The 1978 NBA Draft Class: Shedding Light On A Legendary Missed Opportunity

Image of Larry Bird Shooting in front of a 1978 NBA Draft banner

The 1978 NBA Draft was the 32nd in league history since its start during the 1946-1947 season. The Portland Trail Blazers received the 1978 NBA Draft #1 pick in a trade with Indiana, who received Portland’s 1978 NBA draft #3 pick and player Johnny Davis in exchange.

The biggest storyline surrounding the 1978 NBA draft was the decision of Larry Bird to return to college for his senior season, despite his eligibility for the 1978 NBA Draft. Bird could still be selected by an NBA team, but the team would lose their exclusive draft rights to Bird if he didn’t sign a contract with them before the next draft.

NBA Draft 1978

The 1978 NBA Draft was a below-average draft, as many of the top prospects other than Bird failed to live up to their pre-draft expectations. The 1978 NBA draft contained 5 players who were named to at least 1 all-star game, 2 players who were named to at least 1 All-NBA Team, and 2 players who were inducted into the Naismith Basketball Memorial Hall of Fame.

The top 5 teams in the first round of the 1978 NBA draft opted against selecting Larry Bird, fearing that they would be unable to sign him before the next draft. In a move that would end up proving huge dividends over the next decade, the Celtics chose to select Bird with their 1978 NBA Draft #6 pick and were able to sign him before the next draft.

Who won Rookie of the Year?

Phil Ford won the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award after posting an outstanding individual rookie season at the point guard position and helping the Kansas City Kings win 17 more games than the previous season. He teamed up with shooting guard Otis Birdsong, the Kings’ #2 pick from the 1977 NBA draft to form one of the best young backcourts in the NBA. Ford averaged 15.9 PPG, 8.6 APG, 2.2 SPG, and shot 81.3% from the field, all while playing in 79 or 82 regular-season games.

Who was selected in the 1978 NBA Draft Class?


  1. Mychal Thompson (Portland Trail Blazers)
  2. Phil Ford (Kansas City Kings)
  3. Rick Robey (Indiana Pacers)
  4. Micheal Ray Richardson (New York Knicks)
  5. Purvis Short (Golden State Warriors)
  6. Larry Bird (Boston Celtics)
  7. Ron Brewer (Portland Trail Blazers)
  8. Freeman Williams (Boston Celtics)
  9. Reggie Theus (Chicago Bulls)
  10. Butch Lee (Atlanta Hawks)
  11. James Hardy (New Orleans Jazz)
  12. George Johnson (Milwaukee Bucks)
  13. Winford Boynes (New Jersey Nets)
  14. Roger Phegley (Washington Bullets)
  15. Mike Mitchell (Cleveland Cavaliers)
  16. Jack Givens (Atlanta Hawks)
  17. Rod Griffin (Denver Nuggets)
  18. Dave Corzine (Washington Bullets)
  19. Marty Byrnes (Phoenix Suns)
  20. Frankie Sanders (San Antonio Spurs)
  21. Mike Evans (Denver Nuggets)
  22. Raymond Townsend (Golden State Warriors)


  1. Terry Tyler (Detroit Pistons)
  2. Keith Herron (Portland Trail Blazers)
  3. Rick Wilson (Atlanta Hawks)
  4. Ron Carter (Los Angeles Lakers)
  5. Wayne Radford (Indiana Pacers)
  6. Buster Matheney (Houston Rockets)
  7. John Long (Detroit Pistons)
  8. Jeff Judkins (Boston Celtics)
  9. Marvin Johnson (Chicago Bulls)
  10. John Rudd (New York Knicks)
  11. Harry Davis (Cleveland Cavaliers)
  12. Greg Bunch (New York Knicks)
  13. Tommie Green (New Orleans Jazz)
  14. Maurice Cheeks (Philadelphia 76ers)
  15. Terry Sykes (Washington Bullets)
  16. Lew Massey (Los Angeles Lakers)
  17. James Lee (Seattle SuperSonics)
  18. Wayne Cooper (Golden State Warriors)
  19. Jerome Whitehead (San Deigo Clippers)
  20. Keven McDonald (Seattle SuperSonics)
  21. Glenn Hagan (Philadelphia 76ers)
  22. Clemon Johnson (Portland Trail Blazers)


  1. Mike Phillips (NJN)
  2. Hollis Copeland (DEN)
  3. Billy Ray Bates (HOU)
  4. Mike Santos (SDC)
  5. Jeff Cook (KCK)
  6. Dana Skinner (BOS)
  7. Ricky Gallon (SDC)
  8. Mike Russell (KCK)
  9. Randy Ayers (CHI)
  10. Steve Grant (ATL)
  11. Marc Iavaroni (NYK)
  12. Steve Neff (GSW)
  13. Kenny Higgs (CLE)
  14. Rick Apke (WSB)
  15. Pat Cummings (MIL)
  16. Michael Cooper (LAL)
  17. Dave Baxter (SEA)
  18. Dave Batton (NJN)
  19. Joel Kramer (PHO)
  20. Gerald Henderson (SAS)
  21. Marvin Delph (SDC)
  22. Sterling Edmonds (POR)


