The pressure to not make a mistake at the top of the NBA Draft may be greater than the pressure to get it right. After all, nobody will commend the Pelicans if they take Zion Williamson and he turns into a Hall of Famer. He is the obvious choice at No. 1 overall this season.
But if Williamson doesn’t pan out, the failure to take advantage of the first pick will become a specter over the franchise forever.
Williamson, of course, seems unlikely to join the ranks of Sam Bowie, Kwame Brown and Darko Milicic. But it’s worth taking a run through history’s biggest draft busts anyway, and taking a look at where they ended up.
Sam Bowie, Blazers, 1984
When you take a largely forgettable center second overall and Michael Jordan gets picked third, you made the worst draft pick of all time. There’s no two ways about it.
Bowie played parts of five seasons in Portland as injuries hampered his ability to get on the floor. Over the last three of those seasons — 1986-89 — he played a combined 25 games. Though he ended up reviving his career with the Nets, and later the Lakers. he did so while Jordan was leading the Bulls to their first of two three-peats.
Today, Bowie is involved with the harness racing scene in Lexington, where he went to college. He also spent time doing color commentary for Kentucky basketball games.
Kwame Brown, Wizards, 2001
Brown was the first sign that Michael Jordan the executive wasn’t of the same ilk as Michael Jordan the player. In a draft where Tyson Chandler and Pau Gasol were selected second and third overall, Jordan took Brown first.
The Glynn Academy product famously told Doug Collins, then the coach of the Wizards, “If you draft me, you’ll never regret it.” The Wizards did come to regret it, as Brown struggled to get into playing shape, left Washington after just four seasons and never realized his potential.
Brown did attempt a recent comeback, playing in Allen Iverson’s Big 3 basketball league in 2017, helping the 3-Headed Monsters make the finals. However, he was arrested last March after allegedly being found with marijuana before being let go after a short time.
Darko Milicic, Pistons, 2003
If you’re looking for competition for Sam Bowie, this is it. The Pistons took Milicic second overall in the famed 2003 draft, just after LeBron James, hoping to shore up the future of a team that would go on to win the title the following season.
Not only did Milicic go bust, but the next three players taken — Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade — all might become Hall of Famers one day. Meanwhile, Milicic was traded from the Pistons midway through his third season, and averaged just six points per game over his career.
Of all the players on this list, Milicic may have the most interesting post-basketball career though. In 2017, when ESPN caught up with him, Milicic was running an apple orchard in Serbia. He also had a short kickboxing career in 2014, losing his debut fight.
Anthony Bennett, Cavaliers, 2013
The 2013 Draft was an anomaly in that only one player in the top-10 has been selected for an All-Star Game a full six years the picks were made. Still, Bennett is one of the quickest-ever top overall picks to bust. Not only did the Cavs ship him to Minnesota after just one season, but it was as a throw-in for a deal that brought Cleveland Kevin Love.
Bennett was out of the NBA by 2017, when he was just 23 years old.
Bennett is still playing basketball now, albeit at a lower level. He had a short stint with Fenerbahce in the Euroleague after the Nets ended his NBA career by waiving him in 2017. He played in the G League last season for the Agua Caliente Clippers, and is trying to work his way back to prominence.
Greg Oden, Blazers, 2007
Oden’s failure in the NBA isn’t his fault. The Blazers took him first after an All-American season at Ohio State, but the big man never got off the ground at the next level because of injuries. Meanwhile, the guy drafted second happened to be Kevin Durant.
While Oden missed three seasons because of injury, trying and failing to come back with the Miami Heat in 2014 before calling it quits, Durant blossomed into one of the best players of all-time.
As Durant now deals with his own injury misery, Oden last played in The Basketball Tournament in 2018, alongside a team of Ohio State alumni. He also worked as a student manager for Ohio State basketball while working to finish his degree.
Joe Smith, Warriors, 1995
Before the Warriors were the Warriors they were largely hapless. Smith was Exhibit A.
Taken with the first pick in the 1995 draft, Smith had a long NBA career, but spent barely over two seasons with the Warriors. Though he was productive, averaging 17 points and 8.2 rebounds in the Bay, Golden State traded him to the Sixers for Jim Jackson and Clarence Weatherspoon, neither of whom did anything of note with the Warriors.
Smith was never much more than a journeyman, and the next four guys taken in the draft all had at least one All-Star appearance, including Kevin Garnett, who was picked fifth. Garnett will soon be in the Hall of Fame, while Smith is currently running a private coaching service in Atlanta.
Dennis Hopson, Nets, 1987
In a first round where Scottie Pippen, Reggie Miller, Kenny Smith, Horace Grant and Kevin Johnson were all taken after No. 5, the Nets managed to pick Hopson third. If you don’t remember him, here’s why: he played just five seasons in the NBA.
Over that time, he averaged 10.9 points, 2.8 rebounds and did not become one of the best ever defenders or clutch shooters, as Pippen and Miller did.
After the NBA, Hopson played for a while in Europe before launching a coaching career. He was an assistant at Bowling Green from 2009-14, and landed the head job at Lourdes University this May.
Pervis Ellison, Kings, 1989
It’s never a good thing when your teammate nicknames you, “Out of Service.” Danny Ainge bestowed the name on Ellison, who was frequently injured and never lived up to his billing as the first overall pick.
Ellison, who averaged 9.5 points throughout his career, was traded by the Kings after his rookie season and bounced around the league for the remainder of his career. Only one time — his second season— did Ellison play more than 70 games.
Ellison was coaching basketball in Burlington, New Jersey for Life Center Academy, though it’s unclear if he’s still doing so.r