Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ “Looking Back” series!
We’ve already gone over how the first and second overall pick have fared since 2009, so naturally, the next pick up is the third overall pick. Like with the first two, we categorize these players by if they are hits, misses, in the middle, or role players. We’ve also laid down the criteria for what defines a player as a “hit”.
On paper, if you had a choice between having the second overall pick and the third overall pick in the draft, you’d pick second, right? By doing simple math, it gives you higher odds of getting a franchise-changing talent, or it should. But, if you look at the history of the third overall picks and compare them to the second overall picks since 2009, you’ll see that the third overall pick has not only brought more star players into the league, but the quality of star players have been better from pick No. 3 than from No. 2.
That may sound like a hot take, but if you take a look at who falls under what category for those taken third and compare them to those taken second, you might see a difference.
James Harden – Oklahoma City Thunder – 2009
When you’re one of the top candidates for MVP for five out of the last six years, it’s pretty safe to say that you’re a hit. Harden’s game may not be too fun to watch for other fanbases, but there’s no denying that the man controls the game when he’s got the ball in his hands.
Harden is one of the very few players in the league that will find a way to score by the most ridiculous of means. He’s also one of the very few players who has to be watched every single second he is on the floor — because the second he gets any semblance of daylight, he is gone. Watching Harden take free throws can bore the mind, but a man who does everything to get points on the board deserves respect and should be appreciated.
Harden has done so much that there isn’t much left for him to prove. Well, except getting that one monkey off his back: winning a championship. Harden’s had his chances over the last several years, and they’ve slipped through his fingers. With the Golden State Warriors down for the count, and should this season resume, this is a golden chance for him to finally guide his team to the promised land. Harden has had some unremarkable playoff performances over the past few years. This is his chance to put that behind him.
Lastly, stop making fun of his defense. Harden has low-key become a stout defender since the Houston Rockets’ ceiling took another jump. If you’re still giving him grief over that, then you haven’t been watching.
Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards – 2012
John Wall recovering from two consecutive serious injuries has been the pits for the Washington Wizards, but at least there’s been an upside to all of it this season — Bradley Beal’s ascension, or better yet, further ascension: 30.5 points, 6.1 assists, and 4.5 rebounds are phenomenal numbers no matter what team you’re on. Wall being out obviously, and sadly, brings more downsides. Case in point — because the Wizards are a tick below average at best, it didn’t get Beal an All-Star nod.
We already knew Beal was a hit since pretty much the year he entered the league. What we didn’t know was just how good he could be. Again, the Wizards aren’t good, which can build up the argument that his numbers are a classic case of good stats/bad team syndrome. Whether it is or isn’t, Beal has at least proven that he’s more than just a sharpshooter.
The scoring abilities are impressive, but the playmaking abilities might be the most surprising wrinkle. Playing next to a floor general as good as Wall probably did prevent Beal from showing how good of a passer he is, but now that he’s running the show, he is putting up assist numbers we didn’t think he could. Not to mention he’s doing that with a worse crew than Wall had when the Wizards were an Eastern Conference powerhouse.
Beal was definitely worth the pick when Washington took him. We know from these last two seasons that he was a bigger hit than we could have dreamed of.
Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers – 2014
This writer already wrote about why Embiid’s a gem. Come on guys, who didn’t know that?
Instead of repeating what’s already been said, let’s go over a fun NBA what-if that no one seems to talk about: What if Joel Embiid hadn’t gotten hurt during his pre-draft workout? Before the 2014 draft, Embiid was believed to be the consensus number one pick. Suffering a stress fracture before the draft combined with his illustrious history of injuries scared teams away from taking Embiid.
But say that never happens. The Cleveland Cavaliers had the number one pick that year. Do they trade the pick plus Anthony Bennett for Kevin Love knowing that LeBron James was on his way back? If they do, how do the Minnesota Timberwolves fare with Embiid? How good would they have been with Embiid instead of Andrew Wiggins? More importantly, do they take Karl-Anthony Towns the next year if they still had the first pick in 2015?
Even crazier, what if the Milwaukee Bucks had taken Embiid? Granted that wasn’t going to happen since the team had extended Larry Sanders the year before, but imagine if it did! The combination of the Greek Freak and Embiid would be an amazing combo on paper, but how well it would work would depend on how Milwaukee would compensate for the porous floor spacing between the two.
Now as we all know, Embiid went to Philly and has embraced himself as the poster boy of “The Process.” Reminiscing on what could have been is pointless, but man it’s fun. The fact that the league’s outlook could be seismically different had he landed elsewhere only serves as more evidence of just how amazing Embiid is.
