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10 NBA rookies who exceeded the No. 1 pick in their draft class

We’ve picked the 10 players who have proven everyone wrong and surpassed the No. 1 pick in their draft class
Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant talks with New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson

Ja Morant, Zion Williamson

Every year, a bunch of highly-touted prospects enter the league, and teams invest millions of dollars in their talents. However, regardless of how many promising youngsters are in a draft class, only one will be selected as the No. 1 overall pick.

While being the No. 1 in your class is already considered an accolade, it’s also quite a burden as the pressure significantly increases. Over the years, we’ve seen No. 1 picks get exceeded by slightly lower selections and, in some cases, even by the picks that were way behind them in the draft.

On this list, we’ve picked the 10 players who have proven everyone wrong and surpassed the No. 1 pick in their draft class.

10. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks at No. 15 in 2013, Giannis Antetokounmpo came into the league as a lengthy and lanky forward with notable athleticism. Besides that, everyone else thought he was just fooling around when he once said he wanted to win the MVP award.

In his ninth season with the Bucks, “The Greek Freak” emphatically brought the championship back to Milwaukee after 50 years.

The No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft class, Anthony Bennett, meanwhile, failed to live up to the hype after being drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers. He was shipped from team to team after one season with the Cavs and never made a massive impact on any of them.

9. Kevin Garnett

In 1995, a host of versatile power forwards composed of Joe Smith, Antonio McDyess, and Rasheed Wallace entered the league.

The Golden State Warriors selected Maryland’s Smith as the No. 1 overall pick. The Los Angeles Clippers pounced on McDyess at No. 2, but they immediately sent him to the Denver Nuggets. The Washington Bullets, meanwhile, went for Wallace at No. 4.

While all of them had quite an impressive maiden season with their respective teams, it was the Minnesota Timberwolves’ No. 5 pick Kevin Garnett who eventually became the brightest of them all.

Smith used to be one of the key figures in the young Warriors squad, but by the time he arrived in Minnesota, KG was already the team's marquee player.

Garnett did not stop improving, having earned 15 All-Star appearances in the process. And though he never won a championship with the Timberwolves, KG finally copped one with the Boston Celtics in 2008.

8. Ja Morant

In the case of Ja Morant, it’s a bit too early to make a conclusion, but he definitely deserves a spot on the list because of his incredible and notably quick evolution in the league.

Zion Williamson was the unanimous favorite to become the No. 1 overall pick heading into the 2019 NBA Draft, and the New Orleans Pelicans made him so on draft day. However, it was Memphis Grizzlies’ No. 2 pick Morant, who has been making things happen for his team.

While it’s quite unfortunate that Williamson’s early years in the league were plagued with injuries, Morant’s outstanding run from day one has been undeniable. After just three years in the league, Ja has already copped an All-Star appearance, the Rookie of the Year, and the Most Improved Player of the year awards. On top of that, he already has four triple-doubles to date.

7. Dirk Nowitzki

In the post-Michael Jordan era, fans were expecting a newcomer from the crop of the 1998 Draft class would somehow give them a reason to watch the NBA again. North Carolina’s Vince Carter was among them, but it was University of the Pacific’s Michael Olowakandi who was selected as the No. 1 overall pick by the Clippers.

Dirk Nowitzki was selected by the Bucks at No. 9 and was immediately sent to the Dallas Mavericks.

Both Olowakandi and Nowitzki did not have a remarkable maiden season with their respective teams, as it was Carter who took the NBA by storm. However, Nowitzki followed suit and tremendously improved after a couple of seasons. Olowakandi, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found in Carter and Nowitzki’s realm.

In his eighth season in the league, Nowitzki led the Mavs to the NBA Finals but lost to the Miami Heat. After five years, “German Jesus” faced the Heat in the Finals once again. This time, Nowitzki won’t be denied as the Mavs beat Miami in their pulsating rematch. Nowitzki then won his well-deserved NBA Finals MVP award, cementing his name in the list of all-time greats.

6. Kevin Durant

Like Morant, Kevin Durant was also the No. 2 overall pick in their draft class. KD was already a highly-touted player in Texas, but all eyes were on Ohio State’s Greg Oden.

The Portland Trail Blazers selected Oden as the No. 1 overall pick, and the hype around his name was indescribable. However, a devastating knee injury halted G.O.’s rise, and Seattle Supersonics’ pick Durant stole the show.

Since then, Durant never looked back and became one of his generation's greatest players, He collected an array of feats, including two NBA titles, two Finals MVP awards, 12 All-Star appearances, two All-Star Game MVP awards, and four scoring champ titles.

As for Oden, he wound up being just another “what if” in the NBA.

