With several sports making a comeback, with MLS and UFC already holding events and the NBA, NHL and MLB returns on the horizon, there is a lot to look forward to in the next few weeks. For the past four months, the country has effectively been on lockdown, and without many live sporting events to talk about, major media outlets and small blogs like this have had to bend over backwards to find content to write/report about.
One of the few interesting events to take place were the entry drafts, where every team gets a new crop of players to look forward to. The NFL and MLB held their respective drafts remotely, while the NHL Draft Lottery created some controversy, awarding the first overall pick to a mystery team who made the 24-team restart.
That mystery team will be selected among the losers of the best-of-five qualifying round, meaning the Capitals have no shot at landing it. The Caps would have made the playoffs in a normal season anyway, so there was never a real chance that Alexis Lafrenière, the presumptive top pick for 2020, would become the 11th first overall pick in Washington sports history. The list remains at 10, and today I will be ranking the success and impact of those 10 players, from worst to best.
No Washington team has selected first overall since 2010, so enough time has passed for even the most recent players to be judged fairly.
10. Ernie Davis, Redskins RB (1962)
The 1961 Heisman Trophy winner out of Syracuse did not spend much time as a Redskin. Team owner George Preston Marshall had kept the team entirely white even after the league had integrated in 1946. Marshall only budged when the team’s stadium lease was threatened to be revoked unless a black player was signed.
Sound familiar? A Washington football owner putting money over morals and fans? I can’t quite put my finger on it… but I digress.
Davis was selected first overall, but given Marshall’s beliefs and philosophies, immediately demanded a trade. The Cleveland Browns swooped in, sending Washington a package that included Bobby Mitchell, who became the team’s first Black player instead of Davis. Davis, meanwhile, was able to join his college roommate, offensive tackle John Brown, and fellow Syracuse Heisman Trophy winner, fullback Jim Brown in Ohio.
Unfortunately, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia the summer after he was drafted, and died less than a year later without playing a professional down. He’s last on this list by default, and even though he would not have played in Washington anyway, he would have been much higher on this list had he lived out a full life and played in the NFL.
9. Greg Joly, Capitals D (1974)
Joly marked the first ever selection in franchise history, and Capitals’ general manager Milt Schmidt said the new club got itself “the next Bobby Orr.” Yeah, not quite. Joly appeared in 44 games as a rookie for the all-time worst Capitals of 1974-75, where he totaled as many points as the team did wins (eight; one goal and seven assists).
Joly played in 54 games the following year, upping his point production to 25 (8g, 17a), before he was traded to the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for veteran blueliner Bryan Watson in 1976. Joly spent seven seasons in Detroit, appearing in over 50 games just three times. He was out of the NHL by 1983, at 28 years old.
Regarded as one of the biggest draft busts in NHL history, the pressure on Joly to help elevate an expansion franchise made up of the rest of the league’s scraps was unfair, so the blame is not all his. However, with the selection of Joly, the Capitals passed up on future Hall of Famers Clark Gillies (fourth overall), Bryan Trottier (22nd) and Mark Howe (25th).
8. Kwame Brown, Wizards C (2001)
Speaking of all-time draft busts, Brown is in the conversation for biggest draft bust in NBA history. The center was considered one of the top high school players in the nation, and after entering the 2001 NBA Draft, Wizards’ president Michael Jordan drafted Brown with the first overall pick, making him the first high schooler to be taken with the top pick.
Brown averaged just 4.5 points and 3.5 rebounds in 57 games as a rookie. His numbers improved slightly over the next couple seasons, but not nearly to the level of a first overall pick. His 10.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game in 2003-04 were career-highs, and any flashes of potential never persisted.
After clashing with point guard Gilbert Arenas and head coach Eddie Jordan, Brown was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers prior to the 2005-06 season in exchange for Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins. This was a year after Brown rejected a five-year/$30 million offer from the Wizards, wanting to reach free agency instead. (I don’t know which side was more mistaken.) The Lakers later flipped Brown, who continued to underachieve, to Memphis in a package for All-Star Pau Gasol, who went on to win two championships with Kobe Bryant in LA. (Ok, Memphis was most mistaken here.)
