NBA Draft Picks Who Missed Their Rookie Seasons
NBA teams don't normally pick players with the understanding they won't play right away, but it happens. Sometimes a player can show so much potential that, despite knowing they won't be available because of an injury, the teams will go ahead and draft them anyways.
But it doesn't happen very often. More often than not, when a prized draft pick ends up sitting out what would have been their rookie season, it's for an unforeseen circumstance that occurs between the draft and the first game of the regular season — sometimes an injury and sometimes even an unforeseen tragedy.
Here's a look at NBA Draft picks who never played a game for their teams in what should have been their rookie seasons.
10. Frederic Weis
NBA Draft: No. 15 overall, 1999 (New York Knicks)
What happened: "Le dunk de la mort" ("the dunk of death")
Bottom line: It's probably not fair, in most cases, to say one play ended a player's NBA career. In the case of French center Frederic Weis, we feel safe saying one play did just that.
This was an era when it was common for NBA teams to take foreign players and then "stash" them for several years before putting them on their rosters, which is exactly what the New York Knicks did with 7-foot-2 French center Frederic Weis after selecting him No. 15 overall in the 1999 NBA Draft. Unfortunately for Weis, he was on the receiving end of perhaps the greatest in-game dunk in basketball history.
While he was playing for France in the 2000 Olympics, a 6-foot-6 Vince Carter, playing for the U.S., spread-eagled and jumped entirely over Weis for a slam. The French dubbed it "Le dunk de la mort" or "the dunk of death," and Weis never played an NBA game.
9. Luke Jackson
NBA Draft: No. 10 overall, 2004 (Cleveland Cavaliers)
What happened: Herniated discs in back
Bottom line: We fudged a little on the parameters for this spot, but Luke Jackson only played 10 games with the Cleveland Cavaliers as a rookie in 2004-05 after he injured his back on his first day in the NBA Summer League — an injury so severe that insurance companies were willing to pay out a career-ending policy for Jackson.
He toughed it out and only played 46 games for the Cavs in two seasons — he also broke his wrist — before he was traded to the Boston Celtics. Jackson was out of the NBA after four seasons and four different teams.
8. Nerlens Noel
NBA Draft: No. 6 overall, 2013 (rights traded to Philadelphia 76ers from New Orleans Pelicans)
What happened: Torn ACL
Bottom line: Nerlens Noel tore the ACL in his left knee toward the end of his freshman season at Kentucky but still declared for the NBA Draft, where he was taken No. 6 overall by the New Orleans Pelicans in 2013 but had his rights traded to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Noel sat out the entire 2013-14 season while rehabilitating his knee injury. After making his debut in 2014-15 with the 76ers, he's missed over half of three more seasons with injuries and will be playing for his fifth NBA team in nine seasons in 2022-23 with the Detroit Pistons. He famously turned down a four-year, $70 million contract with the Dallas Mavericks in 2017 that led to Noel suing his agent at the time.
7. Michael Porter Jr.
NBA Draft: No. 14 overall, 2018 (Denver Nuggets)
What happened: Back surgery
Bottom line: Michael Porter Jr. was the National High School Player of the Year in 2017 but saw his draft stock drop surreptitiously in one season at the University of Missouri when he only played in three games because of back surgery for an injury suffered in the season opener.
Porter left school for the NBA after that one season and was selected in the lottery by the Denver Nuggets at No. 14 overall … then missed the entire 2018-19 season with another back surgery.
Porter was solid in his rookie season in 2019-20 for the Nuggets, then averaged 19.0 points in 2020-21. He was signed to a five-year, $172 million contract before the 2021-22 season when he played just nine games before undergoing season-ending back surgery for the third time in five years.
6. Greg Oden
College: Ohio State
NBA Draft: No. 1 overall, 2007 (Portland Trail Blazers)
What happened: Microfracture knee surgery
Bottom line: The Portland Trail Blazers own the two biggest draft-day misses of all time with the No. 1 overall pick — Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984 and Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007.
