With the Philadelphia 76ers holding the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft, here’s a look at the best and worst No. 3 selections since the inception of the NBA Draft Lottery.
With the 2017 NBA Draft widely regarded as featuring the strongest draft class in over a decade, the Philadelphia 76ers find themselves in a very envious position as holders of the No. 3 overall selection. But despite the lofty position they have for June 22, the Sixers will be fully aware of the uncertainties that drafting from any position in the draft can bring.
No one will be more aware than the man in charge, Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo. His first draft night in charge of the Sixers saw him select Ben Simmons with the No. 1 overall pick. Unfortunately for all involved, Simmons was sidelined for all of last season with a foot injury, and hence his value has yet to be determined.
Colangelo’s prior experience with the No. 1 overall selection came when he was in charge of running the Toronto Raptors. On this occasion, he chose the soon-to-be highly-underwhelming Andrea Bargnani.
The Sixers have fresh memories of their own recent No. 3 overall selections. In 2014, they selected Joel Embiid, who didn’t debut until this season with recurring foot issues. And in 2015, they chose Jahlil Okafor, who regressed noticeably this season after a strong rookie campaign.
Therefore, the Sixers themselves don’t have to look far to know of the uncertainties of the draft. While Embiid impressed mightily this season, he has played just 31 games over three seasons. So although they may not admit it publicly, Colangelo will be fully aware of the pressures facing himself and the Sixers’ front office.
With the Sixers seemingly set at multiple positions moving forward with Embiid, Simmons and Dario Saric, the wing spots seem the most logical targets at this stage. Players such as Jayson Tatum of Duke and Josh Jackson of Kansas are seen as the favorites to be taken when the Sixers have their selection, according to Draft Express.
With that in mind, let’s take a look back in recent history to ascertain the best No. 3 overall selection results since the inception of the NBA Draft Lottery in 1985.
5. Chauncey Billups, 1997
Chauncey Billups’ career took a long-winding road over his formative years in the league, which included being traded from the Boston Celtics just 51 games into his rookie season. From the Celtics, to the Toronto Raptors, and to the Denver Nuggets, Billups finally started to find his feet as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
It was with the Timberwolves that Billups got his first taste of playoff action as a starting point guard. Despite suffering a 3-0 series sweep, Billups averaged 22.0 points, 5.7 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game. In doing so, he finally proved to himself and to others around the league that he could live up to the billing of being a No. 3 overall pick.
Billups’ play grabbed the attention of the Detroit Pistons, who duly signed him to a six-year, $35 million deal. As a result, the Pistons commenced a period of sustained excellence. The franchise would reach the Eastern Conference finals for the next six consecutive seasons, including two trips to the NBA Finals. The 2004 championship win over the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers was the crowning achievement of this period for both the franchise and Billups.
Through his continued stellar play in big moments, Billups earned the nickname “Mr. Big Shot.” This was never truer than during the 2004 title year, when Billups earned the honors of winning NBA Finals MVP. Following six stellar seasons in the Motor City, Billups was moved to Denver, where he teamed up with another No. 3 overall pick, Carmelo Anthony.
True to form, Billups led an emerging Nuggets team to the brink of the NBA Finals, only to come up short, ironically, against Kobe Bryant’s Lakers in the 2009 Western Conference Finals. Billups’ most impressive individual performance over his 17-year career came during the 2009-10 season against the Lakers. He posted 39 points and eight assists, featuring an amazing 9-of-13 shooting from three-point range.
In all, Billups was a five-time All-Star and wound up having his No. 1 jersey retired by the Detroit Pistons (see photo above). Considering Billups’ rocky start to his career, it can stated with certainty that he met the overall expectations befitting a No. 3 overall pick.
Billups narrowly edged out Pau Gasol for fifth spot, primarily due to leading the Pistons as the 2004 NBA Finals MVP.
