In sports, every championship team can be traced back to smart drafting. Teams that can identify great players that others miss have a leg up on the competition. Anyone can recognize that players like LeBron James and Sidney Crosby are destined for greatness, but teams that can find quality players late in the draft set themselves up for success.
24/7 Wall St. reviewed the final draft rounds in the modern era of the four major American sports leagues — NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL — to determine the best athletes drafted in the last round. We used sources such as the Sports Reference family of sites and Baseball Almanac.
Players are often overlooked if they play at smaller schools or come from outside the U.S. While many high draft picks have had breakout rookie years, some players who have been missed by most teams and selected in the final rounds just needed professional coaching to maximize their natural gifts.
And every once in a while, players who had barely made it onto a team have become terrific players. Talent evaluation is never an exact science. Discounted players can become successful pros, while even the most highly-touted amateurs can end up as one of the most disappointing draft busts of all time.
22. Mario Elie
> Drafted: 1985 NBA draft, 7th round (160 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Small forward, Milwaukee Bucks
> Career accolades: 3x NBA Champion
Mario Elie had one of the most unlikely successful careers in NBA history. He was drafted 160th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks and was cut shortly after. He played overseas and in lesser American leagues for years. At 27, he made his NBA debut with the Philadelphia 76ers. He played for the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers before settling in Houston, where he found his role — providing scoring off the bench. He helped the Rockets win back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995. He also won a championship with the San Antonio Spurs.
21. Keenan McCardell
> Drafted: 1991 NFL draft, 12th round (326 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Wide receiver, Washington Redskins
> Career accolades: 2x Pro Bowl, 1x Super Bowl
Drafted in the 12th round, Keenan McCardell recorded five seasons in which he had over 1,000 receiving yards. Before that, he struggled to get any playing time. He missed his first season to injury, then joined the Cleveland Browns, where he played as a backup. McCardell broke out as a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars, when in 1996 he had 1,129 receiving yards and earned his first Pro Bowl nod. He was consistently productive in each of his six seasons in Jacksonville. In 2002, he left for Tampa Bay, where he earned his second Pro Bowl designation and Super Bowl ring.
20. Patric Hornqvist
> Drafted: 2005 NHL draft, 7th round (230 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Right wing, Nashville Predators
> Career accolades: 2x Stanley Cup
Patric Hornqvist was the final player selected in the 2005 NHL draft. Unlike nearly all of those drafted before him, Hornqvist is still in the NHL — and playing at a high level. The Swede broke into the NHL with Nashville in 2008 and quickly became a key contributor. In 2014, he was traded to Pittsburgh, where he helped the Penguins win two straight Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017.
19. Jessie Armstead
> Drafted: 1993 NFL draft, 8th round (207 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Linebacker, New York Giants
> Career accolades: 5x Pro Bowl, 1x All-pro
In 11 NFL seasons, Jessie Armstead played in all 16 of his team’s regular season’s games every year. But Armstead, who was selected in the eighth round, had to battle for a starting spot, serving as a backup his first three seasons. Once he had his starting spot, he proved he deserved it, racking up five straight Pro Bowl designations starting in 1997. That season, Armstead also earned his lone All-Pro nod.
18. Jarrod Dyson
> Drafted: 2006 MLB draft, 50th round (1,475 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Center field, Kansas City Royals
> Career accolades: 1x World Series
Jarrod Dyson seemed like a longshot to make the majors after he was selected 1,475th overall in the 2006 MLB Draft out of Southwest Mississippi Community College. But he used his superior speed to blow past his competition and make it to the big leagues in 2010 with the Royals. He helped the team win the 2015 World Series before leaving for Seattle, then Arizona. Dyson is having one of his best offensive seasons early in 2019.
