The NBA draft is proof positive that forecasting the careers of professional basketball players is a difficult task. Every year, scouts evaluate amateur talent and make recommendations on who teams should select. Every year, teams look back at players they passed on who end up having great careers. A great example of that would be the 2009 NBA Draft and James Harden.
Let’s take a look at how Harden’s career turned out — short answer: well — as well as how it turned out for the two players picked before him.
James Harden’s career thus far
Harden’s been nothing short of spectacular. The Oklahoma City Thunder drafted Harden out of Arizona State with the third overall pick of the 2009 NBA Draft. The Thunder traded him a few seasons into his career. It wasn’t that he wasn’t playing well for them; he helped them make the NBA Finals along with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. It was that they were concerned they wouldn’t be able to sign all three to a long-term deal.
Unfortunately for the Thunder, it blew up in their faces. Harden became one of the best one-on-one scorers and playmakers in basketball with the Houston Rockets. Westbrook and Durant continued to make some deep playoff runs, but eventually, Durant grew frustrated with the team’s inability to win and left via free agency.
Harden and Westbrook have now found themselves reunited in Houston. A championship has eluded Harden, but his scoring ability is second to none. So if Harden went third overall, that means two teams passed on him. Who were they, and who did they take instead?
Who was picked first overall in the 2009 NBA Draft?
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft was Blake Griffin, selected by the Los Angeles Clippers. It’s true that Harden has had a better career than Griffin. However, no one could fault the Clippers at the time for making the pick.
In 2009, Griffin was the consensus overall top pick. He was coming off a monster season at the University of Oklahoma, and few doubted he’d go first overall. Look at it this way: if the Thunder had been picking first, they too would have likely opted for Griffin over Harden. Griffin’s Oklahoma ties would have made that a near certainty.
Griffin’s had a solid career so far. Along with Chris Paul, he helped the Clippers make a few deep playoff runs before the team dealt him to the Detroit Pistons in an attempt to shake things up. He may not be winning in Detroit, but he’s still productive.
Who was picked second overall in the 2009 NBA Draft?
Also selected before Harden, and not quite as defensible as the Griffin pick: Hasheem Thabeet at No. 2. Thabeet went to the Memphis Grizzlies. Unfortunately, Thabeet became a warning sign of what happens when draft picks go wrong. Thabeet only played five seasons in the league and only 224 games, averaging a paltry 2.2 points per game. He last played in the NBA in 2013-2014 with the Thunder.
One glance at the Grizzlies 2009-10 roster at Basketball Reference reveals they had Mike Conley and OJ Mayo in the backcourt that year — both fine players, but neither really approaching Harden’s caliber. In hindsight, it’s easy to say the team should have selected Harden.
But remember that while Harden played well early on in his career, it took him quite a while to reach superstar status. There’s no guarantee the Grizzlies would have seen those types of returns from Harden immediately.
Still, are they kicking themselves they opted for Thabeet over Harden? Almost undoubtedly. It just goes to show you that the NBA Draft is about as unpredictable as it gets.