4. Anfernee Hardaway, 1993
On pure talent alone, Hardaway would come close to assuming the No. 1 ranking in this breakdown. But unfortunately for Hardaway and fans alike, his body simply wouldn’t cooperate. Teaming up with Shaquille O’Neal, Hardaway excelled in his first few seasons in the league. He and O’Neal made a trip to the NBA Finals in 1995 and he was named to the All-NBA First Team in 1995 and 1996.
In all, Hardaway was a four-time All-Star and a member of the USA Men’s Basketball squad that won gold at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. But as alluded to, injuries prematurely curtailed Hardaway in the prime of his career. In an interview with Slam Online following his career, Hardaway detailed his horror run with injury:
“I had six knee surgeries, two in Orlando and four in Phoenix. Two got done at the same time. I was one of the first guys to get microfracture surgery. And I didn’t handle the recovery well. It wasn’t even heard of in the NBA yet. It took away my legs, my athleticism. They were left knee injuries, and it would be like, OK, I’d have the surgery and wait like five or six weeks and come back and then a week or two later, it wouldn’t feel right. I tried to just force it…It was hard to believe. They kept asking me, ‘Did you hear anything? Did you hear your knee pop?’ I would tell them, ‘No, but it really does hurt.’ All of a sudden there was pain and I was very frustrated. I went from being very athletic, one of the best guards in the NBA, to barely making it. No speed, no agility. I had to change how I played because I couldn’t exercise or train because my knee constantly hurt.”
In essence, Hardaway entered the league roughly 20 years too early. With the advances in modern-day sports medicine, there’s no doubt Hardaway would’ve added to his four All-Star appearances if he had the guidance afforded players in the current era.
Renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews has performed a variety of knee surgeries on some of the biggest names in the game. He offered his assessment of where it all came unstuck with Hardaway:
“It was very difficult to explain what was wrong with Penny Hardaway. He was a great guy, a competitive guy, but he had an articular cartilage injury, an injury to the smooth lining of the joint that allows the gliding of the joint. Back then we didn’t really have MRIs to make the diagnosis. Today? Now you would see that on an MRI. It’s still a nemesis and the hardest thing in treatment because the body doesn’t have a way to regenerate it. Mother Nature can’t just fix that. That’s the next step, the biologics, where we determine how to jump-start the healing process and let the body, not the procedure, do the work.”
Following his early days in Orlando, Hardaway spent five seasons in Phoenix before making short stops in New York and Miami. But as Hardaway explained, once his left knee began the first of many surgeries, his days as an All-NBA, dominant player were over.
Having said all this, Hardaway’s impact while at the top of his games can never be understated.
3. Grant Hill, 1994
Like Hardaway, Hill’s career was also curtailed while in the prime of his career. The only difference being that Hill managed to eke out a few more years before his body succumbed to the dreaded injury bug. In Hill’s case, it was his continuing ankle problems.
And in a similar storyline to Hardaway’s issues, Hill explained that he didn’t feel comfortable with the approach of the Pistons’ medical staff of the time:
“At that time, when I found out I had broken my ankle, as crazy as this sounds, I was relieved. I finally had some confirmation, I finally had proof that I’m really not making it up….There was a standard in Detroit and that standard was Isiah. He was tough. He played hurt. He had that great game against the Lakers in the Finals (on a twisted ankle). He was the face of the franchise and I’m sort of the exact opposite. I’m sure there were Isiah supporters within the organization. Who knows? I can only speculate. But it was like no matter what I did, it wasn’t as good as Isiah….”
“I wasn’t supposed to be on the court doing basketball-related activity until December…What should’ve been a six or seven-month recovery before you get on the court to play, I was on the court in three or four months….You invest $92 million in somebody … I just kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe how poorly mismanaged this has been.’”
Prior to these episodes, Hill was a genuine superstar. A six-time All-Star, Hill averaged 21.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists in 39.1 minutes per game in his six seasons as a Piston. During this period, he was selected once to the All-NBA First Team, and four times to the All-NBA Second Team.
