Basketball greatness starts somewhere, and the journey begins with the NBA draft class. Franchises look forward to rookies that will help them in their quest to win games and be at the top of the league.
New hopefuls dream of being the next big name in basketball each year, like Lebron James, Nikola Jokić, Steph Curry, or Michael Jordan. Not all rookies make it; some who exceeded expectations become legends, and those who failed become busts.
Check out our 15 picks for the best NBA draft classes of all time.
1. 1956 NBA Draft Class
Hall of Famers: Elgin “Rabbit” Baylor, Tom “Mr. Celtic” Heinsohn, Bill “The Secretary of Defense” Russell, K.C. Jones
The best NBA draft class ever is 1956; no rookie class comes close to matching the number of championships won by the 1956 group. Three of the four Hall of Famers won 35 as players and coaches.
Bill Russell’s uncanny ability on defense spooked opponents, and his rebounding was amazing. Russell’s perfect timing made him an expert shot blocker, and his unselfishness helped the Boston Celtics win 11 championships; 1957, 1959-1966, 1968, 1969. Add two more rings to Russel’s fingers for winning the NBA championship in 1968 and 1969 as a playing coach. He was named NBA MVP five times (1958, 1961-63, 1965) and one-time NBA All-Star MVP in 1963.
Tom Heinsohn donned the Celtics jersey, wore eight NBA rings in 1957 and 1959-65, and won two championships as the Celtics head coach in 1974 and 1976. K.C. Jones was a member of the deadly Celtics squad that had an eight-peat championship run in 1959-66. Jones won two championships as an assistant coach of the San Diego Conquistadors (ABA) in 1972 and the Celtics in 1981; he won two championships as the head coach of the Celtics team in 1984 and 1986.
2. 1996 NBA Draft Class
Hall of Famers: Allen “The Iceman” Iverson, Ray “Ray Ray” Allen, Kobe “ The Black Mamba” Bryant, Steve “Captain Canada” Nash, Ben “Big Ben” Wallace
The class of 1996 had five NBA players inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame with 8 NBA championships won by the batch mates.
Except for Allen Iverson and Steve Nash, the rest of the Hall of Famers have at least worn one NBA championship ring.
The Black Mamba was the 13th pick, but he was the star of his class. Kobe Bryant won five NBA championships with the Lakers (2000-02, 2009, 2010), was twice voted as NBA Finals MVP (2009, 2010), and was a one-time NBA MVP (2008). Ray Allen had two NBA championships playing for the Boston Celtics (2008) and the Miami Heat (2013). Ben Wallace was the only undrafted player among the group but wore an NBA ring playing for the Detroit Pistons in 2004.
A notable group member was Derek Fisher, who made NBA history with a 0.4 shot.
3. 1984 NBA Draft Class
Hall of Famers: Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, Michael “His Airness” Jordan, Charles “Sir Charles” Barkley, John “Stock” Stockton, Oscar “ Mao Santo” Schmidt
Basketball pundits argue that Jordan, the 6th pick, should be at the top of his class instead of Hakeem Olajuwon. When Jordan was in his prime, he led the Chicago Bulls to two three-peat NBA championships in the ’90s, 1991-93, and 1996-98. The Dream had two NBA rings won in 1994 and 1995 playing for the Houston Rockets. What is your take?
John Stockton was selected at 16th and was the league’s leader in assists and steals. Sir Charles was the 5th pick.
Oscar Schmidt, an international player who never set foot on an NBA court but was voted into the Naismith Hall of Fame, made this class unique.
4. 2003 NBA Draft Class
Hall of Famers: Chris “CB4” Bosh, Dwyane “The Flash” Wade
LeBron James was the first overall pick in the group and will be a sure Famer when he retires, along with his classmate Carmelo Anthony. Boris Diaw and Kyle Korver are strong contenders.
The triumvirate of Bosh, LeBron, and Wade teamed up to give the Miami Heat a two-peat championship in 2012 and 2013. The King had four championships, including victories at Cleveland in 2016 and as a Laker in 2020.
