There have been thousands of basketball players throughout the course of NBA history. A rare few have been good to great, a lot more have been at least serviceable, and most of the rest have been largely unremarkable.
But a few — a rare, extremely not proud few — didn’t quite fit into any of these categories. These were the players who weren’t just bad, but inspiringly, remarkably bad, bad in ways that broke the paradigm and set new bars for incompetence.
Each one of these guys has something about them that made them unique, that made them a shining beacon of massive, world-bending failure. I had the personal misfortune to watch a whole lot of these guys during what for lack of a better term we’ll call their primes — heck, I watched a lot of them play in person — and I can tell you that they stood out far above the average level of terrible. Nick Young alone took several years off the course of my life.
It’s not fair or accurate to say they all played for the Washington Wizards (although, honestly, most of them played for the Washington Wizards at some point) — but they did tend to cluster around the same group of disastrous NBA franchises, usual suspects like the Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings, Charlotte Hornets, Los Angeles Clippers (pre-Steve Ballmer Era), Cleveland Cavaliers — and yeah, that team in DC. That’s sort of how it goes, though; when you’re running the worst teams in NBA history, it’s no surprise you’ll also attract the worst players in NBA history.
The 17 Worst Players in NBA History
17. Brian Scalabrine
You couldn’t write a list like this without including Brian Scalabrine. Nicknamed “White Mamba” in an ironic reference to Kobe Bryant, Scalabrine gained prominence as an enthusiastic redheaded bench guy for the New Jersey Nets. Seeing this, the Boston Celtics decided to give him a 5-year, $15 million contract. Despite the dollar amount not even being that high, the contract became the laughingstock of the league. Scalabrine’s negative athleticism made him a running joke. Forget the playoffs; he couldn’t even crack the Celtics’ regular-season rotation. Scalabrine once got so mad at Boston fans he challenged anyone to come down and play him one on one — then lost when they did.
16. Bryant Reeves
The Memphis Grizzlies started as the Vancouver Grizzlies, and their first-ever draft pick was Bryant “Big Country” Reeves in 1995. Big Country was supposed to carry the Grizzlies in their fledgling years, and his raw numbers (12.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game) seem ok. But the advanced stats tell a different story: Reeves was worth -4.3 Value Over Replacement Player for his career. If you ever watched him play, you know why: he couldn’t defend, could barely score and he ate himself out of the league within six years.
15. Ervin Johnson
Poor Ervin Johnson. If he’d just been named “Greg,” he would’ve had a much better career. But he was one letter off Earvin Johnson — aka “Magic,” one of the greatest players in NBA history. Ervin thus earned the extraordinarily cruel nickname “No Magic,” and lived up to it. A tire fire on offense who wasn’t good enough on defense to make up for it, Johnson somehow started 452 career games (most of them with the Milwaukee Bucks) in the NBA despite a career average of 4.1 points and 6.1 rebounds.
14. Sun Yue
The bar couldn’t have been lower for 2007 second-round pick Sun Yue, yet he somehow managed to limbo under it. The Los Angeles Lakers gave him a shot after a decent D-league stint, and he honestly might have played the single worst game in NBA history: four fouls and two turnovers in five minutes of action. Technically, Yue “won” an NBA title with the Lakers that year, making him the worst player in NBA history to win a championship.
13. Nick Young
On the surface, Nick Young looks like he had a decent if unspectacular career: a scorer with 11.4 career points per game, 37.6 percent three point shooting. As someone who had to watch most of his career first-hand, please trust me when I tell you Nick Young was living basketball poison. You know how long-twos are the worst shot an NBA player can take? Nick Young shot long twos like his life depended on clanking rims. He also never passed — I mean never, as in “his career assist rate should have been impossible for a guard.” The worst part is that he never, ever, for even a moment, stopped believing he was the greatest player in the league. Nick Young was basically the living avatar of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
12. Mengke Bateer
Virtually every Chinese player in NBA history other than Yao Ming shows up on this list, but Mengke Bateer was something special. While there were plenty of bad players in league history, he might be the only one who was just physically painful to watch out there. Bateer somehow hung around for 46 games over three NBA seasons with three NBA teams, and I can honestly say I’ve never seen someone on a pro court who looked less like a real NBA player. He looked like a random Inner Mongolian guy who’d been mistakenly given a jersey because he happened to be tall. Somehow, this man technically won an NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003.
11. Keith Closs
Look, all I’m saying is, maybe don’t sign a guy who has already publicly admitted to having a raging, unchecked drinking problem. But that sort of thing was pretty much par for the course for the Los Angeles Clippers during the Donald Sterling era. Closs actually had a signature skill — shot-blocking — but never translated it onto an NBA court, getting bounced from the league after three tumultuous seasons. Hey, at least he appears to have gotten his life together since then.
10. Jan Vesely
Jan Vesely became a bit of an overnight sensation on draft night in 2011, when he leapt up and kissed his girlfriend immediately after being taken No. 6 overall in the first round by the Washington Wizards. What nobody realized at the time is that kiss would be his career highlight. Vesely is different from everyone on this list in that he actually had tremendous raw athleticism and really did try hard. Unfortunately, those qualities were paired with the worst court awareness of any player I have ever seen. Vesely’s brain just seemed to stop working every time he stepped on the court. Honestly, it was a miracle he could ever even keep track of which guys were his teammates. Still, unlike a lot of these dudes, he always seemed like a nice guy, so I’m glad he actually won the EuroLeague MVP in 2019.
