Detailed Findings & Methodology
Being labeled a “draft bust” is something every highly-touted prospect wants to avoid, but it’s an inevitable reality of professional athletics. And there are lots of ways a player’s career can fizzle out.
Injuries are one of the most common reasons for setbacks among athletes on this list. Brien Taylor had all the makings of an ace pitcher. The hard-throwing lefty dominated the minor leagues. But Taylor severely injured his rotator cuff in a fight. The New York Yankees’ prospect never got back to his peak and failed to make it to AAA before hanging up his spikes for good.
The Cincinnati Bengals drafted running back Ki-Jana Carter with the top pick in the 1995 draft, banking on the Penn State product to be a workhorse. Carter tore his ACL on the third carry of the pre-season at a time when those injuries were much tougher to come back from. He never regained his explosiveness and failed to live up to expectations.
Other players, though never injured, struggled more with the mental aspect of being a professional athlete. Notable quarterback busts like Ryan Leaf and Akili Smith said they weren’t focused enough on football to be successful. Both also said substance abuse issues made it difficult for them to play well.
Some athletes lost their dream simply because of unfortunate incidents outside the game. Jay Williams had a promising rookie season for the Chicago Bulls but lost his ability to play basketball after a severe motorcycle accident. Perhaps the most tragic entry on this list is Len Bias, who died from a drug overdose just two days after being selected second overall by the Boston Celtics.
Some players have been able to shed their initial labeling as a “bust” by reinventing their careers. Josh Hamilton was drafted first overall in 1999, but his drug addiction nearly ended his career. After battling addiction for years, Hamilton finally got sober and made it to the majors at age 26. He later won American League MVP with the Texas Rangers.
Tony Mandarich was once labeled the best offensive line prospect ever, but he could never perform the way the Green Bay Packers had hoped he would when they drafted him. Mandarich had taken steroids in college and quit when he got to the NFL. Compounding his struggles, he was hooked on painkillers and alcohol. Mandarich left the Packers after three seasons. He avoided making this list because got clean and was able to play three productive years with the Indianapolis Colts after a four-year layoff.
When a high draft pick struggles, it can be tough on a team and a fan base. Sometimes, going back and comparing the pick to the other players a team could have selected instead can add salt to the wound. The career of Detroit Pistons draft pick Darko Milicic looks much worse when compared with the careers of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade, the three players drafted immediately after him.
Greg Oden and Kevin Durant both could have easily gone first in the 2007 NBA Draft. But Oden was selected first by the Portland Trail Blazers. Oden struggled with knee injuries, only playing in 105 NBA games. Durant, meanwhile, has become a superstar, winning an MVP award and an NBA championship with the Golden State Warriors.
A bust in the making, Mark Appel, stepped away from baseball in 2017. The Houston Astros selected him first in the 2013 draft. He was immediately followed by Kris Bryant, who won Rookie of the Year award in 2015 and MVP the next year as well as a World Series with the Chicago Cubs.
24/7 Wall St. reviewed the top picks from each of the four major U.S. sports leagues — the MLB, NBA, NHL, and NFL. Players were ranked based on their draft position, how many games they played, and how effective they were in those games. Only players who were drafted in the first five picks overall in their respective sport were considered. We considered MLB draft picks starting in 1965, NHL draft picks starting in 1980, NFL draft picks starting in 1966, and NBA draft picks starting in 1976. The number of games played by an athlete only includes top level competition. Minor league and developmental league games do not count.