5. 1950 NBA Draft Class
Hall of Famers: Bill “Bull’s-eye Bill” Sharman, Paul “Pitchin Paul” Arizin, Bob “The Houdini of the Hardwood” Cousy, Earl “Big Cat” Lloyd, George “Bird” Yardley
Let us walk down memory lane and see how the 1950 class performed.
|Bob Cousy||6X with the Celtics in 1957, 1959-1963||All-Star: 2x in 1954, 1957NBA: once in 1957||13x: 1951 – 1963|
|Bill Sharman Player Coach||4x with the Celtics in 1957, 1959-1961Lakers: 1972||All-Star: 1955||8x: 1953 – 1960|
|Paul Arizin||1x with the Philadelphia Warriors (now the GS Warriors): 1956||All-Star: 1952||10x: 1951, 1952, 1955-1962|
|Earl Lloyd||1x with the Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers||none||none|
|George Yardley||none||none||6x: 1955- 1980|
So there we have it, the forbears of the NBA players have a record of 12 NBA titles, five MVPs, and 37 All-Star appearances, which is better than some of their successors.
6. 1970 NBA Draft Class
Hall of Famers: Rudy Tomjanovich, Dave Cowens, Bob “The Big Dobber” Lanier, Pete “Pistol Pete” Maravich, Charlie Scott, Dan “The Horse” Issel, Calvin “The Pocket Rocket” Murphy, Nate “Tiny” Archibald
The 1970 group had the most Famers among the NBA’s rookie classes, with eight. Three members were NBA champions: Dave Cowens with the Boston Celtics in 1974 and 1976, Rudy Tomjanovich as a Rocket in 1993 and 1994, and Charlie Scott with the Celtics in 1976. The top four selections were inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame, and seven of the eight first picks made the All-NBA Team and the All-Stars.
Dave Cowens was the top dog in the group, winning both the NBA MVP and the NBA All-Star MVP in the same year in 1973.
7. 1960 NBA Draft Class
Hall of Famers: Jerry “The Logo” West, Lenny Wilkens, Tom “Satch” Sanders, Al “The Destroyer” Attles, Oscar “The Big O” Robertson
All Famers had 12 NBA championships split among them as a player or as a coach, as follows; Satch Sanders won eight NBA titles (1961-1966, 1968,1969) as a Celtic, Jerry West won one in 1972 for the Lakers, and Big O had one as a Buck in 1971. Lenny Wilkens coached the winning Seattle Supersonics team in 1979, and Al Attles guided the Golden State (formerly San Francisco) Warriors to the 1975 NBA title.
The Big O was the top pick in his class, Rookie of the Year, and the first NBA player to average a triple-double in a season.
8. 1985 NBA Draft Class
Hall of Famers: Arvydas “The Original Unicorn” Sabonis, Patrick “Hoya Destroya” Ewing, Joe “Joey D” Dumars, Karl “The Mailman” Malone, Chris Mullin
Aside from Joe Dumars, no other 1985 Famer won an NBA championship. Joey D won two rings playing guard for the Bad Boys of the Detroit Pistons team in 1989 and 1990, and he was the NBA Finals MVP in 1989.
The draft had an amazing amount of talent, with four Famers getting named to the All-Star ten times, that includes Detlef Schrempf (three times: 1993, 1995, 1997), Xavier McDaniel (once: 1988), Chris Mullin (five times: 1989-1993), and Charles Oakley (once: 1994).
Karl Malone tops his class with two NBA MVPs (1997, 1999), two All-Star MVPs (1989, 1993), and 14 All-Star appearances (1988-1998, 2000-2002).
9. 2011 NBA Draft Class
Hall of Famers: None
The class of 2011 deserves special mention. The group is loaded with outstanding players that are shoo-ins to the Hall of Fame when they retire.
Jimmy Butler is the face of the Miami Heat, leading a play-in team composed mostly of undrafted players to the 2023 NBA Finals and a six-time All-Star (2015-2018, 2020, 2022). Klay Thompson of the Warriors has four NBA championships in 2015, 2017, 2018, and 2022 and is a five-time All-Star (2015-19). Kawhi Leonard is a two-time NBA champion (2014, 2019), twice voted as the Finals MVP (2014, 2019), one All-Star MVP, and five All-Star (2016, 2017, 2019-2021) appearances. Kyrie Irving had one championship (2016), an All-Star MVP (2014), and an eight-time All-Star (2013-2015, 2017-2019., 2021, 2023). Reggie Jackson is one of the reliable players for the Denver Nuggets team that won the NBA 2023 title.
10. 1969 NBA Draft Class
Hall of Famers: Gail “Stumpy” Goodrich, Rick “Miami Greyhound” Barry, Bill “Dollar Bill” Bradley, Billy “kangaroo Kid” Cunningham
All Famers won at least one NBA title as a player, which separates them from the rest of the classes. Gail Goodrich with the Lakers in 1972, Rick Barry in 1975 as a Warrior, Bill Bradley was twice the NBA champion playing for the Knicks in 1970 and 1973, and Billy Cunningham as a 76er in 1967 and a 76ers’ coach in 1983.