17. Toni Kukoc
> Drafted: 1990 NBA draft, 2nd round (29 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Small forward, Chicago Bulls
> Career accolades: 3x NBA Champion, 1x All-rookie team, 1x Sixth Man of the Year
Toni Kukoc was drafted out of Croatia in 1990, a time when many doubted European players could succeed in the NBA. Kukoc found a niche on the Michael Jordan Bulls teams of the late 1990s, scoring off the bench. The Croatian sensation averaged over 14 points per game during his seven seasons in Chicago, helping the Bulls win their fourth, fifth, and sixth championships. He was also named Sixth Man of the Year in 1996.
16. Al Cowens
> Drafted: 1969 MLB draft, 75th round (1,026 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Right field, Kansas City Royals
> Career accolades: 1x Gold Glove, MVP runner up
Al Cowens was technically not drafted in the last round of the 1969 MLB Draft, but he was selected 1,026th out of the 1,042 picks that year, making his Major League career incredibly improbable. The 75th-round pick had his best year in 1977, in which he hit .312, knocked in 112 runs, won a Gold Glove, and placed second in the MVP voting.
15. Paul Millsap
> Drafted: 2006 NBA draft, 2nd round (47 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Power forward, Utah Jazz
> Career accolades: 4x All-star
After being selected 47th overall in 2006, Paul Millsap played seven solid seasons in Utah. But his career really blossomed in Atlanta. After signing with the Hawks as a free agent in 2013, Millsap was named an All-star for four consecutive seasons, averaging 17.4 points per game. As of 2019, Millsap plays for the Denver Nuggets.
14. Brian Elliott
> Drafted: 2003 NHL draft, 9th round (291 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Goaltender, Ottawa Senators
> Career accolades: 1x Jennings Trophy
Brian Elliott was picked 291st out of 292 NHL draftees in 2003. Yet he was able to earn a spot with the Ottawa Senators and has become one of the better netminders in the NHL. Elliott played his best hockey after leaving Ottawa for St. Louis. With the Blues, he led the NHL in save percentage twice as well as won a Jennings Trophy as the goalie who allowed the fewest goals.
13. Donald Driver
> Drafted: 1999 NFL draft, 7th round (213 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Wide receiver, Green Bay Packers
> Career accolades: 3x Pro Bowl, 1x Super Bowl
Before he became the all-time leading receiver in Green Bay Packers history with over 10,000 yards, Donald Driver was an afterthought, drafted 213th overall in 1999. Driver had just three catches his rookie season, but he worked his way up to Pro Bowl status by 2002, teaming with Brett Favre to haul in 70 catches for over 1,000 yards. He racked up six more seasons with 1,000 or more yards and was named to the Pro Bowl twice more. Driver helped bridge the gap between Favre and new quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He was a key member of the 2010 team that won Super Bowl XLV.
12. Mike Krushelnyski
> Drafted: 1979 NHL draft, 6th round (120 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Left wing, Boston Bruins
> Career accolades: 3x Stanley Cup
Mike Krushelnyski distinguished himself from other late-round picks by becoming a key contributor to the Boston Bruins in the early 1980s. His career caught some good fortune when he was traded from Boston to Edmonton — where Wayne Gretzky was playing. His first year with the Oilers, Krushelnyski tallied a career-high 88 points and won his first of three Stanley Cups. He was part of the infamous trade that sent Gretzky to Los Angeles, before playing for Toronto and Detroit to round out his career.
11. Health Bell
> Drafted: 1997 MLB draft, 69th round (1,583 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Relief pitcher, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
> Career accolades: 3x All-star, 2x Rolaid Relief
Heath Bell was picked 1,583rd overall by Tampa Bay in 1997. He actually never signed with the Devil Rays, instead signing as an amateur free agent with the Mets in 1998. He eventually worked his way up their minor league system, but struggled with the Mets. Things clicked for Bell after he was traded to the San Diego Padres. In 2007, he pitched in 81 games and had a 2.02 ERA. Two years later, he made his first of three straight All-star game appearances and was named relief pitcher of the year twice.
