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The History of Third Picks in the NBA Draft

Don’t be fooled, the number three selection has given us some of the game’s greatest names.

Indiana Pacers v Chicago Bulls - Eastern Conference Finals Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers landed themselves the number three pick at last Tuesday’s NBA Draft Lottery. To the joy of Blazers adorers, the team jumped two spots into a position to potentially draft one of two outstanding young prospects in Alabama’s Brandon Miller and G-League Ignite’s Scoot Henderson.

Over the next six weeks, General Manger Joe Cronin will go through the annual rigmarole, working out and interviewing young prospects. But he’ll also be fielding calls from other front offices hoping to snare the sought-after selection.

Post Tuesday’s lottery, Cronin did what he was supposed to do in not ruling out using or moving the pick. Publicly, it’s in his best interests to not openly commit to a plan in order to leverage as much out of the valued asset as he can.

But like a duck on water, the cool exterior might be masking furiously paddling feet beneath. The Blazers’ actions this summer will decide what happens to the franchise’s arguably greatest player, Damian Lillard.

And with the seven-time All-Star not particularly interested in playing with another young guy needing development, it’s more likely the pick is moved on draft night as names are being called out.

Fortunately, for Cronin and Lillard, the San Antonio Spurs and Charlotte Hornets are unlikely to part with their top draft slots. Meaning that if the Blazers do choose to deal their pick, they’d be helped by owning the highest valued draft asset at the June 22 draft.

But, if the right deal doesn’t eventuate, what happens if Cronin decides to keep the pick? What kind of player are they looking at?

History of #3

Interestingly, through their 53 years, the Blazers have never come into a draft holding the third overall pick. They have been associated with a few, however.

Current coach Chauncey Billups was taken third in 1997. Power forward Buck Williams was selected third in 1981 and Carmelo Anthony in 2003. If you felt generous you could add Pau Gasol who signed in Portland in 2019 but never played a game. He was drafted third in 2001.

The third pick has yielded three NBA MVPs over the course of history. None was greater than the GOAT himself, Michael Jordan, chosen in 1984 — a night that still haunts Blazers fandom after the franchise overlooked His Airness in preference of Sam Bowie with the second pick that year. Jordan went on to win six titles and six MVPs with the Chicago Bulls between 1991 and 1998. He was a 14-time All Star, 10-time All NBA First team, nine-time All-Defensive First Team and Defensive Player of the Year in 1988. He not only put the Bulls on the map but changed the face of the game around the world.

The other two MVPs are currently teammates, at least for the moment. Joel Embiid took the award this year after being drafted third overall in 2014. James Harden won the MVP in 2018 after being drafted third in 2009.

Aside from Most Valuable Players, the third pick has delivered a number of Hall of Famers.

Gasol is set to be inducted this year, after spending the majority of his career with the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Lakers, winning 2009 and 2010 titles with the latter.

There’s seven-time All Star Grant Hill, drafted in 1994, who spent time with the Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers. Hill could have reached loftier heights had he not been held back by injury.

Dominique Wilkins, a contemporary of Jordan’s, was taken third in 1982 and is considered one of the Atlanta Hawks’ greatest players ever. Wilkins went to nine All-Star games and joined seven All NBA teams, capturing the league scoring title in 1986.

Iconic power forward Kevin McHale was selected with the third pick in 1980. He played key roles in the Boston Celtics’ 1981, 1984 and 1986 titles, also winning Sixth Man of the Year in 1984 and 1985.

Pistol Pete Maravich was selected third in the 1970 NBA Draft, the same year the Blazers entered the league. Maravich enjoyed five All-Star nods during stints with the Hawks, New Orleans/Utah Jazz and Celtics.

More recent names to excel from the third draft pick include Boston duo Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in consecutive years (2017 and 2016). There’s also Mavericks guard Luka Doncic—selected third in 2018—who could go on to win an MVP or two and reach Hall of Fame status.

