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The Top 5 Draft Picks of the Past Decade in the NBA

Which NBA star was the biggest draft-day steal? We pay homage to the savviest selections in the league.

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Basketball is (maybe, hopefully) on the horizon. To help reintegrate us to a life of Giannis hammer dunks, James Harden dribbling for 24 seconds, and 76ers fans yelling at you for some reason, we’re rolling out top-five rankings in 20 different categories. All rankings were voted on by The Ringer staff unless noted.

5. Luka Doncic, Mavericks (via Hawks): 2018 (Round 1, no. 3)

When voting for this list, we were asked to consider draft picks with the most value, i.e., the lower the selection, the more impressive the selection. Because of that, Doncic is the lone lottery pick here. Who actually drafted Doncic will be a fun trivia question someday: Atlanta selected the Slovenian third before sending him in a draft-day trade to Dallas for Trae Young (the no. 5 pick), and an additional first-rounder the following year (which became Cam Reddish).

Applauding the Mavs for securing Doncic doesn’t mean we need to criticize the Hawks for wanting Young, who was voted an All-Star this season and averaged a cool 29.6 points per game. (People are always so quick to chastise the Hawks when the Suns took Deandre Ayton and the Kings took Marvin Bagley III over both.) But Dallas knew what it wanted (the team has had luck drafting a European in the lottery before), made an aggressive draft day trade to get him, and, one year later, is back in the playoffs.

4. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets: 2014 (Round 2, no. 41)

International players make up the majority of this list because they don’t have as much amateur visibility, resulting in lower selections or the idea that they “came out of nowhere.” Jokic wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American; nor did he play for an NCAA powerhouse. In 2015, he left the Serbian League when his team was eliminated in the semifinals. Some people did not think picking Jokic was a good use of resources for the Nuggets. Five years later, before the start of this season, NBA GMs voted him the best center in the league (a wonderful compliment for a pseudo-guard), the second-best passer, and the player with the second-highest basketball IQ. And after what looks like a monthslong fast, a slimmer Jokic should be capable of even more than his beefier self, who was averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds, and almost seven assists before play stopped.

3. Draymond Green, Warriors: 2012 (Round 2, no. 35)

Debating Draymond’s value is like debating whether candy corn is delicious. No one is ever persuaded to change their opinion, and no one is ever in the middle. The same is true with Draymond, arguably the NBA’s most polarizing player, who you either think is vastly overrated or vastly underrated. His best contributions are intangible, so it’s difficult to make the case. However, he’s a three-time NBA champion, a Defensive Player of the Year winner, a three-time All-Star, the league leader in steals in 2016-17, and was voted on to two All-NBA teams and five All-Defensive teams. His value as a 35-overall pick is indisputable.

2. Kawhi Leonard, Spurs (via Pacers): 2011 (Round 1, no. 15)

Players taken above Kawhi in 2011 include: Derrick Williams, Enes Kanter, Jan Vesely, Brandon Knight, Tristan Thompson, Jimmer Fredette, Alec Burks, and both Morris twins. It’s easy to laugh at teams that passed on superstars in retrospect. Kawhi’s offense did need work, and it’s fair to wonder whether he would’ve initially blossomed had he not been under Gregg Popovich and surrounded by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginóbili. (The Pacers selected Kawhi for the Spurs, who sent George Hill back in a draft-day deal.) But I will laugh at Phoenix, who passed on Kawhi with the 13th pick because he was so nervous during a combine interview that he sweated through his suit. A little perspiration got between the Suns and a two-time Finals MVP.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks: 2013 (Round 1, no. 15)

By 2013, wingspan had become a holy word in draft guides, making the prospect of an 18-year-old Giannis mysterious but exciting. He was the youngest player in his draft class, and with shoulders that looked like they had legs growing out of them, his 7-foot-3 wingspan made him a popular sleeper before the draft. But videos of the Greek teenager playing were hard to come by. Front offices were apprehensive. Even those who believed in his upside made premature player comparisons. Scouts and writers likened Giannis to Nicolas Batum more than any other player, and I’m sure at the time, this seemed like an optimistic, even charitable comparison. Now, assuming there will still be regular-season awards, Giannis is about to become a two-time MVP—the lowest pick to win back-to-back MVP awards since Steve Nash (another 15th pick) did in 2005 and 2006.