Special Report

Most Successful #1 Overall Draft Picks in Sports History

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In pro sports, the franchise picking first in a draft is almost always one of the worst in the league, in dire need of a superstar to turn the team around. Expectations are always sky high for top picks, yet some players are able to surpass even the most optimistic projections for their future.

24/7 Wall St. reviewed statistics from the Sports Reference family of sites to determine the most successful top overall draft picks in the history of the four major American sports leagues — the NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB. Players were ranked based on their statistical contributions to their teams as well as individual accolades and accomplishments. Players selected in supplemental drafts were not considered.

Being selected first overall is hardly a guarantee for greatness. For instance, of the more than 80 players who have been selected first overall in the NFL Draft, just 15 have been inducted in the NFL Hall of Fame. While most top picks have good careers, some of them will be remembered for their wasted potential — due to injuries, off the field issues, or simply being selected by an inept franchise. These are the most disappointing draft picks in sports history.

Click here to see the most successful #1 overall draft picks in sports history.

Source: Donald Miralle / Getty Images

27. Eli Manning
> Position, draft team: Quarterback, San Diego Chargers
> Year drafted: 2004
> Career span: 2004-2019
> Accolades: 4x Pro Bowl, 2x Super Bowl champion

Eli Manning, like his brother Peyton, was selected first overall in the NFL Draft. After the San Diego Chargers selected Manning, he threatened to sit out, so they traded him to the New York Giants. It turned out to be a smart move. Bolstered by a strong defense, Manning led the Giants to two Super Bowls, knocking off the heavily favored New England Patriots in 2008 and 2012, with Manning collecting MVP honors both times. Always dependable, the four-time Pro Bowler had a streak of 210 consecutive starts.


Source: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

26. Patrick Kane
> Position, draft team: Right wing, Chicago Blackhawks
> Year drafted: 2007
> Career span: 2007-present
> Accolades: 4x All-star, 3x Stanley Cup, Hart Trophy, Calder Trophy, Ross Trophy

Though he likely has plenty of time left in his career, 31-year-old Chicago Blackhawks right winger Patrick Kane already has a packed trophy case. After winning the 2008 Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie, Kane helped the Blackhawks win three Stanley Cups, earning the 2013 Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs. In 2016, Kane hoisted the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. By the time Kane retires, he could rank much higher on this list.

Source: Sport Magazine Archives / Wikimedia Commons

25. Oscar Robertson
> Position, draft team: Guard-forward, Cincinnati Royals
> Year drafted: 1960
> Career span: 1960-1974
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 12x All-Star, Rookie of the Year, MVP, NBA champion

No basketball player could fill up a box score like Oscar Robertson. Known as Mr. Triple Double, he still holds the NBA triple double record with 181. The top pick of the 1960 NBA Draft by Cincinnati, Robertson was immediately one of the NBA’s top players. In his first season, he averaged 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 9.7 assists on his way to Rookie of the Year honors. That would also be the first of seven times the Big O would lead the NBA in assist average. Robertson was named NBA MVP in 1964 and helped the Milwaukee Bucks win their lone championship in 1971 — his first season with the team after being traded.

Source: Bob Levey / Getty Images

24. David Price
> Position, draft team: Pitcher, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
> Year drafted: 2007
> Career span: 2008-present
> Accolades: Cy Young, World Series champion, 5x All-Star, 2x ERA title

After being drafted first overall in the 2007 MLB Draft, David Price rocketed through the minors and made his MLB debut with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008. He played his first full season in 2009. Price made the All-Star team the following three seasons, winning the Cy Young in 2012. He signed with the Boston Red Sox as a free agent in 2015 and would go on to help the team win the 2018 World Series, winning two games against the Los Angeles Dodgers with a 1.98 ERA. Heading into 2020, Price is now a member of the Dodgers after being traded.


