Holding the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft is supposed to give a franchise hope as most franchises that hold that coveted slot are going through a rough stretch. But as we all know, not every No. 1 pick works out.
Ask the Portland Trail Blazers if they could go back to 2007 and draft Kevin Durant over Greg Oden, and you’d unquestionably get a resounding yes. Perhaps Michael Jordan would still have a job with the Washington Wizards had he not made Kwame Brown the first high school player to be taken at No. 1 in 2001. Trust me, I could keep going.
Now, there are obviously plenty of No. 1 overall picks that went on to have great careers. And there are some from the last few years that are certainly heading in that direction. However, having a great career doesn’t always result in an NBA championship. Since the first NBA draft was held in 1947, only 27% of No. 1 picks have won a title.
But only 13.5% of No. 1 picks have won a championship with the team that drafted them. To be exact, that’s 10 players in three-quarters of a century, and here’s a quick look at those 10.
Cazzie Russell: New York Knicks
After averaging 27.1 points per game in three years with the Michigan Wolverines, small forward Cazzie Russell was taken with the No. 1 pick in the 1966 NBA draft by the New York Knicks. Russell played five seasons in the Big Apple and in 1970 became the first top pick to win a title with the team that drafted him as he helped the Knicks to an NBA Finals victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Milwaukee Bucks
After winning three consecutive NCAA titles and NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player awards with UCLA, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, still known then as Lew Alcindor, was taken with the first overall pick of the 1969 NBA draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. In just his second season as a pro, Kareem won the first of two consecutive scoring titles, the first of six NBA MVP awards, and led the Bucks to their first NBA title, also winning NBA Finals MVP. Abdul-Jabbar later won five titles with the Lakers.
Bill Walton: Portland Trail Blazers
Like Kareem, Bill Walton won multiple national titles and NCAA Tournament MOP awards at UCLA before being taken with the No. 1 overall pick of the 1974 NBA draft by the Portland Trail Blazers. In just his third year in The City of Roses, Walton led the Blazers to their first (and still only) championship, averaging 18.5 points, 19.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 3.7 blocks per game against the Philadelphia 76ers on the way to winning NBA Finals MVP. Walton later won a second NBA championship in 1986 with the Boston Celtics.
Magic Johnson: Los Angeles Lakers
After leading the Michigan State Spartans to victory in the 1979 NCAA Championship Game over Larry Bird and the Indiana State Sycamores, Magic Johnson was taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1979 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. This was a rare case of a playoff team holding the top pick as the Lakers, who’d reached the Western Conference semis in ’79, had acquired the selection from the Jazz back in 1976.
The selection of Magic immediately paid off for LA as he helped the Lakers to an NBA Finals victory over the Sixers in his first season. Johnson famously filled in for an injured Kareem at center in the Game 6 clincher and recorded 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, and three steals to become the youngest NBA Finals MVP in history at 20 years of age. Magic is still the only rookie to win the award and won four more titles with the Lakers.
James Worthy: Los Angeles Lakers
Midway through Magic’s rookie year in LA, the Lakers sent Don Ford and their first-round pick in 1980 to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Butch Lee and the Cavs’ first-round pick in 1982. And that latter selection turned out to be the top pick in the 1982 NBA draft, which the Lakers (who’d just won their second NBA title in three seasons) used to select James Worthy, who’d just won an NCAA title alongside Michael Jordan at North Carolina. Worthy won three titles with the Lakers in the 1980s and was named 1988 NBA Finals MVP.
Hakeem Olajuwon: Houston Rockets
Following an All-American season at the University of Houston, Hakeem Olajuwon was the top pick by the Houston Rockets in the famed 1984 NBA draft class that included Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton. Olajuwon played 17 of his 18 NBA seasons in Houston and led the Rockets to back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995, winning NBA Finals MVP on both occasions.
David Robinson: San Antonio Spurs
While the San Antonio Spurs used the top pick in the 1987 NBA draft to select David Robinson, “The Admiral” didn’t join the team until 1989 due to his obligations to the Navy. But he was clearly worth the wait as he became one of the greatest centers in NBA history. Robinson, a 10-time NBA All-Star and the 1995 NBA MVP, played his entire 14-year career in San Antonio and won two titles with the Spurs with a little help from the next player.
Tim Duncan: San Antonio Spurs
As Robinson missed all but six games of the 1996-97 season due to a back injury and a broken foot, San Antonio had the third-worst record in the NBA and won the draft lottery to earn the No. 1 pick in the ’97 NBA draft, which they used to select Tim Duncan. And it didn’t take long for “The Big Fundamental” to join this club as he helped the Spurs to their first-ever NBA title following the lockout-shortened 1999 season. Duncan played his entire 19-year career in San Antonio and won four more titles before retiring in 2016.
LeBron James: Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James is a bit of an interesting case as it pertains to this particular club. Taken by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA draft, LeBron played seven seasons with the Cavs before famously taking his talents to South Beach in 2010 to sign with the Miami Heat, with whom he won two NBA titles.
James then returned to the Cavs in 2014 and led the team to four consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals, all against the Golden State Warriors, winning a title in 2016. So while LeBron may not have won his first title with the team that drafted him, he still did bring a championship to Cleveland and must be included here. But had it not been for the next member of the group, James may have never made this list. LeBron won a fourth title in 2020 with the Lakers.
Kyrie Irving: Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers owned two of the top four picks in the 2011 NBA draft, including the No. 1 overall pick, which they used to select Duke’s Kyrie Irving, who won Rookie of the Year. He helped improve the Cavs’ record in each of the next two seasons leading up to LeBron’s return and hit the clutch 3-pointer in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals that clinched the series for Cleveland.
Stats courtesy of Sports Reference