Sleepers, steals or heists — no matter what you call them — there are always good to great players who for some reason fall down the two rounds of the NBA draft.
These overlooked or late-blooming players usually make the teams that didn’t choose them cringe every time that particular guy lays a beating on them.
With just two rounds and 60 total picks, there is not much room for error and a big reason why there is a lot of wheeling and dealing. Boston already dealt their first pick this year (from that sordid deal with Brooklyn a few years back that just keeps paying off) for a third overall pick and future number ones.
A great example of a sneaky good pick would have been the Lakers selection of Kobe Bryant way down at no. 13 in 1996. No player from that draft had the impact or the longevity of the Black Mamba.
There are sure to be a couple of players chosen in the latter stages of the first or even the second round this year that will make their NBA bosses look like geniuses.
Here are the top sneaky good players chosen (with a couple of ties) from the last 15 NBA drafts (in chronological order).
15. Tayshaun Prince – 23rd overall to Detroit (2002)
The Pistons were coming off their best year in 12 seasons in 2001-02, going to the conference semi-finals for the first time since 1990-91. On a team built around Ben Wallace, they needed a forward with hands and defensive acumen to complement him in the front court. With the 23rd pick, the University of Kentucky’s Tayshaun Prince fell into their lap. The 2001 SEC Player of the Year improved every year for four full years at UK and after apprenticing under Michael Curry during the 2002-03 season, Prince became a starter in 2003-04. He would play a huge role in the Pistons’ 2004 championship run, pouring in 9.9 points per game, along with 6.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 23 games. In all, Prince would play 11 seasons in Detroit and another three seasons in the NBA before hanging ’em up in 2016. He was a four-time All-Defensive Second Team member for the Pistons from 2005-2008.
14. Kyle Korver – 51st overall to New Jersey (2003)
The Nets have had a history of trading away top picks for immediate help (and living to regret it, again, and again, and again). In 2003, the Nets were coming off a second straight trip to the NBA finals and therefore didn’t own a top pick, but would find a way to slough off a future all-star and lights out shooter anyway. With the 22nd overall selection they took Zoran Planinic, a Bosnian who played for just three seasons with the Nets before heading back to Europe. With little to lose at no. 51, the Nets chose Creighton Bluejays shooter Kyle Korver, then immediately sold his rights to Philadelphia for $125,000. So, this draft steal actually belongs to the Sixers, who got great three-point shooting out of Korver for four-and-a-half seasons before dealing him to Utah. Coincidentally, Korver would play with the 2003 no. 1 pick, LeBron James, during Cleveland’s march to the NBA finals.
13. Jameer Nelson – 20th overall to Denver (2004)
This is another case where one team benefited from another team’s shortsightedness. The Orlando Magic, who had already picked future superstar Dwight Howard at no. 1, traded their 2005 first rounder to Denver for Nelson, who the Nuggets stole at no. 20 (he was slated top 10, but fell inexplicably to 20). Nelson, who is ironically still playing in the NBA with Denver, spent his best years in Orlando, making the all-Rookie second team in 2005 and garnering an all-star nod in 2009. In 10 seasons with the Magic, he averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 assists and shot 37.4 percent from beyond the arc. He was an even better player in the post-season, averaging 15 points in 44 career playoff games.
12. Monta Ellis – 40th overall to Golden State (2005)
Before they were the juggernaut they are today, the Golden State Warriors were still decent judges of talent. In 2005, Monta Ellis was considered a five-star prep school recruit by Rivals.com and listed as the no. 2 shooting guard in the nation. Committed to Mississippi State University, Ellis chose instead to enter the draft. Despite his lofty status, a few other high schoolers were drafted ahead of him, with the Warriors pulling the trigger on Ellis at no. 40. It would prove to be one of the more astute selections of the past 15 years. By his second season, Ellis was a starter ad in his fifth season (2009-10) he averaged a career high 25.5 points per game. Ellis played his best basketball in the Bay Area and his seven seasons presaged a return to winning ways at Golden State.
