LeBron James was fresh off his annihilation of the Toronto Raptors when he took a moment to acknowledge the future of the league. According to James, this year’s rookie class is the best since his rookie year of 2003:
The 2003 draft is the gold standard for a rookie class in the modern era. It gave us James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony all in the top five picks. Also Boris Diaw. Never forget Boris Diaw.
When James compliments this rookie class, he does it with a nod to Ben Simmons. Simmons has already been getting James comparisons for years. He’s signed to Klutch Sports, the agency of James’ close friend Rich Paul, and is also a Nike pitchman, just like James.
Simmons is a rookie, despite what Donovan Mitchell’s favorite hoodie might tell you. The only problem is no one will associate him with the 2017 draft class after this year is over for the same reason no one counts Joel Embiid as a member of the class of 2016 or Blake Griffin as a member of the class of 2010. For the rest of his career, Simmons will be grouped with his fellow draftmates from 2016.
Still, James’ comment got us thinking: is this really the best draft class since 2003? We decided to rank them.
Superstars: Ben Simmons
Quality basketball players: Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram, Dejounte Murray, Jamal Murray, Taurean Prince, Malcolm Brogdon, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Kris Dunn, Buddy Hield, Caris LeVert, Denzel Valentine, Thon Maker, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender
The 2016 class still has lots of time to prove itself. Maybe Ingram or Brown joins that superstar group before long. Maybe Murray is the next great Spurs guard, and Chriss and Bender lead the next Suns’ renaissance.
But for now, the class of 2016 is last. And that’s with Simmons.
Superstars: Chris Paul
Quality basketball players: Deron Williams, Andrew Bogut, Lou Williams, Andrew Bynum, Marvin Williams, Monte Ellis, Marcin Gortat, David Lee, Danny Granger, Amir Johnson, Raymond Felton, Ersan Ilyasova, Ian Mahinmi
Biggest bust: Fran Vazquez
Shoutout to: Andray Blatche
Remember when Chris Paul vs. Deron Williams was a real debate? Williams has a case to be placed in the superstar category here, as he put together some great years (five all-star appearances) in Utah before injuries ravaged his game by his late 20s.
This draft was solid if slightly underwhelming. Bogut was really good for a while, but not the type of talent you expect to draft No. 1 overall. Marvin Williams never really lived up to his potential as the second pick. Pick Nos. 5 through 8 — Felton, Webster, Villanueva, and Frye — are a similar story. Each of those guys lasted in the league for over a decade but never became more than role players.
A special mention goes out to Vazquez, who never played a minute in the NBA after being taken by with the 11th pick by the Magic.
Superstars: Dwight Howard
Quality basketball players: Andre Iguodala, Luol Deng, Trevor Ariza, Josh Smith, J.R. Smith, Tony Allen, Kevin Martin, Devin Harris, Anderson Varejao, Ben Gordon, Al Jefferson, Jameer Nelson, Emeka Okafor, Shaun Livingston, Josh Childress, Kris Humphries
Biggest bust: Rafael Araujo and Luke Jackson
Shoutout to: Pavel Podkolzin
This was the golden age of the league’s prep-to-pro era, for better or worse. Howard was the third high schooler ever drafted No. 1. In total, eight high school players went in the top 20. Two years later, the one-and-done rule came into existence.
This draft was full of unfulfilled potential. Livingston never reached the star status he seemed predestined for after a terrifying injury in 2007. Araujo, Jackson, and Swift — each drafted in the top 12 — barely scored over 1,000 NBA points combined.
The most famous person in this draft class is Humphries, which tells you everything you need to know about this draft class.
Superstars: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo
Quality basketball players: Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams, Otto Porter, C.J. McCollum, Dennis Schroder, Nerlens Noel, Kelly Olynyk, Gorgui Dieng, Tim Hardaway Jr., Tony Snell, Trey Burke, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Andre Roberson, Cody Zeller
Biggest bust: Anthony Bennett
Shoutout to: Lucas Nogueira
This draft remains immortal for the utter uncertainty surrounding the first pick. People thought it could be Alex Len or Noel or Oladipo .... but nobody had Bennett. He is very likely the worst pick in the history of the NBA Draft, yet the Cavs still won the title three years later. What a world.
This draft class was purported to be weak from the start, but it’s actually turned out quite nice. Antetokounmpo is a Hall of Fame talent, and Oladipo made a surprising star turn this season in Indiana. Gobert is the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year this season, Adams is one of the league’s most underrated players, Porter and McCollum have both carved out nice roles for themselves.
Fun fact: Lucas ‘Bebe’ Nogueira leads this draft class in BPM. As you expected.
