The Curse of the Eighth Pick in the NBA Draft

AP Images/Ringer illustration

It’s commonplace in sports to talk about the curses and losing streaks afflicting single franchises, like the fact that the Washington Wizards somehow haven’t reached the conference finals since the 1970s. But maybe the most fascinating streak of futility in the modern NBA is one that 16 different teams share a piece of. That’s how many teams have held the eighth pick in the NBA draft since 1994, a span of 29 consecutive classes that astonishingly haven’t produced a single All-Star at that number.

The most recent All-Star drafted eighth was Vin Baker, who was taken by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1993. Baker made four straight All-Star teams beginning with his second season, and he was honored with an All-NBA second-team appearance in 1998 (beating out Kevin Garnett and Chris Webber, among others). But his stats started dramatically declining in the following year’s lockout season, and Baker’s career went into a tailspin due to problems with alcohol and depression. Yet despite those struggles, Baker was by far the most honored eighth pick of the last 37 drafts.

The fact that no eighth pick has become a star since then seems like a statistical impossibility. Although every subsequent NBA draft pick after no. 1 yields a slightly lower chance of success, no. 8 is still a high—and highly coveted—lottery pick, and surely some of those 29 guys who were taken eighth since Vin Baker would have become stars.

But they haven’t, and a look at the actual history of draft results quickly disproves what ought to be a mathematical certainty (that at least one out of 29 straight top-10 picks would become a star) in some pretty galaxy-brain ways. And this goes beyond Baker, who himself was the first All-Star drafted eighth since 1985, the inaugural year of the NBA draft lottery.

To be fair, some eighth picks since then have had good careers, like Ron Harper, Larry Hughes, Andre Miller, and Rudy Gay, who were all at least in the All-Star discussion a few times, or like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Channing Frye, who shed their failed lottery pick labels to reinvent themselves as valuable role players for championship teams. But they’re the exceptions, and the full list of guys taken eighth illustrates a bleak journey through everything that can go wrong with top NBA prospects.

It’s all there, from the college stars that couldn’t adjust to the speed and athleticism of the NBA (Bo Kimble, Joe Alexander, Nik Stauskas) to the underdeveloped superathletes who never learned the nuances of NBA positioning (Marquese Chriss, Brandan Wright, Chris Wilcox). From the tweeners (Al-Farouq Aminu) to the guys who were just too small (T.J. Ford). From the highly touted foreign prospects who could never crack an NBA rotation (Rafael Araújo, Frank Ntilikina) to the guys who had terrible injury luck (Brandon Knight). From the giant stiffs (Olden Polynice, Adonal Foyle) to the irrationally confident gunners (Terrence Ross, Collin Sexton). And from the guys who just weren’t really good at anything (Jordan Hill, Stanley Johnson) to the guys who could seemingly do everything except put it all together for two nights in a row (Larry Hughes). The eighth pick has been like New York’s hottest club—it has absolutely everything except, apparently, All-Stars.

Consider these sobering facts:

There is, however, one year for which you can make a cogent case that the eighth pick was the best guy taken in the draft: Three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner Jamal Crawford was taken eighth by Chicago in 2000. But that’s widely viewed as the worst draft of all time, and Crawford was never in serious contention to make an All-Star team. Even when the eighth pick lands, it still kinda doesn’t.

So why is this happening? Teams picking in the lottery (the first 14 picks) tend to employ one of two strategies: They’ll either swing for the fences or grab a guy they think is a safe bet as a future starter. And while this may be an overgeneralization, the top half of the lottery likely provokes more swings at players with potential, while the bottom half of the lottery probably provokes more attempts at safe plays.

The eighth pick is basically straddling the middle of two different lottery strategies. So what may be happening is that teams think of the eighth pick as sufficiently high enough to swing for the fences, but, in reality, the pick is low enough that all the prospects with enough potential to actually merit that kind of thinking are already gone.

