Chris Washburn: #1 NBA Draft Bust

Synopsis: Generally speaking, each NBA Draft produces 1-2 Hall of Famers and 5-6 additional All Stars. On the surface, the 1986 Draft looks fairly typical with three Hall-of-Fame members (i.e. Dennis Rodman, Arvydas Sabonis, and Drazen Petrovic) and three additional All Stars (i.e. Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, and Jeff Hornacek); however, things are not always as they appear. Instead of being remembered for any of these players, that draft is associated most often with players on the opposite end of the spectrum. In particular, four of the top seven draft picks had their careers end prematurely because of problems with drugs. I have highlighted the sad stories of Len Bias (#2), William Bedford (#6), and Roy Tarpley (#7) in previous posts, but this one is reserved for Chris Washburn (#3), who is the NBA’s #1 Drug Draft Bust.


Early in her husband’s presidency, First Lady Nancy Reagan initiated an anti-drug campaign centered around the slogan, “Just Say No.” I remember her making the circuit on network television trying to spread the message, especially when she appeared on Diff’rent Strokes.


That memory is so vivid because it was a “Jump the Shark” moment for my one-time favorite TV show. For those who aren’t familiar with the reference, the following image might help you understand.

Sorry Fonzie, even you couldn’t make water skiing in a leather jacket look cool.

While the message of “Just Say No” was well-intended, the campaign was naive and laughable (even to me as a 12-year-old). For as ineffective as the First Lady’s campaign might have been, the death of Maryland star Len Bias from a drug overdose four years later truly had a meaningful impact on me and many others. While Bias was the most tragic victim of drug abuse from the 1986 NBA Draft, he wasn’t the only one. In particular, Chris Washburn, William Bedford, and Roy Tarpley were all top draft picks who were busts after having problems with drugs.

In contrast to these high picks who underachieved, there were numerous low picks who overachieved. For instance, the highest drafted Hall of Famer was selected 24th overall and the three most productive players were taken in the second round. As reflected by the following table, the 1986 Draft was atypical because of the number of bad players taken early and good players taken late.

Draft Pick Team Player Position Games Points Rebounds Assists PPG RPG APG Win Shares
#1 CLE* Brad Daugherty C 548 10,389 5,227 2,028 19.0 9.5 3.7 65.2
#3 GSW Chris Washburn C 72 222 176 22 3.1 2.4 0.3 -0.6
#4 IND Chuck Person SF 943 13,858 4,763 2,645 14.7 5.1 2.8 38.9
#5 NYK Kenny Walker SF 448 3,128 1,793 299 7.0 4.0 0.7 17.9
#6 PHO William Bedford C 238 964 573 109 4.1 2.4 0.5 0.9
#7 DAL Roy Tarpley PF / C 280 3,533 2,803 292 12.6 10.0 1.0 19.8
#8 CLE* Ron Harper SF 1,009 13,910 4,309 3,916 13.8 4.3 3.9 65.8
#11 DET John Salley PF 748 5,228 3,356 916 7.0 4.5 1.2 41.5
#15 UTA Dell Curry SG/SF 1,083 12,670 2,617 1,909 11.7 2.4 1.8 41.5
#24 POR Arvydas Sabonis C 470 5,629 3,436 964 12.0 7.3 2.1 47.3
#25 DAL Mark Price PG 722 10,989 1,848 4,863 15.2 2.6 6.7 71.1
#27 DET Dennis Rodman PF 911 6,683 11,954 1,600 7.3 13.1 1.8 89.8
#29 CLE Johnny Newman SF 1,159 12,740 2,536 1,688 11.0 2.2 1.5 50.3
#30 SEA Nate McMillan PG 796 4,733 3,222 4,893 5.9 4.0 6.1 50.2
#46 PHO Jeff Hornacek SG 1,077 15,659 3,646 5,281 14.5 3.4 4.9 108.9
#60 POR Drazen Petrovic SG 290 4,461 669 701 15.4 2.3 2.4 21.5

* Cleveland traded Roy Hinson (a 20 ppg / 8 rpg player) for the #1 pick and received the #8 pick as compensation for the boneheaded trades made by former Cavaliers’ owner Ted Stepien. Take the time to read my post titled “The Ted Stepien Rule” to learn why Stepien truly was the worst owner in NBA history.

