The 1979 NBA Draft was the Magic Johnson draft. Magic was picked 1st overall, was easily the best player in the class and was one of two Hall of Famers in it alongside Sidney Moncrief. The draft featured five other players who made at least one NBA All Star game but was not very impressive outside Magic and Moncrief.
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Who were the best players from the 1979 NBA Draft Class?
- Magic Johnson
- Sidney Moncrief
- Bill Laimbeer
- Vinnie Johnson
- Jim Paxson
- Bill Cartwright
- Calvin Natt
- James Donaldson
This is about as easy a choice as you will ever find. Earvin “Magic” Johnson is one of the greatest basketball players to ever live.
Magic accomplished nearly everything someone can in the NBA. He was a 5x NBA Champion, a 3x league and Finals MVP, a 12 time NBA All Star, 9 x All NBA 1st team member, an Original Dream Team member and a slam-dunk 1st ballot Hall of Famer.
In terms of this draft class, it is not surprising that Magic has by far the best stats. You can see more below, but Magic leads the class in nearly every category.
Magic’s rivalry with Larry Legend revived the league in many ways. Before their arrival in the NBA, the Conference Finals were being shown on tape delay.
Magic’s Showtime Lakers brought the NBA into the modern era.
As a Celtics fan, I tend to rank Bird slightly higher – mostly because he was a bit better on defense. Magic was a passable defender but he struggled when he first got in the league and the Lakers used players like Michael Cooper to cover for him.
Ben Taylor, in his outstanding greatest peaks series, ranks Magic as having the 10th greatest peak while he puts Bird 5th.
Taylor ranked Magic 10th based on his limited defense. But the top ten on that list is full of absolute killers – there is no shame in ranking anywhere on it.
And if you told me that Magic should be 2nd or 3rd and Bird a bit lower, I can’t really argue much. Magic Johnson is easily one of the greatest basketball players ever and far and away the best player in the 1979 NBA Draft class.
The other Hall of Famer from the 1979 NBA Draft is no challenger to Magic Johnson, but no one else in this class is very close to Sidney Moncreif either.
Sid was a shooting guard known as a defensive stopper who played ten years for the Bucks before finishing up with one year in Atlanta.
Moncreif was a 5x NBA All Star, made 1st Team All NBA in 1983 and 2nd team four other years, was on five All NBA Defensive teams including four 1st teams, and won the first two ever NBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards.
Sidney Moncreif was the heart and soul of the 1980’s Bucks teams who were third in wins in the decade, only behind the Lakers and the Celtics. Both Michael Jordan and Larry Bird spoke about how difficult it was to play against Sidney Moncreif on both ends of the court.
In addition to his great defense, Moncrief was the 4th leading scorer in the draft class on a per game basis. He was 2nd in VORP in the class and 3rd in career Win Shares.
Sidney Moncreif is pretty clearly the 2nd best player in the 1979 NBA Draft class.
As a Celtic fan of a certain age, I find it hard to say nice things about Bill Laimbeer! But my professionalism is forcing me to try.
It turns out, Bill Laimbeer was a really good basketball player. He was a great rebounder who led the league in rebounds in ‘85-’86 and averaged 10 or more rebounds per game for 7 straight seasons.
He could also score. At his peak he was averaging 17 points per game to go alone with a dozen rebounds. He finished his career averaging 13 points per game.
Laimbeer was also a tough, at times dirty player, who made his living walking that line. He was a leader of the Pistons Bad Boys teams. Laimbeer, along with Dennis Rodman and Rick Mahorn, put the bad in the Bad Boys.
The whole ethic of that team was to intimidate and play tough. Laimbeer no doubt crossed the line at times, but it worked. They won back-to-back titles in ‘89 & ‘90.
Laimbeer was a 4x All Star in the mid-80s, He finished 7th in the 1979 NBA Draft class in scoring per game but was the leading rebounder in the class. He was 3rd in VORP and 2nd in Win Shares.
If all you know of him was the hits and fights, you might think I am overrating him.
But if you go look at his career numbers and accomplishments, it is clear that Bill Laimbeer is one of the best players in this draft class. I rank him third.
Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson
Laimbeer’s Bad Boys teammate Vinnie Johnson finishes fourth on my list of best players in the 1979 NBA Draft class.
The Microwave was drafted by Seattle but traded to the Pistons where he spent the majority of his career. He got his nickname for doing exactly what he was known for: heating up quickly.
Johnson came off the bench for those great Pistons teams. He could replace either Isaiah Thomas or Joe Dumars and he could fill it up fast.