Brown, despite his draft bust status, managed to stick around the NBA for a total of 12 seasons, last playing with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2012-13.
7. Rick Green, Capitals D (1976)
Two years after taking Joly, the Caps held the first overall pick again, taking another D-man in Green. Green, while not a superstar, turned out better than Joly did, spending his first six NHL seasons in Washington. The Caps didn’t experience any success on a team level during Green’s stint in Washington, but Green himself consistently finished as a top two or three scorer among defensemen on the team.
Green was traded prior to the 1982-83 season to the Montreal Canadiens along with Ryan Walter in the deal that brought Rod Langway, Craig Laughlin, Doug Jarvis and Brian Engblom to DC. Green won the Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1986, then finished ninth in Norris Trophy voting the following season.
Green didn’t bring the game-changing play expected from a first overall pick, but netting Langway was a good trade-off.
6. Harry Gilmer, Redskins QB/HB/DB (1948)
Gilmer was selected first overall after a legendary career at the University of Alabama. After appearing in just one game as a rookie, Gilmer played quarterback behind the veteran legend Sammy Baugh, who at this point was in his mid-30s and approaching the end of his career.
Gilmer’s second year saw him start three games at quarterback (though he appeared in all 12), where he totaled 869 passing yards, four touchdowns and 15 interceptions with a 37.1 completion percentage. Lining up at halfback as well, Gilmer tacked on an additional 204 scrimmage yards. His best passing season came the following year, when he passed for 948 yards, eight touchdowns and 12 interceptions to make his first Pro Bowl.
Gilmer made the Pro Bowl again in 1952, though more for his performance on the ground. In addition to 555 passing yards, Gilmer ran for 365 yards on 100 rushing attempts (eighth-most attempts in the league that season) and added 143 receiving yards. On the defensive side of the ball, his five interceptions in 1951 were tied for most on the team, and his three fumble recoveries were tied for second. He spent the final two years of his career with the Detroit Lions.
The Skins never reached the playoffs during Gilmer’s stint, but the two-time Pro Bowler is still the best first overall pick in franchise history (even if it is by default).
5. Jeff Burroughs, Senators OF (1969)
The first MLB Draft took place in 1965, several years after the original Washington Senators moved to Minnesota. The second version of the Senators, meanwhile, earned the first overall pick in 1969, where they selected Burroughs.
Burroughs played just six games in the majors during 1970, then just 59 games in ’71 before the franchise moved to Texas. In 1974, Burroughs was one of the best players in the American League. He led the AL with 118 RBI while slashing .301/.397/.504 to earn his first All-Star selection and win the 1974 AL MVP award. His 25 home runs led the team, but without much offensive help, the Rangers finished 84-76, second in the AL West and missing out on the ALCS.
He hit 29 home runs the following year, but his batting average fell to .226 as he led the AL with 155 strikeouts. Burroughs didn’t make the All-Star game again until 1978 when he was with the Atlanta Braves (despite hitting 41 home runs in 1977). He led the majors in walks (117) and on-base percentage (.432) while mashing 23 home runs and 77 RBI. His .301 batting average matched that of his ’74 MVP season, and marked the only other season in his career in which he hit above .300.
Burroughs spent 16 years in the majors, posting a .261 career batting average to go with 240 home runs and 882 RBI. He barely broke into the majors by the time baseball left Washington, but his two elite seasons plus an overall solid career puts him in the top half of this list.
4. John Wall, Wizards PG (2010)
With the Wizards starting to crumble after the Arenas locker room incident, Wall was the perfect player to come in and usher a new era. His impact was immediate, averaging 16.3 points and 8.3 assists as a rookie, and within a few years, with addition of other players like Bradley Beal, Nenê and Marcin Gortat, the Wizards became a perennial playoff threat.
With Wall as the face of the franchise, he steadily improved every season, becoming one of the best point guards in the Eastern Conference. He led the league with 721 assists in 2013-14, when he made his first All-Star Game, then led the league with 157 steals in 2016-17 when he was named to the All-NBA Third Team. The five-time All-Star averaged a double-double in three consecutive seasons (’15-’17), and has led the team to four playoff appearances.