  1. Jackie Robinson (HOU)
  2. Jim Boylan (SDC)
  3. Joel Thompson (HOU)
  4. Geoff Crompton (KCK)
  5. Rickey Lee (IND)
  6. Dave Nelson (BOS)
  7. Larry Harris (SDC)
  8. Mel Davis (NOJ)
  9. Jeff Covington (NOJ)
  10. Leroy McDonald (SDC)
  11. Derrick Jackson (GSW)
  12. Stan Rome (CLE)
  13. Erving Giddings (NYK)
  14. Otis Howard (MIL)
  15. Lawrence Boston (WSB)
  16. Harold Robertson (LAL)
  17. Billy Lewis (SEA)
  18. Walter Jordan (NJN)
  19. Bob Miller (PHO)
  20. Rich Adams (SAS)
  21. Brett Vroman (PHI)
  22. Wayne Smith (PHO)


  1. Cecil Rose (NJN)
  2. David Thompson (SDC)
  3. Gary Goodner (HOU)
  4. James Sparrow (IND)
  5. Derrick Clairborne (KCK)
  6. Greg Tynes (BOS)
  7. Dave Caligaris (DET)
  8. Duck Williams (NOJ)
  9. Ron Anthony (CHI)
  10. Chris Potter (ATL)
  11. Ken Koenigs (CLE)
  12. Greg Green (NYK)
  13. Bubba Wilson (GSW)
  14. Roger Dickens (WSB)
  15. Russ Coleman (MIL)
  16. Carlos Terry (LAL)
  17. Ralph Drollinger (SEA)
  18. Michael Edwards (DEN)
  19. Andre Wakefield (PHO)
  20. Eugene Parker (SAS)
  21. Mark Haymore (PHI)
  22. Clay Johnson (POR)


  1. Golie Augustus (NJN)
  2. Bob Misevicius (SDC)
  3. Eddie Joe Chavez (HOU)
  4. Jim Krivacs (KCK)
  5. Sherman Dillard (IND)
  6. Dave Winey (BOS)
  7. Audie Matthews (DET)
  8. John Douglas (NOJ)
  9. John Shoemaker (CHI)
  10. Gerald Glover (ATL)
  11. Eddie Warren (NYK)
  12. Buzz Harnett (GSW)
  13. Ron Bell (CLE)
  14. Dave Kyle (MIL)
  15. Archie Aldridge (WSB)
  16. Kim Stewart (LAL)
  17. Robert Heard (DEN)
  18. Charles Thompson (PHO)
  19. Harry Morgan (SAS)
  20. Osborne Lockhart (PHI)
  21. Tim Evans (POR)


  1. Doug Jemison (NJN)
  2. Stan Pietkiewicz (SDC)
  3. Stan Stewart (HOU)
  4. Ollie Matson Jr. (IND)
  5. Charles McMillian (KCK)
  6. Steve Balkun (BOS)
  7. Herb Entzminger (DET)
  8. Willie Howard (NOJ)
  9. Jarvis Reynolds (CHI)
  10. Jim DeWeese (ATL)
  11. Rick Bernard (GSW)
  12. Tony Smith (CLE)
  13. Gary Pember (NYK)
  14. Ed Hopkins (WSB)
  15. Kim Anderson (MIL)
  16. Larry Paige (LAL)
  17. Jack Gilloon (DEN)
  18. Steve Malovic (PHO)
  19. Hector Olivencia (SAS)
  20. Anthony Murray (PHI)
  21. Walter Reason (POR)


  1. Bruce Campbell (NJN)
  2. Felton Young (SDC)
  3. Ron Hammye (KCK)
  4. Kim Fisher (BOS)
  5. Earl Evans (DET)
  6. Carl Kilpatrick (NOJ)
  7. Chubby Cox (CHI)
  8. Ed Murphy (ATL)
  9. Roland Martin (CLE)
  10. Greg Sanders (NYK)
  11. Tony Searcy (GSW)
  12. Tom Zaliagiris (MIL)
  13. Nestor Cora (WSB)
  14. Larry Vaculik (DEN)
  15. George Fowler (PHO)
  16. Henry Taylor (SAS)
  17. Alan Cunningham (PHI)
  18. Mark Wickman (POR)


  1. Frank Sowinski (NJN)
  2. Bobby White (SDC)
  3. Les Anderson (BOS)
  4. Ulice Payne (DET)
  5. Chad Nelson (NOJ)
  6. Joe Ponsetto (CHI)
  7. Maurice Robinson (ATL)
  8. Denny Fields (NYK)
  9. Bobby Humbles (GSW)
  10. Steve Bayless (CLE)
  11. Tim Claxton (WSB)
  12. Gary Rosenberger (MIL)
  13. Tom Schneeberger (DEN)
  14. Nate Stokes (PHO)
  15. Rick Taylor (SAS)
  16. Paul Cozens (POR)


  1. Michael Vicens (NJN)
  2. Walter Harrigan (BOS)
  3. Dave Grauzer (DET)
  4. Rickey Williams (NOJ)
  5. Mark Tucker (CHI)
  6. Marshall Lester (ATL)
  7. Mike Muff (GSW)
  8. Gary Winton (CLE)
  9. Ernest Simons (NYK)
  10. Tom Anderson (MIL)
  11. Steve Connor (WSB)
  12. Phil Taylor (DEN)
  13. Lewis Cohen (PHO)
  14. Larry Brewster (SAS)
  15. Dennis James (PHI)
  16. Tim Warkentin (POR)

Who was the Best Player in the 1978 Draft?

