Throughout their nearly 50-year history, the Cleveland Cavaliers have made plenty of draft picks, and the Cavs have often been towards the top of the draft.
From their first selection of Allen Waller in 1970 to their most recent of Dylan Windler in 2019, here are the five best choices in Cavs draft history.
For this list, only players officially drafted by the team will count.
So players acquired through draft-day trades, such as Mark Price, won’t be seen.
5. Carlos Boozer, 2002, 35th overall
Perhaps one of the most despised figures in Cleveland sports history, Boozer looked like he would be Robin to LeBron James’ Batman after averaging 12.6 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 1.6 assists during his first two seasons.
After the 2003-2004 season, the Cavs were extremely interested in keeping Boozer around long-term. They could have picked up his rookie option for less than $700,000 for the next year, but the two sides had reached a verbal agreement on a six-year contract worth $39 million. In order for Boozer to be able to sign, Cleveland had to decline his option.
However, as soon as Boozer became a free agent, he and his agent, Rob Pelinka (now the general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers) negotiated a six-year deal worth $70 million with the Utah Jazz, which the Cavaliers could not afford to match. Boozer says there was never an agreement made, but why would the Cavs have made him a free agent if that was the case?
Even though Boozer is a wanted man in Cleveland, he was still a fantastic player and a massive steal at 35th overall.
He made two All-Star teams and one All-NBA team during his career, and was a key member of the great Chicago Bulls teams of the late 2000’s and early 2010’s.
4. Brad Daugherty, 1986, 1st overall
The No.1 pick in ’86, Daugherty played his entire eight-year career with Cleveland, a tenure cut short by injuries.
To put into perspective just how good Daugherty was, he made the All-Star team in all but three seasons during his career. Those three seasons were his rookie year, 1989-1990 when he played 40 games, and his final season, 1993-1994 when he played in 50.
Daugherty was an incredible talent; 7’0″ 245lbs of athletic muscle, a good defender and rebounder, great scorer, and excellent passer from the post. Had his back not cut his career drastically short, he could very well be in the Hall of Fame today.
His career averages of 19.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.7 assists are very good, but they should have been even better.
3. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, 1996, 20th overall
Big Z’s career didn’t start off on the right foot, literally.
He lost his entire rookie season to a broken foot, and after playing all 82 games in 1997-1998, he played in five games over the next two seasons. Furthermore, after returning in 2000-2001, he played in only 24 contests. It looked like the 7’3″ Lithuanian would be another “what if”, who lost his career to injury.
But that would not be the case. From 2002-2003 to 2009-2010, Ilgauskas missed 58 games, or an average of 7.25 per season. He made two All-Star teams, played in an NBA Finals, and finished his Cavs career with averages of 13.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and 1.6 blocks per game.
Z spent a total of 14 years with Cleveland; getting that kind of a tenure out of the 20th pick is commendable, especially with his multitude of injuries early on.
2. Kyrie Irving, 2011, 1st overall
There was absolutely no clear-cut top prospect in the 2011 draft class. Irving had played just eight games at Duke because of an injury. Players like Enes Kanter, Jan Vesely, Bismack Biyombo, Brandon Knight, and Jimmer Fredette were all top-10 picks.
But Cleveland’s front office did its job well, determining that Irving was the best player. To this point, only Kawhi Leonard has an argument to be better than Irving.
Over six seasons with Cleveland, Irving made four All-Star teams, was Third Team All-NBA in 2014-2015, and averaged 21.6 points, 5.5 assists, and 1.3 steals per game. Most importantly, he is an NBA champion.
Irving’s game really began to take off once LeBron James returned to Cleveland, but that’s why Irving forced his way out of town. He didn’t want to play in James’ shadow, and was given the chance to lead his own squad in Boston (he failed the challenge).
Irving isn’t as beloved as he once was in the city, but it’s difficult to hate him because of what he meant to the team while he was here.
1. LeBron James, 2003, 1st overall
In an absolutely stacked draft class, one player stood head and shoulders above the rest. The hometown hero, anointed the savior of basketball early on in high school, and perhaps the greatest talent the NBA has ever seen.
LeBron James is a legend in every sense of the word, and it didn’t take a degree in rocket science to know he was the obvious first pick.
His rookie season is the only year in which he was not an All-Star, and there’s a good argument to be made that his 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 1.6 steals per game was deserving of the honor.
To this point, James has made 15 All-Star teams, 15 All-NBA teams, six All-Defensive teams, has been the scoring champ once, MVP four times, and has won three NBA titles, including leading Cleveland to its first-ever NBA championship in 2015-2016 after being down 3-1 to the Golden State Warriors.
It’s fitting that the best player in franchise history is also the best draft pick. Although, to be fair, in any Cavs-related list of best anything, James is sure to be at the top.