Even though the 1986 NBA Draft produced a typical number of Hall of Famers (3), it was highly unusual that not one was a high pick. As the 24th overall pick (i.e. the last pick of the first round), Arvydas Sabonis was the first Hall of Famer selected that year. Along with Sabonis, Drazen Petrovic (60th overall) has the distinction of being in the Hall of Fame despite never having made an All-Star team. Sabonis was inducted for his international accomplishments while Petrovic was inducted as an international pioneer who died while still in his prime, so their distinction is understandable. As a result though, only Dennis Rodman (two All-Star games, two All-NBA Teams, and eight All-Defensive NBA Teams) earned the recognition for his full body of work in the NBA. Then again, he also could have made the Hall of Fame for the work on his full body.

The Anti – Chris Washburn Player
Although, you’d never guess from the picture.

Just like the draft in which he was taken, Rodman was highly unusual. Then again, he still is highly unusual.

Rodman engaging in diplomatic talks with North Korean President Kim Jong-un.

As shown by the table, the three players with the highest win share totals (i.e. Jeff Hornacek, Dennis Rodman, and Mark Price) were selected in the second round. Taken with the 46th overall pick at the end of the second round, Hornacek led the draft class with 109 win shares. Despite earning this recognition, he certainly wasn’t a dominant player having been selected to only one All-Star game throughout his career. Instead, he put up decent numbers on decent teams so he was able to accumulate a lot of win shares.

In contrast, Rodman was a dominant player who didn’t amass as many win shares because he was a defensive specialist. With a relentless determination to attack the boards, Rodman led the league in rebounding for seven consecutive years, including six years with over 15 rebounds per game. During his career, Rodman was selected to seven All-Defensive 1st Teams, and won two Defensive Player-of-the-Year Awards. In addition, he was a key member of five championship teams (two with the Pistons and three with the Bulls).

With the third most win shares, Mark Price was an all-time great shooter who was a two-time 50/40/90 player (i.e. shooting percentages of 50% on 2-pointers, 40% on 3-pointers, and 90% on free throws). He also finished his career as the best free throw shooter in history, although Steve Nash eventually surpassed him by 0.04% (90.43% vs 90.39%). But for Jordan and the Bulls stopping the Cavaliers in the 1988 and 1989 playoffs (remember “The Shot”), Price likely would be a more household name.

For as impressive as these star players were, the draft is remembered for the players who could/should have been much better. As the #2 overall pick, Len Bias lost not only his career but also his life because of a drug overdose. Due to his tragic death, Bias usually is granted an exemption as a bust (as he should be). On the other hand, William Bedford (#6 overall) and Roy Tarpley (#7 overall) are often listed as busts because they either failed to produce (Bedford) or stay on the court (Tarpley). For as disappointing as their careers might have been, the most disappointing/bust-worthy player in that draft was Chris Washburn (#3 overall).

As shown by the following table, Washburn put up impressive numbers during his two years at N.C. State.

Chris Washburn – Stats at N.C. State
Season G FG% FT% Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks
1984-85 7* 47.8% 42.3% 10.7 5.9 1.9 1.0 1.1
1985-86 34 56.2% 66.5% 17.6 6.7 0.9 0.9 0.9
Career 41 55.0% 63.4% 16.4 6.6 1.1 0.9 0.9


* Chris Washburn was limited to only seven games during his freshman season because he was suspended from the team after being charged with 2nd degree burglary for stealing a stereo from another student. Even though Washburn argued that he did it as a prank, he pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges of larceny. As punishment, the judge sentenced him to 46 hours in jail to coincide with the amount of time the stereo remained missing (i.e. the length of time of the “prank”). Also as part of the ruling, Washburn received a six-year suspended sentence and was placed on probation for five years.

During the trial, Washburn’s high school and college academic records were released. Perhaps getting the most attention was his combined SAT score of 470 out of a possible 1600. According to Washburn, he was told that he simply needed to take the the test for administrative purposes so he filled in answers without reading any of the questions. Given the scoring of the test, he actually scored 70 points above expectations for someone who guessed randomly. Too bad he didn’t realize that he could have saved 30 minutes by skipping every question, and still would have gotten a 400.