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5. Chris Paul

Chris Paul’s case may be the most debatable one on this list because of the fact that the No. 1 pick in his draft class happened to have already won an NBA title to his name, something CP3 has yet to achieve to this day.

In 2005, the Bucks made Andrew Bogut the No. 1 overall pick. On the other hand, the New Orleans Hornets banked on Paul at No. 4. Bogut never really delivered as advertised while CP3 quickly put the Hornets back on the map.

In terms of overall skills, Paul beats Bogut outright, but Bogut copped his first and lone NBA championship in 2015 with the Warriors.

Paul has come an inch close to winning his first NBA title in 2021 but fell short-handed against Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. Despite not winning the chip, Paul is already considered one of the greatest point guards in history.

4. Steph Curry

In 2009, fans were dazzled by the incredible athleticism of Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin, and the Clippers did not hesitate to make him the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Davidson’s baby-faced scoring point guard Steph Curry, meanwhile, was drafted by the Warriors at No. 7.

Griffin was an instant star in LA, having formed the “Lob City” with Chris Paul. On the other hand, the Dubs relied on the potential of Curry and offloaded their then backcourt star Monta Ellis to make way for the sharp-shooting Davidson product.

Curry and Griffin both became All-Stars but the latter was derailed by injuries. With his out-of-this-world three-point shooting, Curry evolved into a hybrid point guard and set a new standard for streak-shooters.

In terms of accomplishments, Curry has gone way ahead of Griffin as he’s now a four-time NBA champion and is considered by some as arguably the most influential player of his generation.

3. Larry Bird

Selected by the Blazers, Mychal Thompson, father of Warriors star Klay Thompson, was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1978 NBA Draft. He had a pretty good maiden season in Portland, and everything seemed quite normal as “Sweet Bells” gave his team what an outstanding rookie was supposed to. However, Thompson’s rise was overshadowed by the debut of Indiana native simply known as Larry Bird.

Drafted by the Boston Celtics at No. 6, Bird did not play in his first season. This gave Thompson one full season to take the league by storm. However, “The Hick from French Lick” was just too good that even though his arrival was delayed, he still managed to steal the show.

In his first season with the C’s, Bird swiftly made his presence felt, having averaged 21.3 points and 10.4 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game. How’s that for a rookie.

From then on, Larry legend has been the star of Boston, adding glitter to the already shimmering franchise by leading the team to three NBA titles. Bird left the team as arguably the greatest Celtic player of all time.

2. Kobe Bryant

Solid Kobe Bryant fans already know this, but for those who don’t, the late Los Angeles Lakers legend was slept on during the 1996 NBA Draft.

To this day, many still consider the 1996 draft class as the most star-studded crop of young hoopers in history. Well, it’s hard to argue as that class included Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Stephon Marbury, Steve Nash, and of course, Kobe.

Having spent his formative years in basketball in Italy, teams weren’t really convinced that Bryant was the real deal. On top of that, a host of teams were eyeing Iverson, who was selected as the No. 1 overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers. In fact, even the Charlotte Hornets, who selected Bryant at No. 13, quickly sent him to the Lakers in exchange for experienced big man Vlade Divac.

Little did everyone know, Bryant would develop into one of his era's most lethal scorers and even surpass all the players in his draft class.

Bryant spent his entire career with the Lakers and won five championships with the storied franchise. His name is often thrown in GOAT talks and has been highly regarded by his peers even to this day.

On the other hand, Iverson was credited for being arguably the most influential player of his generation. But sadly, he never won a championship and was way behind Bryant in terms of accolades.

1. Michael Jordan

Whenever we’re talking about Michael Jordan, in most cases, there’s no need for further introduction. But let’s still take a quick look at how MJ exceeded the No. 1 overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft.

As expected, Jordan’s case was special. Among the names on this list, MJ had the most formidable competition as the No. 1 pick in their draft class happened to be two-time NBA champion, Hakeem Olajuwon.

Having already made his mark in Houston, Olajuwon was a no-brainer for the Rockets, who held the No. 1 spot in the draft in 1984. Portland went for Kentucky’s Sam Bowie at No. 2, while the Chicago Bulls selected North Carolina’s Jordan at No. 3.

Olajuwon needed no warm-ups as he quickly became a driving force in Houston. And Jordan did so in Chicago.

The pair went on to become the most dominant players in their respective areas of expertise- Hakeem in the post, while Jordan in… pretty much everywhere.

As Olajuwon enjoyed being regarded as arguably the best center in the 90s, Jordan was already on a different planet. His six NBA titles dwarf Hakeem’s two, and more importantly, MJ’s game set a new benchmark for basketball players of all levels across the world.

This year, Orlando Magic’s Paulo Banchero is the No. 1 overall pick, and we’ll be watching closely if he would deliver or be exceeded like some of the players on this list.

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