25 Best Top-3s in 25 Years: A Fantasy Draft-Style Take On The Best High-Draft Pick Performances, 1984-2008

These guys were good as rookies

The Wolves aren’t much fun to watch anymore. We like the draft. We like history. We (usually) like controversy. We brought lots of these things together into a FANTASY DRAFT of top-3 picks from 1984-2008. Why just top-3 picks, and just 1984-2008. ’cause that’s what we felt like doing. Peel back the layers and you’ll understand.

My picks are the ODDS; Andy G’s picks are the EVENS.  And we’re only dealing with rookie-year performance.  This is about who was the best when they entered the league; not who had the best career.

1. David Robinson, 1989-90: The Admiral averaged 24.3 points and 12 rebounds! More importantly, the Spurs improved 35 games in his rookie season. If that’s not a decisive turnaround I don’t know what is. (Fwiw: The Spurs also added TERRY CUMMINGS in 1989-90, and he had a nice year, but the point still stands.)

2. Tim Duncan, 1997-98: San Antonio wins the lottery at opportune times. Duncan joined a Spurs team that was miserable a season earlier, when The Admiral only played in 6 games due to back problems. With Robinson back in the lineup and Duncan at power forward, their win total increased by 36 (!!!) in Timmy’s rookie year. He averaged 21 & 12, with 55 percent shooting, along with 2.7 assists and 2.5 blocks. Upon arrival, this was Duncan’s team and the Spurs were immediate contenders. His rookie impact was enormous. He made 1st Team All-NBA.

3. Shaquille O’Neal, 1992-93: Shaq was a totally unique and dominant big man from the day he arrived in Orlando. I can’t remember another rookie who changed the game like he did. He had holes in his game that Robinson and Duncan didn’t, but you can’t argue with 23.4 ppg and a 20-win increase for the Magic.

4. Michael Jordan, 1984-85: MJ is probably the greatest player of the modern era, and was certainly one of the best rookies. He scored an eye-popping 28.2 points per game, along with 6.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 2.4 steals, improving the Bulls from 27-win lottery team, to 38-win playoff team. Air Jordan was an immediate superstar, earning 2nd Team All-NBA honors (and of course, Rookie of the Year.)

5. Hakeem Olajuwon, 1984-85: ‘85-’85 was a good draft, and Dream wasn’t far behind MJ. He averaged over 20 points and 12 boards per game, and the Rockets won 48 games after winning only 29 the year before. He gets bonus points for not being Sam Bowie.

6. Chris Webber, 1993-94: C-Webb was perhaps the most-talented power forward to ever enter the NBA. At least in my lifetime. He could run, jump, pass, score, rebound and defend. Fresh off his infamous timeout in the Final Four, Webber put together a monster of a rookie season for the run-and-gun Warriors. They won 50 games (16 more than the season prior) and Webber was awesome. It ended abruptly for him in Golden State in his second season, but for one year there he was unreal.

7. Alonzo Mourning, 1992-93: Seeing Shaq and ‘Zo in the top 7 exemplifies the Wolves terrible luck in the draft. (For Wolves fans under 20, you probably already know this, but we had the worst record in the league the previous year and ended up “winning” the 3rd pick via the lottery, just missing Shaq and ‘Zo and ending up with CHRISTIAN LAETTNER instead.) ‘Zo was awesome as a rookie: 21 points, 10 boards, 3.5 blocks, and a whole lot of swagger and intimidation. The Hornets went from 31-51 the in 1991-92 to 44-38 in ‘92-93, beating the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs before losing to a 60-win Knicks team in the Eastern Conference semis. I feel like people are already forgetting how great ‘Zo was as an NBA player, largely because he’s always been so overshadowed by Shaq.