Despite only playing 25 minutes per game for the Pistons, Johnson averaged 13 points per game for the team. It is likely that playing in a backup role hurt Johnson’s career statistics.
If he had pushed to be moved to a team where he could start, Johnson may have put up better numbers but would not likely have won as much.
Johnson, like Laimbeer, was a key part of the Pistons titles in ‘89 & ‘90.
He also finished with solid career stats: he was the 8th leading scorer (per game) in the class, and 8th in Win Shares.
Win Shares can be impacted by time on the court, so this is another area where Johnson may have done better as a starter.
One area that is based on per-minute production is VORP and Johnson scored well here: he has the 4th highest VORP in the class. That stat along with his titles makes me rank the Microwave as the 4th best player in this class.
Jim Paxson could fill it up. He was a 6’6” wing who mostly played for the Trailblazers before finishing up with the Celtics.
Paxson was a two-time NBA All Star in ‘83 & ‘84 and made All-NBA 2nd team in ‘84 as well. He averaged more than 20 points per game in those seasons.
Paxson was less of a freak athlete and more of a technically sound player known for scoring with off-ball movement and perfectly-timed cuts.
He shot over 50% from the field and 80% from the line in his prime and finished very close to those numbers for his career.
Paxson’s knees began to give him problems in the mid-80s and after Portland acquired Clyde Drexler that made him expendable.
Paxson was the 5th leading scorer per game in the draft class and finished 7th in VORP and Win Shares. His All Star and All NBA selections bump him slightly up my list to 5th.
In the video above, the announcer mentions how Cartwright is attempting to be the first rookie since Kareem to finish in the top ten in the NBA in scoring and field goal percentage.
That anyone ever compared anything Bill Cartwright was doing to the Tower from Power is a shock to people, like me, who are mostly familiar with Cartwright’s late-career Bulls work.
But, in his first few years in the league, Cartwright was a scorer. He averaged 20 points per game his first two years. He made his only All Star game his rookie year as well.
From there, injuries took a toll on Bill and things changed for him. After missing a full season due to a foot injury, Cartwright came back to the Knicks and played alongside the newly drafted Patrick Ewing.
Ewing was good and there wasn’t much need for Cartwright anymore. The Knicks traded him to the Bulls for Charles Oakley and Cartwright became the role player the Bulls needed him to be.
Cartwright consistently scored only about 10 points per game for Chicago, but they had some guys named Jordan, Pippen and Grant who filled it up just fine.
Cartwright played in the middle for the Bulls first three peat playing defense, rebounding, and providing leadership and toughness.
Those titles, combined with a 4th finish for the class in win shares and 6th in points per game makes Bill Cartwright my 7th best player in the 1979 NBA Draft class.
Calvin Natt is an interesting player I knew little about. He was a 6’6” forward with a power game.
He has the 5th highest VORP and 6th highest Win Shares in the class. He is also the 2nd leading scorer on a per game basis, so he most certainly belongs on this list.
Natt was drafted by New Jersey but quickly traded to Portland where he had his first great run. There he played for Jack Ramsay alongside fellow ‘79 draftee Jim Paxson and ‘78 first overall pick Mychal Thompson.
Natt averaged 17 points for those teams who were mostly overshadowed by the Showtime Lakers. He was traded to Denver as part of a deal for Kiki Vandeweghe.
Natt had quite a run in Denver, too. He averaged almost 18 per game in his 5 seasons there and was part of a nice run the team had to the Western Conference Finals in 1985.
At his peak in Denver, Natt averaged 23 points and 8 rebounds in 1984-1985. He made the All Star game that year as well.
But he suffered from leg injuries consistently and had an ACL tear in 1986 that effectively ended his career. Natt played parts of several more seasons but was never the same.
I rank Calvin Natt as the 7th best player in the 1979 NBA Draft class. He could have been higher were it not for injuries.
For a guy drafted in the 4th round, James Donaldson had a nice career. That was about all it was, a nice career – The NY Post named him the worst All Star ever in a fan-voted contest.
But, hey, being the worst all star still means you’re an all star!
Donaldson played for 6 NBA teams but was mostly known for his best years with the Mavs. Those teams had scorers like Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman and Sam Perkins. Donaldson provided shot-blocking, rebounding and strength.
James Donaldson was never a dynamic player and he didn’t score a ton. But there is more to the game than just getting buckets and Donaldson did a lot of other things.
He finished his 14 year NBA career with the 4th most games played in the draft class, and finished 5th in Win Shares and 8th in VORP.
Those are respectable numbers. When you add them to his seemingly undeserved All Star Game appearance, you have the 8th ranked player in the 1979 NBA Draft class.
Who was drafted in the 1978 NBA Draft?