Jaylen Brown – Boston Celtics – 2016
The Celtics were heavily booed when it was announced that they had used the third pick on California alum Jaylen Brown. Part of that was because fans wanted them to trade the pick in hopes of getting a star no matter what. Part of it was that no one really knew what to expect from Brown since the 2016 draft was viewed as a crapshoot outside of Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. Four years later, it’s pretty clear the Celtics nailed the pick.
Outside of that period last year where he looked flat-out lost on the court, Brown has gradually improved his game every year he’s been in Boston. This year has easily been his best year at the pro. His tighter handle, higher IQ and more refined scoring abilities gave him a lot of All-Star consideration. So much so that he had a case for being the biggest snub.
Add that to him already being a reliable shooter, an airtight defender, and of course, his outstanding hops, and it has made him one of the league’s most promising wings. The NBA values guys who can stretch the floor as well as defend multiple positions. Brown’s skill set brings those qualities to the table. His scoring prowess along with those things should put him in All-Star consideration for the next several years. We still don’t even know if he’s hit his peak yet either.
His ceiling is not on the level of a superstar, but more like a capable second or third option on a championship-caliber team. Lucky for Boston, they don’t need him to be because that guy came the next year at the exact same spot.
Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics – 2017
Remember when everyone thought Boston was crazy for trading Markelle Fultz to their division rival for Tatum? Let that be a reminder folks: NBA teams know more than we do. Of course, nobody knew what was going to happen to Fultz, but that’s neither here nor there.
Tatum is the new face of Celtics basketball. We already believed that when we saw him put up one of the most impressive individual playoff campaigns by a rookie. Sure, the next season was not as pretty as we thought it would be, but the future superstar many believed Tatum could be has finally arrived.
Having an incredibly lanky body on top of excellent body control would make anyone a difficult cover on the floor. In Tatum’s case, his shooting abilities, especially one-on-one, make him that much tougher of a cover all-around. Boston knew that if they were going to take that next step towards contention, Tatum’s evolution would be what would get them there. Before the season was halted, Tatum’s evolution was most definitely imminent.
Oh, and his offensive evolution has completely overshadowed that his defense has also come along quite nicely this season. For years now, the infamous Celtics-Nets trade from 2013 has been talked about as one of the most lopsided trades ever agreed to. “The Jays” have made that more apparent than ever.
Luka Doncic – Dallas Mavericks – 2018
Usually when your franchise loses the best player it ever had, it should take a fair amount of time to get it back to where it was when he was in his prime. Usually. Especially when that player was one of the best 20-30 players to ever play the game of basketball. For the Mavericks, it’s taken literally no time at all. That’s because from the ashes that were the Dirk Nowitzki era came the new and very bright Luka era.
The Slovenian Wonder took no time putting the league on notice. Look at his shooting percentages from anywhere inside the three-point line. He can score from just about anywhere in that parameter and can take over a game at any point. Luka’s averaging a cool 29/9/9, and he’s only 21. His rookie year was no fluke. Luka Doncic is a superstar in the making.
It also usually takes time for a young player’s talent to translate into team success. Not Luka, though. Dallas has been in the playoff race from day one of this season, and we all know the best is yet to come from both him and the rest of the Mavericks squad.
Watching Luka, it seems unbelievable that two teams would actually pass up on him, but it should be pointed out Luka’s unimpressive athleticism made him be viewed as largely a boom-or-bust prospect. Two years later, he has proven himself to be very much a boom, and it may not be long before the rest of the league becomes a barren wasteland because of it.
Jahlil Okafor – Philadelphia 76ers – 2015
Poor Jahlil. It’s not his fault that he came into the NBA just as guys like him were starting to get phased out of the league. It’s also not his fault that he was drafted by a team that had no intention of developing him unless all other plans fell through. As fun as it is to see the league become as fun and entertaining as it currently is, it’s disheartening to see Okafor, a player once deemed a superstar prospect just half a decade ago, barely hanging on to stay in the NBA.
What’s happened to Okafor since he’s had a national audience is something we may never see again. Back in 2014, he was slated as a franchise player. The league’s next great big man. He is now barely a rotation player on a fringe playoff team.
Some highly-touted prospects disappoint in the way of turning into journeymen, but usually, that’s either because they didn’t have the work ethic and/or the talent to live up to their potential. Okafor’s guilty of having some major holes in his game, but unlike say, Anthony Bennett, you can clearly see that he has NBA-caliber skills to his game. When those skills aren’t as valued anymore — compounded with his noticeable defensive shortcomings — the harsh reality is that he’s never going to live up to the expectations once placed on him.