11. Paul Millsap – 47th overall to Utah (2006)
Rumours today abound that Millsap will be on his way out of Atlanta after the Dwight Howard trade. Could his former team, the Utah Jazz, be a destination? The Jazz absolutely made the steal of the 2006 draft, and one of the best all-time, by grabbing the “The Anchorman” 47th overall out of Louisiana Tech. No player from that draft has played more games than his 837 and fewer still have been named to as many all-star games (four). Now, much of his success has been accumulated in Atlanta, but Millsap was a dependable and durable sub for half his 540 games in Salt Lake City. He averaged 12.4 points and 7.0 rebounds with the Jazz and has become even more complete a starter with the Hawks, who he joined in 2013.
10. Marc Gasol – 48th overall to the Los Angeles Lakers (2007)
In an odd twist of fate, Marc, who was drafted 48th by the Lakers in 2007, had his rights traded to Memphis for his older brother, Pau. The younger Gasol has been a steady force for the Grizzlies ever since, while his brother did very well in Los Angeles before departing in 2014. It boggles the mind to think that Gasol waited 47 times to hear his name called, considering his pedigree. However, the Lakers, on a rare occasion, were patient and sealed the deal before dealing him away the next year. It did work out for both teams, but we think the Lakers might be a little further ahead today with Marc in the line-up. He’s been a three-time all-star with the Grizz, as well as NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. A sound choice, all the way around.
9. Russell Westbrook – Fourth overall to Seattle (2008)
How good could Miami have looked had they taken Russell Westbrook second overall in 2008, instead of Michael Beasley, who played two seasons in SoBe and was gone. Instead of two championships in four trips to the finals, Westbrook could have been the dagger throwing complement to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. As it turned out, the Seattle SuperSonics pulled off the sleeper pick of the ’08 draft, taking the UCLA point guard fourth, after O.J. Mayo of USC (Minnesota). Westbrook, the consensus 2017 NBA MVP, was a starter pretty much from the get-go for the Oklahoma City Thunder and hasn’t relinquished that role since his first year. He recorded a league high 31.6 points per game this season, as well as a season triple-double with 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists.
8. DeMar DeRozan – Ninth overall to Toronto (2009)
To think, the sad sack New York Knicks could have had DeMar DeRozan in 2009, instead of the disappointing Jordan Hill. The Knicks whiffed on this pick and after just 24 games with New York, Hill was traded to Houston. The Raps needed home run in 2009, as they hadn’t plucked a prime player in the first round since Chris Bosh in 2003 and had to endure slings and arrows for selecting Andrea Bargnani first in 2006. DeRozan was a freshman sensation at USC in 2008-09 and the Raptors didn’t hesitate when he was still on the board at no. 9. DeRozan started slowly his first year, but has built himself into a superstar ever since, putting himself into MVP conversation by averaging 27.3 PPG this past season and adding 22.4 points in 10 playoff games.
7. Paul George – 10th overall to Indiana (2010)
Only two players taken ahead of Paul George at 10th overall in 2010 have scored more points per game since, they being first overall selection John Wall and fifth pick DeMarcus Cousins. Mostly likely because he played for the unsexy Fresno State Bulldogs did George have to wait nine picks before his name was read out in 2010. The L.A. Clippers, who seem to be forever in the hunt for that key ingredient to playoff success, opted for Al-Farouq Aminu from Wake Forest at no. 8, instead of taking California boy George. He has made Indiana a winner, despite the lack of a title, leading the Pacer to two straight Eastern Conference finals in 2013 and 2014. He’s been an all-star four times, on the NBA All-Defensive First Team once and the All-Defensive Second Team twice.
6. Isaiah Thomas – 60th overall to Sacramento (2011)
It seems that California based teams other than Golden State have problems assessing the worth of players. The Sacramento Kings would surely love to still have Isaiah Thomas in the fold and not have to watch him do great things across the continent with the Boston Celtics. The Kings did strike gold with the last pick in the 2011 draft, getting the University of Washington point guard at no. 60. Despite a draft standing that usually precedes a long stint on the bench or seasoning in the D-League, Thomas started 37 of 65 games in 2011-12 and contributed 11.5 points and 4.1 assists. But, even after averaging an impressive 20.3 points per game and 6.3 assists in 2013-14, the Kings dealt him to Phoenix. This year, he scored a career high 28.9 PPG with 5.9 assists and helped lead the Celtics to the best record in the Eastern Conference and a trip to the conference finals.