After being selected with the 6th overall pick, Larry Bird established himself as the best player of the 1978 NBA draft and one of the greatest players in NBA history. Although he should have been the 1978 NBA draft’s first pick, many teams feared being unable to sign Bird before the 1979 draft after he returned for his senior season and subsequently losing their draft rights to Bird.

As a result, 5 teams chose to pass on Bird, not wanting to potentially waste a first-round pick in the 1978 NBA Draft. After joining the Celtics for the 1979-1980 season after his senior season, Bird quickly took the NBA by storm.

He was a great shooter, passer, and clutch performer, and immediately transformed the Celtics into one of the best teams in the league. After initially excelling as a versatile power forward for the first five years of his career, Bird switched to the small forward position when Kevin McHale joined the Celtics’ starting lineup.

Bird helped lead the Celtics to 3 championships during the 1980s, winning the NBA Finals MVP in two of them. He won 3 regular-season MVP awards, was named to the All-NBA 1st Team 9 times, was named to 12 all-star teams, was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, and was named a member of the NBA 75th Anniversary Team.

He averaged 24.3 PPG, 10 RPG, 6.3 APG, and 1.7 SPG, while also shooting 49.6% from the field and an impressive 88.6% from the free-throw line. Bird was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998.

The 1978 Draft Class Best Players

Phil Ford

Phil Ford was selected with the #2 overall pick by the Kansas City Kings and would develop into one of the best young point guards in the NBA for the first 3 years of his career. However, after undergoing season-ending surgery for an eye injury at the end of his 3rd season in the NBA, Ford was never able to reach his previous level of player, transitioning into a role player for the rest of his career. He averaged 11.6 PPG, 6.4 APG, and 1.2 SPG, shot 82% from the free-throw line for his career, and was named to the All-NBA 2nd team once.

Michael Ray Richardson

After being taken with the 4th overall pick by the New York Knicks, Michael Ray Richardson developed into one of the top point guards in the NBA, evoking many comparisons to former great Knick point guard Walt Frasier. However, injuries and substance abuse problems would prevent Richardson from reaching his full potential in the NBA. Still, Richardson was able to amass impressive individual statistics for his career, averaging 14.8 PPG, 7 APG, 5.5 RPG, and 2.6 SPG. He was named to the All-Defensive First Team twice and was also a 4-time all-star.

Reggie Theus

Reggie Theus was taken with the 9th overall pick by the Chicago Bulls and excelled at both the point guard and shooting guard positions throughout his career. Although he often is overlooked among other members of the 1978 NBA draft list, Theus put up impressive individual statistics during his career, averaging 18.5 PPG, 6.3 APG, and 1.2 SPG. He was also named to 2 all-star teams during the 1980-1981 and 1982-1983 seasons.

Mike Mitchell

Mike Mitchell significantly overperformed his #15 overall selection by the Cleveland Cavaliers, developing into one of the best offensive small forwards for the first half of the 80s. He averaged 19.8 PPG and 5.6 RPG for his career and was named to an all-star game during the 1980-1981 season. He is probably best known for starring with future hall of famer George Gervin on the San Antonio Spurs from 1981-1985, helping to lead the Spurs to the playoffs several years during that span.

Maurice Cheeks

Although he was picked with the 36th pick in the draft in the 2nd round by the Philadelphia 76ers, Maurice Cheeks ended up being among the best players of the 1978 NBA draft. Redrafting the 1978 NBA draft would probably result in Cheeks being a top-5 pick, as he developed into a very good defensive point guard for several elite Philadelphia 76ers’ teams. Cheeks averaged 11.1 PPG, 6.7 APG, 2.1 SPG, and shot an impressive 52.3% from the field. He was named to the All-Defensive 1st Team 4 times and was named to 4 all-star teams. Cheeks was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018.

Larry Bird And Maurice Cheeks To The Rescue Of The 78 NBA Draft

Overall, the 1978 NBA draft was a below-average draft, with many of the top picks failing to live up to pre-draft expectations, flaming out quickly after early success, or having careers cut short due to personal problems. The 1978 NBA draft was ultimately saved as a whole by the legendary hall of fame career of Larry Bird and the surprising hall of fame career of Maurice Cheeks who would both have a major impact on the NBA for years to come. Either Bird or Cheeks would appear in every NBA Finals from 1980 to 1987.