Historical Breakdown

Below is a break down of the past 52 third picks.

MVP - 3

Joel Embiid (drafted in 2014), James Harden (09), Michael Jordan (84)

Hall of Fame - 7

Pau Gasol (01) (announced to be inducted), Grant Hill (94), Michael Jordan (84), Dominique Wilkins (82), Kevin McHale (80), Pete Maravich (70)

All-NBA - 20

Luka Doncic (18), Jayson Tatum (17), Jaylen Brown (16), Joel Embiid (14), Bradley Beal (12), James Harden (09), Al Horford (07), Deron Williams (05), Carmelo Anthony (03), Pau Gasol (01), Baron Davis (99), Chauncey Billups (97), Grant Hill (94), Penny Hardaway (93), Michael Jordan (84), Dominique Wilkins (82), Buck Williams (81), Kevin McHale (80), Marques Johnson (77), Pete Maravich (70)

NBA All Stars - 26

LaMelo Ball (20), Luka Doncic (18), Jayson Tatum (17), Jaylen Brown (16), Joel Embiid (14), Bradley Beal (12), James Harden (09), Al Horford (07), Deron Williams (05), Carmelo Anthony (03), Pau Gasol (01), Baron Davis (99), Chauncey Billups (97), Shareef Abdur-Rahim (96), Jerry Stackhouse (95), Grant Hill (94), Penny Hardaway (93), Christian Laettner (92), Sean Elliott (89), Michael Jordan (84), Dominique Wilkins (82), Buck Williams (81), Kevin McHale (80), Bill Cartwright (79), Marques Johnson (77), Pete Maravich (70)

All-Defensive Team - 8

Evan Mobley (21), Joel Embiid (14), Al Horford (07), Chauncey Billups (97), Michael Jordan (84), Rodney McCray (83), Buck Williams (81), Kevin McHale (80)

Rookie of the Year - 7

LaMelo Ball (20), Luka Doncic (18), Pau Gasol (01), Grant Hill (94), Michael Jordan (84), Buck Williams (81)

None of the above - 25

Jabari Smith Jr (22), RJ Barrett (19), Jahlil Okafor (15), Otto Porter Jr. (13), Enes Kanter (11), Derrick Favors (10), OJ Mayo (08), Adam Morrison (06), Ben Gordon (04), Mike Dunleavy Jr. (02), Darius Miles (00), Raef LaFrentz (98), Billy Owens (91), Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (90), Charles Smith (88), Dennis Hopson (87), Chris Washburn (86), Benoit Benjamin (85), Rick Robey (78), Richard Washington (76), Marvin Webster (75), Tommy Burleson (74), Ernie DiGregorio (73), Dwight Davis (72), Elmore Smith (71)

Smith Jr. and Barrett haven’t had time to prove themselves fully yet. They may rise to All-Star ranks before their careers are over. But taking the numbers as they are, of the 52 selections since 1970, exactly half have made an All Star team. A total of 20 selections made an All NBA First, Second or Third team, while seven were named Rookie of the Year. Conversely, 25, or one fewer than half, were not selected for any of the above awards. Rodney McCray, taken in 1983, was the only player earning All Defensive team honors with no All Star or All NBA nomination to match.


I’d say it’s more likely than not that the Blazers move the pick at the draft, and for good reason. This year’s strong class could result in other front offices ponying up decent assets for a chance to draft at the top.

While the Blazers could just as easily use the pick themselves, it’s in their (and Damian Lillard’s) best interests to see what they can get for the selection, to vault the team and potentially its greatest ever player back up the standings.

In the event a deal doesn’t eventuate, there’s a historical 50/50 chance the Blazers could be adding someone worthy of an All Star game or, in the rare case of Jordan, maybe an NBA immortal.

No doubt Blazers fans will be watching with their collective hearts in their mouths after the the Hornets make their selection on draft night. Either way it goes, Portland should expect something good.