Draft picks can make or break a franchise’s fortune in the tumultuous basketball game. However, some selections defy all odds, eclipsing the expectations set for them to become the biggest steals in NBA draft history. This article spotlights these dark horse contenders who transformed into the brightest stars in the NBA universe.
10 Biggest Steals in NBA Draft History
Let’s dive into the records of NBA history as we unveil the ten best draft steals in NBA history.
10. Isaiah Thomas – 2011 – 60th Pick
Isaiah Thomas, the 60th and final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, proved that talent and determination could overcome even the most daunting odds. Standing at just 5’9″, Thomas stood toe-to-toe with giants, refusing to let his height disadvantage define him. His agility, quickness, and exceptional scoring abilities allowed him to shine in an arena dominated by taller players. Thomas’ best season came with the Boston Celtics in 2016-2017, when he averaged an astonishing 28.9 points per game.
Twice named an NBA All-Star, Thomas’ career highlights demonstrate that talent and determination, rather than draft position, dictate a player’s success. His story undeniably affirms his spot among the biggest steals in NBA draft history.
9. Kawhi Leonard – 2011 – 15th Pick
Drafted 15th in 2011, Kawhi Leonard became a paragon of hard work and perseverance. Traded to the San Antonio Spurs on draft night, Leonard quickly asserted his defensive prowess. His large hands, quick reflexes, and tenacity made him a nightmare for opponents. Leonard’s offensive game flourished, leading the Spurs to an NBA Championship in 2014 and earning the Finals MVP.
His trade to the Toronto Raptors in 2018 culminated in another NBA title, earning Leonard his second Finals MVP. A five-time NBA All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard’s stellar career attests to his status as one of the biggest steals in NBA draft history.
8. Manu Ginobili – 1999 – 57th Pick
Manu Ginobili, the 57th pick in the 1999 NBA Draft, has left an indelible mark on the league. The Argentinian guard’s unique style, agility, and offensive prowess made him a formidable player. His Euro-step maneuver kept rivals guessing, and his clutch performances became a Spurs’ hallmark. With Ginobili’s contributions, the Spurs won four NBA Championships during his 16-year career.
His leadership was instrumental, often spearheading the offense as a revered “Big Three” member alongside Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. While one of his favorite quotes said, “There’s always somebody better than you,” Ginobili’s journey exemplifies the best draft steals in the history of the NBA.
7. Draymond Green – 2012 – 35th Pick
Draymond Green, the 35th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, became a pivotal force in the Golden State Warriors dynasty. Green’s triple-double proficiency and court vision solidified him as an indispensable asset in the Warriors’ offensive and defensive schemes. Green’s versatility on both ends of the court distinguished him. A relentless defender with a knack for playmaking, he became the glue that held the Warriors together.
Earning three NBA Championships, Green also became a three-time NBA All-Star and was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2017. His dynamic and influential career underscores why Green is rightly recognized as one of the biggest NBA draft steals of all time.
6. Marc Gasol – 2007 – 48th Pick
Drafted 48th in 2007, Marc Gasol blossomed into one of the premier centers in the league. Initially seen as a throw-in for a trade, he exceeded expectations, becoming the cornerstone of the Memphis Grizzlies for a decade. Gasol’s skill set was unique; he combined excellent defensive play with a potent offensive game that included exceptional passing for a big man.
Gasol’s career trajectory, filled with accolades and success, cements his place as one of the biggest steals in NBA draft history. He won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 and made three All-Star teams. His trade to the Toronto Raptors brought him an NBA Championship in 2019, affirming his elite status.
5. Dennis Rodman – 1986 – 27th Pick
Dennis Rodman, the 27th pick in the 1986 NBA Draft, became a key player known for his defensive tenacity. Rodman’s relentless play and energy on the court were pivotal in the Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boys” era, leading to two NBA Championships. In one of his favorite quotes, he said, “I’m hungrier than those other guys out there. Every rebound is a personal challenge.” His rebounding prowess became the stuff of legends, earning him the nickname “The Worm.”
His later stint with the Chicago Bulls resulted in three more NBA titles. Rodman’s intense focus on defense and rebounding earned him two NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards and multiple All-Defensive First Team honors. Despite his late draft pick, Rodman’s career is a testament to his extraordinary talent, marking him a huge steal in the history of the NBA draft.
4. Karl Malone – 1985 – 13th Pick
Karl Malone picked 13th in the 1985 NBA Draft, stands tall as one of the greatest power forwards in NBA history. Known as “The Mailman,” Malone consistently performed throughout his career. His remarkable scoring ability and rebounding prowess made him a crucial component of the Utah Jazz’s success for nearly two decades. Alongside John Stockton, Malone formed one of the most lethal pick-and-roll duos in NBA history.
His accolades include two MVP awards, 14 NBA All-Star appearances, and a place on the All-NBA First Team 11 times. Malone’s career, laden with achievements and distinguished by his consistent dominance, firmly establishes him as one of the biggest draft steals in NBA history.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo – 2013 – 15th Pick
Giannis Antetokounmpo selected 15th in the 2013 NBA Draft, quickly surpassed expectations and took the NBA by storm. The “Greek Freak,” as he’s known, showcased a unique blend of size, athleticism, and skill that set him apart. Antetokounmpo’s intense work ethic catapulted him from a promising talent to a perennial MVP candidate.
With him at the helm, the Milwaukee Bucks clinched an NBA Championship in 2021, earning Giannis the Finals MVP honor.
Antetokounmpo’s meteoric rise from a relatively unknown draftee to an NBA superstar underlines his status as arguably the biggest steal in NBA draft history of all time. The “Greek Freak” is a two-time NBA MVP, an NBA champion, and a seven-time All-Star. His exceptional plays on both ends of the court transformed the Bucks into a formidable contender.
2. Kobe Bryant – 1996 – 13th Pick
Kobe Bryant, the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, rapidly ascended the NBA ranks, becoming an icon in the process. Bryant’s relentless drive for success resulted in a stellar career filled with personal and team accolades. His tenacity, scoring ability, and clutch performances were legendary. His on-court heroics led the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA Championships, earning him two Finals MVP awards.
Bryant’s illustrious career and immeasurable impact on the game solidify his status as the biggest steals in NBA draft history of all time. Individually, Bryant was an 18-time NBA All-Star, a testament to his dominance and consistency. His 81-point game remains one of the most awe-inspiring feats in NBA history.
1. Nikola Jokic – 2014 – 41st Pick
Nikola Jokic picked 41st in the 2014 NBA Draft, proved that diamonds could be found deep in the rough. The Serbian center brought a unique style of play to the NBA, blending traditional post skills with an uncanny ability to facilitate the offense. His passing, basketball IQ, and scoring versatility revolutionized the center position. Jokic’s contributions propelled the Denver Nuggets into title contenders.
His high-IQ plays led to two MVP awards, the first for a center since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000 and multiple NBA All-Star selections. Jokic ascended from a second-round pick to a two-time MVP winner, leading his team to its first-ever NBA Championship. It marked him arguably the biggest steal in NBA draft history.
Wrapping Things Up: 10 Biggest Steals in NBA Draft History
The NBA draft is Pandora’s box, with potential surprises waiting. Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, and Nikola Jokic are shining examples of the biggest steals in NBA draft history of all time. These originally underestimated players surpassed all projections and etched their names in NBA legends.
Their extraordinary journeys remind us that greatness can emerge from the most unexpected corners, transcending initial perceptions and transforming into legends of the game.
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