First pick not always best available player

The No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft is no longer a lock to be a franchise player.

Not just in 2002, but maybe never again.

The definition of a "Franchise Player" has changed since the draft got younger and less experienced. No longer is the top pick expected to be a dominant presence in the league. At least not right away.

The hope these days is that the player chosen No. 1 will turn out to be an all-star, at some point. But the days of having franchise players like Tim Duncan (1997) and Allen Iverson (1996) as the top pick could be long gone.

"Years ago, when seniors played, there were franchise players available at No. 1. But the perception is still there that the No. 1 pick should be a franchise player," said one Western Conference scout. "But, the best player in the draft could be at six and that trend is likely to continue."

Outside of next year's draft, when high school phenom and senior-to-be swingman LeBron James is already being billed as a franchise talent, the trend has been to pick for position, rather than overall talent. And that has resulted in teams locking their sights on a big man or a point at No. 1, because quality players at those positions are so rare.

Since 1982, the only players selected No. 1 overall who didn't play power forward, center or point, were Glenn Robinson and Iverson. And that's why either China's Yao Ming or Duke's Jay Williams will be the top pick on June 26. But, are they the best players available for Houston, or any team that trades up to get the top pick?

Sure, Yao fits the Rockets need for a center, so it makes Houston's decision easier. If Houston decides to trade its pick, Williams fits the need of those teams interested in dealing (see: Warriors). But what if another team had won the lottery, one that already had its needs at point and center filled? They'd still probably pick one of these two players -- even if they believed Connecticut's Caron Butler, Maryland's Chris Wilcox or Duke's Mike Dunleavy (if he stays in the draft) were the best players in the draft.


"Teams end up taking the player who everyone thinks should be the No. 1 pick," said one Eastern Conference scout. "If it's not one of those two guys (Yao or Williams) then a red flag is raised. Then the team has to explain to its fans and the rest of the organization why it picked someone else.

"Houston would have to answer the question every time Yao Ming has a double-double or Jay Williams is scoring well. It's like no one else could be No. 1, but those two guys."

This happens in nearly every draft, save 2001 when high school senior Kwame Brown leaped to the forefront, although fellow high school seniors Tyson Chandler or Eddy Curry could have bypassed him. But that was rare. Brown wasn't expected to fit the mode of the traditional No. 1 pick coming straight out of high school. The expectations on Yao or Williams, however, will mirror those Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon and Duncan -- although opinions on the inherited pressures are split.

"We ask too much of the No. 1," said an Eastern Conference scout. "We want the No. 1 pick to be in the running for rookie of the year, and in his second season be a star. But there isn't a Shaq or Tim Duncan (this year). Kenyon Martin (No. 1 pick in 2000) or Michael Olowokandi (in 1998) isn't in that category."

But Pacers president Donnie Walsh disagrees.

"The No. 1 pick is still the No. 1 pick, and he has to be a player who has staying power in the league," Walsh said. "If you're lucky enough to get the No. 1, you have to get a player like that."

And for those reasons Walsh says he loves picking in the 11-14 range (Indiana is picking No. 14 in this year's draft).

"Last year was different because of the high school guys," Walsh said. "And Shaq is someone who comes along once every 20 years. But when you pick No. 1, there are more restrictions. You can pick from 11 to 14 and get someone who could have gone as low as No. 28, but that's OK."

Olowokandi was the top pick in 1998, yet the consensus top players in that draft were at No. 9 when Milwaukee selected Dirk Nowitzki, now with Dallas, and Boston took Paul Pierce at No. 10. Pau Gasol, who was taken 3rd by the Grizzlies last season, might end up being a potential franchise-type player, but the jury is out on him even after being rookie of the year.

"We're always revisiting this issue three or four years down the road," said one Eastern Conference scout. "But the best player isn't always at No. 1, 2 or 3. It's more based on need. The rest of the picks are more about getting the best player available."

One scout said in the 2000 draft, when Martin was the top pick, the only potential franchise player might turn out to be Darius Miles, who the Clippers took at No. 3.

"Points and bigs go No. 1 with (swing guard) LeBron James one of the exceptions next season," said a Western Conference scout.

"If it's close, then the teams will choose the point or the big over a two, three or four because most teams will go with the hardest positions to fill," said an Eastern Conference scout.

Yao has the potential to be a franchise player if he lives up to his potential as a 7-foot-5 dominating presence. Williams has the ball skills and the moxie to be one of the rare franchise players from the perimeter. But neither is a lock to live up to the label awaiting whoever is selected No. 1 overall.

Instead, expectations should begin lower. For starters, the top pick should have an impact in his rookie season and beyond, with each maturing into all-stars. Anything else, say an NBA championship, would just be proof the No. 1 overall pick in 2002 also turned out to be the best player available.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He covers the NBA draft for ESPN.com and ESPN.