9. Ike Austin
If there’s a single person on this list that gets my vote for worst NBA player of all time, it’s Ike Austin. The Wizards have made a lot of truly awful trades during my lifetime, but the one that netted them Ike Austin remains the worst in league history: they dealt away future Hall of Famer Ben Wallace, along with several serviceable role players, for a guy who had -1.0 Value Over Replacement Player for his career on the strength of two middling seasons for the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic. Austin literally didn’t do anything well. He might be the worst Wizards player I’ve ever had the misfortune to watch, and I had to witness Nick Young’s career.
8. Javaris Crittenton
I could make this an entire list of Washington Wizards players and still have far too many to choose from. Crittenton couldn’t play to save his life, but there’s a lot of guys for whom that’s true. No, Crittenton makes it onto this list for a unique and special reason: he was the other party in the infamous Wizards locker room gun incident. Somehow, he was terrible enough that he eventually made Gilbert Arenas look like the good guy in that situation: he’s now serving a 23-year sentence for murder.
7. Adam Morrison
I’m not sure what caused Michael Jordan, owner and operator of the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets, to think Adam Morrison was a real NBA player. Dinged for his athleticism but still highly regarded for his supposed shot creation abilities prior to being drafted, Morrison didn’t have either, averaging 11.8 points on a staggeringly awful 37.5 percent field goal percentage his rookie season. It got even worse from there: a knee injury cost him his second season and sapped whatever minor athletic ability he had, then he bounced around the league for another three years before his career was finally mercy-killed. Hey, at least he had the worst facial hair in basketball history to fall back on.
6. Tyrus Thomas
In retrospect, it was deeply hilarious that the Chicago Bulls responded to the end of the Jordan-Pippin dynasty era by reloading with a supposedly dominant young big man tandem of Tyson Chandler and “Baby Shaq” Eddy Curry. When the Bulls finally jettisoned the two in favor of Tyrus Thomas, it must’ve felt like a fresh start for Chicagoans. But then it got truly funny: Chandler eventually won a Defensive Player of the Year award, while Curry at least had a single good season with the New York Knicks. Thomas didn’t even have that: he never averaged more than 10.8 points or 6.4 rebounds in his career despite getting plenty of opportunities. Thomas was selected one spot after Adam Morrison in the 2006 NBA draft, which really was one of the worst drafts in league history.
5. Anthony Bennett
It takes a lot to be the worst No. 1 overall pick in NBA history, a category that includes Kwame Brown, Michael Olowokandi, and Pervis Ellison, yet Anthony Bennett of the Cleveland Cavaliers wins that category by an absolute mile. Even Olowokandi had a couple seasons where he averaged double-digit points. Bennett literally could not do a single thing well on an NBA court. The Cavs unloaded him onto the Minnesota Timberwolves after one season, and he was out of the league after four years. To be fair, the two best players in the 2013 NBA Draft were picked 15th (Giannis Antetokounmpo) and 27th (Rudy Gobert) overall, so everyone kind of whiffed that year.
4. Yi Jianlian
Yi Jianlian was the ultimate example of hype destroying a guy who couldn’t live up to it. Jianlian was supposed to be the next Yao Ming, a reputation buoyed by a now-legendary workout video that where he put some serious NBA moves on…a chair, which led to his nickname (“The Chairman”). Yi’s best year with the New Jersey Nets in 2010 seems ok on the surface — 12 points, 7.2 rebounds — until you look at the fact he shot 40.3 percent that year. He was out of the league before his 25th birthday.
3. Darko Milicic
You can make the argument Darko Milicic never had a chance because of the circumstances of his career, and you might have a point. Drafted one spot after LeBron James at No. 2 overall in 2003 (directly ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade) by the Detroit Pistons, Milicic was always going to have a tough time living up to expectations. Getting buried on the bench by notorious anti-young-guy coach Larry Brown didn’t help — but the most likely reason Milicic’s career was a failure to launch is just that he didn’t have it. For all his incredible pre-draft workout displays, the NBA would have to wait for Nikola Jokic to show up in 2014 (one year after Milicic finally, mercifully retired) for its first Serbian superstar.
2. Michael Ruffin
I feel genuinely bad putting Michael Ruffin on this list. Unlike most of the guys here, he actually had a signature skill — defense and rebounding off the bench. But despite having a thing he was good at, he makes it for one simple reason: I have never, ever witnessed a worse offensive player in NBA history, and I’m a DC basketball fan, which means that is a staggeringly high bar. Michael Ruffin made Ben Wallace (let alone Ben Simmons) look like Michael Jordan. I’ve never seen a human being I would be less likely to trust with a wide open dunk, and I include my grandmother in that statement.
1. Nikoloz Tskitishvili
Most of these first round picks that went bad were highly-regarded guys, but everyone scratched their heads at the Denver Nuggets picking Nikoloz Tskitishvili even at the time. There were rumors the Nuggets’ front office had never seen him play prior to drafting him, and considering what he did on the court, that seems pretty accurate. This is a guy who shot 30.4 percent from the floor and 23.5 percent from three-point range for his career despite being drafted as a stretch four. Yikes.