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NBA Draft: 3 Times the No. 1 Pick Was Not Who We Suspected

In most years, we know well in advance who the No. 1 pick in NBA Draft is going to be. Heck, sometimes we know literal years in advance (looking at you, Victor Wembanyama, LeBron James, et al). Those years are lame and boring. As an arbiter of what’s fun, I say the best way to observe sports is hoping for chaos and embracing the volatility of some truly insane decision making. That’s what we’re here to discuss — three times that the No. 1 pick truly floored us, even in cases where the choice may have been the right one in hindsight. Let’s go over the most shocking first overall picks in NBA Draft history, and make some comparisons to the 2024 NBA Draft.

Three Shocking No. 1 Picks in NBA Draft History

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3. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic (2022)

We’ll start with something recent that is also a good indicator of how much we depend on NBA media to provide the viewing public with teams’ draft sentiments.

Throughout the 2022 college basketball season, the consensus was that Duke’s Paolo Banchero, Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren and Auburn’s Jabari Smith would go top 3 in some order. Opinions swung wildly with each passing week as to who would go No. 1, who deserved to go No. 1 and who was best suited to make an immediate NBA impact. Come draft week, Banchero was getting the betting attention, but by Thursday the feel seemed to be that Smith was the most likely to go first to Orlando.

That morning, Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that the presumed order was going to be Smith to the Magic at No. 1, Holmgren to the Thunder at No. 2 and Banchero to the Rockets at No. 3. The odds shifted in that direction, and we settled in for a drama-free night.

Whoops — Woj backtracked minutes before the draft and said Banchero was still in the mix to go first. Chaos ensued, draft odds flew off the handle, and then it all came to a head when the Magic did, in fact, take Banchero. Holmgren went second, Smith went third, and the draft betting consequences all around were significant — leaving some folks angry at Woj.

For now, it’s hard to know for sure if the Magic made the right call because all three are really, really good at basketball. Banchero is showing the most superstar potential early on, though.

2. Michael Olowokandi, Los Angeles Clippers (1998)

The 1998 NBA Draft was very strange, both in the moment and in hindsight. The best player ended up being a tall, skinny, German kid who few knew much about, and the second-best player was a presumed top-5 pick who plummeted to No. 10 for still-unknown reasons. North Carolina teammates Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter went fourth and fifth and were traded for each other on draft night, and Rashard Lewis dropped to the second round in probably the saddest draft fall ever put to film. Luckily for all of our heartstrings, Lewis had a good career and made those losers pay.

Arguably the weirdest thing, however, was the discussion at the top of the draft. Arizona guard Mike Bibby seemed the right pick — he was the leader for a Wildcats team that was a No. 1 seed that year, he was a great playmaker that could score and pass, and he had that proverbial dawg in him that would ultimately make Kings fans very happy. It also offset his relative lack of size.

No. 2 was going to be one of two athletic, versatile bigs: Two-time Big 12 Player of the Year Raef LaFrentz and 23-year-old Pacific center Michael Olowokandi. Olowokandi was a raw but also old but also uber-athletic 7-footer with a huge wingspan, and he was productive at a small school — averaging 22 and 11 his last year with Pacific. But LaFrentz was younger, more successful at a major program and had shooting range.

What we didn’t expect was Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor deciding that a 23-year-old with no jump shot had “unlimited upside.” Alas, that’s what he thought, and he went with Olowokandi as the No. 1 overall pick, who joined a Clippers squad that’s best players were Maurice Taylor and Sherman Douglas.

Needless to say, Olowokandi did not fix that, and the Clippers won just nine games in the strike-shortened 1998-99 season (equal to about 15 wins in a full year). Olowokandi ended up playing longer than you may remember, but an athletic, 7-foot center should probably shoot better than 43% through his prime, no?

1. Anthony Bennett, Cleveland Cavaliers (2013)

This is the gold standard for shocking No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft — and probably the best comparable to the 2024 draft. That is not to say that the top choice this year will be Anthony Bennett, but these the 2013 and 2024 drafts are very similar in that few can really nail down who should be the No. 1 pick.

Here is a list of players in the 2013 draft who were at one time genuinely considered viable No. 1 pick candidates, for varying lengths of time: Victor Oladipo, Alex Len, Cody Zeller, Nerlens Noel and Otto Porter Jr. Noel had the longest run as the presumed top pick, but an ACL injury and general lack of offense knocked him down and brought others up.

The day of, Oladipo and Noel were probably seeing the most momentum to go first to Cleveland, but it was still unclear who was leading the pack. One player who was not on anyone’s radar, however, was Bennett.

We’ll let Bill Simmons provide our feelings when David Stern announced the Cavaliers’ selection.

Bennett was projected to go somewhere in the 7 to 10 range, and No. 1 seemed completely out of the question. But it only takes one team to fall in love for a shocking pick to happen.

The love did not last very long, however, as the Cavs gave up on Bennett after just 52 games and traded him to acquire Kevin Love. Then Minnesota vailed on Bennett after 57 games, and he played only 350-ish minutes total for the remainder of his career. This is without question the worst No. 1 pick in NBA history.

Then again …

… The two best players in 2013 went 15th and 27th, so it was the ultimate crapshoot that year. 2024 is shaping up similarly — let chaos reign.

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