You can see the career games played, points per game, win shares and VORP for the 1st round picks, and selected later picks, of the 1979 NBA Draft Class below.
One note: Mark Eaton was drafted in the fifth round of the 1979 Draft but did not sign. He went back to school and eventually was drafted again by the Jazz in 1982.
Eaton would have made my top players list for this draft if he was really a part of this draft class. But he belongs on the 1982 list.
Also of note Nick Galis, the Celtics 4th round pick, was cut before the season. He went on to play in Greece becoming one of the greatest European scorers in history.
Galis was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017. Since that induction was based entirely on his European career, I do not include him here.
Finally, a brief primer on the two advanced stats. Win shares are a complicated stat that tries to assign credit for wins to players on the team based on how much they contributed. Value over replacement player or VORP does basically what it says: value how much a player contributes in total over a league average player who is set at -2.00.
Who were the best picks in the 1979 NBA Draft Class?
Magic Johnson was the first pick in the 1979 NBA Draft and he was most certainly the best pick as well!
Any time you pick one of the greatest players to ever live, you have to be happy with the pick.
Sure it was obvious who they should pick, even at the time, but teams have screwed things up plenty of times. The Lakers did not make a mistake in drafting Magic Johnson.
Bill Laimbeer, chosen 65th overall, was a great pick too. Too bad for Cleveland that they gave him away after a couple seasons.
James Donaldson had a nice career as well for someone taken 73rd overall.
Why wasn’t Larry Bird in the 1979 NBA Draft with Magic Johnson?
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird played each other in the 1979 NCAA Finals in the first installment of their epic rivalry, so you would think they were both taken in the 1979 NBA Draft. But that is not the case – Bird was taken in 1978, before his senior year of college.
The NBA draft rules at the time said that if you did not declare for the draft, you became eligible to be drafted when your graduating class had been out of high school for four years.
Bird transferred from Indiana to Indiana State and lost a year. His high school class finished college in 1978.
So Bird was eligible to be taken after his junior year despite not declaring for the draft.
Taking a player like that could be risky for the team selecting him. The player might get injured or have a bad senior year.
Or, if they played well, they could re-enter the draft the next year if they didn’t want to sign with you.
The Celtics were willing to take the risk. They had two first round picks in 1978.
They also had the prestige of being the Celtics, so they figured they could sign Bird if he continued to play well.
The Celtics chose Bird 6th overall in the 1978 Draft and then watched him head back for his senior year.
Larry Bird had a great senior season and held the Celtics up for the richest rookie contract in the history of sports. That deal turned out to be a total bargain for the team.
How did the Lakers get the 1st Pick in the 1979 NBA Draft?
Gale Goodrich left the Lakers after the 1975-1976 season and signed with the New Orleans Jazz. NBA rules at the time required the team signing the player to work out compensation with the team losing the player.
The Jazz and the Lakers worked out a trade that sent the Lakers the Jazz first pick in 1979 among other things. Goodrich would retire after the ‘78-’79 season but his impact was felt for years on both franchises.
The Jazz finished with the worst record in the league that season. The NBA rules until 1985 called for a coin flip between the teams with the two worst records in the league to determine the number 1 pick.
The Jazz won that coin flip, so the Lakers got the first pick in the 1979 NBA Draft.
Who Were the Biggest Busts in the 1979 NBA Draft Class?
Larry Knight, the 20th pick by the Utah Jazz, was the biggest bust in the 1979 NBA Draft . Knight was a 6’8” forward who did not play a single minute in the NBA .
I’d say when you draft a guy who literally never plays for you, or anyone in the NBA, that is a bust.
Here are some of the other biggest busts:
- Roy Hamilton, a 6 ‘2” point guard out of UCLA, only lasted 2 seasons for the Pistons after being the 10th pick in the draft. He had a negative VORP and negative Win Shares.
- Brad Holland, a 6’3” shooting guard also out of UCLA, lasted only 93 games over 3 seasons for the Lakers after being the 14th pick. He had a negative VORP and a .4 Win Shares.
- Lee Johnson, a 6’11” forward, was picked by Houston with the 17th pick in the first round. He only played in 12 NBA games and finished with a negative VORP and negative Win Shares.
Summary: 1979 NBA Draft Class
The 1979 NBA Draft was the Magic Johnson draft. Magic was the first overall pick and easily the best player in the draft class. Sidney Moncreif was the second best player and the only other Hall of Famer in the class. The class was fairly underwhelming outside the best two players but did include 5 other players who made at least one All Star Game.
I have been a Boston sports fan for more than forty years. I write about games, players and seasons from the past.