shortened season in 1998-99.
Fizer was the only Cyclone to have been a McDonald’s All-American before Lexi Donarksi committed to Iowa State’s women’s team in 2020. In his final collegiate season, he finished eighth in the nation in scoring while pushing the Cyclones to the Elite Eight.
With Elton Brand in tow, the Bulls had little space for Fizer, who started just 35 games in six professional seasons. In his third year, Fizer began to validate his top-five selection, averaging 19.8 points and 9.6 rebounds per 36 minutes. A torn ACL near the end of that season abruptly ended his rise to prominence.
“This is a blow. It’s going to hurt us,” head coach Bill Cartwright said, per the Washington Post. “Not only was Marcus our best post player, he was also really a spark coming off the bench.”
After his Bulls tenure ended, Fizer played 57 more games with the Milwaukee Bucks and New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets before spending the rest of his career abroad.
3 of 11
STEPHEN J. CARRERA/Associated Press
Drafted: No. 2 overall in 2002
The Chicago Bulls didn’t have much luck in the early 2000s, and poor drafting played into their lack of evolution following Michael Jordan’s departure. They moved Elton Brand to the Los Angeles Clippers for the rights to Tyson Chandler in 2001, pairing him with Marcus Fizer and Eddy Curry.
Jay Williams should have been the perfect complement to a crowded frontcourt. He dominated college basketball in 2001-02, taking home the Wooden Award, Naismith Award, AP Player of the Year and Sporting News Player of the Year, as well as the NABC Player of the Year for the second season in a row.
Williams played in 75 games during his rookie season and started 54 of them. He scored 20 or more points in six of those contests, including 26 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists and two steals against the New Jersey Nets in just his seventh career game.
“I’m excited for Jay Williams, the way he stepped up,” Jalen Rose said after the game, per ESPN. “I’m not only happy for him; I’m proud of him. It’s hard when you’re a top pick and you’re not playing the way you know you can. I think he felt a lot more confident today. He really came out and played the game of his life.”
Before the next season, a motorcycle crash ended his NBA career. Williams recalled screaming, “I threw it all away” moments after the accident.
Since then, he has become an ESPN analyst. And though the Bulls went on to make the playoffs in 11 of 13 seasons between 2004-05 and 2016-17, it’s hard not to wonder how far they may have gotten if Williams and Fizer had avoided injury.
4 of 11
MARK DUNCAN/Associated Press
Drafted: No. 6 overall in 2002
Four spots after Jay Williams’ selection, the Cleveland Cavaliers made Memphis shooting guard DaJuan Wagner the sixth overall pick. He was somewhat of a legend thanks in part to his 100-point performance as a senior guard at Camden High School.
Wagner enjoyed prominence that went beyond his years. Before he was drafted, the 6’2″ scoring machine had dinner with Ray Lewis, hung out with Allen Iverson and was even the subject of a cover story by Sports Illustrated.
However, Wagner would flash few of the scintillating skills that made him a national phenomenon, starting in just 28 NBA games and only playing in 103 overall. He was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis early in his playing career and had his colon removed in 2005.
According to ESPN’s 30 for 30 on John Calipari, the then-Memphis head coach tore up Wagner’s scholarship following a sensational freshman season. Wagner was wavering on whether to return for his sophomore year, and Calipari’s actions may have saved him millions.
LeBron James joined the Cavaliers in 2003. Who’s to say how history may have unfolded had they secured the perfect backcourt scoring option for him long before his departure in 2010? Would James have ever left? Would he have ever teamed up with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the teammates who helped him erase the Golden State Warriors’ 3-1 lead in the 2016 NBA Finals?
5 of 11
RICK HAVNER/Associated Press
Drafted: No. 3 overall in 2006
In what may have been one of the most underwhelming top-10 classes in recent history, the Charlotte Hornets selected Adam Morrison third overall just before Tyrus Thomas and Shelden Williams came off the board.
With 926 points, Morrison led the NCAA in total points in 2005-06 and tied Allen Iverson for the 24th-most points in a single season of college basketball. He filled the basket from everywhere, sinking 42.8 percent of his three-pointers as a junior while leading Gonzaga to a 29-4 record and a Sweet Sixteen appearance.
Morrison showed promise during his rookie season with the Hornets, scoring 20 or more points 12 times, including a career-high 30 points on 17 shots against the Indiana Pacers on Dec. 30.