10. Rod Martin
> Drafted: 1977 NFL draft, 12th round (317 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Linebacker, Oakland Raiders
> Career accolades: 2x Pro Bowl, 1x All-pro, 2x Super Bowl
Rod Martin was drafted out of USC in the 12th round of the 1977 NFL Draft, a round that no longer exists in the modern NFL. By 1979, he had earned the starting right outside linebacker spot on the Oakland Raiders. Martin had a knack for big plays, and there is no better place for a big play than the Super Bowl. In Super Bowl XV, Martin had three interceptions and helped the Raiders bring home the Lombardi Trophy. He would go on to win another Super Bowl, make two Pro Bowls, and earn an All-Pro designation.
9. Marc Gasol
> Drafted: 2007 NBA draft, 2nd round (48 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Center, Los Angeles Lakers
> Career accolades: 3x All-star, 1x Defensive Player of the Year
Though he was not drafted as highly as his older brother Pau, Marc Gasol has still put together an impressive career. Drafted by the Lakers, Gasol was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies, a franchise that emphasizes defense and meshed perfectly with his rim-protecting abilities. Gasol’s defense earned him three trips to the All-Star Game and one Defensive Player of the Year award. Though he is known for defense, he is proficient on the offensive end as well, averaging 15 points per game. He now plays for the Toronto Raptors.
8. Tom Nalen
> Drafted: 1994 NFL draft, 7th round (218 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Center, Denver Broncos
> Career accolades: 5x Pro Bowl, 2x All-pro, 2x Super Bowl
The key to any great offensive line is the center. Centers are responsible for making sure all blockers are on the same page when protecting the quarterback. Tom Nalen, a 218th overall draft pick, is one of the best centers to ever play. The Boston College product blocked for John Elway and helped him lead the Denver Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl victories. Nalen was named to five Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams.
7. Jaroslav Halak
> Drafted: 2003 NHL draft, 9th round (271 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Goaltender, Montreal Canadiens
> Career accolades: 1x Jennings Trophy
The 2003 NHL Draft was a deep one for goaltenders. Both Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak were selected near the bottom of the draft but still went on to have great NHL careers. Halak won the 2012 Jennings Trophy as the starting netminder who allowed the fewest goals. He has played for 13 years in Montreal, St. Louis, New York, Washington, and he now plays for the Boston Bruins.
6. Gilbert Arenas
> Drafted: 2001 NBA draft, 2nd round (31 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Point guard, Golden State Warriors
> Career accolades: 3x All-star, 20.7 points per game
After being drafted in the second round by the Golden State Warriors, Gilbert Arenas developed into one of the great pure scorers in NBA history. He was a solid young player with the Warriors, but really developed once he signed with the Washington Wizards as a free agent. He averaged 25 points per game in his eight years in Washington, earning three All-Star designations.
5. Kenny Rogers
> Drafted: 1982 MLB draft, 39th round (815 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Starting pitcher, Texas Rangers
> Career accolades: 4x All-star, 5x Gold Glove, 1x World Series
Few people drafted in the 39th round or later make it to the Majors. Even fewer stay there for 20 years like Kenny Rogers did. Rogers broke into the Majors with the Texas Rangers bullpen pitcher, but eventually showed he belonged as a starter. In his second year as a starter, Rogers threw one of just 23 perfect games in MLB history. He made his first All-star game at age 30 in 1995. The next year, he signed as a free agent with the Yankees, where he won his lone World Series. Rogers was one of the best fielding pitchers in the majors, winning five Gold Gloves. He went on to play for the A’s, Mets, Twins, Tigers, and Rangers again, earning three more All-Star appearances before hanging up his spikes at age 43.
4. Karl Mecklenburg
> Drafted: 1983 NFL draft, 12th round (310 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Linebacker, Denver Broncos
> Career accolades: 6x Pro Bowl, 3x All-pro
Though John Elway will be remembered as the face of the 1983 NFL Draft as the first overall pick, the Denver Broncos got a key contributor several hundred picks later in Karl Mecklenburg. The linebacker from Minnesota played in Denver for 12 seasons, earning six Pro Bowl nods and three All-Pro designations. Though he never won a Super Bowl, Mecklenburg helped change the Broncos defense from one of the worst in the NFL to one of the best.