11. 2001 NBA Draft Class
Hall of Famers: Pau “Pablo” Gasol, Tony “TP” Parker
The 2001 class marked the take-over of Euro players, and the domination of Americans on the sport was broken. International basketeers can play at the level of Americans or even better.
Tony Parker is a French baller who won four NBA championships (2003, 2005, 2007, 2014) with the San Antonio Spurs, made six All-Star appearances and won the Finals MVP in 2007.
Pau Gasol is Spanish and was a recipient of the Rookie of the Year award. Gasol appeared in six All-Star games and was a two-peat champion with the Lakers in 2009-2010.
12. 1962 NBA Draft Class
Hall of Fame: Dave DeBusschere, Chet “ Chet the Jet” Walker, John “Hondo” Havlicek, Jerry Lucas
John Havlicek was at the top of his class, winning eight championships (1963-66, 1968, 1969, 1974, 1976) with the Celtics team, played 13 All-Star games, and was an NBA Finals MVP in 1974. But it was just more than Hondo.
Jerry Lucas was an NBA champion in 1973 as a Knick, made seven All-Star appearances, and he was the All-Star MVP in 1965. Chet the Jet wore an NBA ring with the Bulls in 1967 and appeared in seven All-Star Games. DeBusschere won two NBA championships with the Knicks and had eight appearances in the All-Star games.
13. 2017 NBA Draft Class
Hall of Famers: None
Although the 2017 batch has no Famers, the group comprises remarkable players.
Jayson Tatum is the icon of the Boston team; if not for the injury suffered in Game 7 of the 2023 Eastern Conference finals against the Heat, the outcome may have been different. Lauri Markkanen from the Utah Jazz is fast becoming a franchise player. De’Aaron Fox is the go-to guy of the Sacramento Kings. Donovan Mitchell is the top scorer for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Bam Adebayo showed explosiveness in helping the Miami Heat reach the 2023 NBA Finals.
Other notables are Derrick White of the Celtics, Kyle Kuzma from the Wizards, Jarett Allen of the Cavaliers, Vlatko Čančar of the Nuggets, Dillon Brooks from the Grizzlies, Malik Monk of the Kings, and Lonzo Ball from the Bulls.
14. 1987 NBA Draft Class
Hall of Famers: Reggie “Miller Time” Miller, Scottie “No Tippin Pippen” Pippen, David “Admiral” Robinson, Sarunas Marciulonis
The class of 1987 had eight NBA titles between them.
Scottie Pippen topped the class, who, along with Michael Jordan, dominated the league in the 90’s, highlighted by two 3-peats in 1991-93 and 1996-98. Pippen was a seven-time All-Star and an All-Star MVP in 1994.
David Robinson was the number one pick, leading the San Antonio Spurs to two titles in 1999 and 2003. He was voted the NBA’s MVP in 1995 and made 10 All-Star appearances.
Reggie Miller played in five All-Star Games, and Sarunas Marciulonis was the first Russian to have a notable NBA playing time.
15. 2014 NBA Draft Class
Hall of Famers: None
The class of 2014 has two of the biggest names in the NBA today and a formidable roster that will give other rookie classes a run for their money and greatness when they retire.
Nikola Jokić of the Denver Nuggets won the 2023 NBA title and has two NBA MVPs (2021,2022) and a Finals MVP in 2023. Andrew Wiggins has one championship ring with the Warriors in 2022, and Aaron Gordon for the Nuggets in 2023.
Joel Embiid is the league’s 2023 MVP, and with how he improves every year, it’s just a matter of time before he gets his hands on the trophy.
Some classmates are capable of helping their team win championships, such as Julius Randle, Zach LaVine, Marcus Smart, Bogdan Bogdanović, and Jordan Clarkson.
Wrapping Things Up: 15 Best NBA Draft Classes of All Time
It will be arduous to topple the 1956 batch as the best NBA draft class ever. The triumvirate of Bill Russel, Tom Heinsohn, and K.C. Jones won 35 rings as a coach and player.
What is interesting is the battle for the second spot. When King James retires, he’ll be a shoo-in as a Famer, and some of his classmates are strong contenders. And with how the Lakers are rebuilding their team, a championship in 2024 is possible.