Oden missed the entire 2007-08 season with microfracture knee surgery. He played just 61 games as a rookie in 2008-09 because of injuries, 21 games in 2009-10 because of injuries and missed all of the next two seasons because of injuries before he was waived by Portland in 2012. Oden would eventually play just three NBA seasons with career averages of 8.0 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks.
In 2016, Oden told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" he'd be remembered as "the biggest bust in NBA history."
5. Ben Simmons
College: Louisiana State
NBA Draft: No. 1 overall, 2016 (Philadelphia 76ers)
What happened: Broken foot
Bottom line: Before he became the poster boy for playoff meltdowns and quitting on his team, Ben Simmons was a once-in-a-lifetime prospect who the Philadelphia 76ers selected No. 1 overall in the 2016 NBA Draft out of LSU. After all, he was a 6-foot-10 point guard with elite defensive and passing abilities.
Simmons broke his foot in the final preseason scrimmage for the 76ers before the 2016-17 season and was ruled out for the whole season in February 2017. He returned for the 2017-18 season and was named NBA Rookie of the Year in 2018.
Simmons has been a two-time NBA All-Defensive Team selection and three-time NBA All-Star but missed the entire 2021-22 season for a variety of reasons and was eventually traded to the Brooklyn Nets.
4. Chet Holmgren
NBA Draft: No. 2 overall, 2022 (Oklahoma City Thunder)
What happened: Torn tendon in foot
Bottom line: Few NBA rookies in recent memory have generated as much buzz headed into their first year as 7-foot Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren, a shot-blocking, 3-point-shooting phenom who promised to turn around a franchise that has been lacking a true star since the departures of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Holmgren tore a tendon in his foot trying to defend LeBron James on a fastbreak during a Pro-Am game in Seattle in August 2022, and now we won't get to see him until 2023 … thanks a lot, LeBron!
3. Blake Griffin
NBA Draft: No. 1 overall, 2009 (Los Angeles Clippers)
What happened: Broken left kneecap
Bottom line: After being selected No. 1 overall after two seasons at Oklahoma, Blake Griffin was ready to make an immediate impact for the Los Angeles Clippers as a rookie before he broke his kneecap and was forced to miss the entire 2009-10 season.
Griffin returned and was named the NBA Rookie of the Year in 2011 along with winning the Slam Dunk Contest. Despite missing the team success so many players believe makes their career complete, Griffin has been a five-time All-NBA Team selection and banked $255.7 million in career earnings through 13 seasons.
2. Joel Embiid
NBA Draft: No. 3 overall, 2014 (Philadelphia 76ers)
What happened: Broken navicular bone in foot
Bottom line: Joel Embiid didn't play for the first two seasons after he was drafted No. 3 overall out of the University of Kansas in 2014. Without the injury he would have likely been drafted No. 1 overall instead of his teammate, Andrew Wiggins, who was taken at that spot by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The 76ers' patience in Embiid has paid off in a big way, though — he was named to the All-NBA Rookie Team in 2017 and is a five-time NBA All-Star, four-time All-NBA and three-time NBA All-Defensive Team selection. Embiid had a career year in 2021-22, as he became the first center since Shaquille O'Neal in 2000 to lead the NBA in scoring, the first center since Moses Malone in 1982 to average over 30 points per game and the first foreign-born player to lead the NBA in scoring.
1. Len Bias
NBA Draft: No. 3 overall, 1986 (Boston Celtics)
What happened: Died of cocaine overdose
Bottom line: The death of Maryland forward Len Bias two days after the 1986 NBA Draft of a cocaine overdose sits alongside the death of Kobe Bryant in a 2020 helicopter crash as the two most tragic moments in NBA history.
Bias, 22 years old, was a two-time All-American and two-time ACC Player of the Year before the Boston Celtics picked him No. 3 overall. He was partying with friends in a dorm room when he snorted cocaine, went into a seizure and died several hours later. The resulting investigation resulted in the arrests of three of Bias' friends and teammates and the resignation of Maryland head coach Lefty Driesell and athletic director Dick Dull.
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