As an aside, 18-year-old Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai recently revealed that Stanford is requiring that she take the SAT before being granted admission. I hope Yousafzai randomly fills in the circles (just like Washburn did) because she deserves to be admitted for her other accomplishments (i.e. SHE WON A NOBEL PRIZE!). In that case, I’d be interested to find out if she is a good of a guesser as Washburn was.

The Anti – Chris Washburn Student
anti Chris Wasburn student - malala nobel
When applying to college, Yousafzai simply needs to attach this photo showing her extra-curricular activities

Avoiding controversy as a sophomore, Washburn started all 34 games for the Wolfpack and became the team’s best player with averages of 18 points and seven rebounds per game. As an athletic big man, Washburn was on the radar screen for many NBA teams, but his draft stock really soared during the final six weeks of the college season. In a late Febrary match-up against eventual #1 pick Brad Daugherty, Washburn scored 26 points as NC State pulled off an upset victory over #1 ranked UNC. During the NCAA Tournament, he had games of 18 and 9 (points and rebounds), 22 and 7, 20 and 6, and 17 and 5 while leading the Wolfpack to the Elite Eight. As a #6 seed, NC State had victories over #11 seed Iowa (66-64), #14 seed Arkansas-Little Rock (80-66), and #7 seed Iowa State (70-66) before losing to #1 seed Kansas (75-67).

Given that the full extent of his personal faults was unknown at the time, Washburn went on to be taken with the 3rd overall pick in the 1986 Draft. However, the following statistics from his NBA career show that his physical talent was no match for his personal demons.

Chris Washburn – NBA Stats
Shooting % Per Game Averages
Season Team Games FG FT Minutes Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Points
1986-87 GSW 35 39.3% 35.3% 11.0 2.9 0.5 0.2 0.2 3.8
1987-88 GSW/ATL 37 44.4% 58.1% 7.0 2.0 0.2 0.1 0.2 2.4
Career 72 41.2% 43.9% 9.0 2.4 0.3 0.2 0.2 3.1


Unlike many lottery picks who need to contribute immediately, Washburn joined a team stacked with talented players. In the 1985-86 season, the Warriors were led by Purvis Short (25.5 ppg), Joe Barry Carroll (21.2 ppg and 8.5 rpg), Sleepy Floyd (17.2 ppg and 9.1 apg), and Larry Smith (9.6 ppg and 11.1 rpg). In addition, the team had rookie Chris Mullin, who averaged over 14 points in 55 games before his season was cut short by an injury. Despite this talent, Golden State didn’t play defense and finished the season with a 30-52 record. Due to the team’s poor record, head coach George Karl was hired to help bring discipline and improve effort.

Given Washburn’s size, strength, and agility, he was seen as an upgrade to Larry Smith. According to a Yahoo!Sports article by Mark Spears, Karl recounted, “I remember the first day of training camp. [Washburn] was by far the best player on the court, and then you could slowly see him disintegrate.” As a starter for the first two games of the 1986-87 season, Washburn only averaged 6 ppg and 4.5 rpg so he was sent to the bench in favor of Smith. Interestingly, those were the only games Washburn would ever start in his NBA career.

In addition to losing his starting position, Washburn saw less and less playing time because of a perceived lack of effort. It has been well documented that he often showed up late to practice and then played sluggishly while on the court.

Chris Washburn showing his contagious energy level
Chris Washburn yawning
Well, he certainly wasn’t tired from playing too much

Less than two months into his rookie season, Washburn was completely useless. In eight games from late December to mid-January, he scored a total of four points in 25 minutes. Not surprising to anyone involved with the Warriors, Washburn admitted to having a problem with cocaine less than two weeks later.

After two months of rehab, Washburn returned in time for the Warriors final push for the playoffs. During the final three weeks of the regular season, he was used sparingly except in blowouts. Playing in eight games after his return, he only was on the court for more than 15 minutes in four of them. Those four games included three losses by an average of 27 points and one victory by 20 points.

Led by the same five players as the prior season, Golden State improved by 10 games and qualified for the playoffs. As the 5th seed in the Western Conference, the Warriors upset the Jazz in the first round (3-2) before losing to the Lakers in the second round (1-4). Washburn only appeared in one game against the Jazz and four games against the Lakers. In those five games (including three double-digit losses), he averaged 2.2 points and 0.2 rebounds in six minutes per game.