Among this period of excellence, one of Hill’s premier games was a 46-point, seven-rebound and seven-assist masterclass:
Hill stint in Orlando was a disaster, playing just 200 of a possible 574 games over seven seasons.
But a small positive Hill can take from his playing days is a late career-revival with the Phoenix Suns. Arriving as a 35-year-old, the first four of Hill’s five years with the Suns saw Hill miss a total of just 15 games.
While his numbers were modest, his contributions and durability were certainly notable. And this was in no small part due to the fantastic work applied by the renowned Suns’ training staff. Hill explained last year when discussing their impact:
“I just would say that they look at the body as a whole. A lot of it’s preventative medicine. They were constantly evaluating your body. Looking for imbalances. Looking for restrictions and limitations, and then as soon as they would find them they would work to fix them. What I learned from them was that you could have a sore calf, but it might not be because something is wrong with the calf, it might be because your hip on the opposite side is tight. So the body would compensate for these little imbalances or issues and cause symptoms away from the problem. And so they would constantly look for those and fix them before they became serious.”
With these sentiments in mind, it’s clearly a shame that Hill was not in contact with such an excellent training staff 10 years earlier in his career.
2. Carmelo Anthony, 2003
Anthony was the third selection of possibly the strongest draft class since the inception of the draft lottery. Aside from the Detroit Pistons’ disastrous selection of Darko Milicic with the No. 2 pick, the remainder of the top five is a Hall-of-Fame roll call: LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
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Since entering the league, Anthony has simply been a scoring machine. A career 24.8 points per game average over 14 seasons is simply amazing, which includes the league scoring title in 2013 with an average of 28.7 points per game. Drafted by the Denver Nuggets, Anthony spent his first seven and a half seasons in the Mile High City before making his way to the Big Apple.
The main knock on Anthony over his career has been his inability to advance in the postseason. As mentioned in the Chauncey Billups section, Anthony reached the Western Conference Finals in 2009, only to fall to the Los Angeles Lakers. But in his six other trips to the postseason with the Nuggets, Anthony’s team’s won a total of six games.
Since arriving in New York, Anthony has reached the postseason on three occasions, winning one playoff series for a total of seven playoff wins. Tellingly, this season was the fourth consecutive season the Knicks have missed out on the postseason action.
Among Anthony’s standout games, his 62-point performance is at the very top of the list. That unforgettable night set a record for most points scored at Madison Square Garden:
A 10-time All-Star and three-time Olympic gold medallist as a member of Team USA, Anthony’s overall place in basketball history cannot be denied.
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Harden’s transition from winning the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award to MVP contender has been a sight to behold. Despite being selection No. 3 overall coming out of Arizona State, no one could have foreseen the impact Harden has made as a member of the Houston Rockets.
Certainly not the Oklahoma City Thunder, who felt he was not worth more than the reported four-year, $52 million deal that was on the table from the Thunder. Due to Harden’s indecision, the Thunder panicked and the Rockets struck gold. His first three seasons in Houston were simply awesome, until hitting a speed bump during the 201`5-16 season.
Harden’s Hollywood fling with Khloe Kardashian was a major distraction, and an unsettled locker room led to a miserable season for Harden and the Rockets, despite Harden posting career-high’s in points, rebounds and assists.
But this season, Harden was simply otherworldly, averaging 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game, which included 22 triple-doubles. The turnaround, accompanied by new head coach Mike D’Antoni, was stunning. As one NBA coach told Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated in the midst of this season:
“You looked at this team last year and they were all f—– up. You look at them now and they are completely aligned. James Harden has become Steve Nash—if Steve Nash were on steroids.”
Still just 27, Harden is a five-time All-Star and has already been selected to the All-NBA First Team on three occasions. Harden’s most commanding performance this season saw him return one of the more extraordinary box scores in recent memory – 53 points, 17 assists and 16 rebounds, including 9-of-16 shooting from three-point range.
So despite suffering an inglorious playoff exit this season at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, Harden’s age and style of play strongly indicate his Rockets are going to be in contention for many seasons to come.
Source: Fox Sports