Here's What History Tells Us About the 17th Pick in the NBA Draft

Photo credit: Dan Hamilton (USA TODAY Sports)

We were all worried about the Minnesota Timberwolves potentially losing the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick if they were so bad in the bubble that they fell out of playoff contention.

Caris LeVert said JUST YOU WAIT! about that.

The Nets finished 5-3 in Orlando (the Milwaukee Bucks finished 3-5!) and will go into the playoffs as the seventh-seeded team in the East.

While we wish them the best of luck in the first round against the Toronto Raptors, let’s focus on the Timberwolves.

If the Nets were barely good enough to sneak into the eighth seed, the Wolves would have been rewarded with the 15th overall pick in the draft. The Nets were so good, though, that Minnesota’s pick dipped to 17th overall.

Is that really a big deal? What is the difference between two picks in the middle of the first round? That’s a good question. In 2016, it was the difference between Juancho Hernangómez, a player who is going to get paid a good amount this offseason, and Wade Baldwin, a player who is no longer in the league.

That’s not a huge difference, I guess. Hernangomez isn’t a big-time player, but he’s a rotational player. That should be the aim here.

The Timberwolves have had the 17th pick once in franchise history. That happened back in 1998 when they drafted Rasho Nesterovic out of Slovenia. Nesterovic played five seasons with Minnesota, starting 253 games while averaging 7.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. Nesterovic is a forgettable player for the most part, but he’s also the type of player you can probably expect for a team to get in the middle of the first round.

In 2018, the Bucks drafted Donte DiVincenzo after he skyrocketed on draft boards at the Combine in Chicago. DiVincenzo took a huge leap this season, averaging 9.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting 45.5% from the field in 23 minutes per game. He’s not a star and, at 23, isn’t going to be. But he’s a player who fits a specific need for Milwaukee, and he’ll likely have a few WHO IS THAT GUY?! moments in the playoffs.

But teams can strike gold in the middle of the first round (or anywhere in the draft for that matter). Giannis Antetokounmpo was picked 15th overall in 2013. Nikola Jokic was a second-round pick in 2014. These things happen all the time.

Back in the glory days at Timberwolves.com, I would take a look at players picked at a specific spot in the NBA Draft. It was fun and made you think of players you haven’t thought of in years. Had I not looked up the draft history of the 17th spot, when’s the next time I would have thought about Rasho Nestrovic?

This is also a “boom or bust” type of spot. Most teams should draft someone like Hernangomez or DiVincenzo: Guys you know won’t be stars, but will at least have a higher floor. But this is also a spot where guys like Baldwin, a player who drew some Russell Westbrook comparisons, go. Teams convince themselves that they can unlock whatever hasn’t been unlocked yet. Sometimes that’s an attitude adjustment. Sometimes it’s development. And sometimes, it’s just plain old actual physically growing.

You didn’t ask, but this is my column and I can do what I want, so here are my top five players drafted 17th overall:

5. Jrue Holiday, 2009, 76ers

The Philadelphia 76ers drafted Holiday after one year at UCLA. Holiday is one of the better players who we never talk about in the league now, but after his freshman season in Westwood, there was no guarantee he was going to be good. He averaged 8.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists. I can’t imagine an infographic with those stats would have me very excited.

It became clear early, though, that Holiday was going to be a fixture in the league. Holiday is one of the best two-way guards in the NBA and he’s only 30 years old, which seems impossible considering how long he’s been around. Here’s to hoping in 2020-21 we can see him in the playoffs where he can showcase his skills against other premier point guards like Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul.

How stacked was the 2009 draft? With 43 win shares, Holiday ranks eighth.

Also, you need to know this story about Holiday and his family. It’s bigger than basketball and speaks to the character he has.

4. Danny Granger, 2005, Pacers

If only we got to see more of Granger. Knee injuries ended up shortening what was such promising career. From 2008-10, Granger was one of the better players in the entire league. Over that two-year stretch, Granger averaged 25 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 38.3% from the 3-point line.

Granger ended up missing the first 55 games of the 2012 season with a left knee injury, and that was the beginning of the end.

He was never a full-time starter again.

Why did Granger fall in the draft? Granger had three very impressive seasons (one at Bradley, two at New Mexico) before entering the draft. But then again, Bradley and New Mexico aren’t exactly PICK ME! schools. This was a draft where four players from the University of North Carolina (Marvin Williams, Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants) went in the top 14. School names mattered, and still do.

3. Josh Smith, 2004, Hawks

Smith went straight to the pros after playing at Oak Hill Academy. This draft was full of players going straight to the pros from high school, including five players drafted ahead of Smith. The first overall pick in this draft was Dwight Howard.

Smith was such an interesting player because he never lived up to his potential (more times than not we have unrealistic expectations for players coming out of high school), but Smith averaged double-digits at 20 years old and did that in every season until he was 30. What did we expect from him?

When Smith was in his early 20s, he was at the peak of his powers. He could score, run the floor, protect the rim (2.9 blocks per game in 2006-07) and was a pretty good passing forward.

The knock on Smith was that he insisted shooting a lot of 3-pointers late in his career even though he wasn’t particularly good at shooting them. Smith didn’t age gracefully and wasn’t a factor in the league after he was 30 years old.

2. Jermaine O’Neal, 1996, Blazers

O’Neal was another high school-to-the-pros guy, albeit nearly a decade before Smith. O’Neal became the youngest player to play in an NBA game. He was barely 18 years old. And while he oozed potential, he wasn’t exactly the most mature guy. And guess what?! When you’re 18 years old, you’re not supposed to be mature!

After four years with the Blazers, it looked like O’Neal was going to be a bust. It wasn’t until he was traded to the Pacers for Dale Davis (lol) that he shined. From 2001-07, O’Neal was one of the better big men in the league, averaging 19.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. He was an All-Star from 2001-07 and, more importantly, Indiana made the playoffs in all but one of those seasons.

O’Neal spent time with the Raptors, Heat, Celtics, Suns and Warriors (I don’t remember him playing for at least two of these teams), but he was a franchise player for a half-decade for the Pacers. It’s unfortunate the Blazers weren’t able to cash in with the pick they made.

1.Shawn Kemp, 1990, SuperSonics

Kemp averaged 15 points and 8.4 rebounds in his second season in the NBA. How in the world did he slide to 17th in the draft?

There were character issues. Kemp enrolled at Kentucky, but because of a low SAT score he was forced to sit out his freshman year. To make matters worse, Kemp was accused of pawning two stolen gold chains that belonged to his Kentucky teammate. Kemp transferred to Trinity Valley Community College after. He didn’t play in a game, but decided to declare for the 1989 draft.

The fact that he went in the top 20 despite all the red flags should be considered a surprise.

Kemp gets overlooked because that’s what happens when you play at the same time as Michael Jordan for the prime of your career, but from 1992-98, he averaged 18.5 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. He made six All-Star games during that stretch.

The best indicator of just how good Kemp was? The fact that he made three All-NBA Second Teams.

When it came to athletic big men, there weren’t many more talented than Kemp.

Honorable mentions: Dennis Schroder, Doug Christie, Roy Hibbert

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