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Everyone always talks about the 2003 NBA Draft. That draft is considered the gold standard for providing the NBA with the most high impact stars since the turn of the new millennium.
Four of the first five selections are surefire Hall of Famers. (Sorry, Darko Milicic) The fifth pick, Dwyane Wade, elevated the Miami Heat to newfound heights and brought them their first title in 2006. Fourth pick Chris Bosh, after years of trying to carry the Toronto Raptors franchise, decided to follow Wade to Florida to win rings. Third pick Carmelo Anthony, ever the divisive character, still wound up as one of the greatest scorers in the history of the league.
But the 2003 draft begins and ends with the first overall pick: LeBron James. He carried the torch for a league that needed a new standard bearer after Michael Jordan retired. Although his career has had a few more ups and downs than His Airness, LeBron has been the perfect modern superstar to serve as the face of the NBA for a new generation.
That draft yielded the four aforementioned superstars, nine total All-Stars, and a handful of productive NBA veterans who had long and healthy careers. Players like Kirk Hinrich, Boris Diaw, Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins, Zaza Pachulia and Leandro Barbosa all made their marks on their respective NBA teams.
While it will be tough to ever replicate the success of a draft so powerful, there have been plenty of amazing draft classes that have followed it. Although LeBron James is still defying Father Time right now, another draft class helped define the last decade of NBA play to become the clear-cut best NBA Draft since 2003.
2009 NBA Draft: The draft that helped define the decade
It all starts with the 2009 NBA Draft’s two best players: Stephen Curry and James Harden. Both players have been named the league’s MVP and have historic seasons under their belt, allthough one of them is clearly more accomplished than the other.
Stephen Curry changed the game of basketball.
He started out as a skinny combo guard who took too many 3-pointers in college to be considered a point guard. But he turned out to be so brilliant at shooting from deep that it made every single NBA team reconsider how they played the game. Teams didn’t need to have a player as efficient from 3-land as Curry to reap the benefits of a more progressive perimeter-heavy offense that valued spacing above all else. His 2015-2016 season ranks as one of the greatest single-season performances in NBA history, ranking ninth all-time in terms of player efficiency rating (PER) for any player.
While Steph changed the way we thought about playing, The Beard has pushed the modern game to its absolute limits in recent years. James Harden is the in-real-life version of your MyPlayer in NBA 2K. He attempts an absurd amount of 3s, dominates the game in isolation, and gets the greenest green light you’ll ever see a player get. And yet it’s all warranted because his rating is just so high. He put up absurd numbers during his MVP season in 2018, but somehow upped the crazy a year later. His 36.1 points-per-game average that year was the highest scoring total since Michael Jordan’s 37.1 in 1986-87. He’s still trying to find the playoff success to match his regular-reason prowess.
The other stars
The draft also features more than a couple of All-Stars beyond Curry and Harden.
The original headliner for the class was first overall pick Blake Griffin. His hype coming in was somewhat comparable to Zion Williamson this year in that he delivered the most devastating dunks you’d see from a big man. He lived up to the hype during his early seasons and was seen as one of the league’s new faces. However, injuries and lack of playoff success hindered him from exceeding his early expectations.
Former Raptor DeMar DeRozan left a lasting impression on the Toronto franchise. After years of carrying the cross for the Raptors, losing to LeBron James seemingly every year, he was traded away for the man that brought them the title last year, Kawhi Leonard. But DeRozan deserves as much credit for helping build the culture there with his multiple All-Star seasons. He was even named an All-Star starter during his 2016-2017 campaign.
There’s also Jrue Holiday and Jeff Teague. Both players made an All-Star appearance earlier in their careers. Teague was the lead guard for an overachieving Atlanta Hawks team that won 60 games in 2015. Holiday, meanwhile, remains one of the most underrated players in the league. His year-on-year performances seem to always put him as a borderline All-Star, but he hasn’t made the team since he was still on the Philadelphia 76ers.
This draft class also includes a handful of players who have had highly productive seasons. Billed as the Spanish second-coming of Steve Nash, Ricky Rubio was an international sensation coming into this draft. Though he hasn’t lived up to the hype, he has still been a solid starting point guard for years. Former Denver Nugget Ty Lawson wasn’t a bad passer himself. He had an exceptional stretch from 2011 to 2015 when he averaged about 16 points and eight assists per contest. Taj Gibson, Darren Collison, and Brandon Jennings became veterans who enjoyed productive seasons as well.
The 2009 draft class may not have produced the same level of top-tier talent as 2003 did, but the NBA would never be the same without it.