5. Draymond Green – 35th overall to Golden State (2012)
The pieces to a championship team don’t always come with top five picks. The Dubs drafted wisely in back-to-back years, taking Klay Thompson 11th overall in 2010 and then Draymond Green way down at no. 35 in 2012. With Steph Curry already in the fold, Green’s selection set in motion the wheels to today’s championship squad. We find it hard to believe that many other teams passed on Big 10 Player of the Year and monster rebounder Green before the Warriors theft of him at no. 35. In his senior year, he added his name to a pantheon of Michigan State Spartans’ greats like Magic Johnson by averaging 16.2 points and 10.6 rebounds. In his last three seasons with Golden State, Green has been a force in the paint, averaging nearly 12 points per game, along with six assists and 8.5 rebounds. He made the NBA All-Defensive First Team in 2015 and 2016 and is a solid bet to turn the trick this year, too.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo – 15th overall to Milwaukee (2013)
At this point, the Greek Freak looks more and more like the best player taken in the 2013 draft. That is, how good would he look in a Cavaliers uniform, given that Cleveland took the ever disappointing Anthony Bennett first overall that year? Or he’d be a giant step up from Otto Porter in Washington (he was taken third that year) and a perfect fit with John Wall. As it is, Antetokounmpo is the straw that stirs the Bucks’ drink, pouring in a team high 22.9 points this season, as well as pulling down 8.8 rebounds and making 1.9 blocks per game. He also gave the Raptors all they could handle in the first round of the playoffs, averaging 24.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals in a hard-fought six-game series.
3. Nikola Jokic – 41st overall to Denver (2014)
The word potential oozes from the names taken in the first round of the 2014 draft, including Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and Marcus Smart. The Denver Nuggets, who drafted then traded Doug McDermott 11th, wouldn’t pick again until no. 41. Somehow, every other team in the NBA missed doing their homework on the 6’10” Serb who dominated the Adriatic League for Mega Basket and was MVP his final season. The Nuggets snapped him up at 41 and in 2014 and a year later he was starting in the Mile High City. He averaged 10 points and seven rebounds in 2015-16 and was named to the All-Rookie First Team for his efforts. The Joker upped the ante this past campaign, pouring in 16.7 PPG and hauling in 9.8 rebounds.
2. Devin Booker – 13th overall to Phoenix (2015)
The 2014-15 University of Kentucky Wildcats team oozed talent, with the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker and Andrew Harrison combining to take the ‘Cats to the Final Four. At the 2015 draft, Towns went, as expected, first overall to Minnesota. Cauley-Stein was taken sixth by Sacramento and Lyles one pick before Booker at 13 to Utah. To date, Booker has been second best of the entire bunch, becoming a bonafide starter after earning SEC Sixth Man of the Year honors in his only NCAA season (he didn’t start any of his 38 games). He was lights out with the Suns this past season after earning an All-Rookie First Team nomination in 2016, scoring 22.1 points per game and adding 3.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists. As a testament to his growing cred, the New York Knicks have offered Kristaps Porzingis (taken 4th in 2015) straight up for Booker in a rumored trade.
1. Malcolm Brogdon – 36th overall to Milwaukee (2016)
It may be a bit premature to announce any sleeper/steal/sneaky good pick from the 2016 draft, but our money right now is on Brogdon, who averaged the second most points of anybody, behind only Buddy Hield (who was taken 7th). The Bucks, should they draft well again this season and keep Brogdon and the Greek Freak together might be a force in the Eastern Conference down the road. The Virginia Cavaliers grad (he played all four seasons of his NCAA eligibility) proved the Bucks right for snapping him up at no. 36 last year, starting 28 of 75 games and recording 10.2 PPG (including shooting 40.4 percent from three-point range), 4.2 assists and 1.1 steals.