Source: Getty Images / Getty Images

23. Hakeem Olajuwon
> Position, draft team: Center, Houston Rockets
> Year drafted: 1984
> Career span: 1984-2002
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, MVP, 12x All-Star, 2x Defensive Player of the Year, 2x NBA champion

Though Michael Jordan is the undisputed star of the 1984 NBA Draft class, top overall pick Hakeem Olajuwon established himself as one of the greatest basketball players of all time. The Dream was the prototypical center of that era, leading the NBA in rebounds twice and blocks three times. To this day, he leads the NBA in career blocks, with over 3,800. Known for his famous “Dream Shake” post move, Olajuwon was a terrific scorer as well. He led the Rockets to back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995, earning MVP honors in both NBA Finals.

Source: Ethan Miller / Getty Images

22. Marc-Andre Fleury
> Position, draft team: Goaltender, Pittsburgh Penguins
> Year drafted: 2003
> Career span: 2003-present
> Accolades: 3x Stanley Cup

Goalies are seldom selected first overall, but Marc-Andre Fleury proved to be a valuable pick for the Pittsburgh Penguins. After taking over the starting job at just 21 years old, Fleury helped the Pens win three Stanley Cups in his 13 seasons with the team. His best season, however, may have been for the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017-18. Fleury posted a career best .927 save percentage in Vegas’s first season, which culminated in an improbable run to the Finals. A steady, consistent netminder, he has allowed more than three goals per game only once in the last decade.


Source: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images

21. David Robinson
> Position, draft team: Center, San Antonio Spurs
> Year drafted: 1987
> Career span: 1989-2003
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, MVP, 10x All-Star, 2x NBA champion, Defensive Player of the Year

Though the San Antonio Spurs had to wait two years for David Robinson to finish his naval service after they drafted him first in 1987, he proved to be well worth the wait. The Admiral was a terrific all-around player. He led the NBA in rebounds in 1990-91, blocks in 1991-1992, and scoring in 1993-94 before winning the MVP in 1995. Robinson helped establish the winning culture in San Antonio that netted the Spurs their first title in 1999 and another title in his final 2003 season.

Source: Rick Stewart / Getty Images

20. Terry Bradshaw
> Position, draft team: Quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers
> Year drafted: 1970
> Career span: 1970-1983
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, MVP, 4x Super Bowl champion, 3x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro

Founded in 1933, the Pittsburgh Steelers made the playoffs just once before drafting Terry Bradshaw. The QB from Louisiana Tech was the key to the Steelers’ 1970s dynasty, teaming with coach Chuck Noll to win four Super Bowls. The Blonde Bomber was known for his deep ball prowess. His best season was in 1978, when Bradshaw tossed a league-high 28 touchdowns and earned MVP honors while leading Pittsburgh to its third title.

Source: Michael Tullberg / Getty Images

19. Shaquille O’Neal
> Position, draft team: Center, Orlando Magic
> Year drafted: 1992
> Career span: 1992-2011
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, MVP, 4x NBA champion, 15x All-Star, Rookie of the Year

Shaquille O’Neal made his mark as one of the most dominant players in NBA history. The consensus best player of the 1992 NBA Draft, Shaq helped the newly formed Orlando Magic improve from a 21-61 team to 41-41 his rookie year. An All-Star 14 of his first 15 seasons in the NBA, Shaq was unstoppable in the paint. Throughout his career, O’Neal shot over 58% from the field — one of the highest percentages in NBA history. He helped the Los Angeles Lakers win three straight titles from 2000 to 2002, before pairing with Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat to earn his fourth ring in 2006.


18. Mike Modano
> Position, draft team: Center, Minnesota North Stars
> Year drafted: 1988
> Career span: 1989-2011
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, All-Star, Stanley Cup

The Minnesota North Stars struggled throughout much of the 1980s — until they drafted franchise-changing superstar Mike Modano first overall in 1988. Modano gave Minnesota something to build around, and by the time the franchise moved to Dallas and became the Stars in 1993, they were legitimate Cup contenders. Modano helped Dallas hoist its only Stanley Cup in 1999, posting 23 points in 23 games during that playoff run. The Hall of Famer has more goals and points than any other American player in NHL history.