However, after playing 78 games as a rookie, Morrison suffered a career-altering ACL tear the following preseason. He played in just 83 more games while collecting two championship rings as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers following a trade prior to the 2009 deadline.
6 of 11
Jason DeCrow/Associated Press
Drafted: No. 1 overall in 2007
Greg Oden was one of the most destructive forces in recent memory during his lone campaign at Ohio State. Dubbed a “once-in-a-decade player” by Steve Kerr, he shined brightest in a national championship loss to the Florida Gators by collecting 25 points and 12 rebounds.
Despite the lingering foot concerns, the performance was enough to warrant a selection over future first-ballot Hall of Famer Kevin Durant.
“Greg Oden was an obvious pick that takes this team’s potential to a whole new level,” ESPN’s Jonathan Givony wrote for DraftExpress in 2007.
A wrist injury sidelined Oden for the first part of his lone collegiate season, but his luck significantly worsened once he joined the NBA.
Microfracture surgery prematurely ended his first campaign before it began. In his delayed rookie season, Oden appeared in a career-high 61 games for the Portland Trail Blazers. That season, he was still sidelined by injuries to his foot and knee. After he showed promise over 21 starts in 2009-10, whatever luck he did have ran out when he fractured his left patella.
Multiple knee surgeries kept Oden out of the next three seasons, and he played in only 23 more NBA games, each of which came as a member of the Miami Heat in 2013-14.
Oden described himself as the biggest bust in NBA history on ESPN’s Outside the Lines. Though his assessment may be a bit unfair, his career was among the most unfortunate given what his talent might’ve translated to with fewer injuries.
7 of 11
Seth Wenig/Associated Press
Drafted: No. 8 overall in 2008
The Milwaukee Bucks’ Michael Redd scored 20 or more points per game in six consecutive seasons, and the franchise had a solid foundation in the paint with 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Bogut.
However, without a valid complementary scorer or threat from the wing, the Bucks failed to make a dent in the Eastern Conference, winning more than 40 games just once between 2006 and 2014.
West Virginia’s Joe Alexander fit the description of an athletic wing with ideal size for the role.
In March 2008, DraftExpress’ Jonathan Givony, Joseph Treutlein and Joey Whelan wrote, “We’ve closely tracked the progress of West Virginia forward Joe Alexander over the past two seasons, watching him emerging from raw, unpolished athlete to a bonafide NCAA star.”
Alexander’s measurables and athleticism leapt off the page and stunned scouts during the NBA combine as he registered a 38.5-inch vertical, just below Derrick Rose’s 40-inch leap.
Despite this, the 6’8″ wing would play in just 67 games across two seasons with the Bucks and Chicago Bulls. But you shouldn’t blame Alexander—at least not according to him.
“Ultimately, not being in the NBA is on me, but as far as ‘who is a bust?’ you have to look at Milwaukee and the management that drafted me. If you want to label anyone with the term ‘bust’—it’s the Bucks,” he told David Pick of Basketball Insiders.
Alexander was frustrated by the lack of patience the front office demonstrated. After all, he’d only played basketball since he was 16 years old and was considered a project.
While other NBA teams gave Alexander a look, he found success abroad and now plays for Ironi Nahariya in the Israeli Premier League.
8 of 11
Jason DeCrow/Associated Press
Drafted: No. 2 overall in 2009
After a 24-win season, the talented and young Memphis Grizzlies made the two-time NABC Defensive Player of the Year the second overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft.
The Grizzlies’ future was covered at nearly every position. Mike Conley was entrenched as the starting point guard with future Hall of Famer Marc Gasol entering his second season. With Rudy Gay and incoming rookie DeMarre Carroll on the wings, the unit was poised to ascend to the next level and won 40 and 46 games the following two seasons.
However, the 7’3″ center who led Connecticut to the Final Four seldom made his presence felt. In just 13 minutes per game, Thabeet barely averaged more than one made basket per game and became the highest-drafted player assigned to the G League.
Thabeet played in just five seasons, bouncing from Memphis to the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons with multiple G League stops in between.
Like Joe Alexander, Thabeet wasn’t willing to shoulder the blame alone.
“The Grizzlies gave up on me,” he told Bleacher Report’s David Gardner. “You never heard of a No. 2 pick who got as few minutes as I did or as few chances as I did.”