3. Draymond Green
> Drafted: 2012 NBA draft, 2nd round (35 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Power forward, Golden State Warriors
> Career accolades: 3x All-star, 3x NBA Champion, 1x Defensive Player of the Year
Though he is still early in his career, Draymond Green has already set himself apart as one of the greatest players ever selected in the final round of the draft. Green is the defensive linchpin of the Golden State Warriors’ current dynasty. As of 2019, he has racked up three All-star nods, three NBA All-Defensive first teams, three championships, and one Defensive Player of the Year award. Lauded for his defense, Green also does the dirty work needed on the offensive end. He passes and screens to get open shots for teammates like Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.
2. Sergei Makarov
> Drafted: 1983 NHL draft, 12th round (231 overall)
> Position, drafted by: Right wing, Calgary Flames
> Career accolades: 1x Calder Trophy, Hall of Fame
By the time Sergei Makarov made his NHL debut, he was already in his 30s. Though he was drafted in 1983, he did not play in the NHL for years, dominating the Soviet Union league in the interim. Eventually, he came to Canada to play with the Calgary Flames in 1989 — one of the first Soviets to play in the NHL. It turned out to be the right decision — Makarov won the Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year. Though he was in his 30s, he was a consistent scorer for Calgary and San Jose. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2016.
1. Keith Hernandez
> Drafted: 1971 MLB draft, 42nd round (776 overall)
> Position, drafted by: First base, St. Louis Cardinals
> Career accolades: 1x MVP, 5x All-star, 11x Gold Glove
Keith Hernandez accomplished just about everything a baseball player can — All-stars, Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, batting titles, World Series titles, and an MVP. Though Hernandez was picked in the 42nd round, he quickly made his way through the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system, debuting in the Majors at age 20. He broke out in 1979, hitting .344 with 105 RBIs and 48 home runs — earning him the NL MVP honors. Hernandez led the Cardinals to the 1982 World Series championship, then was traded to the New York Mets the next year. He kept on slugging in New York, making three more All-Star teams and helping the 1986 Mets win the World Series. With 11 Gold Gloves, he is considered one of the greatest defensive first basemen of all time.
Detailed findings & methodology:
The drafts of the four major sports leagues have become shorter over the years. Basketball requires fewer players, so the NBA draft was shortened from 10 rounds to just two. Baseball franchises, on the other hand, need to fill out several minor league clubs, plus the Major League team, so the MLB draft now goes 40 rounds, but used to go even longer. Both the NHL and NFL have since been shortened to seven rounds.
We restricted this list to players who have played at least five seasons. It takes a long time to get a sense of how a player would perform throughout his career. Many recent last-round drafted players, like Nikola Jokic, are only now realizing their full potential. Jokic was a second-round pick by the Denver Nuggets in 2014. After years of gradual improvement, he earned his first All-Star game selection in the 2018-2019 season.
Many MLB players have been drafted multiple times — first out of high school, then college. Some baseball players, especially those who are not highly drafted out of high school, opt to go to college to get an education and hone their skills. After proving themselves at the college level, these players can be drafted dozens of rounds ahead of where they were selected a few years before.
To determine the best pro athletes drafted in the last round, 24/7 Wall St. used data from statistics sites such as the Sports Reference family of sites and Baseball Almanac. We used this data to rank the best players selected at the end of each major American pro sports league’s draft in the modern era.
To determine success we used individual accolades individual accolades, such as All-star designations and other awards like Gold Gloves, Jennings Trophies, and All-NBA or All-Pro designations. Players were also ranked by their statistics, using advanced metrics like point shares for the NHL, value over replacement player for the NBA, approximate value in the NFL, and wins above replacement in MLB.
The first MLB amateur draft was held in 1965. The end of the MLB draft is often irregular, with just one player selected in some later rounds. To account for this, we considered players selected with one of the final 30 picks in any year of the MLB draft to be in the last round. Each of the other three leagues — NHL, NBA, NFL — merged with a competitor league in the 1970s, beginning their modern era.
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