Source: Al Bello / Getty Images

17. Darryl Strawberry
> Position, draft team: Outfield, New York Mets
> Year drafted: 1980
> Career span: 1983-1999
> Accolades: Rookie of the Year, 8x All-Star, 2x Silver Slugger, 3x World Series champion

A prodigiously talented high schooler, Darryl Strawberry was the first player selected in the 1980 MLB Draft by the New York Mets. Strawberry was named Rookie of the Year in 1983, then made the All-Star game each of the next eight seasons. He also helped the 1986 Mets win the World Series. Strawberry missed most of his teams’ games throughout the early 1990s due to issues like injuries and drug addiction. He was still able to help the New York Yankees win World Series titles in 1996 and 1999 before calling it a career.


Source: Joe Robbins / Getty Images

16. Orlando Pace
> Position, draft team: Tackle, St. Louis Rams
> Year drafted: 1997
> Career span: 1997-2009
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, Super Bowl champion, 7x Pro Bowl, 3x All-Pro

Offensive linemen may not be the most exciting first overall picks, but if the right one is selected, he can serve as a franchise cornerstone for years. This was the case when the St. Louis Rams selected tackle Orlando Pace in 1997. Pace was a key piece in the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” offense, giving Kurt Warner enough time to find his receivers. Consistently recognized as one of the best tackles in football, Pace made seven Pro Bowls, three All-Pro teams, and helped St. Louis win the Super Bowl in 2000. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2016.

Source: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

15. Magic Johnson
> Position, draft team: Guard-forward, Los Angeles Lakers
> Year drafted: 1979
> Career span: 1979-1996
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 3x MVP, 5x NBA champion, 12x All-Star

Magic Johnson had the size of a forward with the skills and agility of a guard, making him an irresistible first overall pick in 1979 for the Los Angeles Lakers. A terrific player and charismatic personality, Magic was an immediate star. He was an All-Star and led the Lakers to a title in his rookie season. By 1991, Johnson had three MVPs and five championships. He also led the NBA in assists. Johnson retired in 1991 after discovering he had contracted HIV, before briefly returning in 1996. Had he been able to play a full career, he would have likely ranked even higher. But Johnson’s accomplishments in just over a decade easily make him one of the very best top overall draft picks ever.

Source: Christian Petersen / Getty Images

14. Joe Thornton
> Position, draft team: Center, Boston Bruins
> Year drafted: 1997
> Career span: 1997-present
> Accolades: 4x All-Star, Hart Trophy, Ross Trophy

At 6’4″, Joe Thornton was able to combine size and skill to become a force in the NHL for more than 20 years. Drafted first overall in 1997 by the Boston Bruins, Thornton established himself as an offensive weapon. He had three seasons with over 100 points — including his 2005-2006 campaign, during which Boston traded him to the San Jose Sharks. Thornton scored 125 points that season and earned Hart Trophy honors, making him the only recipient of that award to be traded during his MVP season.


13. Joe Mauer
> Position, draft team: Catcher, Minnesota Twins
> Year drafted: 2001
> Career span: 2004-2018
> Accolades: MVP, 6x All-Star, 3x Gold Glove, 5x Silver Slugger, 3x Batting title

Catchers are typically not known for their offensive prowess, but former Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer was one of the best hitters of his generation while also playing terrific defense behind the plate. Mauer played his entire 15-year career in Minnesota, racking up six All-Star nods. Mauer’s best season came in 2009. He batted .365 with 28 home runs, earning MVP and Gold Glove honors.

Source: Jamie Squire / Getty Images

12. John Elway
> Position, draft team: Quarterback, Baltimore Colts
> Year drafted: 1983
> Career span: 1983-1998
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 2x Super Bowl, MVP, 9x Pro Bowl

John Elway was drafted first overall by the Baltimore Colts in 1983. Because of reported issues he and his family had with then-coach Frank Kush, Elway threatened to play pro baseball instead of becoming a Colt. The QB was traded to Denver, where he would go on to make nine Pro Bowls in his 16 NFL seasons. After years of playoff struggles, including three Super Bowl losses in four seasons during the 1980s, Elway and the Broncos finally broke through in 1997 and won the Super Bowl, then repeated the feat the following season. In his late 30s by that point, Elway retired after the 1998 season, walking away a winner.