Superstars: Brandon Roy
Quality basketball players: LaMarcus Aldridge, Kyle Lowry, Paul Millsap, Rajon Rondo, J.J. Redick, Rudy Gay, P.J. Tucker, Thabo Sefolosha, Andrea Bargnani
Biggest bust: Adam Morrison
This might be the worst top 10 in NBA draft history. Bargnani, Tyrus Thomas, Morrison, and Sheldon Williams were four of the top five picks. Patrick O’Brien went ninth overall and Mouhamed Sene went 10th. Somehow, this draft still turned out pretty good!
Lowry and Rondo were tremendous values in the 20s. Millsap was taken one pick after Dee Brown and turned into one of the best second rounders ever. Tucker was another second rounder who has turned into an essential part of a championship contender deep into his career.
There were lots of busts in 2006, but depth salvaged it.
Superstars: Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis
Quality basketball players: Devin Booker, Myles Turner, D’Angelo Russell, Josh Richardson, Bobby Portis, Kelly Oubre, Terry Rozier, Delon Wright, Larry Nance Jr., Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, Frank Kaminsky, Trey Lyles, Montrezl Harrell
The one-and-dones in this draft class would have been college seniors this season, so it’s still too early to judge them. We already know Towns and Porzingis are studs. Booker is close to being there. Scary Terry Rozier has been a true revelation in the playoffs. There’s some good role players here, too, like Miami’s Richardson and Toronto’s Wright.
We’re not naming a biggest bust since this class only has three years under its belt, but, uh, Jahlil Okafor has some work to do to avoid it.
Superstars: Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic
Quality basketball players: Clint Capela, Andrew Wiggins, Dario Saric, Aaron Gordon, Gary Harris, Zach LaVine, Jusuf Nurkic, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle, T.J. Warren, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jabari Parker, Kyle Anderson, Rodney Hood, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Jerami Grant, Dante Exum, Elfrid Payton
Shoutout to: Mitch McGary
This draft was mega-hyped, but its first two picks (Wiggins and Parker) have been decidedly underwhelming to start their careers. The third pick, Embiid, looks like a historic talent now that he’s healthy. Jokic is already on track to be one of the great second rounders ever. There’s also a bunch of emerging players in this class who are starting to look really good.
Capela is one of the brightest young centers in the game for Houston. Saric is a core piece for the Sixers. Gordon hasn’t been in a great situation in Orlando, but he made major strides this past season. Randle and Dinwiddie are also starting to establish themselves.
Superstars: Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose
Quality basketball players: Kevin Love, Nic Batum, DeAndre Jordan, Eric Gordon, Goran Dragic, Brook Lopez, Danilo Gallinari, Serge Ibaka, Ryan Anderson, George Hill, Robin Lopez, Roy Hibbert, Courtney Lee, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley, Mario Chalmers, Nikola Pekovic
Biggest bust: Joe Alexander
Shoutout to: Anthony Randolph
This class seemed destined for greatness from the time the one-and-dones were in high school. Rose (for a little while), Gordon, and Love lived up to it. O.J. Mayo and Michael Beasley did not. Westbrook was just a three-star recruit in high school, and ends up as the best and most iconic player taken in this class.
Remember, kids: high school rankings aren’t everything.
There’s also a ton of great depth here. Robin Lopez is still a solid starting center a decade into his career and might not be one of the 10 best players taken. Jordan and Dragic were home run picks in the second round. In general, lots of really good players in this class. It would look a lot better if Rose stayed healthy.
Superstars: Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall
Quality basketball players: Gordon Hayward, Eric Bledsoe, Hassan Whiteside, Avery Bradley, Greg Monroe, Derrick Favors, Ed Davis, Larry Sanders, Al-Farouq Aminu, Trevor Booker, Evan Turner
Biggest bust: Ekpe Udoh
Shoutout to: Greivis Vasquez and Jordan Crawford
Lots of star power in this class. Wall lived up to the hype as the No. 1 pick. His Kentucky teammate Cousins has been one of the league’s best bigs from the moment he was drafted. George took a few years to get going, but now is every bit the star that Wall and Cousins are. Hayward is a borderline star, and if he comes back healthy he’s going to be involved in a lot of deep playoff runs with Boston in the coming years.
Another reason why you can’t judge draft classes too quickly: Gary Neal and Landry Fields were on the All-Rookie First-Team ahead of George and Bledsoe. Bet you haven’t thought about those names in a while.
