On Sunday, in DDL, one of the commenters presented a question that intrigued me. I wanted to answer it in the chat, but I knew anything other than a snarky answer would require some actual research. The question? Who is the best 'last' pick in the draft in NBA history?
The NBA Draft goes back to the very beginning of the league, though early records don't have pick-by-pick data beyond the first round. It does appear the records for 1954 are complete, and Joe Holup -- picked 100th overall -- would seem to be the first "last pick" to play in the NBA. However, from then through the 1989 draft, the only last pick to even play in a single regular-season NBA game was Roland West, who was selected 162nd overall in 1967 by the the Baltimore Bullets and played four games for them that season, finishing with four career points (but 10.3 points and 12.9 rebounds per 36 minutes!).
The draft got insanely long following the ABA-NBA merger, making it highly unlikely that any last pick would even sniff a roster. In 1984, Dan Trant was the final selection of the draft, coming in at 228th overall. The next season, the draft was cut from 10 rounds to seven, which was still too many. It finally dropped to three in 1988, then two a year later. Finally in 1990, another last pick actually cracked a roster: Sean Higgins (who won a national title with Michigan in 1989) was selected 54th overall by the Spurs, and went on to play 220 games for six teams over seven seasons.
Still, even with the shortening of the draft, it's an uphill battle for the last pick to ever make an NBA mark. Since 1989, just 10 of the 23 players selected last overall have played an NBA game, and only five of those have a career win shares total higher than 1.0.
As of right now, the answer to the initial question "Who is the best 'last' pick in the draft in NBA history?" is probably Don Reid. Selected 58th overall out of Georgetown in 1995, Reid played seven full seasons in the NBA (plus one game in his 8th and final season), and was actually a regular starter for a Pistons team that made the playoffs as a rookie. Reid finished his career with 403 games played, 149 starts, and 13.7 career win shares, which puts him more than five ahead of any other player selected last overall.
But Reid may not have his place in history for long, which I'd assume is why the DDLer (who I can't remember at this point) was asking the question in the first place. Kings guard Isaiah Thomas was selected with the final pick in the 2011 NBA draft and is already making an impact on the league. He's averaging 7.9 points per game, but 15.5 points per 36 minutes, which is more reflective of his production, particularly now that he's getting more consistent minutes for Sacramento. Thomas's PER of 16.5 is well above any mark Reid posted in any single season of his career.
Despite a productive college career, Thomas was overlooked on draft day because of his size. He's listed at 5-foot-9, and is one of the shortest players in modern NBA history. It's tough to project how his career will end up, but considering where he was drafted, he's already been more productive than the Kings could have expected.
While Thomas probably only needs to string together a couple more seasons like this one to be considered the best last pick ever, he's got a LONG way to go to be the best 60th pick -- both Michael Cooper and Hall-of-Famer Drazen Petrovic were drafted 60th overall, back when the draft was longer.