Thabeet is one of the few busts without a significant injury to explain his failure to perform. That the Grizzlies passed on James Harden, Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio, Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan and Jrue Holiday to select him makes it even worse.
9 of 11
Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
Drafted: No. 5 overall in 2012
Most fans and front offices alike would never anticipate trading a top-five pick midway through his first season. But that was the case for Thomas Robinson, who played just 51 games for the Sacramento Kings and was dealt to the Houston Rockets just months after he became the fifth overall pick in the 2012 draft.
As a collegiate forward, Robinson dazzled, even accruing 30 points and 21 rebounds in a single contest before leading his Kansas Jayhawks to the national championship game, where they fell to Anthony Davis and the Kentucky Wildcats. Robinson was such a devastating offensive playmaker that Bleacher Report’s Randy Chambers even compared him to Blake Griffin before he was drafted.
That raw athleticism he put on display in college never transferred to the NBA, where he bounced around to six teams in just five seasons without averaging more than six points.
While missing on any top-five pick is sure to be disappointing, drafting Robinson just one selection before Damian Lillard has to eat at Kings fans to this day.
10 of 11
Jason DeCrow/Associated Press
Drafted: No. 1 overall in 2013
Anthony Bennett has as strong a claim to the league’s “biggest bust” designation as anyone. Unlike the other candidates featured in this article, his selection was even shocking at the time.
“I need medical help!” The Ringer’s Bill Simmons exclaimed live on television as the Cleveland Cavaliers made Bennett the first overall pick ahead of Victor Oladipo, Otto Porter Jr. and Cody Zeller. “Oh my God!”
The measurables and skills Bennet showed in his lone season at UNLV did offer glimpses of what could have become a transcendent player. His versatility as a scorer from every level made him an intriguing option. Capable of handling the ball with either hand, he ferociously attacked the basket throughout his freshmen season and shot well above league average from three-point range on 2.7 attempts per game.
“The issue with Anthony was, and we had no way of knowing it at the time, the kid had no desire to overcome adversity whatsoever,” then-Cavaliers vice president of basketball operations David Griffin told Jason Lloyd of The Athletic. “As soon as it was hard, he was out. His whole life, he rolled out of bed bigger, better, and more talented than everybody else. As soon as it was hard, it was over. And I was the one on campus at UNLV. I’m the one who got sold the bill of goods and I bought it hook, line, and sinker. You f–k up sometimes.”
These are damning words from the executive who is at least partially responsible for drafting one of the league’s biggest disappointments. And that was despite the lack of any notable injury history that would have prevented him from at least contributing something during his four-year career.
Bennet played just one season in Cleveland before he was moved to the Minnesota Timberwolves as part of the deal that brought back Kevin Love. He played only 151 games in his career, which also saw him suit up for the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets.
11 of 11
Matt York/Associated Press
Drafted: Nos. 4 and 8 overall in 2016
The Phoenix Suns deserve criticism for one of the worst drafts in the modern era. With Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe in the backcourt and P.J. Tucker, Tyson Chandler and T.J. Warren in the frontcourt, they had a roster capable of developing into a contender with the right help.
With two top-10 picks in a rich 2016 draft (one coming via a post-selection trade with the Sacramento Kings), the Suns could have accelerated their trajectory by selecting Buddy Hield, Jamal Murray or Domantas Sabonis.
Instead, they started with 18-year-old 7-footer Dragan Bender.
As noted by Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress, who focused much of his scouting report on why Bender shouldn’t be compared to Kristaps Porzingis, the No. 4 pick never displayed much as a scorer, rim-protector or rebounder abroad. He played just three seasons in Phoenix, failing to average more than 6.5 points per game in any of them.
Marquese Chriss has fared a bit better, playing 70 more games than Bender through his five seasons with the Suns, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. As part of the Warriors squad that won just 15 games in 2019-20, Chriss averaged 9.3 points and 6.2 rebounds in 20.3 minutes per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field.
A long-term project due to the late start to his competitive basketball career, Chriss possessed the handle, shooting stroke and athleticism of a modern-day big. Where he failed was with his physicality and on the defensive end.
There may still be time for these two to discover their place in the NBA and find long-term roles. After all, Chriss is 23 years old, and Bender is still 22.
But even if they do realize their potential before it’s too late, it will happen long after the team that made them top-10 selections gave up on them.
Stats via NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass, BBall Index and ESPN unless otherwise noted.
Preston Ellis covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @PrestonEllis.