Source: Andy Lyons / Getty Images

11. Tim Duncan
> Position, draft team: Forward-center, San Antonio Spurs
> Year drafted: 1997
> Career span: 1997-2016
> Accolades: 15x All-Star, 2x MVP, 5x NBA champion, Rookie of the Year

For nearly 20 years, Tim Duncan was the dependable, reliable star who helped the San Antonio Spurs become one of the NBA’s best franchises. After being drafted first overall in 1997, Duncan teamed up with David Robinson to become the NBA’s top one-two punch near the basket. The Big Fundamental averaged over 15 points per game in 16 different seasons. Always at his best in the biggest moments, Duncan won three Finals MVP awards and five championships overall.

Source: Christian Petersen / Getty Images

10. Sidney Crosby
> Position, draft team: Center, Pittsburgh Penguins
> Year drafted: 2005
> Career span: 2005-present
> Accolades: 3x Stanley Cup, 8x All-Star, 2x Hart Trophy, 2x Richard Trophy

Dubbed “The Next One” ahead of the 2005 NHL Draft, Sidney Crosby helped turn the hapless Pittsburgh Penguins into one of the league’s best teams. An instant star, Crosby scored 102 points his rookie year. He then led the NHL in scoring with 120 points in his second season, earning Hart Trophy honors. Crosby would go on to lead the Pens to three Stanley Cups and earn a second Hart Trophy. The only thing that has been able to slow Crosby was injuries — he has missed dozens of games throughout his career due to concussions as well as ankle and core muscle injuries.

Source: Otto Greule Jr / Getty Images

9. Ken Griffey Jr.
> Position, draft team: Outfield, Seattle Mariners
> Year drafted: 1987
> Career span: 1989-2010
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, MVP, 13x All-Star, 10x Gold Glove, 7x Silver Slugger

One of the most highly anticipated young players when he was drafted in 1987, Ken Griffey Jr. lived up to the hype. The Kid made 13 All-Star teams, including a streak of 11 straight from 1990 to 2000 that began when he was just 20 years old. Griffey Jr. hit 630 career home runs, was voted MVP unanimously in 1997, and became a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2016.


Source: Getty Images / Getty Images

8. Mario Lemieux
> Position, draft team: Center, Pittsburgh Penguins
> Year drafted: 1984
> Career span: 1984-2006
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 2x Stanley Cup, 9x All-Star, 3x Hart Trophy, 6x Ross Trophy, Calder Trophy

The Pittsburgh Penguins were one of the worst franchises in hockey before they drafted Mario Lemieux in 1984. He notched 100 points in each of his first six seasons, including 199 in his 1988-1989 campaign. He led the Pens to their first two Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy both times. Lemieux earned six Ross Trophies as the NHL’s top point scorer — tying him for second with Gordie Howe behind Wayne Gretzky. Super Mario may have been able to surpass some of Gretzky’s records, but he missed years of playing as he battled cancer two different times in his career.

7. Chipper Jones
> Position, draft team: Shortstop, Atlanta Braves
> Year drafted: 1990
> Career span: 1993-2012
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, MVP, World Series champion, 8x All-Star, 2x Silver Slugger

Unlike many of baseball’s successful top overall picks, Chipper Jones stayed with the team that drafted him for his entire career. Jones provided the Atlanta Braves with two decades of quality hitting and defense at third base, though he was drafted as a shortstop. His batting average exceeded .300 in 10 different seasons of his Hall of Fame career. Jones helped the Braves win the World Series in 1995, his first full season in the big leagues. He proved to be incredibly durable, hitting .364 at age 36 and rounding out his career with All-Star nods in his final two seasons, at ages 39 and 40.


Source: Stephen Dunn / Getty Images

6. Bruce Smith
> Position, draft team: Defensive end, Buffalo Bills
> Year drafted: 1985
> Career span: 1985-2003
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 2x Defensive Player of the Year, 11x Pro Bowl, 8x All-Pro

The Buffalo Bills had no doubt hoped Bruce Smith would be successful when they drafted him first in 1985, but they likely could not have imagined he would go down as arguably the greatest pass rusher of all time. Smith was a key member of the Bills teams of the early 1990s that made it to four straight Super Bowls. Smith recorded at least 10 sacks in 13 different seasons and wound up as the NFL’s all-time sack leader, with 200.