8. Grant Hill, 1994-95: Grant Hill was as polished of a wing player as you’ll see enter the NBA. After four hugely successful seasons at Duke (two titles, and one runner-up) Hill took the league by storm averaging 20 points, 6 rebounds 5 assists, and 2 steals per game while receiving mentorship from the great Joe Dumars. (It’s crazy to think that Grant Hill played with Joe Dumars. Hill is still playing at a somewhat-high level, while Joe D has been running the Pistons Organization into the ground for what seems like decades.) Hill won Co-Rookie of the Year honors (shared with Jason Kidd) while helping Detroit leap from 20 wins to 28. This progress was a hint of what was yet to come, as they’d bump that number up to 46 in Year 2. (Oh, and as far as Wolves lotto luck goes, Kidd and Hill went 2 & 3; we took Donyell Marshall at 4.)

9. Allen Iverson, 1996-97: AI was NBA-ready when he came into the league as a 21-year old rookie in 1996. He scored 23.5 points per game, redefined the crossover in a way no one since Tim Hardaway had done, and was the toughest athlete in Philly this side of Rocky. I just wish he and KG could’ve played together when both were in the prime of their careers.

10. Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, 1993-94: When Orlando traded away the heralded Chris Webber on Draft Day 1993, it was hardly popular with Magic fans. But once they saw this Young Magic Johnson look-a-like play (and ESPECIALLY after Little Penny hit the commercial airwaves) they were delighted with the transaction. Penny’s arrival was the last step in building Orlando’s first title contender. They won 50 games in his rookie season (9 more than the previous year) and were well on their way to becoming a perennial contender. Unfortunately, Shaq’s departure for Tinseltown and Penny’s own injury problems would derail these hopes before long. But Penny’s rookie season was outstanding and one of the best of the modern era.

11. Elton Brand, 1999-00: Brand used to be really good. People forget that.

12.Jason Kidd, 1994-95: Co-ROY with Number 8 on the list.

13. Patrick Ewing, 1985-86: I probably should’ve put him above Brand. Oops.

14. Larry Johnson, 1991-92: Grandmama was almost as cool as Little Penny.

15. Carmelo Anthony, 2003-04: Melo was ridiculously ready to score at the NBA level when he was a rook. Those skills are still pretty amazing.

16. LeBron James, 2003-04: LeBron’s jumper wasn’t NBA-ready, but everything else (on offense) was NBA-elite. It didn’t take him long to work out the kinks in that J, either.

17. Ben Gordon, 2004-05: Not kidding.

18. Derrick Coleman, 1990-91: If a young DC were informed that he’d one day make #18 on a Punch-Drunk Wolves list, he’d probably respond with a classic, “Whoop-de-damn-do.”

19. Steve Francis, 1999-00: Stevie Franchise is another guy whose rookie impact was arguably bigger than his career impact. But his rookie impact was sizable and should not be overlooked. WIN-SHARES PER 48!

20. Derrick Rose, 2008-09: David Kahn’s league has a habit, and I’ll just call it a habit, of producing stories like Derrick Rose going home to Chicago to revive a Bulls franchise that was embarking on a slow death led by Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng. He had a damn nice rookie year and has obviously continued to improve.

21. Keith Van Horn, 1997-98: Van Horn was way more interesting as a rook than the rest of his career. But he was SURPRISINGLY interesting…(Oh, and in #20–I like that you refer to it as DAVID KAHN’S LEAGUE, but I think you mean DAVID *STERN’S* LEAGUE. Right?)

22. Pau Gasol, 2001-02: FIRST EURO! Gasol had great rookie STATS.

23. CHUCK PERSON, 1986-87: I admit I wasn’t watching NBA ball at this point of my life. But Chuck averaged 18.8 and his team got a lot better (+15) from the previous year. That’s enough for me. RIFLEMAN!

24. Brad Daugherty, 1986-87: If you watched Brad Daugherty play for the Cleveland Cavaliers and didn’t see a FUTURE NASCAR ANALYST then you really don’t understand the NBA. On a more-serious note, Daugherty could ball before he fell victim to disabling BACK PROBLEMS.

25. Yao Ming, 2002-03: See #24, except for the FUTURE NASCAR ANALYST part, and swapping FOOT PROBLEMS for BACK PROBLEMS.

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