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The top overall pick is never a guaranteed thing, but this year might be close

The last 20 years has seen top picks sticking with the team that drafted become extremely rare. Will this year buck that trend?

Levallois Met 92 v Strasbourg - LNB Pro A Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

The Spurs have always received credit for their shrewd drafting, especially later in the first and second rounds, but no one has ever denied that some luck has been involved with regards to their extended run of success. They have only picked first overall twice in their storied 50-year history, selecting David Robinson in 1987 and Tim Duncan in 1997. In both cases, the luck came from winning the lottery (which began in 1985) in the right years: when generational talent was available, and both players were loyal to the club — something that isn’t as common this nowadays.

Keeping that top overall pick happy, if he end ends up being the one, has become a challenge in the age of social media as players eye bigger markets and more fame, and a quick look at the last 20 years confirms as much, beginning with LeBron James in 2003 (the oldest active top overall pick). He was without a doubt a generational talent, arguably the second best player ever, but he also began the trend of top picks bucking loyalty to the team that drafted and heading out for greener pastures.

In fact, there is only one active top pick from before 2018 who is still with his original team, and that’s Karl-Anthony Towns. Other than that, everyone from LeBron forward moved at some point or another. There are plenty of top overall picks who made sense at the time they were picked but sooner or later didn’t pan out with the team that drafted them. Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and Ben Simmons (to name a few) all had success with their original clubs but for various reasons eventually moved on in their primes, in some cases amidst clouds of contention.

Not only has keeping a top pick happy enough to stay become a challenge, but it’s not always a surefire pick to begin with. Very few players since LeBron have ended up fitting the definition of generational talents, and some picks have even backfired in spectacular fashion. The three clearest busts were Andrea Bargnani, Greg Oden and Anthony Bennett, perhaps not coincidently three of the five top picks from the last 20 years who are no longer in the league.

No one was really sure what the Raptors were doing when they selected Bargnani in 2006, but they missed out on LaMarcus Aldridge and countless others who were drafted later but went on to have much more lucrative NBA careers. The same goes for the Cavaliers and Bennett in 2013. While he was generally considered a top 10 pick, no one had him going close to first. (This draft also featured two of the bigger steals in recent history, with the Bucks getting Giannis Antetokounmpo at 15th and Rudy Gobert going to the Jazz at 20th.)

While Bargnani and Bennett were just bad picks that were questioned from the outset, in fairness to Portland, Oden was initially a good pick. He was considered a potential top overall pick in many mock drafts, and it was an understandable decision at the time. They went with a center after drafting a power forward the year before in Aldridge, but not selecting Kevin Durant is one of the biggest what-ifs in Trail Blazers history.

Then there’s players who have all the talent in the world, but whether it’s due to injury or various other issues, you begin to wonder if they’ll ever reach their full potential. Markelle Fultz is one such player, with his shoulder injury and mysterious change in shooting form, and now Zion Williamson is beginning to enter that conversation. He came into the league with perhaps the most hype since LeBron, garnering comparisons to Shaq but with range. He’s shown such glimpses, but the problem is he just can’t stay healthy and has never put together an extended run without getting hurt.

After missing most of his rookie season and the entire 2021-22 season with a foot injury, he entered this season fresh off signing a good-faith max contract extension and had the Pelicans at the top of the West early, but then he suffered a hamstring injury and never returned (which will likely cost him about $38 million due to a bonus stipulation in his contract that required him to make an All-NBA team this season, and by no means should that happen after he only appeared in 29 games).

It’s one thing to be injury prone, but Williamson is catching flack for choosing to sit out and not help his team down the stretch when he was cleared to play. It was originally reported he’d be back by January, then it got pushed to the All-Star break, and on and on until he missed the entire regular season. However, as video swirled of him doing dunks and looking fine in warmups before the Pelicans elimination play-in game, he started receiving criticism for sitting out such a critical game. He didn’t help himself by telling the media he’s physically fine, but the reason for his absence is he “doesn’t feel like Zion yet”.

This seems like an egotistical move on his part. Him being out there in his current state probably would have helped his team, not hurt them, so it seems more like he just didn’t want to embarrass himself. His weight and fitness level has also become a source of criticism and adds to questions about his commitment, making some wonder if he believes that his skillset will overcome everything else. His own teammates might even be wondering the same, as this quote from CJ McCollum seemed to be some shade thrown Zion’s way.

The reality is there is not a single top overall pick who has led the team that drafted him to a championship since Tim Duncan other than LeBron and a young Irving in Cleveland, but that was during LeBron’s second stint there after disbanding the Heatles, and Irving has been anything but a loyal superstar since then. Also, Yao Ming is the only top overall pick since Duncan to stay with the team that drafted him his entire career. Loyalty just isn’t what it used to be (although the NBA’s attempts to keep those players with their original teams with bigger extensions may be working, as the two most recent top picks to become eligible in Williamson and Deandre Ayton both re-upped with their original teams).

And that brings us to this year’s presumed top overall pick: Victor Wembanyama. Again, since LeBron, there probably hasn’t been a more hyped NBA prospect, and the NBA has the added bonus of being able to advertise him since he is an overseas professional, not a college player. It would be a lie to say we know enough about Wemby personally at this point to make any calls, but he says all the right things, and by all accounts it seems like he will be that rare loyal superstar who sticks with the team that drafts him.

Can lightning strike three times for the Spurs, with the strategical “tank” at the right time for the right player? If the Spurs overcome the extremely complex odds and win the lottery, will they luck into the perfect prospect for the third time in three tries? Only time will tell, but if they do, while the idea of the number one pick turning into a loyal franchise player for the Spurs is far from a foreign concept, it certainly would be bucking the trend of the last 20 years, and that would be a good thing for the entire NBA.