Photo By: Ryan from Unsplash

The Memphis Grizzlies have the third best record in the NBA at the time of writing this and most of it has to do with the massive leap taken by Ja Morant this year. He’s upped his scoring average by nearly 10 points, and is scoring at an unfathomable rate in the paint. He is currently LEADING THE LEAGUE in points in the paint with 16.8 a game at SIX-FOOT-THREE. The guys behind him? Giannis (6’11), Jokić (6’11), Anthony Davis (6’10), LeBron (6’9), Bam Adebayo (6’9), Jarrett Allen (6’11, but 7’5 including hair), you get the idea.

He committed homicide against Jakob Poeltl — who is beginning to feel like the new Timofey Mozgov, poor thing — this week en route to a career-high 52 against the Spurs. He went from looking like a solid eventual All-Star in his first two years to a legit superstar and perennial All-NBA guy for years to come, assuming he stays healthy (which is actually a very real concern considering he plays like a young Dwyane Wade mixed with Evil Knievel).

Morant’s crazy week got me thinking about how cool it was that the top two picks from that 2019 draft became pretty instantaneous superstars, and as a bonus did so in very small markets. Yes, the whole Zion Williamson thing this year is very weird and concerning, but I mean the guy averaged 27 a night on 61 per cent shooting as a 20-year-old, when he’s healthy, he’s stupid good. 

Then that got me thinking about other drafts where the top two picks became franchise superstars, and wouldn’t you know, I couldn’t think of any off the top of my head. Then I researched it, and guess what, it’s pretty rare! Like, way rarer than you’d think considering that when you’re picking first or second, it shouldn’t be that much of a toss up. Here’s the very short list I assembled of drafts where the first two picks were legit superstars:

2019 — Zion Williamson (NO) & Ja Morant (MEM)

Literally just talked about this above, so no need to rehash it, but you can’t change my mind about Zion’s ability when he’s healthy. Morant is gonna make First Team All-NBA this year.

1992 — Shaquille O’Neal (ORL) & Alonzo Mourning (CHA)

Definitely a drop off between Shaq and Zo here, but that’s more a testament to how good Shaq was rather than a dig at Mourning. Shaq became one of the best 15ish guys of all time, while Mourning was a seven-time All-Star who won two Defensive Player of the Year awards during the best era of centers since the 1960s.

1968 — Elvin Hayes (SD) & Wes Unseld (WAS)

Both these guys ended up playing together for many years in Washington, culminating in a championship in 1978. Hayes made 12 consecutive All-Star appearances, six All-NBA teams, and averaged 28 and 17 across his first three seasons in the league. Unseld, meanwhile, was named league MVP and Rookie of the Year in 1969, won Finals MVP in that ‘78 title run, and was among the best rebounders of all time while playing center at just 6’ 7”. Despite the numbers saying Hayes was the better player, it was actually Unseld by a lot! One of the best passing bigs ever, an ancestor to Jokić, and was by all accounts an awesome teammate (Hayes, by all accounts, was, um, not).

1960 — Oscar Robertson (CIN) & Jerry West (LAL)

Well this was a bad draft to pick third and is clearly the best example of the four pairs on this list. Just for fun, let’s see who went third… the Knicks (of course) took a fella by the name of Darrall Imhoff who has career averages of seven points and seven rebounds. Not much more to say about Oscar and West, two of the best 12 or so players in league history, going back to back in the same draft.

And that’s the list! At least according to me. There are a bunch of other examples that have two really good guys but no all-timers, or one guy who’s an all-timer but the other isn’t, so here are those years: 1962 — Dave DeBusschere and Jerry Lucas (these were both territorial picks back when those were a thing, so I didn’t really think that counted as “top two”); 1970 — Bob Lanier and Rudy Tomjanovich; 1981 — Isiah Thomas and Mark Aguirre; 1982 — James Worthy and Terry Cummings; 1990 — Derrick Coleman and Gary Payton; 1994 — Glenn Robinson and Jason Kidd; 2016 — Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram.

What was also funny when researching this was just how many times picks #1 and #3 were incredible, and then #2 was an absolute dumpster fire; is picking second cursed? You have the infamous Hakeem-Bowie-Jordan in 1984, the other infamous LeBron-Darko-Melo in 2003, but there’s also these incredible ones: 1993 — Webber-Shawn Bradley-Penny; 2009 — Blake-Thabeet-Harden; 2012 — Anthony Davis-Michael Kidd-Gilchrist-Bradley Beal; 2018 — Ayton-Bagley-Luka; and it’s way too early for these (and Wiseman and Green aren’t busts like the other number twos here) but 2020 saw Edwards-Wiseman-LaMelo and 2021 saw Cade-Green-Mobley, so… 

Anyway, this was a fun rabbit hole to go down that got me out of talking about how the Raptors just lost two in a row to the two worst teams in the East at the onset of a brutal road trip akin to the Triwizard Tournament.