The Rundown: All-Time Biggest Draft Busts

Drafting in professional sports in an inexact science.

For every team that nails their first-round selection, there are a couple that completely whiff and it’s not contained to just one sport. Given that climbing the ranks in baseball tends to take a little longer, it’s a little tougher to criticize teams for blowing their draft when an early pick doesn’t pan out, but in the NFL, NHL and NBA – where players are expected to contribute right away (or relatively soon) – screwing up a first-round pick is poisonous.

As we saw recently, drafting well is a great way to build a championship team. Conversely, drafting poorly is a perfect way to continue sucking. Here’s a look at some of the worst draft picks in NBA, NHL and NFL history.

Brian Lawton – First Overall, Minnesota Northstars, 1983

When seven of the next eight picks after you are either All-Stars or Hall of Famers, you better be an All-Star or a Hall of Famer yourself and Lawton was neither. Drafted first after consecutive high school championships and a good showing at the World Junior tournament, the next eight picks off the board were Sylvain Turgeon, Pat LaFontaine, Steve Yzerman, Tom Barrasso, John MacLean, Russ Courtnall, Andrew McBain and Cam Neely. Ouch.

Sam Bowie – Second Overall, Portland Trailblazers, 1984

A classic case of a team not taking the best player on the board regardless of “need,” Portland selected Bowie, a center who missed a year at Kentucky with a major knee injury, second overall in 1984 because they were set in the backcourt. Chicago selected Michael Jeffrey Jordan from the University of North Carolina with the third pick. Injuries continued to plague Bowie throughout his career, while Jordan became the best player in the history of the NBA.

Tony Mandarich – Second Overall, Green Bay Packers, 1989

Sports Illustrated called Mandarich “the best offensive line prospect ever” coming out of Michigan State. Unfortunately, part of what made him great in college was rampant steroid use and the Canadian flamed out in a hurry.  He eventually returned and was a productive lineman for the Indianapolis Colts, but when the three picks after you are Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders, that’s rough.

Alexandre Daigle – First Overall, Ottawa Senators, 1993

Daigle put up stupid numbers in junior and was considered a sure thing heading into the 1993 draft. He wasn’t. Though he had a couple decent seasons in Ottawa, Daigle was never the superstar he was projected to be and what makes matters worse is that future Norris and Hart Trophy recipient Chris Pronger was picked right behind him. At the time, it was the right choice, but history hasn’t done Daigle any favours.

Ryan Leaf – Second Overall, San Diego Chargers, 1998

Heading into the 1998 NFL Draft there were two quarterbacks in a match race for the No. 1 pick – Leaf and Peyton Manning. Indianapolis went with the second-generation signal caller and never looked back. San Diego took the runner up and watched their world implode as the volatile Leaf struggled on the field and regularly threw fits in the locker room and on the field.

Kwame Brown – First Overall, Washington Wizards, 2001

Michael Jordan may have been the best player in NBA history, but as a far as running a team goes, he’s pretty bad. Admittedly, the 2001 Draft wasn’t great, but Jordan grabbed Brown, a high schooler who never developed into more than a mediocre rotation player in The Association, ahead of Tyson Chandler and Pau Gasol, two players who excelled at the same position for more than a decade.

Darko Milicic – Second Overall, Detroit Pistons, 2003

The 2003 NBA Draft is one of the best in recent memory, yielding LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, but sandwiched between James and Anthony at second overall was Milicic, an intriguing prospect with great height and raw skills that never came close to putting it all together. While the rest of those players are perennial All-Star, Milicic is out of the league and trying to become a kickboxer. Good times.

JaMarcus Russell – First Overall, Oakland Raiders, 2007

First pick in April 2007. Released in May 2010. That’s how quickly it became apparent that Russell wasn’t going to be able to cut it in the NFL. Unlike some of the guys on this list, the former LSU standout didn’t even go on to have a journeyman career; he just flamed out hard and fast. Calvin Johnson went second, Joe Thomas went third and a host of other Pro Bowlers followed.

Greg Oden – First Overall, Portland Trailblazers, 2007

First, 2007 was a bad year for first overall picks. Second, you would think Portland would remember taking the big man with bad knees was the wrong choice. They didn’t and drafted Oden ahead of Kevin Durant. He missed his entire rookie season and played a grand total of 105 NBA games. Durant won the MVP last season.

Hasheem Thabeet – Second Overall, Memphis Grizzlies, 2009

James Harden went third. Steph Curry went seventh. DeMar DeRozan went 10th. Thabeet is out of the league. While drafting the UConn big man didn’t cripple the Grizzlies the way blowing the second pick would most teams, just imagine how good this team could be with one of those three players, someone like Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio or even Gerald Henderson on the roster now? 

E. Spencer Kyte

E. Spencer Kyte

E. Spencer Kyte is a freelance journalist based in Abbotsford, British Columbia, where he lives with his wife and dog. In addition to his work here, he writes about sports for Complex Canada and covers the UFC for various outlets. His mom also still tells him what to do on a regular basis, even though he’s nearly 40. He tweets from @spencerkyte.

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