How a deep dive into the Rockets draft history tells an interesting story
Simple question: when was the last time the Houston Rockets struck gold with their first-round pick in the NBA Draft? Heck, the last time the swap-happy Rockets even had a first-round pick was 2015 when, after spending a fortune on scouting, interviews, film study and exploring trade opportunities, they took Sam Dekker out of the University of Wisconsin with the 18th selection.
Like most Rockets draft choices, Dekker didn't last long in Houston – two years before being shipped with six other Rockets, a draft pick and money to the Clippers in exchange for Chris Paul.
Paul stayed in Houston two years before the Rockets dispatched him and two first-round picks to Oklahoma City for Russell Westbrook. Now Westbrook wants out of Houston after only one season. Is this any way to run a franchise? This is a Ponzi scheme in reverse. The Rockets keep getting less instead of more. Not one player on the Rockets' current roster was drafted by the Rockets.
These days former first-round pick Dekker is toiling in the Turkish league and recently offered to play with the Milwaukee Bucks "for free." Perhaps his most noteworthy accomplishment during his NBA career – J.R. Smith says Dekker is the only teammate he ever hated. To say that Dekker was a bust would be unfair to sculptors.
The Rockets are far from the only team that swings and misses on first-round draft picks, however. Being drafted in the first round sometimes gets you little more than a baseball hat photo op and ticket to a Euro league.
For example, let's run down the 2013 NBA Draft, when 14 teams passed on selecting a gangly young player from Greece with a tongue-twister last name. Whatever happened to Giannis Antetokounmpo, anyway? A whole bunch of players taken before the Greek Freak, let's just say, didn't become perennial All-Stars.
Cleveland's No. 1 overall draft selection was Anthony Bennett, a one-and-done 6-8 forward out of UNLV. Bennett drew equal, sometimes favorable, comparisons to former Runnin' Rebels star Larry Johnson.
Bennett's pro career resume looks like a script from Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? He stayed one year in Cleveland, before moving on to the Minnesota Timberwolves, then the Toronto Raptors, the Mississauga Raptors 905 in the G League, Long Island Nets in the G League, Brooklyn Nets, Fenerbahce Beko in the Turkish pro league, Northern Arizona Suns, Maine Red Claws and Agua Caliente Clippers in the G League. The Rockets actually signed Bennett in 2019 but waived him before he ever saw the floor here.
Anthony Bennett is still only 27 years old. He has a long way to go in his basketball career. And by long way, we mean distance, not years.
Here are more 2013 first-round notables who were drafted before the Bucks took Antetokounmpo and after the Rockets landed on Dekker.
Cody Zeller – No. 4 pick by the Charlotte Bobcats. Once known as the "Savior of Indiana Basketball, the still-active Zeller has played his entire career in Charlotte, no small feat in the NBA, but he's averaged a lackluster 8.6 and 6 rebounds per game.
Alex Len – No. 5 pick by the Phoenix Suns. He asked to wear uniform number 21 to honor Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. That's the only thing Len had in common with those NBA greats. His career scoring average is a paltry 8.3 per game.
The 7-footer from Ukraine has traveled from Phoenix to Atlanta to Sacramento to Toronto, where he still plays for the Raptors.
According to SB Nation's Jeff Siegel: "In the last five years, among 7-footers with at least 50 non-dunk attempts around the rim, Len ranked 30th out of 30 in 2018-19, 29th out of 32 in 2017-18, 34th out of 34 in 2016-17, 33rd out of 33 in 2015-16, and 25th out of 30 in 2014-15 in field goal percentage."
Nerlens Noel – No. 6 pick by the New Orleans Pelicans. NBA executives were itching to draft the next Anthony Davis. Noel's elite shot blocking ability and explosive leaps in just a few games (before a season-ending torn ACL) at Kentucky were enough to bait the Pels, who traded his rights immediately to the 76'ers. Noel has averaged 8 points during injury-plagued stints in Philadelphia, Dallas and OKC.
Kelly Olynyk – No. 13 pick by the Dallas Mavericks. To be fair, Olynyk has been a decent, serviceable bench player for the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat. Just remember, there was that Greek fellow available four spots later.
Shabazz Muhammad – No. 14 pick by the Utah Jazz. Shabazz was immediately packaged with Gorgui Dieng and sent to Minnesota in exchange for the No. 9 pick Trey Burke. During the 2015-16 season, he ranked 461st out of 462 players in ESPN's "Defensive Real Plus-Minus" stat. Only J.J. Barea was worse. After a brief stint with Minnesota, he signed with the Shanxi Brave Dragons, later with Shenzhen Aviators in China, where he continues to play.
Other first-round zonks: Lucas Nogueira (No. 16 by Boston), Shane Larkin (No. 18 by Atlanta), Sergey Vasiliyevich Karasev (No. 19 by Cleveland), Tony Snell (No. 20 by Chicago), Gorgui Dieng (No. 21 by Utah), Solomon Hill (No. 23 by Indiana), Reggie Bullock (No. 25 by the Clippers), Livio Jean-Charles (No. 28 by San Antonio), Archie Goodwin (No. 29 by OKC), Nemanja Nedovic (No. 30 by Phoenix).
Nedovic has a place in NBA history, though. He was the last selection announced by NBA commissioner David Stern.
Clearly the NBA Draft is full of more misses than hits, but there is a zero percent chance of drafting the next Antetokounmpo if don't have any picks.