Washburn’s second season began just like his first season ended. Playing insignificant minutes except in blowouts, he matched his rookie averages of approximately four points and three rebounds per game during the first six weeks of the 1987-88 season. Recognizing that Washburn was a sunk cost, the Warriors traded him to the Atlanta Hawks for the rights to Ken Barlow. Barlow had been drafted with the 23rd overall pick in the 1986 Draft (i.e. 20 spots after Washburn) but was playing overseas so his interest in the NBA was uncertain. Ultimately, Barlow played professional basketball for 16 years, but never played for Golden State or any other NBA team. Even though the Warriors didn’t get any value in return for their one-time 3rd overall pick, Washburn only tallied a total of 57 points and 55 rebounds in 29 games for the Hawks so he wasn’t worth much anyway.

Arguably, the Warriors still won in the trade by getting rid of a troubled player who was owed over $2 million. Assuming that argument has some validity, the Hawks didn’t lose for long because Washburn was suspended without pay after a positive drug test prior to the 1988-89 season. Presumably, he was never cleared by doctors to return to the team because he missed the entire season. Instead, he tested positive again in June 1989 and received a lifetime suspension given the league’s three-strike policy. Due to the third violation, Washburn’s contract was nullified so the Hawks didn’t have to pay him the remaining $1.6 million from his rookie deal.

During Washburn’s second stint in rehab (i.e. during the 1988-89 season), he became the central figure in a grade-inflation investigation from his time at N.C. State. In particular, the retired chairman of the physical education department alleged that Washburn received a “D” instead of an “F” for a particular P.E. class. Really?!? While the incident probably happened, it would have been the least egregious case of grade inflation for any player at any school. Based on the testimony from Washburn’s burglary trial, the public was well aware of his academic deficiencies but the stress from the investigation could not have been good for someone trying to kick a drug habit.

Historically, other players had returned successfully from “lifetime” bans due to violating the NBA’s drug policy. Generally, banned players were reinstated after two years if they could show that they had been rehabilitated. Unfortunately for Washburn, he truly was an addict who couldn’t kick the habit. Instead of spending the two years working on himself in order to get back into the league, he spent time doing drugs in crack houses and getting arrested for various offenses (e.g. assault, trespassing). Eventually, he spent over two years in prison after being convicted of drug-related crimes.

Unlike most stories involving drug addicts, Washburn luckily pulled out of the death spiral and finally got clean in 2000. Since then, he has gone on to be a productive citizen. He often speaks to homeless people, addicts, and aspiring athletes about the perils of drug abuse. In addition, he opened a restaurant called Washburn Wings and More in 2011. Unfortunately, Washburn’s fried chicken business failed too and closed in 2014.

Chris Washburn – The Entrepreneur

Chris Washburn serving fried chicken

Also in 2014, Washburn was arrested for a failure to pay for gas at a local gas station. Supposedly, he was conned by a “friend” with a bogus gas card. Unlike other instances for which he didn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt, I actually believe his account of the event. Even with this blemish, it appears that he has turned his life around. I only hope that he’s able to stay strong in his battle against his personal demons.

For a Time Magazine article in April 1986 (i.e. two months before the 1986 NBA Draft), Sandy Koufax said, “I’d trade anyone’s past for [Dwight] Gooden’s future.” As a 20-year-old at the time, Gooden was coming off of a truly dominant season during which he was the unanimous NL Cy Young winner after posting a 24-4 record with 16 complete games, 8 shutouts, 268 strikeouts, and a 1.53 E.R.A. In retrospect, Koufax’s comment was premature, but it highlights that Gooden had tremendous potential. Unfortunately, Gooden’s drug addiction prevented him from fulfilling his full potential and left us wondering, “What if?”

Similarly, we have to wonder the same question with respect to the careers of Len Bias, Chris Washburn, William Bedford, and Roy Tarpley. Excluding Bias, who died before ever putting on an NBA uniform, Washburn was drafted the highest and produced the least. With the most unfulfilled potential from any draft, Washburn has received this site’s designation as the #1 NBA Draft Bust.