Source: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images

5. LeBron James
> Position, draft team: Forward-guard, Cleveland Cavaliers
> Year drafted: 2003
> Career span: 2003-present
> Accolades: 16x All-Star, 4x MVP, 3x NBA champion, Rookie of the Year

LeBron James may have been the most hyped athlete out of high school in American sports history, much less the NBA, yet he has surpassed even the loftiest expectations. James burst onto the scene in 2003, winning Rookie of the Year as a Cleveland Cavalier. He made the All-Star game in each of the next 16 seasons, playing for the Cavs, Miami Heat, and Los Angeles Lakers. Along the way, James won four MVPs and three championships — including a title that snapped Cleveland’s title drought of more than 50 years across all major sports. Even at age 35, James seems to have a lot of great years left. As of the 2020 NBA All-Star break, he is averaging 25 points and an NBA-leading 10.8 assists per game for the first place Lakers.

Source: Keith Allison / Flickr

4. Alex Rodriguez
> Position, draft team: Shortstop, Seattle Mariners
> Year drafted: 1993
> Career span: 1994-2016
> Accolades: 3x MVP, 14x All-Star, 10x Silver Slugger, World Series champion, 2x Gold Glove

Before being drafted first overall by the Seattle Mariners in 1993, Alex Rodriguez was one of the most promising prospects in MLB Draft history. After breaking into the big leagues at 18, he established himself as a superstar at 20. That 1996 season, A-Rod hit .358 to lead the majors and made the first of his 14 All-Star teams. Rodriguez left the Mariners for the Texas Rangers before becoming a New York Yankee for 12 seasons, racking up two Gold Gloves, 10 Silver Sluggers, and three MVPs along the way. Rodriguez helped the Yankees win the 2009 World Series, and he ranks fourth on the career home run list with 696. A-Rod’s career is somewhat tarnished as he was suspended for the 2014 season for taking steroids.


Source: Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images

3. Peyton Manning
> Position, draft team: Quarterback, Indianapolis Colts
> Year drafted: 1998
> Career span: 1998-2015
> Accolades: 5x MVP, 2x Super Bowl 14x Pro Bowl, 7x All-Pro

Though there was a debate about whether he should be drafted first, ahead of Ryan Leaf, in 1998, Peyton Manning would prove to be the right choice. After a rocky first season, Manning led the Indianapolis Colts to 11 playoff appearances in 12 seasons and to their first Super Bowl since moving from Baltimore. Manning rewrote the record books for QBs, earning five MVPs. The surefire Hall of Famer ended his career with a Super Bowl win at the helm of the Denver Broncos.

Source: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images

2. Alex Ovechkin
> Position, draft team: Left wing, Washington Capitals
> Year drafted: 2004
> Career span: 2004-present
> Accolades: Stanley Cup, 12x All-Star, 8x Richard Trophy, 3x Hart Trophy, Calder Trophy, Ross Trophy

Alex Ovechkin has cemented his place in NHL history as one of the greatest pure scorers of all time, and even in his 30s he is still going strong. Ovi has led the NHL in goals eight times, made a dozen All-Star teams, and won three Hart Trophies. After years of playoff disappointments, his Washington Capitals finally won the Stanley Cup in 2018, ticking the final box on Ovechkin’s Hall of Fame resume. Besides his scoring, Ovechkin’s toughness may be his best quality. Throughout 15 seasons, he has never missed more than a handful of games


Source: Mike Powell / Getty Images

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
> Position, draft team: Center, Milwaukee Bucks
> Year drafted: 1969
> Career span: 1969-1989
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 6x MVP, 6x NBA champion, 19x All-Star, Rookie of the Year

After winning three straight NCAA Tournaments and Most Outstanding Player awards at UCLA, expectations for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were sky high and he was an easy choice for the Milwaukee Bucks to take first overall. In just his second season, he led the Bucks to a title. Abdul-Jabbar eventually forced a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he won five more championships throughout the 1980s. He used his signature skyhook shot to perfection, becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. He led the NBA in scoring twice, rebounding once, and blocks four times. Abdul-Jabbar also holds the record for most MVPs, with six.

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