Superstars: Donovan Mitchell
Quality basketball players: Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, John Collins, Josh Jackson, De’Aaron Fox, OG Anunoby, Jarrett Allen, Josh Hart, Zach Collins, Markelle Fultz, Bam Adebayo, Jonathan Isaac, Luke Kennard
We’ll tentatively put this year’s rookie class at No. 5, with the potential to rise higher. Mitchell is already a star as the No. 13 pick. Tatum, Ball, and Markkanen could join him in the superstar category one day, too. Fultz could as well if he remembers how to shoot like he did in college.
The best thing about this class always looked like its depth. We could have listed so many more names up top — Semi Ojeleye, Sterling Brown, and Frank Ntilikina just to name a few. We can’t wait to see how these guys develop.
Superstars: Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, Damian Lillard
Quality basketball players: Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond, Khris Middleton, Jae Crowder, Harrison Barnes, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Dion Waiters, Terrence Jones, John Henson, Evan Fournier, Will Barton, Mo Harkless, Austin Rivers, Kyle O’Quinn
Biggest bust: Thomas Robinson
Shoutout to: Perry Jones
Davis was a no-brainer No. 1 pick as the Wooden Award winner and the leader of a Kentucky team that went 38-2 and won the national championship. Lillard forever goes down as the greatest NBA player ever from the Big Sky. The rest of the lottery was a mixed bag, with some hits (Beal, Drummond), some misses (Thomas Robinson) and a few players who have been good but never great (Barnes, Kidd-Gilchrist).
What really sets this draft apart is the players taken in the second round. Four of the top eight players in VORP from this class were taken in round two, with Green leading the way, and Middleton, Crowder, and O’Quinn also showing out. Barton and Mike Scott were second rounders in 2012, too. That’s a pretty incredible group.
Superstars: Kevin Durant
Quality basketball players: Marc Gasol, Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Thaddeus Young, Marco Belinelli, Jared Dudley, Wilson Chandler, Jeff Green, Corey Brewer, Tiago Splitter, Brendan Wright
Biggest bust: Greg Oden
Shoutout to: Glen ‘Big Baby’ Davis
This draft will always be remembered as Oden vs. Durant. Oden had just put up 25 points and 12 rebounds against Horford and Noah’s Florida Gators in the national title game. Durant was unlike anything we had ever seen at the time, and he remains that way today. Even a decade later, it still feels like one of the great draft debates ever.
The rest of this class is filled with some of the most under-appreciated stars of their era. Horford remains phenomenal to this day. Conley and Gasol were special players for Memphis. Noah was Defensive Player of the Year and finished fourth in MVP one season.
We’ll never forget Yi Jianlian, either. He’ll always have that workout vs. the chair.
Superstars: Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler
Quality basketball players: Kemba Walker, Isaiah Thomas, Tobias Harris, Jonas Valanciunas, Tristan Thompson, Nikola Mirotic, Nikola Vucevic, Enes Kanter, E’Twuan Moore, Markieff and Marcus Morris, Chandler Parsons, Kenneth Faried, Reggie Jackson, Cory Joseph
Biggest bust: Jan Vesely
Shoutout to: Jimmer Fredette, Brandon Knight
This class has only been in the league seven seasons and has already accounted for 19 All-Star Game appearances. Somehow, Leonard only counts for two of them.
There’s star power all over this draft. Irving has proven to be a worthy first pick despite playing all of 11 games at Duke. Leonard was taken smack in the middle of the first round and turned into a stud. Same goes for Butler, who was selected with the last pick in the first round. The talent in this draft stretched all the way to the very last pick, where Thomas was chosen at No. 60 overall.
There’s also some real depth in this class. Mirotic finally developed into a really nice stretch forward this season. Harris nearly made the all-star team with Detroit. Vucevic and Kanter put up numbers even if their games would have translated better in another era. Just a strong draft all the way around.
Superstars: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Blake Griffin
Quality basketball players: Jrue Holiday, DeMar DeRozan, Ricky Rubio, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, Tyreke Evans, James Johnson, Patrick Beverley, Danny Green, Brandon Jennings, DeMarre Carroll, Patty Mills, Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson
Biggest bust: Hasheem Thabeet
Shoutout to: Rodrigue Beaubois
The only choice for No. 1. Curry is the greatest shooter ever and has a good chance to go down as the GOAT point guard. Harden is the top offensive force in the league today. Griffin was an uber-athletic phenom when he first debuted and has remade his game to remain effective as he’s aged.
There’s depth here, too. DeRozan is one of the best players in Raptors’ history. Gibson, Rubio, and Beverley have long been underrated gems. Holiday finally earned some long overdue shine in these playoffs with the Pelicans.
Do you know who was the Rookie of the Year in this class? It was Evans. That’s all the evidence you need to never judge a draft class too soon.