In Bill Simmons’s 2001 draft diary for ESPN, he noted that the draft seemed to have only nine guys who deserved to be high picks, but the Celtics were picking 10th, so “somebody picking ahead of them needs to screw up and take the high school center from Senegal (DeSagana Diop).” You won’t believe this, but the team that got seduced by Diop’s potential was the one with the eighth pick (Cleveland), which meant future seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson fell into the Celtics’ lap at no. 10. (Sure, they traded him for two bench players just a few months later, but that’s beside the point.)

Basically, the eighth pick is the no-man’s-land of the NBA draft lottery. It’s the treadmill of mediocrity. The most obvious picks are already off the board, but no. 8 intrinsically feels too high for teams to resort to what they’ve already decided are the safer, less tantalizing prospects. Front offices don’t seem to like playing it safe at no. 8, and the number is just low enough that no one fears for their job if they make a reckless pick.

That’s how you end up taking Stanley Johnson over Devin Booker. Anyone who watched college basketball in 2015 knew Booker (Kentucky’s sixth man) would be, at worst, a good NBA starter. And anyone who followed draft scouting reports at the time knew Arizona “star” Johnson was labeled as a guy who excelled at nothing. But the eighth pick is a tricky bugger, and it can fool GMs into thinking that it’s the right number to swing for a tantalizing athlete while they pigeonhole a sure thing as more of a “late lottery pick.”

That’s how you take Marquese Chriss over Domantas Sabonis; you think the “tremendous upside potential” of a raw superathlete (who couldn’t even get his college team into the NCAA tournament) is a better use of the eighth pick than the guy who had just averaged a 20-14-3-3 in three March Madness games (and who happened to be the son of one of the greatest international players ever). And that’s also how you take Brandan Wright over Thaddeus Young, the inspiration for the greatest stat graphic in the history of televised sports:

(Young’s career averages for points and rebounds have since dipped a bit, but screenshots live forever.)

Amazingly, it seems like the very concept of the draft lottery could be what’s breaking teams’ brains when it comes to the eighth pick. One of the most interesting things I found while researching this piece was that the eighth pick used to consistently produce great results. In the nine drafts between the 1976 NBA-ABA merger and the draft lottery’s establishment in 1985, several stars were taken eighth, including Hall of Famers Robert Parish and Jack Sikma in consecutive years and then Tom Chambers and Andrew Toney a few years later. Even the first year of the lottery resulted in a star taken eighth, as Detlef Schrempf was drafted by Dallas.

But since Schrempf, we’ve gotten only one All-Star in 37 tries. When the eighth pick was just the eighth pick, teams nailed it left and right. But as soon as it became a “lottery pick,” teams apparently started subconsciously thinking about its value—and the strategies that value merits—in wildly different (and demonstrably wrong) ways. And thus began one of the weirdest ongoing streaks of sports futility.

When will this end? Well, maybe it already has. Franz Wagner was taken eighth by Orlando two years ago, and he looks like a future multi-time All-Star, perhaps beginning as soon as next year. And Dyson Daniels, who was taken eighth last year by New Orleans, has shown flashes himself. But if Daniels never reaches his potential, or if Wagner suffers a career-ending injury playing pickup handball in Germany this summer, don’t say you weren’t warned.

That brings us to this year and the poor Wizards, who lost a coin toss with the Pacers to secure the eighth pick in this week’s draft. Could they end the curse? Whom would they have to take to do it? In his latest mock draft, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor predicts Ausar Thompson will go eighth. If the Wizards can nab the guy who ranks fourth on O’Connor’s Big Board, that could be a major coup. Other top prospects who might be available at no. 8 include Cam Whitmore, Jarace Walker, Taylor Hendricks, Anthony Black, and Bilal Coulibaly. But there are questions with all of these guys, especially for Anthony Black, whose scouting reports are giving me traumatic Frank Ntilikina flashbacks.

Washington’s recent draft history (*cough* Johnny Davis *cough*)—combined with the automatic red flag that the eighth pick seems to bring—doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence in a changing of the guard. But if new president Michael Winger truly wants to turn things around in Washington, breaking the curse of the eighth pick would be one hell of a first step.

Daniel Joyaux is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Roger Ebert, Rotten Tomatoes, The Verge, and Cosmopolitan, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @Thirdmanmovies and on Letterboxd at Djoyaux.

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