Even with all that’s happened to him, Okafor’s fought his way to keep a place in the league. That is nice to see, but former third overall picks shouldn’t be fighting just to stay in the NBA in their fifth NBA season. If they do, they’re undoubtedly a bust.
The Middle of the Road
RJ Barrett – New York Knicks – 2019
There hasn’t been much to look forward to in New York for quite some time. This season has been more of the same. The brightest spot among others is the promising play of RJ Barrett. Before Zion Williamson and Ja Morant lit up the world, Barrett was the slated top prospect in his class for a reason, and he honestly has looked like a building block on the court.
He hasn’t lit the world on fire in his first season in New York, but he has shown that he has a bag of tricks on the offensive end. Averaging a cool 14/5/2.5 his first season in the league is impressive enough. It’s better than what Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina did their first year in the league, or really any year they’ve been in the league in general. There is room to grow, too. He’ll need to improve his deep ball if he wants opponents to take him seriously as an all-around scorer.
He has the time to develop into something more, and he should get more scoring opportunities over the next couple of years. Time will tell if this he’ll be a hit or if he’ll be a role player. Now, please, New York, don’t screw this up as you did with the last good prospect you had.
The Role Players
Derrick Favors – New Jersey Nets – 2010
Favors may go down as the most underrated player of the 2010s. After a brief stint playing with the Nets, Favors was traded to the Utah Jazz, where he was outshined by the likes of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. After those two bolted, Favors was soon outshined by Rudy Gobert. Had he just played on a team where he wasn’t behind a big man better than him, Favors may have had a better reputation around the league.
Favors has never been one to put up incredible statistics, but he’s been a well-liked teammates and can pick up the slack if a more prominent big on the team goes down — watch the Clippers-Jazz series from 2017 for reference — and he sticks to what he’s good at.
He’s an excellent defender, can gobble up the boards – he’s averaging almost 10 boards this season, a career-high – and he’s even capable of the highlight dunk. If there’s one player whose career deserves a do-over, it’s Fave. He came into the NBA oozing with raw potential. He hasn’t disappointed entirely, but maybe he could have done more had he played for a team that asked more from him.
Enes Kanter – Utah Jazz – 2011
It’s funny how earlier we talked about how guys like Jahlil Okafor are virtually extinct in the NBA because offensively-dominant post players with defensive issues have proven to be of little use in the league’s current climate. Kanter is pretty much in the same ballpark as Okafor, so why does Kanter get regarded as a role player while Okafor gets the bust label? Because one is a dominant rebounder, and the other is far from it.
That seems like a pretty oversimplified generalization, but it’s true. Kanter has been somewhat of a disappointment seeing how his defense is so bad that one of his coaches infamously said, “can’t play Kanter” during the playoffs because of it. Still, on top of his offensive finesse, he’s been one of the league’s most dominant rebounders when he’s in the game.
Even with his flaws, what Kanter is good at makes him a nuisance. He has a knack for getting offensive rebounds and putting the ball back in. His toughness on the inside also draws a lot of and-ones, too. The laughable defense, most obviously in the pick and roll, does limit how impactful he can be on the floor, but Kanter all in all carries his weight.
Just don’t play him against the likes of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Otto Porter Jr. – Washington Wizards – 2013
Even though Porter became a high-end complementary at best, calling him a role player, which would make him fail in comparison to some of the other guys on here, sells him kind of short. Would it sound better if it was said that Porter was the third-best player picked in the top 10 in the 2013 draft? Let it be known that 2013 had one of the worst classes ever, and Porter had very little to do with it.
When he’s on the floor, Porter is one of the better three-and-D wings in the league. His length can be bothersome for opponents on the floor because he’s tough to get by as much as his shot is tough to block. He’s also been a valuable contributor for good teams, much like he was Washington before the team slowly disintegrated. Is he overpaid? Of course he is, but he certainly hasn’t been one of those players who takes his money and runs.
Asking if Porter will get $27 million in the open market again is pretty laughable. He’s a fantastic player especially with what the NBA asks from its complementary players, but he’s not a star. All things considered, he’s an ideal third/fourth option on a team with title aspirations. That’s far from bad for a third overall pick.
As you can see, the third pick has brought forth plenty of good young talent. When you compare how the third overall picks have done to the second picks since 2009, it really does feel like No. 3 has outclassed No. 2. This hasn’t been a recent development if you look even further.
Deron Williams definitely had a better career than Marvin Williams. Carmelo Anthony badly outclassed Darko Milicic. Chauncey Billups did a lot more than Keith Van Horn did. We could keep going but it would take a while.
It’s like they say: Three is a magic number.