Wall suffered an Achilles tear in Dec. 2018, keeping him out for the rest of the 2018-19 season and the entirety of 2019-20. Coming off such a serious injury entering his age 30 season brings a lot of question marks, and with one of his greatest strengths — speed — likely diminished, the best may be behind him. Still, he made the Wizards competitive before, and he’ll try to bring them back to the playoffs when he returns next year.
3. Bryce Harper, Nationals OF (2010)
The kid who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at just 16 years old fell right into the Nationals’ lap in 2010. Harper reached the majors in 2012, and at 19 helped the team win the NL East and make the playoffs for the first time. He was named an All-Star and NL Rookie of the Year after hitting 22 home runs and 59 RBI while slashing .270/.340/.477.
From then on, Harper was the face of the franchise and one of the most recognizable names across the league (for better or worse). His only non-All-Star season during his Nationals career came in 2014, but he bounced back with his best career season in 2015, where he led the National League in home runs (42) and runs (118), while leading the majors in on-base percentage (.460), slugging percentage (.649), then inherently OPS (1.109) and OPS+ (198) to become the youngest unanimous MVP in baseball history at age 23.
The Nats failed to make the playoffs that season, but they made it two more times in 2016 and ’17, not making it past the NLDS either time. The team missed the playoffs in 2018, and after years of speculation over his future, Harper departed for the rival Philadelphia Phillies in free agency. After six All-Star selections and four playoff appearances in seven years, the most electric homegrown player in the team’s short history inked a 13-year deal with the Phillies.
The Nats won the World Series the following year, while Harper’s Phillies failed to make the playoffs. Most fans held some degree of animosity towards him when he left, given the Nats had offered a similarly lucrative 10-year/$300 million deal earlier in free agency (although it contained a lot of deferred money).
Still, the impact Harper had on the franchise is undeniable, and he consistently put up strong numbers even with sky-high expectations to live up to. He may be remembered more as a Philly when his career is over, but he was still an all-time great first overall pick for the city.
2. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals RHP (2009)
If Harper was the most hyped positional prospect in baseball history, then Strasburg was the most hyped pitching prospect, and the Nationals got both of them in back-to-back years. Strasburg electrified the city in his 14-strikeout debut 10 years ago, and while a slew of injuries slowed him down, and the arrival of Max Scherzer put him out of the limelight, he shined the brightest last October.
The even-keeled hurler has made three All-Star teams and finished in the top five of Cy Young voting twice (third in 2017, fifth in 2019), and of course blew away every opponent in his path to finish 5-0 in the 2019 postseason and earn World Series MVP.
After 10 years with the team, Strasburg signed a seven-year/$245 million deal this offseason in what will hopefully make him a National “for life.” He has a championship under his belt, and while he’ll be turning 32 this week, he still has time to solidify his legacy as one of the great pitchers of his generation. Harper may have a stronger regular season resume, but the Nats would not have a championship without Strasburg.
1. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals LW (2004)
Strasburg, Harper and Wall all turned their teams around, but Ovechkin completely altered the league’s landscape. As the greatest scorer in the history of the game, Ovechkin was climbing up the all-time goals list before the season was suspended, and throughout his 15-year NHL career he’s accomplished nearly everything possible in this league.
Ovechkin is a three-time Hart Trophy winner and three-time Lester B. Pearson (now Ted Lindsay) Award winner as MVP, a nine-time Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy winner as top goal scorer, and – after a long wait and numerous playoff exits — a Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe Trophy winner for postseason MVP. He was named team captain in Jan. 2010, and the Caps went on to be the winningest team of the decade.
His chances of breaking the all-time goals record have taken a hit with all the missed time, but regardless of whether or not he passes Wayne Gretzky, he will go down as the greatest player in Capitals history, and one of the greatest players of all time. At 34 years old and still producing, Ovi still has at least a few strong years left in him, so fans should appreciate his talents while they last, and hope Ovi can help win at least one more Cup before it’s all said and done.