This year’s NBA Draft Lottery was one of the most popular and important of all time. With all the buzz surrounding which organization would get the first chance at drafting Zion Williamson, the value and anticipation of landing this number one spot was the highest it’s been since the 2003 draft, in which Lebron James was taken number one overall. It is clear why teams so desperately want the first pick in the draft. Having the first overall pick allows an organization to draft any player available without having to make any last minute adjustments in response to prior teams’ draft choices. A number one pick can become the new face of whichever franchise he’s selected by, be a perennial all-star, lead his team to championships, and completely revitalize an entire organization. However, a number one pick can also let down an entire city and organization if he underperforms and is deemed a “bust.”
With the number one overall selection being so highly valued this year, it raises questions about just how valuable the number one pick has been historically. How often does the number one pick actually live up to the expectations placed on him? What do the statistics say about the average number one draft pick? And what realistic expectations should we have for Zion in his rookie season?
Average #1 Draft Pick Career Stats
First, we will take a look at the average statistics put up by number one picks in their career.
The graphs above show the distributions of the last 50 number one picks in the draft for their career averages in points per game, rebounds per game, and assists per game. Only 9 of the last 50 number one picks have put up less than double digit scoring averages for their careers; however, only two of these 50 have averaged over 25 ppg in their careers, Allen Iverson and Lebron James. 20 of the 50 fall within the interval of 15 to 20 points per game, with the average number one pick posting 16.68 ppg for their career. The graph for rebounds per game seems to be evenly distributed with 14 players averaging less than 5 rpg and only 9 players averaging double digit rpg. The average number one pick has grabbed 7.23 rpg for their career. The graph for career assists per game is heavily right skewed with 27 of the 50 averaging less than 2.6 apg and only two of the 50 averaging over 8.9 apg, John Wall (9.2) and Magic Johnson (11.2). The average number one pick has dished out 3.15 apg for their career.
Average #1 Draft Pick Stats In Their Rookie Season
Currently, 13 of the last 50 number one draft picks are playing in the NBA today. Therefore, the career averages of these number one picks are subject to change. In addition, it would be unfair to hold Zion’s rookie season expectations to the same level as these career averages, being that players’ numbers typically improve as they get more accustomed to the league. A more accurate assessment could be made in comparison with the rookie season averages of these number one picks.
The graphs above show the distributions of the last 50 number one picks during their rookie seasons for points, rebounds, and assists, per game. 10 of the 50 number one picks averaged less than double digits in scoring during their rookie seasons, where only one player averaged over 25 ppg as a rookie, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (28.8). The average points per game scored by number one picks during their rookie seasons is 15.88. The graph for rebounds per game by number one picks in their rookie season is slightly right skewed with 15 players averaging less than 4.9 rpg and only one averaging more than 14 rpg, Kareem again (14.5). The average number one pick grabs 7.52 rpg as a rookie. The graph for assists per game by number one picks in their rookie season is heavily right skewed with 28 of the 50 averaging less than 2.3 apg, while only four averaged over 6.3 apg. The average number one pick dishes out 2.89 apg as a rookie.
Ultimate Success for #1 Picks
As sports fans know, statistics do not always tell the full story of a player’s legacy, so let’s take a look at the ultimate success number one picks have had in the NBA. The average number one draft pick in NBA history makes 4.38 All-Star Game appearances in their career. 35 of the 50 number one picks (70%) have made at least one All-Star Game in their career. However, the average number one pick in the last 50 years wins less than one (0.78) championship in their career. The most telling statistic about number one picks for their career may be their success in MVP titles. 21 of the last 50 MVPs (42%) have been number one overall selections in the draft.
Zion Williamson, much like all number one picks, has high expectations; however, the stats may give him some leeway. The typical number one pick in NBA history has averaged 15.88 ppg, 7.52 rpg, and 2.89 apg as a rookie. If Zion can average similar numbers, or even better, during his rookie campaign, it should be considered a success. Similarly, we can say it is a realistic expectation that Zion makes multiple All-Star Games as a pro, and possibly even wins an MVP. However, leading his team to a championship should not be an expectation placed on Zion, but doing so would increase his legacy greatly.
About the Author
Connor just completed his sophomore year at Purdue University, where he is pursuing a double major in actuarial sciences and applied statistics, with a minor in management. He has had a passion for both sports and statistics since a very young age, and enjoys discovering all the new information statistics can give us about sports.